Consider helping today!
by Albert Barnes
Introduction to Colossians
Section 1. The Situation of Colossae
Colossae, or, as it is written in many manuscripts, Colasse, was a celebrated city of Phrygia, in Asia Minor. It was in the southern part of that province, was nearly directly east of Ephesus, north of Laodicea, and nearly west of Antioch in Pisidia. It is mentioned by Herodotus (Polyhymn. Lib. viii. c. 30) as “a great city of Phrygia, in that part where the river Lycus descends into a chasm of the earth and disappears, but which, after a distance of five stadia, rises again and flows into the Meander “ - ες τον Μαιανδρον es ton Maiandron. Xenophon also mentions the city of Colossae as being Πολις οικουμενη ευδαιμων και μεγαλη Polis oikoumenē eudaimōn kai megalē - “a city well inhabited, pleasant, and large.” Expedi. Cyr. Lib. i. In the time of Strabo, however, it seems to have been much diminished in size, as it is mentioned by him among the “smaller towns” - polismata - , Lib. xii. p. 864.
In the latter part of the reign of Nero, and not long after this Epistle was written, Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis, were at the same time overwhelmed by an earthquake. Pliny, Hist. Nat. Lib. v. c. 41. Colossae recovered, however, from this shock, and is mentioned by the Byzantine writers as among the most opulent cities; see Koppe, Prolegomena. The ancient town is now extinct, but its site is occupied by a village called Chonos, or Khonas. This village is described by Mr. Arundell as being situated most picturesquely under the immense range of Mount Cadmus, which rises to a very lofty and perpendicular height behind the Village, in some parts clothed with pines, in others bare of soil, with vast chasms and caverns. An immense perpendicular chasm, affords an outlet to a wide mountain torrent, the bed of which is dry in summer. The approach to the village is as wild as the village itself is beautiful, abounding in tall trees, from which vines of most luxuriant growth are suspended. In the immediate neighborhood are several vestiges of an ancient city, consisting of arches, vaults, squared stones, while the ground is strewed with broken pottery, which so generally and so remarkably indicates the site of ancient towns in the East. That these ruins are all that now remain of Colossae, there seems no reason to doubt.
Colossae, as has been remarked, was situated in Phrygia. On the name Phrygia, and the origin of the Phrygians, very different opinions have been entertained, which it is not necessary to specify in order to an understanding of this Epistle. They claimed to be the most ancient people of the world; and it is said that this claim was admitted by the Egyptians, who, though boastful of their own antiquity, were content to regard themselves as second to the Phrygians. Like other parts of Asia Minor which were distinguished as provinces under the Roman empire, Phrygia is first historically known as a kingdom, and continued such until it was made a province of the Lydian monarchy. It remained a province of that monarchy until Croesus, king of Lydia, was conquered by Cyrus of Persia, who added the Lydian kingdom to his empire. After that, Phrygia, like the rest of Asia Minor, became successively subject to the Greeks, the Romans, and the Turks. In the time when the gospel was preached there, it was subject to the Romans; it is now under the dominion of the Turks. Phrygia was anciently celebrated for its fertility; but, under the Moslem yoke, a great part of the country lies uncultivated.
Section 2. The Establishment of the Church in Colossae
The gospel was first preached in Phrygia by Paul and Silas, accompanied also by Timothy; Acts 15:40-41; Acts 16:1-3, Acts 16:6. It is said that they “went throughout Phrygia,” which means, doubtless, that they went to the principal cities and towns; in Acts 18:23, it is said that Paul visited Phrygia again, after he had been to Philippi, Athens, Jerusalem, and Antioch. He “went over all the country of Galatia and Phrygia in order, strengthening all the disciples.” It is not, indeed, expressly said of Paul and Silas that they went to Colossae; but, since this was one of the principal cities of Phrygia, there is every reason to suppose that they preached the gospel there.
It has been doubted, however, whether Paul was ever at Colossae. It is expressly affirmed by Hug (Introduction), and by Koppe (Prolegomena), that Paul had not taught at Colossae himself, and that he had no personal acquaintance with the Christians there. It has been maintained that the gospel was, probably, first preached there by Epaphras, who heard the apostle at Ephesus, and who returned and preached the gospel to his own countrymen. The opinion that Paul had not been there, and was personally unacquainted with the church, is founded on his declaration in Colossians 2:1; “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.” From this it is inferred that he was neither at Colossae nor at Laodicea. Yet it may be justly doubted whether this passage will authorize this conclusion. Theodoret long since suggested that the meaning of this was - “I have not only a concern for you, but I have also great concern for those who have not seen me.” Dr. Lardner, however, maintains that the gospel was preached in Colossae by Paul. The reasons which he gives for the opinion are briefly these:
(1) The declarations of Luke, already quoted, that Paul more than once passed through Phrygia. The presumption is, that he would visit the chief cities of that province in passing and repassing through it. It is to be remembered that, according to Colossians 2:1, Colossae and Laodicea are placed on the same footing; and hence the difficulty of the supposition that he did not visit the former is increased. Can it be supposed that Paul would go again and again through that region, preaching the gospel in the points where it would be likely to exert the widest influence, and yet never visit either of these principal cities of the province, especially when it is remembered that Laodicea was the capital?
(2) Dr. Lardner appeals to what Paul says in Colossians 1:6; Colossians 2:6-7, in proof that he knew that they had been rightly taught the gospel. From this he infers that Paul had himself communicated it to them. This conclusion is not perfectly clear, since it is certain that Paul might have known their first teachers, and been satisfied that they taught the truth; but it is such language as he would have used on the supposition that he was the spiritual father of the church.
(3) Epaphras, says Dr. Lardner, was not their first instructor in the gospel. This he infers from what is said of him in Colossians 1:7, and in Colossians 4:12-13. He is commended as “one of them,” as a “fellow-servant,” as “a faithful minister of Christ,” as one “beloved.” But he is not spoken of as sustaining any nearer relation to them. If he had been the founder of their church, he thinks it is incredible that there is no allusion to this fact in writing to them; that the apostle should have spoken more than once of him, and never referred to his agency in establishing the church there.
(4) Paul does, in effect, say that he had himself dispensed the gospel to these Colossians; Colossians 1:21-25. The salutations at the end of the Epistle, to various persons at Laodicea and Colossae, show that he was personally acquainted there. See these and other reasons drawn out in Lardner’s Works, vol. vi., pp. 151ff, Ed. Lond. 1829. The considerations suggested by Dr. Lardner seem to me to be sufficient to render it in the highest degree probable that the church at Colossae was founded by Paul.
Section 3. When and Where the Epistle Was Written
This Epistle is believed to have been written at Rome, when Paul was a prisoner there, and at about the same time that the Epistle to the Ephesians, and the Epistle to Philemon, were written; and that they were all sent by the same persons. It is said in the Epistle itself Colossians 4:7, Colossians 4:9, that it was sent by Tychicus and Onesimus, both of whom are commended as “faithful and beloved” brethren. But the Epistle to the Ephesians was written at Rome (see the introduction) and was sent by Tychicus Ephesians 6:21; and the Epistle to Philemon was sent by Onesimus. It is probable, therefore, that these persons visited Ephesus, Colossae, and the place where Philemon resided; or, rather, that Tychicus and Onesimus visited Colossae together, and that then Tychicus went to Ephesus, and Onesimus went to his former master Philemon. That this Epistle and the one to Philemon were written at about the same time, is further apparent from the fact that Epaphras is mentioned in both as with the apostle, and as joining in the salutation; Colossians 4:12; Philemon 1:23. The Epistle to the Colossians bears internal marks of having been written at Rome, when the apostle was a prisoner. Thus, in Colossians 1:24, he says, “who now rejoice in my sufferings for you;” Colossians 4:18, “Remember my bonds.” If this be so, then it is not difficult to fix the date of the Epistle with some degree of accuracy. This would be about the year 62 ad.
Section 4. The Occasion and Design of the Epistle
The general drift of this Epistle has a strong resemblance to that addressed to the Ephesians, and it bears internal marks of being from the same hand. It was evidently written in view of errors which extensively prevailed among the churches of that part of Asia Minor, and was designed to inculcate the same general duties. It is of importance, therefore, to possess a general understanding of the nature of these errors, in order to a correct interpretation of the Epistle.
The church at Colossae was one of a circle or group of churches, lying near each other, in Asia Minor; and it is probable that the same general views of philosophy, and the same errors, prevailed throughout the entire region where they were situated. That group of churches embraced those at Ephesus, Laodicea, Thyatira, and, in general, those addressed in the Apocalypse as “the seven churches of Asia.” From some of the notices of those churches in the New Testament, as well as from the Epistle before us, we may learn what errors prevailed there in general, and against what form of error particularly the Epistle to the Colossians was designed to guard.
(1) Several classes of errorists are mentioned as existing within the limits of the “seven churches of Asia.” Thus, in the church at Ephesus, “those which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars” Revelation 2:2; in Smyrna, those “which say they are Jews, and are not, but are of the synagogue of Satan” Revelation 2:9; in Thyatira, “that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess” Revelation 2:20; in Pergamos, “them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes;” those “who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel” Revelation 2:14-15. The near proximity of these churches to Colossae would render it probable that the infection of these errors might have reached that church also.
(2) The apostle Paul, in his parting speech to the elders of the church at Ephesus, alludes to dangerous teachers to which the church there might be exposed, in such a manner as to show that there was some peculiar danger from such teachers in that community. “For I know that after my departure shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your ownselves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them;” Acts 20:29-30. He does not specify, indeed, the kind of danger to which they would be exposed; but it is evident that the danger arose from plausible teachers of error. These were of two classes - those who would come in from abroad, implying probably that there were such teachers in the neighboring churches; and such as would spring up among themselves.
(3) In that vicinity there appear to have been numerous disciples of John the Baptist, retaining many Jewish prejudices and prepossessions, who would be tenacious of the observances of the Mosaic law. What were their views, is not precisely known. But it is clear that they regarded the Jewish law as still binding; that they would be rigid in its observance, and in insisting on its observance by others; that they had at best, if any, a very imperfect acquaintance with Christianity; and that they were ignorant of the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit, and of the fact that that had been poured out in a remarkable manner under the preaching of the apostles. Paul found a number of these disciples of John at Ephesus, who professed not to have received the Holy Spirit, and who said that they had been baptized unto John’s baptism; Acts 19:1-3. Among the most distinguished and influential of the disciples of John in that region was Apollos Acts 18:24-25, who is represented as an eloquent man, and mighty in the Scriptures. He taught at Ephesus, but how long before he was made more fully acquainted with the gospel, is unknown.
He is represented as having been zealously engaged in that work, and as being eminently successful; Acts 18:25. There is no reason to doubt that he contributed not a little in diffusing, in that region, the peculiar views held by those who were known as the disciples of John. What was precisely the doctrine which Apollos taught, before “the way of God was expounded more perfectly to him” Acts 18:26, is not now known. There is every reason, however, to suppose that he would insist on the observance of the Jewish laws, and the customs of their nation. The opinions which would be likely to be defended by one in his circumstances, would be those which prevailed when John preached - when the law of Moses was considered to be in full force, and when it was necessary to observe all his institutions. the Jewish law among the churches would be likely to appeal with great force to the sentiments of so good and so eloquent a man as Apollos. So extensive was his influence, that Koppe supposes that the principal errors prevailing in the churches in Phrygia, which it was the design of the apostle in this Epistle to correct, could be traced to the influence of the disciples of John, and especially to the teachings of this eloquent man. Prolegomena, p. 160.
(4) If we look into the Epistle itself, we shall be able to determine with some degree of certainty the errors which prevailed, and which it was the design of this Epistle to correct, and we shall find that they correspond remarkably with what we might anticipate, from what we have seen to be the errors abounding in that region.
(a) Their first danger arose from the influence of philosophy; Colossians 2:4-8. The apostle warns them to beware lest any one should “beguile them with enticing words;” he cautions them against “philosophy and vain deceit “ - a philosophy that was based on the “tradition of men,” “after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” Such philosophy might be expected to prevail in those cities so near to Greece, and so much imbued with the Grecian spirit, and one of the chief dangers which would beset them would arise from its prevalence.
(b) A second source of danger referred to, was that arising from the influence of those who insisted on the observance of the rites and customs of the Jewish religion. This the apostle refers to in Colossians 2:16. “Let no man, therefore, judge you in meat or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days.” These are subjects on which the Jews would insist much, and in this respect the disciples of John would be likely to sympathize entirely with them. It is evident that there were those among them who were endeavoring to enforce the observance of these things.
(c) There is some evidence of the prevalence there of a philosophy more Oriental than Grecian - a philosophy that savored of Gnosticism. This philosophy was subsequently the foundation of a large part of the errors that crept into the church. Indications of its prevalence in Colossae, occur in places like the following; Colossians 2:9 - “For in him (Christ) dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily;” from which it would seem probable that there were those who denied that the fullness of the Godhead dwelt physically in the Lord Jesus - a favorite doctrine of the Gnostics, who maintained that the assumption of human nature by the Son of God, was in appearance only, and that he died on the cross only in appearance, and not in reality. So in Colossians 2:18, there is a reference to “a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which are not seen, and which tend vainly to puff up a fleshly mind” - a description that will apply with remarkable accuracy to the homage paid by the Gnostics to the AEons, and to the general efforts of those who held the doctrines of that philosophy to intrude into those things which are not seen, and to offer an explanation of the mode of the divine existence, and the nature of the divine agency. See notes on the verses here referred to. It will contribute not a little to a proper understanding of this Epistle, to keep these things in remembrance respecting the kind of philosophy which prevailed in the region in which Colossae was situated, and the nature of the dangers to which they were exposed.
(5) It will be seen from these remarks, and from the Epistle itself, that the difficulties in the church at Colossae did not relate to the moral and religious character of its members. There is no mention of any improper conduct, either in individuals or in the church at large, as there was in the church at Corinth; there is no intimation that they had been guilty of any sins but such as were common to all pagans before conversion. There are, indeed, intimations that they were exposed to sin, and there are solemn charges against indulgence in it. But the sins to which they were exposed were such as prevailed in all the ancient pagan world, and doubtless such as the Gentile part of the church particularly, had been guilty of before their conversion. The following sins particularly are mentioned: “Fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, covetousness, anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communications, and lying;” Colossians 3:5-9. These were common sins among the pagan (compare the notes at Romans 1:0), and to a relapse into these they were particularly exposed; but it does not appear that any of the members of the church had given occasion for public reproach, or for apostolic reproof, by falling into them. As they were sins, however, in which they had formerly indulged Colossians 3:7, and as they were therefore the more liable to fall into them again, there was abundant occasion for all the solicitude which the apostle manifests on the subject.
From the remarks now made, it is easy to see what was the design of the Epistle to the Colossians. It was primarily to guard the church against the errors to which it was exposed from the prevalence of false philosophy, and from the influence of false teachers in religion; to assert the superior claims of Christianity over all philosophy, and its independence of the peculiar rites and customs of the Jewish religion.
It has been asked why the apostle wrote an epistle to the church at Colossae, rather than to the church in Laodicea, especially as Laodicea was the capital of Phrygia? And it has been asked also, why an epistle was addressed to that church so strikingly resembling the Epistle to the Ephesians (see Section 5), especially as it has been supposed that the Epistle to the Ephesians was designed to be a circular letter, to be read by the churches in the vicinity. The reasons why an epistle was addressed particularly to the church at Colossae, seem to have been such as the following:
(1) Onesimus was at that time with Paul at Rome, and was about to return to his master Philemon, at Colossae; see the Introduction to the Epistle to Philemon. It was perfectly natural that Paul should avail himself of the opportunity thus afforded him, to address a letter to the church at Colossae also.
(2) Epaphras, a principal teacher of the church at Colossae, was also with Paul at Rome; Colossians 1:7; Colossians 4:12. He was at that time a fellow-prisoner with him Philemon 1:23, and it is not improbable that it was at his solicitation particularly that this Epistle was written. Paul had learned from him the state of the church at Colossae Colossians 1:6-7, and it is not impossible, as Koppe conjectures, that he had been sent to Rome by the church to seek the counsel of the apostle in the state of things which then existed in Colossae. Epaphras was, at any rate, greatly interested in the state of things in the church, as well as in the condition of the churches at Laodicea and Hierapolis Colossians 4:13, and nothing was more natural than that he should endeavor to induce the apostle to direct a letter that might be of benefit to them all.
(3) A particular reason for sending this Epistle appears to have been to confirm the authority of Epaphras, and to give the sanction of the apostle to the truths which he had taught. In their difficulties and dangers Epaphras had taken an important part in giving them counsel. His views might have been opposed; or his authority might have been disputed by the teachers of error there, and it was important that the apostolic sanction should be given to what he had taught. Hence, the apostle speaks with so much affection of Epaphras, and so warmly of him as a faithful servant of Christ; Colossians 1:7; Colossians 4:12-13.
(4) It may be added, that; although there is a strong resemblance between this Epistle and that to the Ephesians, and although it may be regarded as probable that the Epistle to the Ephesians was intended in part as a circular, yet this Epistle would not have been needless. It contains many things which are not in that Epistle; is especially adapted to the state of things in the church at Colossae, and would have the greater weight with Christians there from being specifically addressed to them. See Michaelis’ Introduction to the New Testament, vol. v. 122, and Koppe, Prolegomena pp. 163, 164.
Section 5. The Resemblance between this Epistle and the Epistle to the Ephesians
Every person who has given any considerable degree of attention to this Epistle, must have been struck with its remarkable similarity to the Epistle to the Ephesians. That resemblance is greater by far than exists between any other two of the epistles of Paul - a resemblance not only in the general style and manner which may be expected to characterize the different productions of the same author, but extending to the course of thought; the structure of the argument; the particular instructions, and to some phrases which do not occur elsewhere. This similarity relates particularly to the following points:
(1) In the representation of the reason for which the apostle was imprisoned at Rome. This resemblance, Dr. Paley (Horae Paul) remarks, is too close to be accounted for from accident, and yet too indirect and latent to be imputed to design, and is one which cannot easily be resolved into any other source than truth. It is not found in any other of his epistles. It consists in this, that Paul in these two epistles attributes his imprisonment not to his preaching Christianity in general, but to his asserting the right of the Gent footing with the Jews, and without being obliged to conform themselves to the Jewish law. This was the doctrine to which he considered himself a martyr. Thus, in Colossians 1:24, he says, “Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you;” and in Colossians 2:1, “for I would that ye knew what great conflict I have for you, and for them at Laodicea.” That is, his conflicts and trials, his imprisonment and danger of death, had somehow come upon him in consequence of his endeavoring to spread the gospel in such places as Colossae and Laodicea. These were Gentile communities; and the meaning is, that his trials were the result of his efforts to preach among the Gentiles. The same representation is made in the Epistle to the Ephesians - likewise written from Rome during his imprisonment. “For this cause I, Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles;” Colossians 3:1.
And this coincidence is also apparent by comparing two other places in the epistles. Thus, Colossians 4:3, “Praying for us, that God would open unto us a door of utterance to speak the mysteries of Christ, for which I am in bonds.” An allusion to the same “mystery” occurs also in the Epistle to the Ephesians. “Whereby when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ - that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel;” Colossians 3:4-6. In the Acts of the Apostles the same statement occurs in regard to the cause for which the apostle was persecuted and imprisoned - and it is on this coincidence, which is so evidently undesigned, that Paley has founded the argument for the genuineness of the Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians. Horae Paulinae. The statement in the Acts of the Apostles is, that the persecutions of Paul which led to his appeal to the Roman emperor and to his imprisonment, at Rome, were in consequence of his maintaining that the Gentiles were, in the Christian administration, to be admitted to the same privileges as the Jews, or that there was no distinction between them in the matter of salvation; and his sufferings, therefore, were, as he says, “in behalf of the Gentiles.” See, particularly, Acts 21:28; Acts 22:21-22. From these passages it appears that the offence which drew down on Paul the vengeance of his countrymen was, his mission to the Gentiles, and his maintaining that they were to be admitted to the privileges of salvation on the same terms as the Jews.
(2) There is a strong resemblance between the course of thought and the general structure of the Epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians. To an extent that does not occur in any other of Paul’s epistles, the same topics are introduced, and in the same order and connection. Indeed, in some portions, they are almost identical. Particularly the order in which the various topics are introduced is nearly the same. The following portions of the two epistles will be seen to correspond with each other.
|Ephesians 1:15-19||with||Colossians 1:9-11|
|Ephesians 1:20-23||with||Colossians 1:15-19|
|Ephesians 1:10||with||Colossians 1:20|
|Ephesians 2:1-10||with||Colossians 1:21-23|
|Ephesians 3:7||with||Colossians 1:25|
|Ephesians 3:9-10||with||Colossians 1:26-27|
|Ephesians 3:17||with||Colossians 2:7|
|Ephesians 2:11-22||with||Colossians 2:11-15|
|Ephesians 4:14||with||Colossians 2:8|
|Ephesians 4:15-16||with||Colossians 2:19|
|Ephesians 4:25||with||Colossians 3:9|
|Ephesians 4:22-24||with||Colossians 3:9-10|
|Ephesians 4:32||with||Colossians 3:12|
|Ephesians 5:19-20||with||Colossians 3:16-17|
|Ephesians 5:21; Ephesians 6:6-9||with||Colossians 3:18-22; Colossians 4:1|
|Ephesians 6:19||with||Colossians 4:3|
|Ephesians 5:16||with||Colossians 4:5|
|Ephesians 6:21||with||Colossians 4:7|
This resemblance, thus carried almost through the Epistle, shows that there was a similarity of condition in the two churches in reference to the dangers to which they were exposed, the kind of philosophy which prevailed, the false teachers who might have an influence over them, and the particular duties to which it was desirable their attention should be turned. There is, indeed, some considerable variety of phraseology in the discussion of these topics, but still the resemblance is remarkable, and would indicate that the epistles were written not far from the same time, and clearly by the same person. It is remarkable, among other things, as Michaelis has observed, that it is only in these two epistles that the apostle warns his readers against lying; Ephesians 4:25; Colossians 3:9. Hence, we may conclude that this vice was one that particularly prevailed in the region where these churches were situated, and that the members of these churches had been particularly addicted to this vice before their conversion.
Section 6. The Epistle from Laodicea
In Colossians 4:16 of this Epistle, the apostle gives this direction: “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.” The former part of this verse is clear, and the direction was given, doubtless, because the churches of Colossae and Laodicea were in the vicinity of each other, and the instructions were adapted to both churches. Doubtless the same form of philosophy prevailed, and the churches were exposed to the same errors. But it is not so clear what is meant by the “Epistle from Laodicea.” The most natural and obvious interpretation would be, that Paul had sent a letter also to that church, and that he wished them to procure it and read it. But no such epistle is now extant, and, consequently, much difficulty has been felt in determining what the apostle referred to. A brief examination of the opinions entertained on the subject seems necessary in this place. They are the following:
1. It has been supposed that the reference is to a letter sent from the Laodiceans to Paul, proposing to him some questions which they desired him to answer, and that he now wishes the Colossians to procure that letter, in order that they might more fully understand the drift of the Epistle which he now sent to them. This opinion was held by Theodoret, and has been defended by Storr, Rosenmuller, and others. But the objections to it are obvious and conclusive.
(1) It is not the fair meaning of the language used by Paul. If he had referred to a letter to him, he would have said so; whereas the obvious meaning of the language used is, that the Colossians were to procure a letter in the possession of the Laodiceans, in exchange for the one which they now received from Paul. The churches were to make an exchange of letters, and one church was to read that which had been addressed to the other.
(2) If the letter had been addressed to Paul, it was doubtless in his possession; and if he wished the church at Colossae to read it, nothing would be more natural or obvious than to send it, by Tychicus, along with the letter which he now sent. Why should he give directions to send to Laodicea to procure a copy of it?
(3) If a letter had been sent to him by the Laodiceans, proposing certain questions, why did he send the answer to the church at Colossae, and not to the church at Laodicea? The church at Laodicea would certainly have been the one that was entitled to the reply. There would have been a manifest impropriety in sending an epistle to one church, made up of answers to questions proposed by another, and then at the end requesting them to procare those questions, that they might understand the Epistle.
(4) It may be added, that it is not necessary to suppose that there was any such epistle, in order to understand this Epistle to the Colossians. This is not more difficult of interpretation than the other epistles of Paul, and does not furnish in its structure any particular evidence that it was sent in answer to inquiries which had been proposed to the author.
2. It has been supposed by some that the epistle referred to was one written to Timothy, by the apostle himself, at Laodicea. This opinion was defended by Theophylact. The only show of authority for it is the subscription at the end of the First Epistle to Timothy - “The first to Timothy was written from Laodicea, which is the chiefest city of Phrygia Pacatiana.” But that this is erroneous, can be easily shown.
(1) The subscription to the Epistle to Timothy is of no authority.
(2) If this Epistle had been referred to, Paul would not have designated it in this manner. It would have been rather by mentioning the person to whom it was addressed, than the place where it was written.
(3) There is nothing in the Epistle to Timothy which would throw any important light on this to the Colossians, or which would be particularly important to them as a church. It was addressed to one individual, and it contains counsels adapted to a minister of the gospel, rather than to a church.
3. Many have supposed that the “Epistle from Laodicea,” referred to, was one which Paul had written to the Laodiceans, partly for they use, but which was of the nature of a circular epistle, and that we still have it under another name. Those who hold this opinion suppose that the Epistle to the Ephesians is the one referred to, and that it was, in fact, sent also to the church at Laodicea. See this question treated at length in the introduction to the Epistle to the Ephesians, Section 5. The reasons for supposing that the Epistle now known as the “Epistle to the Ephesians” was neither a circular letter, nor addressed to the church at Laodicea, are there given. But if the common reading of the text in Ephesians 1:1, “the saints which are at Ephesus,” be correct, then it is clear that that Epistle was really sent to the church in that place. The only question, then, is, whether it is of so general a character that it might as well be sent to other churches as to that, and whether Paul actually sent it as a circular, with a direction to different churches? Against this supposition, there are strong improbabilities:
(1) It is contrary to the usual practice of Paul. He addressed letters to particular churches and individuals; and, unless this case be one, there is no evidence that he ever adopted the practice of sending the same letter to different individuals or churches.
(2) There would have been some impropriety in it, if not dishonesty. An avowed circular letter, addressed to churches in general, or to any number whose names are enumerated, would be perfectly honest. But how would this be, if the same letter was addressed to one church, and then, with a new direction, addressed to another, with no intimation of its circular character? Would there not be a species of concealment in this which we should not expect of Paul?
(3) How happens it, if this had occurred, that all remembrance of it was forgotten? When those epistles were collected, would not the attention be called to the fact, and some record of it be found in some ancient writer Would it fail to be adverted to that the same epistle had been found to have been addressed to different churches, with a mere change in the name?
4. There is but one other opinion which can exist on this question; and that is, that the apostle refers to some letter which had been sent to the Laodiceans, which we have not now in the New Testament. If this be so, then the reference could only be to some epistle which may be extant elsewhere, or which is now lost. There is an epistle extant which is known by the name of “Paul’s Epistle to the Laodiceans;” but it has no well-founded claims to being a genuine epistle of Paul, and is universally regarded as a forgery. “It is,” says Michaelis, “a mere rhapsody, collected from Paul’s other epistles, and which no critic can receive as a genuine work of the apostle. It contains nothing which it was necessary for the Colossians to know, nothing which is not ten times better and more fully explained in the Epistle which Paul sent to the Colossians; in short, nothing which could be suitable to Paul’s design.”
Introduction to the New Testament iv. 127. The Greek of this Epistle may be found at length in Michaelis; and, as it may be a matter of curiosity, and will show that this cannot be the Epistle referred to by Paul in Colossians 4:16, I will subjoin here a translation. It is as follows: “Paul an apostle, not of men, neither by men, but by Jesus Christ, to the brethren in Laodicea. Grace be to you, and peace, from God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God in Christ always, in my prayers, that you are mindful of and are persevering in good works, waiting for the promise in the day of judgment. And let not the vain speeches of some who would conceal the truth disturb you, to turn you away from the truth of the gospel which has been preached unto you. Now God grant that all they who are of me may be borne forward to the perfection of the truth of the gospel, to perform those excellent good works which become the salvation of eternal life.
And now are my bonds manifest, in which bonds I am in Christ, and at the present time; but I rejoice, for I know that this shall be for the furtherance of my salvation, which is through your prayer and the supply of the Holy Spirit, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is joy. But our Lord himself shall grant you his mercy with us, that, possessing love you may be of the same mind and think the same thing. On this account, brethren, as ye have heard of the appearing of the Lord, so think and do in the fear of God, and it shall be eternal life to you, for it is God who worketh in you. Do all things without complaints and disputings. And for the remainder, brethren, rejoice in the Lord Jesus Christ, and see that ye keep yourselves from all base gain of covetousness. Let all your requests be made known with boldness unto God, and be firm in the mind of Christ. And finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are holy, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are lovely, these things do.
And what you have heard and received, keep in your hearts, and it shalt give you peace. Salute all the brethren with an holy kiss. All the saints salute you. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen. Cause that this epistle be read in the church of the Colossians, and do you also read the epistle from Colossae.” Nothing can be plainer than that this is not such an epistle as the apostle Paul would have written; it is therefore a mere forgery. The conclusion to which we are conducted is, that the reference in Colossians 4:16, is to some epistle of Paul to the church at Laodicea which is not now extant, and that the probability is, that, having accomplished the object for which it was sent, it has been suffered to be lost. Thus, it is to be numbered with the writings of Gad, and Iddo the seer, and Nathan, and the prophecy of Ahijah the Shilonite, and the book of Jehu 1 Chronicles 29:29; 2 Chronicles 9:29; 2 Chronicles 20:34; 1 Kings 16:1; works which, having accomplished the object for which they were composed, have been suffered to become extinct.
Nor is there anything improbable or absurd in the supposition that an inspired book may have been lost. There is no special sacredness in a mere writing, or in the fact that inspired truth was recorded, that makes it indispensable that it should be preserved. The oral discourses of the Saviour were as certainly inspired as the writings of Paul; and yet but a small part of what he said has been preserved; John 21:25. Why should there be any improbability in supposing that an inspired book may also have been lost? And, if it has, how does that fact weaken the evidence of the importance or the value of what we now possess? How does the fact that a large part of the sermons of the Saviour have perished, by not being recorded, diminish the value, or lessen the evidence of the divine authority, of the Sermon on the Mount?
the Fifth Week after Epiphany