31. Avoid Evil

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 3 :  31. Avoid Evil

1 Thess 5:21,22   Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.

Now this third and final instruction may sound so obvious that we might be tempted not to consider it, but it is the other side of the coin. You may have heard the expression, “The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing.” The implication behind these two verses almost seems to say, hold firmly onto good or evil may creep in.  To say avoid something means to steer clear of it . Now that can mean that we need to keep away from evil when we see it before us, or be careful that evil doesn’t make its way into your life.

I always remember an illustration of going too close to evil given by a preacher. He said that some people are like a cow he saw grazing in a field and it had its head under the bottom strand of an electric fence. It was just seeing how far it could go without getting electrocuted! The wise Christian doesn’t do that but steers well clear of the fence. Now I am not one who usually says you shouldn’t do this and you shouldn’t do that but where there are places or situations in life where you could be led astray, my advice is stay away! Samson was a man who thought he could stretch his boundaries with God and look where he ended up (Jud 16:30)   Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, had the opportunity to capitalise out of his master’s work and ended up with leprosy (see 2 Kings 5:20-27). He allowed himself to be led into evil.

Perhaps we should pause and consider, ‘what is evil’ and what does ‘evil’ mean? A dictionary definition includes, “anything morally bad or wrong; wickedness; depravity; sin; anything that causes harm, pain, misery, disaster.” So we then have to ask what is ‘wrong’ and we have to say anything that is contrary to God’s character and His design for Creation i.e. anything that is contrary to His perfect will. Good is that which conforms to His character and His perfect will. Now because there is freedom of will in angels and humans, behaviour is possible that is contrary to His character and to His perfect will, and THAT is evil. So murder is evil, theft is evil, adultery is evil, lying is evil. Anything that is Sin is evil.

Evil is expanded upon a little in the Law: “if you then become corrupt and make any kind of idol, doing evil in the eyes of the LORD your God…..” (Deut 4:25) ‘Corrupt’ here means being changed from a good thing into a bad thing, being changed from a faithful people to an unfaithful people. That is evil. Making idols to replace God is evil. Moses, referring to this same thing, later put it slightly differently: “all the sin you had committed, doing what was evil in the LORD’s sight,” (Deut 9:18) where sin and evil are seen as the same thing. Turning away from God is shown as evil (e.g. Deut 13:6-11): Moses made that abundantly clear again and again: “For I know that after my death you are sure to become utterly corrupt and to turn from the way I have commanded you. In days to come, disaster will fall upon you because you will do evil in the sight of the LORD.” (Deut 31:29)

Solomon, despite having started so well, ended up badly: As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the LORD; he did not follow the LORD completely, as David his father had done.” (1 Kings 11:4-6) In those verses we see the steady decline and growth in evil: a heart not fully devoted to the Lord, took many foreign wives, allowed them to turn his heart even further, tolerated and then followed their idols and gods thus fully turning away from God. All of these things were examples of evil.

So many times in the Old Testament  the condemnation of a king was that he did evil in the eyes of the Lord and when you look at what he did it is summed up by, he turned away from God and turned to the ways of the world and worshipped idols.  Do you see why the meditation  ‘10. Facing Idolatry’ was so important?

When that happens we find specific behaviour in respect of others also becomes corrupt and described as evil. Consider: “You use your mouth for evil and harness your tongue to deceit. You speak continually against your brother and slander your own mother’s son.” (Psa 50:19,20) Speech there is considered evil, because it involves deceit and slander. This absence of truth is emphasised even more in another psalm: “Why do you boast of evil, you mighty man? Why do you boast all day long, you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God? Your tongue plots destruction; it is like a sharpened razor, you who practice deceit. You love evil rather than good, falsehood rather than speaking the truth.” (Psa 52:1-3)  But is it not only wrong speaking: “Rescue me, O LORD, from evil men; protect me from men of violence, who devise evil plans in their hearts and stir up war every day.” (Psa 140:1,2) No, acts of violence, anything done physically against another is evil. Words and actions that follow ungodliness, are all evil.

So maybe now we see the importance of this instruction to “Avoid every kind of evil.” We have seen evil starts by turning away or rejecting God and turning to place reliance on other things. That is godlessness which always leads to idolatry.  But that is soon expressed in unrighteousness which may be words and/or deeds that are self-centred and godless and harmful to others. This call by Paul in the last of these instructions we are going to consider screams out to us – “Stay away from any thought or word or behaviour that is turning way from God and leads into destructive and harmful behaviour. You were not saved for that!”  It is a strong call, far stronger than we might have thought at first sight. May we hold on to these things and let them remain as warning to us as we finish with this letter in this particular series of meditations.

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20. Laws of Theft

Lessons from the Law: No.20 : Laws of Theft

Ex 22:1 “If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep.

In the Ten Commandments we have already seen, “You shall not steal” (Ex 20:15) but, as we have already commented, laws are not only to restrain sin, as that command does, they are also to legislate for when sin has occurred. Elsewhere in the Pentateuch we have laws for dealing with that sin before God (laws of sacrifice – see Leviticus) but here in today’s verses we have how to deal with that sin in society. It is a recognition that we live in a Fallen World where people will go contrary to the basic laws God laid down.

So, we now come to the law of straight-forward theft. Being an agricultural economy, theft of animals was clearly the worst sort of theft envisaged because it took away a family’s food or livelihood. Domestic theft is that sort covered here. The law here seems to have an element of deterrence in it. The assumption is, of course, that the thief has been found out. The thief has stolen an animal belonging to someone else and has either killed it or sold it on. If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it.” In other words, there is no possibility of giving it back. The original owner has lost his property and there is no way of returning it.

Now here comes the tough part for the thief: he is to pay back fivefold cattle or fourfold sheep to the man he stole from:he must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep. Without any doubt that is a strong penalty and a strong deterrent.  A few verses on the possibility of the animal still being alive is dealt with: If the stolen animal is found alive in his possession–whether ox or donkey or sheep–he must pay back double.” (v.4) In other words, he’s not going to get away with just giving back the animal; there is an element or punishment or deterrent about it, for he has to give double what he took. Yet there is a further element to be added: “A thief must certainly make restitution, but if he has nothing, he must be sold to pay for his theft.” (v.3b) This surely is the ultimate deterrent: if you steal and can’t pay the appropriate amounts you will end up working to pay for the debt. It is unclear whether this means slavery, which is unlikely in the light of our previous considerations, and so it probably means, more likely, that he will have to work as a servant, a little bit like our modern community service. It is interesting that our modern law is moving closer to the Law of Moses.

Next comes dealing with the situation of where a thief breaks in and the homeowner, defending himself or his home, kills the intruder: “If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck so that he dies, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; but if it happens after sunrise, he is guilty of bloodshed.” (v.2,3) The law is very simple: if it happens after dark, the homeowner is not guilty; if it happens in the daylight, he is. Presumably there is a recognition that in the dark there is a greater likelihood of fear and great probability of violent defense, and greater difficulty in being careful to avoid over use of force that might result in death of the intruder. In the daytime presumably there is less fear and it is easier to control what takes place, and therefore the homeowner should do what he can to avoid seriously injuring the intruder. In recent years court cases have come more in line with this way of thinking. It is a recognition of the practical difficulty in carefully defending your home, especially at night.

For those who have the tendency to criticise the Law of Moses as either harsh or outdated, the consideration of these laws should provide an adequate rebuttal for both claims. In each law, that we have been considering in these laws of chapters 21and 22, there is a strong concern for the wellbeing of all the parties concerned. We have also seen that our own legal system now operates in very similar ways to the ways we have been considering. There is nothing haphazard about these laws. They are very down to earth, showing a clear understanding of the failures of the human race while at the same time seeking to provide the best possible guidance for how to deal with those failures. There is nothing ‘religious’ or ‘super-spiritual’ about these laws. To the contrary, they simply display the wisdom and compassion and understanding of the Lord.