10 Things You Should Know about Paul’s Letter to Laodicea
The title to this article may surprise you. What in the world is Paul’s letter to Laodicea? I thought Paul wrote only 13 of the NT epistles (14 if you include Hebrews, which he probably didn’t write). It’s an interesting question. Here are ten things we should know about this mysterious letter.
(1) We know this letter to the Laodiceans was written by Paul because of the instruction he gave to the Colossians in his letter to the church in that city: “And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea” (Col. 4:16).
(2) The public reading of such letters in the first century was essential to local church life. Paul’s instruction in Colossians 4:16 may not strike us today as momentous, given our reliance upon the printed page and the wonderful blessing of a Bible (or several, and in multiple translations) for each person. But in the first century the reception of an apostolic letter and its public reading was a glorious event.
The public reading of God’s Word was a common practice in the Synagogue (Luke 4:16; Acts 13:15, 27; 15:21; 2 Cor. 3:14,15) and was taken over in the early church as well. In his first epistle to the Thessalonians Paul wrote, rather forcefully: “I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers” (1 Thessalonians 5:27). And again, in writing to his spiritual son Timothy, he exhorts: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13).
(3) There is something powerful, perhaps even sacramental, in the corporate hearing of the inspired text. All of God’s people are brought under the authority of the Word. All are called to hear, heed, and obey. This also bears powerful witness to any unbelievers present of the foundational function of Scripture in the life of God’s people. That Paul regarded this as crucial for the life of all Christians is seen in his request that the Colossians take steps to have the letter read publicly in the church at Laodicea. In addition, they are to read publicly “the letter from Laodicea” (4:16). Clearly the two letters were sufficiently different, each with its own distinct points of emphasis, that Paul thought it wise and helpful for both letters to be read in each congregation.
(4) This raises a huge and important question: What is this “letter from Laodicea”? Some believe it was a letter written to Paul by the Laodicean church, or perhaps by its leadership, or even one of its members. But it is more likely that Paul means they are to get hold of a letter from him, currently in the possession of the Laodiceans, which had been written to that neighboring church. But what letter might this be?
(5) There is a long-standing belief that Paul is referring to his canonical letter to the Ephesians. Many scholars believe that Ephesians was a general epistle sent not only to the Ephesian church but to all the many Gentile congregations in southwestern Asia Minor. Others have pointed out that the words “in Ephesus” (Ephesians 1:1) may not have been part of the original text of this document. In any case, most acknowledge that the epistle was initially sent to Ephesus, since it was the center for communication and commerce throughout the province. Paul’s intent, apparently, was that it be circulated among the many house churches in Ephesus and its environs. It would make perfectly good sense, then, for him to encourage the Colossians to have it read in their midst as well.
(6) There is, however, one seemingly insurmountable problem with this theory: the epistle to the Ephesians was most likely written after Colossians. I suppose someone could argue that Paul wrote Colossians 4:16 in view of his intent to write a more general epistle to the church at Ephesus, but this seems a bit far-fetched. Another theory is that it was Paul’s letter to Philemon, but this was a distinctly personal and private letter. Also, Philemon lived in Colossae, not Laodicea!
(7) I’m persuaded that Paul is referring to a letter that he himself wrote to the Laodiceans, one that obviously did not survive for inclusion in the canon of Scripture. What happened to it? We don’t know, but it’s possible that it was destroyed in the massive earthquake that hit the region in 61 a.d. But that’s only speculation.
You shouldn’t be bothered by this, given the fact that Paul most likely wrote four (!) letters to the Corinthian church, only two of which are included in our canon (see 1 Corinthians 5:9-11, a reference to the letter written in 54 a.d., now lost; and 2 Corinthians 2:4,9, a reference to the letter written in the summer of 55 a.d., often called the “severe” or “tearful” letter, also now lost).
(8) There are some questions, though, that we can’t avoid. Were these “lost” letters as inspired and infallible as those which were included in the canon? Yes, I believe so, especially given the fact that Paul’s instructions in Colossians 4:16 envision the church hearing and heeding the content of both letters. Likewise, there’s no indication in 1 Corinthians 5:9-11 and 2 Corinthians 2:4,9 that he viewed these “lost” documents as possessing a lesser moral authority than the canonical Corinthian correspondence. I can only conclude that the Colossian Christians (and Corinthians, as well as all others who had access to these “lost” epistles) were as morally obligated to believe and obey what Paul wrote in them as they were what he wrote in the epistles that eventually made their way into the biblical canon.
(9) Why, then, didn’t God preserve these and other apostolic writings for the church of subsequent generations? Evidently once these letters served their divinely designed function for the early church, God sovereignly arranged for their disappearance or destruction. In his infinite and gracious wisdom, he determined that the content of those epistles was not essential for the life and faith of the church beyond the first century. Ultimately, we must trust in divine providence and believe that God has preserved for us everything that is necessary for a life of truth and godliness.
(10) Finally, if these so-called “lost” letters were suddenly found, perhaps similar to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, should they be included in our canon of Scripture? It’s a moot point, for I’m convinced they won’t be found. If God deemed them essential for the life of the church in the twenty-first century (indeed, for the life of the church in the entire post-apostolic period), he would certainly have preserved them and providentially orchestrated their inclusion in the canon along with those documents that now constitute what we regard as Scripture. Therefore, I’ll leave it to others to speculate on what the universal body of Christ should/would do if I happen to be proven wrong.
In the meantime, let’s all agree to diligently read and heed the Scripture we have and not waste time wondering about those apostolic writings that God obviously did not intend for us to possess.