Sometimes, when I'm reading the Bible, I have questions. One of those questions (right now) is: what was up with the church in Laodicea?
Paul wrote letters. Paul wrote a lot of letters. Some of them made it into our Bible; many more did not. The truth is that we don't know how many letters Paul wrote, and it's hard to say why we have chosen the particular ones we've chosen to include in the New Testament - aside from the obvious fact that we have them. Others may have been lost to history.
That may be what happened to his letter to Laodicea.
Paul references this letter in his letter to the Colossians. Apparently, these two groups of believers spent a lot of time together or had a significant overlap between them. Because right near the end of his letter to the Colossians, he says this: After you have read this letter, read it in the church at Laodicea. Make sure that you also read the letter from Laodicea. - Colossians 4:16
After you read this letter, share it with your brothers and sisters in Laodicea - because they need to hear it, too. And after you've shared your letter with them, have them share their letter with you - because you need to hear it, too.
This is another one of those encouragement things like we were talking about last week. It has to be. Because we know that the easiest way to get a message to a group of persons is to write that message in the letter you're sending to them. Travel wasn't easy in those days, and it took a long time to get from one place to another - even places that were relatively close to one another (Colossae and Laodicea were about 15 km apart, or about 10 miles.) Still, if you already have a messenger going to deliver a letter in each place, it's easier to just write in the letter everything you want the recipients to hear.
Unless what you want is for the recipients to have to fellowship over it. And that's precisely, I think, what Laodicea needed.
When we read later in Revelation about the church in Laodicea, it is the church that is lukewarm. It can't decide what it's doing; it doesn't know how to truly take hold of the faith and make it anything meaningful for themselves. John urges them to do something, anything - invest in something, put some kind of clothes on. Paul's encouragement to the Colossians is to hold onto what they know and not let anyone try to teach them something different. On one hand, you might think that the Colossians were then fellowshipping a bit too much with the church in Laodicea (all their bad habits were rubbing off), but even if that's the case, the only real answer here...is to fellowship more, under the guidance of Paul's teaching.
That's what reading the letters together is going to do. It's going to give the church in Laodicea the encouragement that Paul has written to the church at Colossae, an encouragement that will help the Laodiceans to focus in on what the Colossians are getting right. And, if the church at Laodicea is anything like John describes it, the letter that Paul has written this church is going to let the Colossians hear his rebuke of their lukewarmness. The Colossians, who can't figure out which teaching to hold to, are going to hear Paul re-assert his teaching in his letter to a struggling church, and it's going to help the Colossians to know what is right.
Two churches like this, who have so much realistic contact with one another, need that kind of mutual engagement. They need those words that cross over between witnesses, to encourage and to rebuke, to affirm and to correct. They need not only to hear them, but they need to be there when they are heard. They need to be connected in this way, and the truth is - these two churches are going to grow together. Just by the nature of who they are.
I would like to read that letter to Laodicea. I would like to know what Paul had to say to them. I would like to know from his take what was really going on there, what problems they were facing, what encouragement and correction they needed. I would like to see that letter, too, because I think it would help us to understand Colossians better, as well. Paul meant the letters to be read together, but we get only one of them.
Sometimes, the Bible raises questions for me, and this is one of them. What was up with the church at Laodicea? And what might I learn - about Paul, about Colossae, about faith, about God - if I knew the answer to that question?