Chapter 7: The Letters to Philemon, to the Colossians, and to the Ephesians

The Story of the New Testament
by Edgar J. Goodspeed

Chapter 7: The Letters to Philemon, to the Colossians, and to the Ephesians

Of the many letters Paul must have written, only one that is purely personal has come down to us. It was sent by the hand of a runaway slave to his master, to whom Paul was sending him back.

During Paul’s imprisonment at Rome he had become acquainted with a young man named Onesimus, who under his influence had become a Christian. In the course of their acquaintance Paul had learned his story. He was a slave and had belonged to a certain Philemon, a resident of Colossae, or the adjacent town of Laodicea, and had run away from his master, probably taking with him in his flight money or valuables belonging to Philemon. He had found his way to Rome and so had been brought by a strange providence within the reach of Paul’s influence.

Paul’s belief in the speedy return of Jesus made him attach little importance to freedom or servitude. He prevailed upon the slave to return to his master and sent by him a letter to Philemon, whom he knew, at least by reputation, as a leading Christian of that region. He asks Philemon to receive Onesimus, now his brother in Christ, as he would receive Paul himself, and if Onesimus is in Philemon’s debt for something he may have stolen from him! Paul undertakes to be personally responsible for it. Havıng thus prepared the way for a reconciliation between Onesunus and his master, Paul asks Philemon to prepare to entertain the writer himself as he hopes soon to be released, and to revisit Asia.

While we may wonder at Paul’s returning a runaway slave to his master and thus countenance human slavery, it is noteworthy that he sends him back no longer as a slave, but more than a slave a beloved brother. It was at the spirit of slavery, not at the form of the institution, that Paul struck in this shortest of his letters.

The letter to Philemon was not the only one that Paul sent to Colossae at this time. There had appeared in Rome a man named Epaphras, who had been a Christian worker in Colossae and the neighboring cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis. It was probably through him that Paul heard that some of the Colossians had begun to think that a higher stage of Christian experience could be attained by worship of certain angelic beings and communion with them than by mere faith in Christ. They recognized the value of communion with Christ, but only as an elementary stage in this mystic initiation which they claimed to enjoy. It was only through communion with these beings or principles, they held, that one could rise to an experience of the divine fullness and so achieve the highest religious development. The advocates of this strange view were further distinguished by their scrupulous abstinence from certain articles of food and by their religious observance of certain days -- Sabbaths, New Moons, and feasts. Their movement threatened not only to divide the Colossian church, by creating within it a caste or clique which held itself above its brethren, but to reduce Jesus from his true position in Christian experience to one subordinate to that of the imaginary beings of the Colossian speculations.

Paul had never visited Colossae. But his interest in Epaphras and in all Greek or gentile churches led him to undertake to correct the mistake of the Colossians. Still a prisoner at Rome, he could not visit Colossae and instruct the Christians there in person, but he could write a letter and send it to them by one of his helpers, who was also to conduct Onesimus back to his master Philemon.

Paul begins by mentioning the good report of the Colossian church which has reached him, and expressing his deep interest in its members. He proceeds to tell them of the ideal of spiritual development which he has for them, and takes occasion in connection with it to show them the pre-eminent place of Christ in relation to the church. In him is to be found all that divine fullness that some of them have been seeking in fanciful speculations. This is the gospel of which Paul has been a minister, especially to Gentiles like themselves. He wishes them to realize his interest in them and in their neighbors at Laodicea, and his earnest desire that they may find in Christ the satisfaction of all their religious yearnings and aspirations.

As for the theosophic ideas which are being taught among them, Paul warns the Colossians not to be misled into trying to combine these with faith in Christ. In Christ all the divine fullness is to be found. They have no need to seek it elsewhere. The ascetic and formal practices, "Handle not, nor taste, nor touch," which are becoming fashionable at Colossae, are likewise without religious value and foreign to Christianity.

Over against these futile religious ideas and practices, Paul urges the Colossians to seek the things that are above. They are to live true and upright lives, as people chosen of God should do. The peace of Christ must rule in their hearts. Wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves, and masters all have their special ways of service, but everything is to be done in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Paul says little about the state of his case. Tychicus, who takes the letter to them, is to tell them about that. An interesting group of his friends is gathered about him in Rome, and in closing the letter he adds their salutations to his own. Epaphras, the founder of their church, Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, and Luke, whom Paul here calls the "beloved physician," are among the number. Paul sends an earnest exhortation to Archippus, whom he speaks of as though he were at Laodicea, and asks the Colossians to let the church in the neighboring town of Laodicea read this letter, and to find an opportunity to read a letter he is sending to Laodicea.

What has become of this Laodicean letter? It is very likely what we know as Philemon, which was addressed not only to Philemon but to the church that met at his house, including Archippus, who was evidently the minister of it. But the way in which Archippus is spoken of in Colossians shows that he was not a Colossian but a Laodicean.

Years after, when the publication of the Acts had aroused new interest in Paul, and his letters were being collected, a general letter to all Christians was written by some gifted and devoted follower of Paul, to introduce the collected letters to the churches everywhere, and strike the great note of unity in Christ which the times so demanded. The letter sought to make the churches feel that these several messages to the Romans, Corinthians, or Galatians were in reality for all the churches, and thus put the collected letters, some of which taken by themselves were fire-brands of controversy, into step with the new spirit of unity. The old dividing wall was broken down. There was one Lord, one faith, one baptism. They were all one great spiritual fellowship in their union with Christ. Every spiritual blessing, the writer tells his readers, is theirs in Christ. Through him they are adopted by God as sons. Redemption and forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit they receive through Christ. He would have them realize the greatness and richness of the Christian salvation which God has wrought in Christ, whom he has made supreme. To this thought of the supremacy of Christ, he comes back repeatedly in the letter. He is deeply concerned to have them know in all its vast proportions -- breadth and length and height and depth the love of Christ, through which alone the human spirit can rise into the fullness of God.

Paul appears as one especially commissioned to the Greek world, and the readers are referred to his other letters for a fuller account of his message. It is through Christ that the old separation of Jews from Greeks has been brought to an end, and the same great religious possibilities opened before both. As followers of Christ they must put away the old heathen ways and live pure, true, and Christlike lives. Wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters are shown how they may find in the Christian life the elevation and perfection of these relationships.

Thus what we know as Ephesians was really the first Christian encyclical, and served to introduce to the churches everywhere the first collection of Paul’s letters, which were destined to have so much greater influence than when they lay scattered and almost forgotten in the church chests of the generation in which they were written. But this was long after Tychicus and Onesimus journeyed eastward carrying Paul’s two letters, one for the Christian brothers at Colossae, and one which Onesimus must with no little trepidation have presented at the door of his old master, Philemon.