It wasn’t until the year 2000, when I joined an Anglican church in Wheaton, Illinois, that I was exposed on a consistent basis to the public reading of Scripture. In the churches where I had formerly been a member or had served on the pastoral staff (Southern Baptist, independent Bible church, Vineyard), the only biblical text read aloud was the one on which the sermon was based.
Not being accustomed to anything remotely liturgical, it took some getting used to. But soon I grew to appreciate the power of the public reading of the written Word. First came the Old Testament text, then a Psalm, followed by a paragraph from the Epistles, all of which concluded with a reading from the gospels. I fear that in many churches, especially those which resist all things liturgical, a glorious experience is being missed. Every church need not follow the same procedure, but we would do well to give place, in some form or other, to the public reading of the Word.
In his concluding comments to the church at Colossae, Paul writes: “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” (Colossians 4:16).
This may not strike us today as a momentous occasion, 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. I fear that were a pastor in our day to announce that he planned on reading all four chapters of Colossians to his congregation, many would wince, some would sleep, most would be distracted, and not a few would simply get up and leave. How tragic.
I recently attended the funeral service of my aunt in Ponca City, Oklahoma. It was most unusual and, for that reason, quite edifying. Before her death she had instructed the presiding pastor to simply read the Sermon on the Mount. She wanted no obituary to be read, no eulogy to be spoken. Just the Scriptures. It just so happened that her pastor had memorized the Sermon (Matthew 5-7). Thus the entire service, aside from our singing of hymns, consisted of his reciting, dramatically and powerfully, the Sermon on the Mount!
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).
Perhaps someone will argue that it is less effective as a means of communication and instruction to read aloud in a congregational gathering than it is to read the printed page privately. That may be true. But there is also 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, and not simply this one congregation, 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.
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?
There is a long-standing belief that Paul is referring to his canonical letter to the Ephesians. A number of 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.
There is 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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
Rejoicing in the sufficiency of Scripture,