What is "the epistle from Laodicea"? (Col 4:16)
And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea. (Col 4:16)
Many have wondered to what Paul is referring when he instructs the Colossians to read the epistle from Laodicea. At the outset, it should be noted that it is possible that the epistle from Laodicea is an epistle that did not make it into the canon. Apparently, Paul wrote an epistle to the Corinthians before 1Corinthians that is not included in the canon:
I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: (1Cor 5:9)
Moreover, it is clear that only a fraction of what the wisest man who ever lived, Solomon, wrote is included in the scriptures.
And Solomon's wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east country, and all the wisdom of Egypt.
And he spake three thousand proverbs: and his songs were a thousand and five. (1Ki 4:30, 32)
The fact that there are many things written by Paul, Solomon, and other Biblical writers that are not included in the canon does not imply that the canon is incomplete. God has providentially ensured that everything that he wanted in the Bible is present while that which he did not desire is not included. Thus, even if the epistle from Laodicea is not included in the canon, such absence would not imply that something is missing from the Bible.
However, scripture strongly suggests that the epistle from Laodicea is found within the canon. This claim may be surprising given that no letter within the New Testament appears to be written from Laodicea and given that Paul is never mentioned in scripture as being present in Laodicea. However, there are compelling reasons to believe that the epistle from Laodicea is none other than the book of Philemon.
To see why, first consider a number of striking similarities between Colossians and Philemon.
These numerous similarities demonstrate that Colossians and Philemon were written contemporaneously in time as it is extraordinarily unlikely that all of the same circumstances would exist if these two epistles were removed in time.
Having recognized that Colossians and Philemon were written at the same time, it is significant to note that Colosse and Laodicea are very close to one another.
For I would that ye knew what great conflict I have for you, and for them at Laodicea, and for as many as have not seen my face in the flesh; For I bear him record, that he hath a great zeal for you, and them that are in Laodicea and them in Hierapolis.
Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church which is in his house. (Col 2:1, 4:13, 4:15)
According to multiple bible dictionaries consulted, the distance between these two cities is less than twenty miles.
It is instructive to note that the book of Philemon is addressed to Archippus and the church that is in his house.
And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house: (Phm 1:2)
Colossians, as one would expect, is addressed to the saints at Colosse.
To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colosse: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Col 1:2)
Notice how Paul instructs the saints at Colosse:
And say to Archippus, Take heed to the ministry which thou hast received in the Lord, that thou fulfil it. (Col 4:17)
Obviously, Paul does not consider Archippus to be one of the “saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colosse” because then Paul would be instructing Archippus to speak to himself. However, Archippus must be close to Colosse if the Colossian saints are to say something to him. The closest major city to Colosse is Laodicea, and it thus appears that Archippus is from Laodicea.
With this understanding, Philemon is appropriately described as the “epistle from Laodicea” since its recipients were in Laodicea and since when the local church made copies of the epistle to distribute to other churches, the copies would originate from Laodicea where the original autograph was located. Thus, Colossians 4:16 is easily understood as Paul’s instruction that the churches in Colosse and Laodicea could both benefit from the epistle delivered to the other church.
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