Context makes all the difference in properly understanding the scriptures. The German phrase sitz im leben, meaning “setting in life”, stresses that biblical interpretation must consider the social context for which a text was purposed and in which it was designed to function. Proper contextual understanding will keep one from error and from developing an eccentric theology.
Sitz im Leben in Practice
Let’s employ sitz im leben and determine the context of the epistles of John. I encourage you to follow along in your Bible.
From John’s first statements in 1:1-3 we notice his firm purpose in writing, which is to proclaim Jesus Christ whom he has personally witnessed and embraced; and that through his testimony he might welcome all those with like faith into the fellowship.
John speaks to his readers about love and Christian consideration of one another, which strongly characterizes all three letters and that we quickly ascertain is a dual theme (not dealt with here). This is because in 2:18-27 he expounds on what he has alluded to in his opening. Apparently, former believers had left the fellowship (v. 19) on account of doctrinal differences regarding Jesus (v. 22). John labels them antichrists (vs. 18, 22) because now their position stands in contradistinction to the gospel, although we still cannot fully discern the nature of their position. What we do know at this point, however, is that the young church was contending with an early heresy regarding the nature of Christ.
John goes further in 4:2-3 and presents a major detail about these people: “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God” (vs. 2-3; cf. 2 John 1:7). Now we can infer that the people troubling the church were most probably of a Gnostic persuasion and were entrenched in Docetism.
Docetism was possibly the earliest heresy to trouble the Church and one that denied the humanity of Jesus. Being rooted in Greek philosophy, which taught the hierarchy or gradation of reality—spirit was highest and good while the physical was lowest and evil—and that salvation consisted in liberation from the physical, Docetism rejected any association of the Son of God with material reality.
Deriving from the Greek verb (dokeo) meaning “to seem or appear”, Docetists claimed that Jesus only seemed to be human—which reminds us of how John begins his letter: (speaking of Christ) “that which we have heard…seen with our eyes…looked at and our hands have touched”. For Docetists, God could not have possibly taken on an evil physical body; so he had to be akin to an apparition or illusion. John writes in his Gospel, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14).
This teaching meant that Christ’s suffering at Calvary could not have been real. Docetists claimed that God may have substituted a person to bear the pain or it was all a visual trick. Also, the virgin birth could not have been a true birth, for the Son of God could not receive any heredity from Mary. She acted only as the portal for the baby Jesus. John may allude to this in 5:6-9, vaguely understood passages, when he says, “This is the one who came by water and blood…”.
THE SOCIAL CONTEXT
So a proper contextual understanding of John’s epistles discloses that, apart from matters of Christian love among the believers, the apostle is warning believers about deserters who now preach an unorthodox doctrine about the nature of Christ. They are admonished by John to have no association with them and to refuse any attempts to convert them (2 John 8, 10-11). They should rather trust his words and actual friendship to Jesus and remain in the fellowship of believers.
How Ancient Heresy Affects Modern Beliefs
Gnosticism still exists in pockets. But would you believe that the issues addressed by John still color some folk’s beliefs—in Christianity? I can think of two ways. First, many people hold an incorrect theology regarding the body. Our flesh is viewed as evil and the source that incites humans to all manner of sin; so they long for the day when they’ll shed these bodies and be free from prurience. This type of thinking is unwholesome and has led to undue asceticism, to deny the body, and libertinism, to gratify it since grace will save us.
Second, in the Spirit-filled tradition I have commonly heard some people refer to 4:1-3, John’s “testing the spirits”, in the context of dealing with demons or deceptive individuals parading as believers. They claim that neither one of these will acknowledge the incarnation of Christ, revealing their true spiritual nature. But John deals with an ideology the tenets of which could be scrutinized against the true gospel, not an oracular aversion to a truth about Jesus. Certainly demons and many false teachers acknowledge the humanity of Jesus.
Do you see why I cited eccentric theology?
I encourage you to practice sitz im leben when you study. It is improper to lift a text out of its original context and attempt application. Take the time to discover the scriptures you read. Besides believing it, there is no higher respect for God’s word.