The Importance of Historical Context in understanding the Bible


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To get the most out of our time in God’s Word, we must pay close attention to what was going on when that particular book was being written. This is especially true of the letters (epistles) written by Paul and others. In most cases, some event had prompted a response from the author. If we don’t understand the event, we’ll come away with a distorted message. Take, for example, the first letter of John (known as 1 John). While the letter was spread to believers all over Asia Minor, history seems to indicate that John was addressing a division in a particular church that he knew well. Having bought into false doctrine, some were separating themselves from those in what John saw as the true Church.

The exact nature of the false teaching isn’t clear. It could have been the teachings of Cerinthus who believed that Jesus was merely a human being while Christ was a heavenly and spiritual being. Perhaps the deserters were Docetists, who denied the incarnation, claiming that Jesus only “seemed” to be human. A common view is that the deserters were Gnostics, who denied the incarnation, believed that knowledge was superior to virtue, Scripture (which could be understood by only a select few) was not to be interpreted literally, and denied the resurrection of the flesh. Since John’s comments address all three false teachings, it’s hard to pinpoint a single heresy. The point, however, is that a split had occurred over doctrinal issues and John was addressing it.


Let’s take a look at how an understanding of this “event” changes the meaning of John’s message. Consider what John says in 1 John 2:3-4:

And by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him…

If we ignore the historical context, the passage seems to imply that anyone who claims to know God-which includes all Christians-but who breaks one of God’s commandments is a liar who doesn’t really know God. Since none of us are “righteous,” constantly keeping all of God’s commandments, none of us has any hope of ever knowing God.

Now let’s look at the passage in light of a Church split. According to 1 John 3:23, the deserters have broken the commands to believe in Jesus and to love the children of God. John is referring to one of the deserters (highlighted in the verse above) who has claimed to know him but was guilty of not keeping God’s commands. As a general principle, those who know God will obey His commands. However, this side of heaven, we all will sin from time. This is why John includes 1 John 1:9:

If we confess out sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

My point is that John has not formulated a test to apply to isolated acts of faithful believers. He is addressing the lifestyle of a group that has left the church. He is directing his remarks not to Christians who are doing certain things imperfectly, but to the “secessionists” who aren’t doing them at all. Taken out of historical context, the letter seems like an attempt to whip the believers into shape with solemn warnings directed at their disobedience. In proper historical context, however, we see that John was encouraging the believers that the path they were walking was indeed the path of God’s will.

What a difference-condemnation vs. encouragement. Let’s vow to always attempt to understand the historical context before we draw conclusions.



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