Question: "What is the letter to the Laodiceans mentioned in Colossians 4:16?"
Answer: In Colossians 4:16, Paul mentions a letter from Laodicea that the believers were to read: “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.” This is an important verse because it shows that, from the very beginning, the apostles’ epistles were to be read publicly in the churches and were considered profitable for all (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:27). There is some conjecture, however, as to what exactly the letter to (or from) the Laodiceans was.
We know there was a church in Laodicea, a wealthy, industrious city in the province of Phrygia in the Lycos Valley, approximately 9 miles from Colossae, in a region now known as Denizli, Turkey. Scholars over the years have offered their opinions on what the “letter to the Laodiceans” actually was. The truth is, we do not know. However, we will look at a few possibilities and weigh their merits:
1. The letter to the Laodiceans was a letter written by Paul in Laodicea and intended for the Colossian church. This idea can be immediately debunked by Colossians 2:1, where Paul states that the Laodiceans had never personally seen him. Therefore, any letter originating in Laodicea was not written by him.
2. The letter to the Laodiceans was a letter from the church itself and not penned by Paul. Although the wording, “letter from Laodicea,” sounds as though it could mean the letter originated there, no evidence exists to suggest anyone resided in Laodicea who could have penned such an authoritative letter. Since Paul himself had never visited that church, it is unlikely that any leader of the Laodicean church could write a letter that Paul equated with his own.
3. The letter to the Laodiceans is a noncanonical letter written by Paul that has since been lost to history. This is possible; however, first-century historians make no mention of such an “epistle to Laodicea” among extrabiblical writings. In all likelihood, no such letter by Paul existed.
4. The letter to the Laodiceans was actually what we call Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. At the time Paul wrote to Colossae, the epistle of Ephesians was circulating through the churches and was then in Laodicea. This theory has the most merit, since the letter to the Colossians and the letter to the Ephesians have great similarity and are clearly Paul’s work. It is likely that a copy of the letter in question was carried by Paul’s assistant, Tychicus (Colossians 4:7), from Ephesus to the Laodiceans and that they had orders to send it on to the Colossians after they had read it.
Within a few years, the church at Laodicea would receive another letter, a rebuke from Jesus Himself through the apostle John. The Laodiceans had grown lukewarm in their devotion to Christ and were in danger of receiving strong discipline (Revelation 3:14–22). The letter in the book of Revelation was written long after Paul wrote the book of Colossians, so this cannot be the letter mentioned in Colossians 4:16.