By Michael S. Heiser
The apostle Paul wrote 13 letters that make up nearly half the books of the New Testament. One of those letters was written to the fledgling church at Colossae. As Paul was closing this letter, he wrote:
15 Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. 16 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. (Col 4:15–16 ESV)
This apparent sidebar has drawn the attention of scholars. Verse 16 begins by telling us the obvious: Paul expected “this letter” (Colossians) to be read by the believers at Colossae. But it also makes clear that he wanted the letter (or perhaps a copy) to be sent to Laodicea so believers there could read it. Likewise, the Colossians should make every attempt to read the “letter from Laodicea.”
What was this second letter? It would make little sense for Paul to ask that a letter written by someone else be shared with the Colossians. How would he even know of such a letter? Consequently, it seems reasonable to conclude that Paul had written a letter to the Laodicean church—a letter that has since been lost.
Laodicea was a city in the region of Phrygia, in western Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The church there is one of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation 1–3 (Rev 3:14–22). Since the content of Ephesians is so similar to that of Colossians, some scholars theorize that the “letter from Laodicea” was actually Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. There is no way to prove this, however. And because Laodicea was only about 10 miles from Colossae, it’s not unlikely that Paul wrote a separate letter to the Laodicean church and sent it with the same courier who traveled to Colossae. (In contrast, Ephesus was more than 100 miles to the west.)
Even if the “letter from Laodicea” refers to Ephesians, there is yet another lost letter of Paul that cannot be associated with any of his known letters in the New Testament. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes: “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people” (1 Cor 5:9). This verse very plainly states that, prior to what we know as 1 Corinthians, Paul had written to the believers at Corinth about the moral problems in their church. This letter has been lost.
So it’s possible that at least two letters written by Paul never made it into the New Testament. Is that a problem for the doctrine of inspiration? No. According to 2 Timothy 3:16, what’s inspired is the result of the writer’s work (the Scriptures), not the writer himself. While the writers were providentially enabled to perform their task (2 Pet 1:20–21), no passage in Scripture teaches that everything a biblical writer ever wrote was to be considered sacred or canonical. The notion that biblical authors were perpetually “possessed” by the Spirit whenever they wrote or dictated anything is misguided. There was no spiritual gift of “writing under inspiration,” so we must not presume that biblical writers had received some enablement that manifested every time they picked up a pen, so to speak.
It is much more advisable to view the production of Scripture—including the letters of the New Testament—as the result of a process of providential oversight, not as a paranormal event or a supernatural encounter. God providentially oversaw every aspect of the life of each writer, from childhood to the specific occasion that prompted them to write. God prepared these people in terms of education, emotional disposition, personal triumphs and sufferings, and the circumstances of life that brought them to the moment when the Spirit would move them to produce a part of what we call the Bible. There is no need to suppose that every time a biblical writer made a grocery list, signed a document, or wrote a “thank you” note that the product of his hand ought to have been preserved for all time in the sacred canon.
While we don’t know what happened to Paul’s letter to the Laodiceans or his earliest letter to the Corinthians, we need not worry that part of the Bible has been lost. Providence ensured that was not the case.