The historical importance of Paul's final instructions is well known. On the basis of this single verse, a case has been made (first by Marcion around A.D. 150) that the letter of Ephesians is really this letter from Laodicea—a letter first written by Paul for Laodicean Christians and received from them by the Colossians, who passed it on to the Ephesians. This ancient opinion has received its modern draft by the eminent British scholar J. B. Lightfoot in the late 1800s and has since been widely accepted by others (see Wright 1987:160-61). On the other hand, Schweizer speculates that the Laodicean letter, rather than an edited book of Ephesians, might actually be the New Testament book of Philemon (1972:242), which I think is closer to the truth.
The case for the thesis that the letter from Laodicea is the New Testament Ephesians is cumulative, and it fails on two key points. First is the nature of the relationship between Colossians and Ephesians. Those who argue that the letter from Laodicea is Ephesians point out that the content of the two books is similar—a similarity that is obvious from even a cursory reading. On this basis, some contend that in 4:16 Paul's instruction is to read the two letters together, the letter from Laodicea with Colossians, presumably for a more nuanced understanding of the issues discussed in both letters. Historians argue, however, that a later composition will typically embellish upon and expand an earlier work. In this verse Paul writes that the Laodicean letter has already been written and sent, and that it has been read by the believers there; accordingly, it would be the earlier of the two letters. Yet clearly Ephesians is the fuller, more mature exposition of common themes; in the words of A. B. Hunter, it is the "quintessence of Pauline thought." More likely, Ephesians was written after Colossians and perhaps even depended on Colossians for its composition.
Second is the relationship between Ephesians and its first readers. This verse assumes that the letter from Laodicea had a specific address: the intended audience is the Christians at Laodicea. And if it had a specific address, we assume it also had a particular occasion: Paul wrote to the Christians at Laodicea to deal with a spiritual crisis there. But nowhere does Ephesians suggest that it was occasioned by a specific crisis in the life of a particular congregation. Probably it was written instead as an encyclical letter to circulate among several congregations for the purpose of instruction.
The more interesting historical aspect of this passage, in my mind, is its proposal to preserve and circulate Paul's writings—the earliest such proposal in the New Testament. Many speculate that the Pauline collection found in the New Testament had its origin in these instructions. More important, they illustrate why the church formed the New Testament: because a book written for a specific congregation was picked up by another and read for their spiritual benefit. The concerns of one related to the concerns of another. The writings subsequently gathered to form our biblical rule of faith were first picked up and read by congregation after congregation, from generation to generation, with spiritual profit. The letter from Laodicea was not preserved, even though it was written by the apostle, because it was not inspired by God to profit the wider Christian community (see 2 Tim 3:16). On the other hand, Paul's letter to the Colossians was preserved and finally included in the New Testament because it was picked up and read again and again; the marks of God's inspiring activity were readily recognized by subsequent generations of believers, and we continue to this day to use Colossians for "teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness."
Archippus is mentioned in Philemon 2 as Paul's "fellow soldier." Here, Paul instructs him to complete the work you have received in the Lord. What that work is we do not know, although in Paul's writings the word for "work" (diakonia) generally refers to the work of ministry. The importance of Archippus's ministry is underscored by the expression received in the Lord, which may refer to a special commission not unlike Paul's own (compare 1:25). Houlden suggests that this ministry may be his leadership within the "headquarters household," mentioned in Philemon 2, and that Paul is reminding him of his strategic role for fear that he has fallen under the influence of the Colossian philosophy (1970:222). Indeed, the verbs complete (pleroo; compare 2:9-10) and receive (paralambano; compare 2:6) recall Paul's contention that the "human tradition and basic principles of this world" (2:8), used by his opponents to promote an errant version of Christianity in Colosse, neglect Christ and so challenge the core convictions of his gospel (compare 1:25). In this light, perhaps Paul's instructions simply admonish Archippus to maintain the gospel of the Gentile mission in his house church.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.