The two young men dressed in dark suits, white shirts, and skinny black ties sat in my living room. Their white plastic name tags identified them as Mormon elders. They confidently asserted there were “missing books” in the Bible, and we turned to Colossians 4:16.
“After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you, in turn, read the letter from Laodicea” (Colossians 4:16).
There are 27 books in the New Testament, and none of them are called “Laodiceans.” (Go ahead. Check the table of contents. It’s not there.) The Mormon missionaries smugly folded their arms in victory. My Bible was not complete. There were missing letters! They had proven their point, so I asked them to open their Book of Mormon to the missing letter, or perhaps it was in one of their other books, Pearl of Great Price, or Doctrine and Covenants? Nope. So what is the story concerning the letter to the Laodiceans?
Bishop Lightfoot, in his commentary on Colossians, laid out the options for us.
- Could it be a letter from the Laodiceans to Paul or someone else?
- Perhaps it was a letter Paul wrote from Laodicea?
- Or it might be a letter addressed to the Laodiceans from the Apostle John (Lightfoot suggests 1 John) or a companion of Paul (Epaphras or Luke).
- But what if it is a letter from the Apostle Paul himself?
It’s possible, Laodiceans might be one of the canonical epistles but known by another name. For example, Goodspeed from the University of Chicago thinks it was the letter to Philemon, but how would that personal letter commend itself to the Laodiceans in particular? Did they know Onesimus, the runaway slave? Some other scholars believe Paul was talking about Hebrews, but that’s just supposition. On the other hand, if you examine Ephesians 1:1, most modern English translations include a little footnote. The NIV reads, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus.” There is a footnote after the words “in Ephesus” that explains: “Some early manuscripts do not have in Ephesus.” In other words, those ancient, hand-written copies simply read “To the saints who are _____, the faithful in Christ Jesus.” The manuscripts contain an incomplete sentence: “to the saints who are ____.” Are what? Very strange!
As we examine the letter for clues, remember, Paul spent more time in Ephesus than just about anywhere else on his missionary journeys, yet he doesn’t include any personal greetings to any members there. Although Paul hadn’t visited Rome, the last chapter of his letter to the Romans is packed with greetings to Christians living there, so why no greetings to the Ephesians?
As we examine all of the ancient manuscripts of Ephesians, we are surprised to discover some of them fill in the blank in verse one. They read, “to the saints in Laodicea”! Many scholars (myself included) feel Ephesians was an ancient form letter. As Tychicus and Onesimus traveled back to Colossae, I believe they made copies of “Ephesians” for the various churches filling in the blank with that congregation’s name. Laodiceans isn’t lost; it’s just misfiled.
Now, if Ephesians was addressed to all of the congregations, perhaps we should fill our congregation’s name in the blank and re-read this vital letter afresh! Try it.