Colossians 4:12-18: Real People, Real Time, Real Places

April 29, 2015

12Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you. He is always wrestling in his prayers on your behalf, so that you may stand mature and fully assured in everything that God wills. 13For I testify for him that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis. 14Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas greet you. 15Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. 16And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea. 17And say to Archippus, “See that you complete the task that you have received in the Lord.”

18I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.

It certainly helps to have traveled in the region to which Paul speaks in his letter to the Colossians. In the letter’s closing passage, Paul mentions some place names, so let’s look on a map to get our bearings.

Asia Minor is the region we call Turkey today. Asia Minor MODERN Map On this map you can see Istanbul to the north, straddling the isthmus (now divided by the Bosphorus, a channel between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea, with direct connections to the Aegean). Istanbul was previously known as Constantinople and before that Byzantium. If you take a wide view of the area, you can see its stupendously strategic location. No wonder Constantine preferred it over Rome as the new capitol of his empire.

South and west, along the coast, note Izmir, known to us in the Bible as Smyrna. About forty miles south of Izmir is Ephesus, known for its temple to Artemis and the site of three years of ministry investment by Paul.

 

Paul’s activity was concentrated generally in the western region of Asia Minor, and the letters to which he refers in this passage draw our attention to the valley and hills about ninety miles east of Ephesus. IMG_6627Within ten to twelve miles from each other, we find Laodecia, Hierapolis, and Colossae. Of the three, Colossae was the smallest, having seen better days by the time of the Apostle. Today it remains unexcavated, though I walked on the mound under which fascinating archaeological layers undoubtedly lie.

Laodecia, on the other hand, was flourishing at this time, known for its woolen mill, eye care, and a first century medical school.IMG_1291 Hierapolis, while mentioned only as a beneficiary of Epaphras’s ministry, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, perched on a hillside commanding spectacular views of the valley below. It was known for its textiles and hot mineral springs. [Neighboring Pamukkale is where I had my Turkish bath.] Of interest to us is that all three cities sustained paralyzing damage in the great earthquake of AD 60, within a few years of Paul’s writings. It appears that Colossae never recovered, but Laodecia was prosperous enough to fund its own reconstruction, and Hierapolis rebuilt as well using not marble but black stone that does better in earthquakes and bad weather.

For now, let us appreciate the fact that Paul was writing to real people in real places he had struggled to visit or embrace through letters. What we see in all these sites is the overwhelming presence of Rome, the Roman deities memorialized in great temples, and the signs of everyday life in commerce, agriculture, and in some cases luxury. The maps help us set his message in context, as we imagine ourselves traversing ten miles at a time to visit these cities and observe the result of Paul’s teaching. Given that the occasion of this letter was an apparent concern for the quality and accuracy of their Christian doctrine, the Colossians and their neighbors were challenged to keep their eyes on Jesus Christ and live holy lives dedicated to him despite the distractions of the good life. Sound familiar?

Tomorrow: Paul’s final message

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