Thoughts on Gospel Doctrine Lesson 40

by | Oct. 23, 2003

Sunday School


Colossae lay in a high valley with mountain scenery resembling the arid west of the United States. A hundred miles east of Ephesus, it was mentioned on Xenophon's famous march from the coast and up the Meander River to the tributary basin of the Lycus River. Colossae was "prosperous and large," partly because it was on the east-west trade route. Christianity later marched the hundred miles from the coast to Colossae, for Paul was at Ephesus and reached "all Asia" with the gospel message (Acts 19:26). The regional economy depended not only on trade but also on grazing lands that supported the wool industry in Colossae and in nearby Laodicea. The geographer Strabo reported of Paul's time, "The country around Laodicea produces sheep that are excellent, not only for the softness of their wool . . . but also for its raven-black color, so that the Laodiceans derive splendid revenue from it, as do the neighboring Colossians from the color [of wool] which bears the same name."

Hierapolis and these two cities formed a triangle with sides about ten miles long. In writing to Colossae, Paul also named "them that are in Laodicea, and them in Hierapolis" (Col. 4:13). Substantial ruins of the latter city are spread out around its well-preserved stone theater. It was built adjacent to massive hot springs that attracted religious and recreational pilgrims. But Laodicea was the major city of the area in Paul's day. Just before Paul, Strabo wrote that Laodicea "grew large in our time and in that of our fathers." That geographer paid tribute to its "fertile territory" and the private wealth of some of its citizens. Its ruins, including its theater, are badly deteriorated, but Laodicea's stone-strewn area is massive. Although Hierapolis is merely mentioned in Paul's Colossian letter, Laodicea is prominent, probably reflecting the size of the Church in that large city. Laodicea was possibly the regional center of Church administration. Three decades later John sent his letter to Laodicea as the most important branch of the Church in that area.

A letter to Colossae was certainly part of sending Onesimus back there, but another problem was serious enough to demand a separate letter of correction. How did Paul learn of this situation? Philemon's letter closes with a greeting from "Epaphras, my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus" (Philem. 1:23). This is probably a way of honoring this man who was well known at Colossae; he was assisting Paul in prison, just as the returning Onesimus had done. Colossians also names Epaphras, "who is one of you, a servant of Christ" (Col. 4:12). The Colossians had "learned" the gospel from "Epaphras our dear fellowservant, who is for you a faithful minister of Christ" (Col. 1:7). Since he had "declared unto us your love in the Spirit" (Col. 1:8), Paul's knowledge of the current problems of that area came through this missionary with their interest at heart. And Paul apparently wanted them to know that negative information was relayed for their benefit, since Epaphras has a "great zeal for you, and them that are in Laodicea, and them in Hierapolis" (Col. 4:13). Only the letter to Colossians survives, but the lost Laodicean letter must have also included correction. That nearby branch probably had as many members as that at Colossae and was likely affected by the same false teaching.

What was the "Colossian heresy"? Biographies and commentaries discuss it but add little more than Colossians itself discloses. Some were debasing Christ's divinity and role in the Godhead, for chapter 2 refutes those who fail to hold Christ as "the Head" (Col. 2:19), whereas chapter 1 has Paul's most sustained testimony of the divinity and power of the Son. There is little contemporary religious information, but the writings of John went to the same locality some forty years later. They definitely show deviations from the gospel like those Paul criticized in his Colossian letter. The parallel with 1 Corinthians is striking, for Paul's inspired resurrection chapter answered their doubts on the Resurrection, just as Paul's powerful survey of Christ's mission corrected Colossian confusion. And Paul may have known more firsthand than is apparent. Some seven years earlier he had started his third mission by taking the land route from Antioch to Ephesus, visiting central Asia Minor (Acts 18:23) and going west from there through "the upper regions" (Acts 19:1, NKJB). This is clearly the east-west route through the Lycus River valley and the three cities under discussion. Paul expresses his intense concern for the Colossians "and for them at Laodicea, and for as many as have not seen my face in the flesh" (Col. 2:1). To some people that means that he had never seen the Colossians and Laodiceans, but his earlier journey through their area suggests the opposite—that he was worried about those from each city that he had met and also about those later converted who had never seen him. Since Colossians 2:1 introduces Paul's refutation of the false teachings on Christ, it virtually identifies the heresy at both Colossae and Laodicea.

This last point is one strong reason for rejecting the insipid twenty apocryphal verses that pose as Paul's letter to the Laodiceans. The real one existed once, for Paul obviously sent it with the messengers delivering letters to Philemon and Colossae: "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). What truth is lost in this lost letter? The "Colossian heresy" was no doubt an area heresy, so both letters must have combined to correct it.Colossians stresses the bodily reality of Christ. Was Laodiceans suppressed because it bluntly spoke of the physicalness of the Godhead? This doctrine of the Early Church soon disappeared in the verbiage of Christian councils that legislated God's nature. But the imitation letter of the Laodiceans corrects nothing and has no distinct message. Scholars consistently reject it because it is a "worthless patching together of Pauline passages and phrases, mainly from the Epistle to the Philippians. "But what if the real Laodiceans or the real 1 Corinthians someday came to light? Then creeds and Christians would be wrong in seeing the Bible as the whole revelation of God. And if the historical collection of apostles' letters is not complete, are there new revelations that God wishes to give today? Modern revelation testifies both to the truth of past revelation and also to its unfinished nature.


Philippi was named for its refounder Philip, the father of Alexander the Great, the world conqueror. But a different world conqueror came when Paul arrived with his small missionary group in obedience to the vision of the pleading man of Macedonia (Acts 16:9). They landed at Neapolis (modern Kavalla) and made their way over the coastal range to the interior plains flanked by spectacular mountains. From the high acropolis above the theater, one views Paul's city below, with the wide circumference of the periphery wall and small stream beyond, and a sea of fertile fields on the outside. The remodeled second-century city lies in crumbled splendor, with walls and gates and forum located where Paul walked earlier. Besides the road from the coast, the main east-west road ran through Philippi, which increased its economic and intellectual vitality. Communication and help to the apostle went out on these routes.

As one of the first missionaries, Luke sketched the place of first European preaching: "Philippi, a city of the first rank in that district of Macedonia, and a Roman colony" (Acts 16:12, NEB). Anthony and Augustus had defeated Julius Caesar's assassins at the battle of Philippi; afterward that "small settlement" was "enlarged" by immigration of rewarded veterans. Later, Augustus eliminated Anthony, and many who lost their Italian lands were permitted to resettle in Philippi and other eastern cities. This explains the social overtones when Paul was beaten for teaching "customs which are not lawful for us to receive, neither to observe, being Romans" (Acts 16:21). "Colony" was a technical term for Romans settled outside Rome. That Philippi was a colony implies that it had civic rights of Rome and the honor of modeling its local government after that of the mother city. The old Roman virtues were loyalty and reliability. These qualities certainly summarize the remarkable faithfulness of the Philippian Christians.

Trusting in the Troas vision, Paul entered Philippi and found the devout women meeting at the place of prayer on the edge of the city. One of their number was a vital personality—Lydia, whom the Greek calls a "dealer in purple" (Acts 16:14, NEB), was from Roman Asia and probably had import contacts. She had a large enough house for four missionaries and the means to insist that they stay with her (Acts 16:15). She may be one source of assistance that Paul received from Philippi soon after and long after leaving. The other convert named in Acts is the Philippian jailor, baptized after the humility of despair when the earthquake deprived him of his prisoners. But this literal act of God was discerned by this man of faith, whose household joined the Church with him (Acts 16:33-34). The same was true of Lydia's household (Acts 16:15). Paul met with these members and others before leaving Philippi after his first visit (Acts 16:40).

When Paul wrote a dozen years later, the Philippian church was directed by the "bishops and deacons" (Philip. 1:1), suggesting that its growth had resulted in several household churches. Moreover, the quality of the members there rises above that of all other known branches. Paul's warm feelings are expressed at the beginning of the final chapter, where he calls the Philippians "my joy and crown" (Philip. 4:1), terms not used elsewhere. Appreciation to the strong women of that branch is evident as he asks for harmony between Euodia and Syntyche and mentions "those women which laboured with me in the gospel" (Philip. 4:3). They were to be assisted by Paul's "true yokefellow," who Clement of Alexandria thought was Paul's wife, temporarily staying in a trusted branch of the Church. Another intriguing name follows, Clement, a trusted "fellowlaborer." Yet others merit that title, "and their names" are "in the book of life." Here is another unique compliment to the Philippians. In fact, they are told that they "have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence" (Philip. 2:12). What other letter to a church made such a statement? Paul could not say anything like that to the Corinthians or Galatians, so the Philippians stand at the high end of the spectrum of faithfulness. What Paul would teach them is most revealing on the subject of how exaltation is obtained.

Paul and Silas left Philippi with the formal apology of the city fathers and fresh scars of their public beating. But Saints eternally blessed by the missionaries would not ignore their practical needs. Paul and his companions went seventy-five miles west to Thessalonica, where ugly opposition was stirring, and the Philippians filled Paul's needs there once and then sent help again (Philip. 4:16). After a riot in that place, persecution soon forced Paul to the new field of labor in southern Greece. He left three branches of the Church in northern Greece, which explains another compliment to the Philippians: "In the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church shared with me concerning giving and receiving but you only" (Philip. 4:15, NKJB). In this time Paul was at Corinth, laboring intensely at missionary work and earning bread by his trade. He preached the gospel to the Corinthians "freely"; "other churches" paid the cost of Corinthian service, for "that which was lacking to me the brethren which came from Macedonia supplied" (2 Cor. 11:7-9).

These references of aid at Corinth show that the Philippians were able to send messengers three hundred miles. They did the same thing when Paul was more than twice that distance in Rome. Of the prison epistles, Philippians has the clearest references to imprisonment at the empire's capital. Since it is fashionable to doubt that location, the two Philippians' references to Rome must be surveyed. First, the Saints "of Caesar's household" sent greetings (Philip. 4:22). Commentaries create a wrong impression by assuring readers that the imperial household extended throughout the empire. Any reigning Caesar directed a huge official staff, a civil service handling finances and resources. Outside Rome, the imperial establishment did not staff provincial political centers but collected some taxes and managed scattered business operations. Greetings from provincial staff on a state property or from minor tax collectors would be vague and puzzling to the Philippians. Moreover, Philippians 1 makes the point that Paul's imprisonment had extended the gospel to prominent places. Since the imperial bureaucracy concentrated in Rome, a simple "Caesar's household" implies the center of the empire. In Josephus, for instance, Herod's son Antipater used the slave of Augustus' wife in a plot and was accused of "having corrupted the household of Caesar"—at Rome. Again Philo tells how Herod's grandson Agrippa was made king and en route to Palestine visited Alexandria; there Agrippa was considered worthy of honor partly because he was "a member of Caesar's household." This supposedly shows how "Caesar's household" could be used outside of Rome, but it proves the opposite, for Agrippa had just come from Rome, where he was fostered by the new emperor. In these first-century examples, Rome is strongly indicated when "Caesar's household" is used without modification.

The other Roman reference in Philippians is Paul's indication that his "bonds in Christ" were becoming known "in the whole praetorium" (Philip. 1:13, literal trans.). This Latin term was written in Greek form, which the apostle obviously expected to be clear without explanation. The King James Version uses "palace" because the New Testament uses the term of Pilate's headquarters and of the building in Caesarea where Paul was brought after the Jerusalem arrest. But as discussed at the beginning of this chapter, Acts describes no general missionary work during Paul's Palestinian arrest—perhaps he felt restrained because of Jewish hostility while imprisoned. So vitally expanding conversions do not fit the Palestinian buildings or situations. But custody at Rome was another mission, Luke says, for Paul taught the gospel "with complete freedom" (Acts 28:31, JB). That is the situation in Philippians 1, which fits the Roman imprisonment. Thus, "praetorium" in that setting could be the military barracks or more probably the praetorian guard stationed there. That is the common meaning of praetorium in historical writings and inscriptions of Paul's century. So the gospel that Paul preached to visitors was heard by his Roman guards and began to spread through the ranks as it had also through Caesar's staff. Some Bible-bound scholars say that Paul could be imprisoned elsewhere than Rome because the praetorian troops were stationed in other major cities. But special personal missions aside, the imperial guard was stationed only at Rome to guard the emperor.

Paul wrote to the Philippians near the end of his two-year imprisonment (Acts 28:30), for he had a specific expectation of release instead of general faith that it would happen: with the Lord's blessing he would "come shortly" (Philip. 2:24). This fits the time necessary for communications to go back and forth between Paul and the Philippians. After all their prior help, they had sent Epaphroditus to Rome with things to support the chained apostle (Philip. 4:18). Paul was grateful and recounted their relationship of more than a decade by sending thanks "for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now" (Philip. 1:5). Support for a messenger on the long journey to Rome probably took some organizing, which is evidently reflected in the opening recognition of the bishops and deacons, unprecedented in the other letters that have survived. With the letter Paul was sending back the messenger. Epaphroditus was appreciated as a "brother and fellow-laborer" (Philip. 2:25, literal trans.). This man had longed for his Philippian friends; he was discouraged at being sick but was also discouraged because word came back from Philippi that they knew he "had been sick" (Philip. 2:26). In fact, Epaphroditus had been critically ill, for Paul makes the point that this messenger risked his life to help Paul—"for the work of Christ he came close to death" (Philip. 2:30, NKJB). The devotion of Epaphroditus is a symbol of the solid faith and works of the Philippians. Far on the road of progression, they received a letter underlining how much diligence is required for the prize of exaltation with God.

This article was excerpted from Richard Lloyd Anderson, Understanding Paul [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1983], 294-295, 297-299.
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