Tag Archives: Laodicea

What About Paul’s Epistle to the Laodiceans???

In Colossians 4:16, the apostle Paul talks about a letter he wrote concerning the Laodiceans. What is the story behind this mysterious letter?

The ESV puts the verse as follows:

“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.”

First, note that the word “from” is highlighted. There is a good deal of controversy regarding how this should be translated, as the phrasing is ambiguous. Most translations, like the ESV, say that that letter came from Laodicea, which might imply that it was the Laodiceans who wrote the letter. For if the letter actually came from Laodicea, it might imply that Paul wrote it while in Laodicea. The difficulty here is that there is no evidence to indicate that Paul was ever in Laodicea.

The ancient city of Laodicea, an early church city site, mentioned in the Book of Revelation. The Apostle Paul also mentions a mysterious letter, with respect to the church in Laodicea, in his letter to the Colossians.
(Credit: Rjdeadly – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19781425)

It is possible to say that the letter “from Laodicea” was actually another letter written by Paul, that was being circulated around the area, which had most recently been in the hands of the Laodiceans. The strongest candidate for this letter would be Ephesians, as most scholars contend that Ephesians was not written for any particular church community location, but rather was intended to be circulated among a number of churches nearby Ephesus, which could also include Laodicea.

Either way, most scholars today contend that it was actually Paul who wrote the letter, and not the church in Laodicea. The New Living Translation (NLT) is one of the few translations that explicitly puts this out there (the NASB is similar):

“After you have read this letter, pass it on to the church at Laodicea so they can read it, too. And you should read the letter I wrote to them.”

This then raises the question as to what this letter is: If it is not the Book of Ephesians, then what is it?

Interestingly, some copies of the Latin Vulgate, dating back to at least the 6th century (if not earlier), possess a copy of the “Epistle to the Laodiceans.” What makes this very remarkable is that a separate “Epistle to the Laodiceans” has never been confirmed as being in our possession today, as being written by Paul. Such skepticism can be found with Jerome, the original translator of the first version of the Vulgate, back in the 4th century, who completely rejected the “Epistle to the Laodiceans” as a forgery.

Nevertheless, this “Epistle to the Laodiceans” survived in popularity, well into the late medieval period. John Wycliffe, the early English proto-Reformer, included the “Epistle to the Laodiceans” in his English translation of the Bible. Despite there being no surviving Greek text for this document, we still have some Christians, like the Quakers in the 16th century, still claiming it was a valid letter from Paul.

If you actually read the “Epistle to the Laodiceans,” it does not really say much of anything of theological substance. But it does make you wonder why the popularity of this book survived for so long, as being something authentically from Paul, when there is really very little, if any evidence, to support this assertion.

Pastor/teacher John Piper, in this video answers the question, as to what we should do if an authentically Pauline “Epistle to the Laodiceans” were to ever show up:

Piper correctly notes that it would be extraordinarily difficult to determine if a newly discovered document was this so-called lost “Epistle to the Laodiceans.” The evidential support for such a claim would have to be quite extraordinary.

The Proverbial “Who Cares?”

Why even bother with this question? Because in recent centuries, a number of the letters of Paul have been disputed as being actually written by Paul. Of the thirteen letters attributed by Paul, in our New Testament, six of them fall into the category of being “disputed.” The seven undisputed letters written by Paul are:

  • Romans
  • 1 Corinthians
  • 2 Corinthians
  • Galatians
  • Philippians
  • 1 Thessalonians
  • Philemon

To varying degrees, the disputed letters include:

  • Ephesians
  • Colossians
  • 2 Thessalonians
  • 1 Timothy
  • 2 Timothy
  • Titus

In general, the first three in the list have a higher degree of confidence, as being written by Paul, as compared to the last three (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy & Titus). These disputed letters are notable as they contain important teaching material that is not repeated as clearly as in other parts of the Bible. For example, Ephesians is known for having some important material regarding predestination. 1 Timothy and Titus are the only letters of Paul that discuss the concept of “elders.”

New Testament scholar Thomas Schreiner, at Southern Baptist Seminary, takes 6-minutes to lay out the issues:

The problem with having a “disputed” letter in the canon of Scripture is that all of these thirteen letters explicitly say that they were written by Paul. Aside from a particularly unique proposal called “allonymity,” the idea of having letters in our New Testament that were not written by Paul, even though the actual text of these letters all claimed to have been written by Paul, is a particularly devastating claim made against an orthodox perspective of the Bible.

But as we see with the case of the “Epistle to the Laodiceans,” great care has been taken over the centuries to dismiss certain documents as being forgeries, and rejecting them from the canon of Scripture, even when such documents at times still linger on as being popular, in some circles (In the Tom Schreiner video above, Dr. Schreiner lays out a similar case against the second century work, The Acts of Paul and Thecla). Part of the reason why it took so long for the canon of Scripture to mature is that Christians, particularly in the early church, wanted to make sure that the texts that were claimed to be inspired actually measured up to such claims.

The truth of the matter is that while the text of the original New and Old Testament is inspired, the table of contents section is not. Nevertheless, we have good reasons to believe that our current canon of Scripture, that has survived the test of time, is still sufficient for us to maintain our confidence in what is listed in the table of contents of our Bibles.


Are You a “Lukewarm” Christian?

I could subtitle this blogpost as “further adventures in misreading the Bible.”

Today’s concept of being “lukewarm” originated in the Bible, but it has permeated nearly all of contemporary culture. For example, football players are scolded by their coaches for having lukewarm enthusiasm for their team. “Step it up, folks, or get off the team!!” It is a well-worn word picture, warning against half-heartedness.

Unfortunately, to be lukewarm has taken on a meaning that has been completely ripped out of its original, biblical context. A standard definition of lukewarm has come to mean “neither cold nor hot; tepid,” but there is a figurative meaning that can be traced back to the period of the Reformation, in the 16th century, to describe a person, or their actions, as “lacking in zeal.”

The ancient city of Laodicea, an early church city site, mentioned in the Book of Revelation.
(Credit: Rjdeadly – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19781425)

In evangelical church culture, this has meant that a lukewarm Christian is someone who is neither hot; as in, “on fire for the Lord,” nor cold; as in “a nominal Christian,” or not even a Christian at all, one who is cold-hearted in their faith. Rather, such a lukewarm person is rather tepid in their faith, someone who says that they believe in Jesus, but that they are simply going through the motions of being Christian, with nothing truly heartfelt inside of them.

Being “hot” for the Lord is good. Being “cold” for the Lord is bad. Nevertheless, either being “hot” or “cold” is preferable to being lukewarm.

While this rebuke against lukewarm faith is surely correct, it completely misses the original context for where it is expressed in the Bible. In the early chapters of the Book of Revelation, Jesus issues a rebuke for each of the seven churches, being addressed in the text, with a particularly notable admonition towards the church in Laodicea:

“(v.14-16) And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.

“‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth……(v.19) Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent (Revelation 3:14-16, 19)

The city of Laodicea, located near the modern city of Denizili, Turkey, was situated just a few miles from the neighboring cities of Hierapolis and Colossae (think, the Book of Colossians), during the New Testament period, of the 1st century C.E.  All three cities were known for the spring waters that flowed near and through them. Hierapolis was known for its hot springs, which were useful for medicinal purposes. Colossae was known for its cold springs, which were useful for drinking and refreshment purposes.

Laodicea, on the other hand, was known for its tepid, lukewarm water springs, which were completely useless. Visitors to Laodicea, in the New Testament era, were known to taste the water of Laodicea, only to spit it out, because it was so yucky. As a result, an intricate piping system was built to supply Laodicea with useful water, from the two other nearby cities, or other acceptable water sources. You can still visit the ruins of this ancient plumbing system today.

Original clay pipes in Laodicea, dating to the New Testament period, that were used to transport hot springs water from nearby Hierapolis, as Laodicea had no useful water supply of its own. (credit: ProudlyPetites travel blog)

Unfortunately, Bible interpreters of the 16th century Europe were unaware of this archaeological, historical context, for Laodicea. Presumably, Bible interpreters grabbed onto Jesus’ exhortation to be “zealous,” in the nearby verse, Revelation 3:19, and concluded that Jesus was primarily concerned about the temperature of the faith, of the believers in Laodicea.  In other words, it is better to be “on fire for the Lord,” or to be spiritually dead, instead of being lukewarm.

However, a look at the original, historical context for this passage of the Bible, brings out the appropriate clarity, regarding what Jesus’ warning to the church of Laodicea, really meant. Being “hot” is indeed useful. Being “cold” is also useful as well. Being lukewarm is not. Jesus’ teaching here is that we are to have a faith that is useful to God, and His purposes…. not a useless faith.

The spiritual temperature of a person’s faith is still important, though. Being “sold-out for Jesus” is good teaching indeed.

But it is just not what Jesus is getting after in this particular passage.

As verse 19 indicates, the passage is intended to stir the heart of the believer to accept God’s patient discipline, in their practice of faith. It was never intended as a means of threatening punishment. Rather, this passage was meant to encourage the believer to accept the Lord’s loving discipline, and respond with zeal to become more useful.

Be “hot” for the Lord, or be “cold” for the Lord. YES! Both of these are good, useful things. Being lukewarm is not.

Being “hot’ for the Lord, is to be zealous for the Lord. But being “cold” for the Lord, is to be zealous for the Lord also, strangely enough, when you read this Bible passage, in its historical context.

Nevertheless, the word lukewarm has taken on a life of its own, detached from its original context, having been embedded in the consciousness of Christians for about 500 years now, and still going strong. Some habits with how we use words prove hard to break.

It is true that such insight into the original meaning of the passage can not be gained simply by reading the text in isolation, in the privacy of one’s home. A visit to this part of modern Turkey, where Laodicea is located, would quickly impress a Christian with the real meaning of the text. But not everyone has the luxury to hop on a plane, and learn this lesson for themselves. For the rest of us, the help provided by sound, biblical scholarship can give us the insight we need to understand God’s Word more effectively.

In other words, reading the Bible as sola scriptura, “Scripture alone,” is not the same thing as reading the Bible as scriptura nuda, “Scripture naked.”  Thankfully, there are capable, faithful scholars of the Bible, who can open up our understanding, even for passages that have been taken out of context for centuries. There is a genuine place for historical scholarship that can help us to more faithfully and accurately interpret the Bible that we are reading.

Note: Peter Liethart quotes another New Testament scholar, Craig Koester, who suggests that the notion of “usefulness” of water, in Laodicea, was more specifically related to the practice of hospitality. Koester’s work indicates that when guests came to visit homes in Laodicea, Laodiceans may have used either cold water, to help chill (or supply) cold drinks, or warm water, to mix with wine, in order to warm up those type of beverages. Either way, the tepid water naturally found in Laodicea was not a useful beverage to anyone. So, the piped-in water was much preferred, whether it be hold or cold.  This is a slightly different take, than what I presented above, but the principle remains similar: cold water is a good thing, not a bad thing!!


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