Little by way of introduction needs to be added to the notes which have already stated here a broad overview of this entire ‘outro’ (Col 4:7-17).
We should repeat, however, that the three verses here partitioned off represent the type of personal greeting which Paul was wont to extend to both individuals and groups of believers in the cities to whom he was writing (Rom 16:1-16, Col 4:15-17, I Tim 4:19), though he seems to extend this to include those even who were not initial recipients of the letter.
As I noted there, that Paul knew some of the people present with Timothy (I Tim 4:19) is hardly surprising but both the former cities of Rome and Colossae, Paul had never visited (Rom 15:22-24, Col 2:1) and it seems right to understand the believers in the first century Church as being made up not so much of a rigidly settled group of people in specific locations who had little or no interaction with others - rather, the believers seem to have moved about consistently frequently for them to appear in places where it couldn’t have been said that the apostle had met them there.
Whether this was part of the typical lifestyle of first century culture in which the Way was being spread is difficult to know, but there were certainly occupations which didn’t need to be established in one location for great lengths of time (Acts 18:13 Cp I Cor 4:12) - it may also have been more to do with the believers’ commitment to extend the boundaries of the Gospel so that their income - so long as it was sufficient - was subjected to the proclamation of the Gospel.
The three groups of believers here are fairly diverse in concept - from an individual whom Paul seems to have known what God had been saying to them (Col 4:17), through to an individual who was hosting one of the meeting places for believers in either Colossae or Laodicea (presumably - Col 4:15) right the way through to the entire group of believers in a city who weren’t the initial recipients of his letter (Col 4:16-17).
Laodicea is one of those cities that seems to have become infamous in christian circles for all the wrong reasons. It’s claim to fame is in it’s mention in the Book of Revelation where the Spirit has some not too pleasant words to say about the city’s church and of its need to repent (Rev 1:11, 3:14). I’ve already dealt with this text on a separate web page (I’ve also provided a brief sketch of Colossae’s relationship to Laodicea in my introduction to this letter here) where the reader can also read a historical background to the city which supports some of those things which Jesus levels against the church there.
If we accept that Paul’s message to Laodicea contained in Colossians is one which presupposes that the conditions of fellowship are good, we should take warning that it doesn’t take a great many years for it to all go haywire and for the experience of the believers in the next generation (or even as closely as ten years afterwards depending on what date is assigned to the writing of Revelation) to become sour and a sad reflection of the truth of the Gospel.
Paul has already mentioned Laodicea in Col 2:1 where he’s noted his work on their behalf - for their spiritual well-being and maturity - and, in Col 4:13, has witnessed to Epaphras’ unceasing work for all the believers in the three areas of Colossae, Laodicea and Hierapolis, the group of cities which were so close as to be almost one large conurbation.
We’ll deal with Col 4:16 in a few moments, but I need to note here that I can’t decide whether the mention of the city on the previous two occasions and in Col 4:15 where the apostle extends his greetings to the church was something which he did deliberately because he was intending to ask the believers to swap letters or whether it suddenly came to him at the start of Col 4:16 that it might be a good idea for them to do, so that they would get ‘twice’ the input.
If I had to tend towards one view or another, it seems that the letter to Laodicea had already been written at this point and that Paul already had it in his mind after concluding that first one that it would be good to have them read each other’s letter - he, therefore, felt at liberty to include the mention of the city at Laodicea in the one to Colossae as he went through whenever he felt it necessary. But, having said this, there’s an alternative view if the ‘theory’ below (and it’s no more than that) is accepted.
Even so, his mention of greetings to those believers at Laodicea is tied up not by a direct comment addressed to them but as a request to those at Colossae to pass on his greetings.
What it may also mean, however, is that the personalisation of Colossians may have made up for the ‘less than personal’ letter to the Laodiceans. There have been many theories as to why this letter of Paul to the Laodiceans should have gone ‘missing’ but one of those perplexing truths which confront the entire situation is that the Colossian believers should feel compelled to carefully preserve their own letter and yet not to regard Paul’s equally important letter to the Laodiceans as worth saving. I would have thought - from purely natural considerations - that both letters would have been saved and preserved with equal regard and been stored side by side in their ‘library’.
And they may have been, of course.
It’s not without scholarly support that our ‘letter to the Ephesians’ is sometimes regarded as the missing letter to Laodicea, even though the evidence for such an assertion is far from conclusive. Church tradition links the letter with the city of Ephesus but the name of that city nowhere exists throughout the text. In the last verses of Colossians, I began to note in the commentary just how similar were both the texts and the order in which they were written between the two letters and how commentators - at the very least - insist that they must have been both written at about the same time.
Not only this but the vehicle of distribution, Tychicus, is also mentioned at the close of Ephesians (Eph 6:21-22) in similar terms. The best candidate for a positive identification of the ‘lost’ letter to Laodicea, therefore, seems to be that writing which we now label as ‘Ephesians’ because, as I noted above, the ‘less than personal’ nature of the text seems made up for by the mention of Laodicea throughout Colossians. It would also mean that, if the location of Paul at the time of writing was west of the area, Laodicea would have been the first city to have been visited by Tychicus as he journeyed eastwards towards Colossae.
The end verses of each of the two letters may also hint at the way that batches of letters were written for Eph 5:21-6:9 is strikingly similar in places to Col 3:18-4:1 - perhaps we might not be going too far wrong to think of Paul dictating one of these passages into an unfinished letter and then, immediately, instructing the amanuensis to pick up the other scroll to add similar words, still by dictation but with the previous passage still ringing in his own ears. This is more likely to be the reason for the similarities than that, having finished one, he began the next - because the words used would have begun to fade from the memory as other subjects and doctrines were expounded and committed to writing.
It may also help to explain why Colossians starts life as a co-work of both Paul and Timothy (Col 1:1) but then seems to turn into a personal vehicle for Paul to share the truths of the Gospel from the start of Col 1:23 (but which may have begun as early as Col 1:15) - Timothy may simply not have been present on the day that the second ‘section’ of the letter was being dictated.
In my introduction to Colossians, I noted that the similarities in delivery method and the general content weren’t sufficient, I felt, to prove that Ephesians was written at the same time as Colossians - and this is still true. But, if the letter to the Laodiceans is believed to be none other than our ‘Ephesians’ then a composition at the same time of the two letters becomes absolutely necessary.
Colbruce also points out that Marcion had Paul’s letter to Ephesus entitled ‘to the Laodiceans’ (Against Marcion 5.17 - his reference) but little worth can be attributed to the note because Tertulian notes at the same time that the Church generally held it to be one written ‘to the Ephesians’.
Finally, we should note two points.
Firstly, this is the only place in the NT where Paul commands that a letter is read by a group of believers who aren’t the initial recipients - we might parallel the sevenfold letter of John to the churches of Asia in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 but these are wholly different because they make up the body of the entire letter (that is, the complete work of Revelation) to each of them.
Secondly, it appears that the public reading of Paul’s letters was necessary when the churches met together from the very practical perspective that some of those who were now believers would have had difficulty in reading it for themselves. In I Tim 4:13 (Cp Acts 20:20), the apostle also commands that Scripture be read publicly (does Paul mean here the OT scrolls or the NT letters and works?), probably for the same reason but also because, unlike today, it’s wasn’t that each believer had the freedom of access to the compilation of works that are considered to be authoritative (that is, the Bible). Both preaching and teaching, therefore, also supplied this deficiency.
Paul’s authority in being able to lay foundations in churches by his own words seems to be unquestionable by the commands which he gives in this letter and by his continued distribution of his thoughts in written form to those churches which he deemed to most require them.
Bradley Blue in his article about the House Church from its earliest beginnings to the fourth century AD (in FCS - volume 2), notes that an ‘official’ and ‘all purpose’ building constructed for the ‘rites’ (for want of a better word) of the church didn’t come about until the Edict of Milan in 313AD.
Even before this time, though, he notes the existence of buildings which were altered to ‘fit’ with the more regular forms of service which were being practised in the church meeting but that these, also, were late developments from approximately a hundred years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Before this roughly defined period, most buildings were normally everyday places of residence that believers opened up for the brethren to come together and meet. There may have been numerous reasons for such a scenario and we would, perhaps, be wrong in asserting any one reason over and above the other but, at the very beginning, it seems not to have crossed the disciples’ minds that a formal and specific meeting place needed to be constructed to house their fellowship.
In the earliest meeting after the resurrection, we find the believers present in the ‘upper room’ in Acts 1:13ff (whether or not this is the same room as the last supper was celebrated in is impossible to be certain about - Mark 14:15, Luke 22:12) away from the glare of the religious leaders who controlled the Temple to wait before the Father and to petition Him to send the promise of the Holy Spirit. Even so, they still journeyed up to the Temple Mount to offer praise to God at the recognise place of worship (Luke 24:53).
Perhaps, then, the coming together in private rooms and houses served also to safeguard them against the possible continued attacks and attentions of those who had opposed the message of the Gospel in Jesus and who would also come against it when it began to be declared through the disciples. If the last Church on earth will be one which will reap an unprecedented amount of tribulation and persecution on behalf of Jesus Christ, one wonders why today so much time and effort is invested into structures which will either be easily identifiable as places where God’s people can be attacked or which will be the object of the attack itself, undermining the secure financial basis used to promote the continued outreach into the world for the Gospel.
It seems to me that, if today’s Church really did believe that the time of the Lord’s return really was so close to their own time as to be imminent, we would do better to fragment the Church into small cells which interrelated, not only to have the capacity to become invisible when needs be but for the multiplication of ministry and gifting which would be a necessary part of each small group.
Even so, the Church in the first century did come together on occasions as one or, at least, in large numbers (Acts 4:23-24,31, 12:12) and these would have relied upon men and women believers who had more extensive accommodation than others making their facilities available. Most of the meetings mentioned in Acts, though, speak of smaller gatherings - such as the continual coming together for the breaking of bread ‘in their homes (Acts 2:46) - where an individual might gather a few fellow believers round for fellowship and without the aid of an officiating priest.
The testimony of Rom 16:23 where Paul qualifies Gaius’ hospitality as being directed
‘...to me and to the whole church...’
may be evidence of a benefactor of the church who had premises big enough to be able to cope with a gathering together of the believers in the entire city. Large gatherings weren’t frowned upon, therefore, and seem to have only been restricted by the size of the meeting place that could be made available to them.
In Col 4:15, we read of one such lady who’d opened up her house for the church to meet in. Paul records that he wants his greetings extending to
‘...Nympha and the church in her house’
where we should neither think that the inference is that she was the recognised leader of the group because she owned the house, nor that it was the only place where there was a gathering together of believers. Rather, it seems that Nympha’s place was one of many in either Colossae or Laodicea (the text isn’t altogether plain whether Nympha is associated with the former city or not but it would appear that the latter site is the more likely) where believers came together so that the set up in the city was of a scattered collection of groups of believers rather than of them having one specialised, central place which was owned by the lady in question.
There’s also some doubt as to whether we should read ‘Nympha’ or ‘Nymphas’ at this point because the manuscripts vary, but the point is rather unimportant - I’ve chosen the decision of the RSV to have the verse refer to a woman simply because it seemed easier to do so and that it was more likely that a copyist might think that a man was the one who hosted a meeting of the church and, therefore, to inadvertently alter it.
If Nympha’s house was in Colossae, another place where believers met was probably that which also belonged to Philemon, Apphia and Archippus if we accept that both Philemon and Colossians were written at about the same time and that Philemon lived in Colossae (Philemon 1-2). There may have been other places which are neglected to be mentioned but that two are singled out in the one location underscores what Col 4:15 implies - that Nympha’s house was where only one group of believers met and not them all.
The more likely possibility, however, is that Nympha’s house should be considered as being a part of the Laodicean church because of it’s close connection with that city in Col 4:15-16.
There are two other places where ‘house churches’ are mentioned (Rom 16:3-5, I Cor 16:19), the first which met in Prisca and Aquila’s house in Rome and the second which seems to locate the same couple, now in the region of Asia, opening their house to the believers there and extending their greetings to the brethren in Corinth through Paul - perhaps this was the place where the letter was actually being dictated.
Far from the mention of the church in Nympha’s house being a point which is either thought of as being ‘quaint’ or something which is copied on a weekday basis for more informal meetings, we should realise that such a fragmentation of the present day Church will be what’s required in future days when identifiable buildings become a liability (if they aren’t so now - just look at the money that’s spent on their upkeep and think of how that money could have been invested in the proclamation of Gospel message) and become an easy way for those opposed to the message to persecute the brethren.
Archippus is mentioned only twice in the NT (Col 4:17, Philemon 2) and then only in connection with the affairs of Colossae if Philemon is accepted as having been written and distributed at the same time. Paul’s words are, at first, particularly personal and we tend to think nothing of them but we should note that it would, presumably, have been better to have included them as a footnote to the very personal note to Philemon if his intention had been to remind Archippus of the ‘ministry’ which he’d received from Jesus and which he was now urging him to make sure that he fulfilled.
Rather, though, the apostle includes a note which was to be read out before the entire congregation and those who were in Laodicea (Col 4:16). We have just reason, therefore, to suggest that, although this verse served as a personal reminder to Archippus, it was also a confirmation to the fellowship that he was charged with a commission from God in a particular area which shouldn’t be hindered.
If these two ‘Archippus’ were one and the same, we can also observe that he was one of the believers who’d opened up his own home for the believers in the city to meet (Philemon 2) but his relationship to Apphia and Philemon aren’t directly discernible - some commentators assert that the first two mentioned were husband and wife and that Archippus was their son. But the latter two could equally well be husband and wife, son and daughter of widowed Philemon or simply fellow believers who lived together - or who lived next to one another or worked together in business!
They were, however, close enough to warrant a mention in the salutation even though the note was more rightly a personal one to Philemon, Onesimus’ slave.
But what sort of ministry was Paul exhorting Archippus to ‘fulfil’ (see my notes here in the section entitled ‘Filled’ for an explanation of this last concept)?
The word employed is one that has a great variety of meaning when used in the NT (Strongs Greek number 1248 - used 34 times in the AV) which seems to preclude any possibility of being more specific than Paul himself is. At one extreme, it can be used simply of service when a meal is being presented to a guest (Luke 10:40) while, at the other, it can be employed to refer to the apostolic ministry which Jesus gave to the twelve disciples (Acts 1:17) - it can also, therefore, be used to refer to just about anything else in-between!
Perhaps the only significant thing that we can say about this ‘ministry’ is that it’s origin is seen to be God Himself, rather than something which comes about naturally. This source of ministry is seen also in Paul’s statement in Acts 20:24 where Paul speaks about accomplishing the ministry
‘...which I received from the Lord Jesus...’
which he then goes on to define as a testimony
‘...to the gospel of the grace of God’
We would be going too far to say that such a definition was what Archippus had received but we should note that the reception of a ministry from God (the phrase is ‘in the Lord’ which implies that it came as part of his conversion to Jesus Christ) should only be seen as a potential which needs to be invested in by the recipient themselves - that is, Archippus is charged with making sure that he fulfils what he’s been given rather than of sitting back and expecting God to prompt him into when to use what he has.
I hinted above that the reason for such a personal note being read out publicly to the congregation was probably that they needed to be also reminded to allow the believer room and freedom to do what God would have him to do - the problem with our present day churches, however, is that divine ministry is often stifled rather than encouraged so that, try as one might, the person who would exercise the gifting imparted to them is given virtually no opportunity to ‘fulfil’ it.
While the ‘teacher’ can buy books and educate himself, can put time aside to study and come to terms with the truths of the Gospel, unless there’s an outlet for an expression of that ministry, it can never be fulfilled with the result that the church will remain impoverished.
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