JohnSWilson3 Blog

Thoughts about Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon

I’ve read through what has been known as Paul’s prison letters from Rome many times. As you read the letters it is apparent that they were written within a short span of each other. It is evident that they were written after his taking the financial gifts to the poor Christians in Jerusalem and his arrest and trials in Jerusalem and Caesarea since the collection of the gift is not mentioned. The letters also seem to be more generalized, especially Ephesians, even more so than found in his letter to the Roman Christians. The structure of the letters to the Colossians and Ephesians are much more similar than any of his letters written previously. Because of Paul’s description of how Christian slaves and masters should express Christ towards one another it seems that this perhaps was Paul’s reasoning for what he wrote about in his letter to his good friend Philemon.

The order that Paul wrote these three letters seems to be Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians. This follows Frank Viola’s thoughts from his book “The Untold Story of the New Testament Church.” Colossians and Philemon seem to be written right after each other since Paul lists the same “fellow workers” that are currently with him: Timothy, Aristarchus, Mark, Epaphras, Luke, Demas (Colossians 4:10-13 and Philemon 23-24). The two letters of Colossians and Philemon must have been written within the first year of Paul’s imprisonment in Rome since at the end of the book of Acts Luke is with Paul recording the Paul’s journey to Rome and mentions that “Aristarchus, a Macedonian from Thessalonica, was with us.” It is possible that Paul’s “friends” mentioned in Acts 27:3 included most of the names of his fellow workers listed in Colossians. Sadly, this Demas is perhaps the one, a few years later, who would be described as deserting Paul “because he loved this world.” “Jesus, who is called Justus” a Jewish fellow worker is also with Paul during the writing of Colossians. Perhaps these were some of Paul’s assistant church planters that he trained during his years in helping plant the church in Ephesus.

Ephesians seems to have been written later or was written to all of the churches since it is more general in nature, focused specifically on the church, and only mentions “Tychicus” who is taking the letter to this church. Tychicus is also mentioned in Colossians who seems to be the carrier of both letters at the same time to the Colossians and Ephesians. Paul seemed to have taken pains at forming the Ephesian letter with an outline, perhaps taking parts of Colossians as his background. Because Ephesus was the major city of Asia and Paul’s primary location of church planting it would make sense that the letter would be sent to the church in Ephesus and be used for copying to send to other churches in the region and beyond.

I find it interesting trying to determine the time line of Mark and his work with both Peter and Paul since both Peter and Paul mention Mark in some of their letters. This may have a bearing on when they were written. I’m still unsure, and we will probably never be sure whether Mark’s name being mentioned in Peter’s first letter indicates the letter was written before Paul’s imprisonment in Rome or afterwards. Tradition holds that Peter’s letters were written after Paul’s first Roman imprisonment and in fact much later, even after Paul’s death in Rome. I have thought that perhaps because of the number of years between Paul’s second and third church planting missions and his imprisonment in Caesarea that it is possible that Mark left Barnabas at Cyprus or Barnabas and Mark went back to Jerusalem and there Mark was linked up with Peter. Mark then spent time with Peter writing down the stories of Jesus life thus writing the gospel according to Mark sometime during Paul’s latter part of his second to his third church planting mission. The question is whether Mark wrote his gospel in Jerusalem, in traveling with Peter (Peter possibly visited the churches that had been planted by Paul perhaps between Paul’s second and third church planting journeys), or both, or when Peter went to Babylon (I take the literal place of Babylon in Mesopotamia). It seems that Mark went with Paul to Rome from Caesarea after having written his gospel, making Mark now a very valuable “fellow worker” in spreading the gospel. Christ was being formed in Mark in a wonderful way and he was no longer the fearful person that Paul knew on the start of his first church planting mission. Perhaps later Mark left Rome with some of Paul’s fellow workers back to Ephesus, realizing Mark’s gifts or sending him back to Peter after hearing of Peter’s plan to reach out to the Babylonians. Or did Mark write his gospel and Peter’s first letter before leaving with Paul to Rome? Much is opinion. God only knows the details that have not been filled in.

Some believe that Paul wrote Philemon while he was in Ephesus. Perhaps like John Pollock they believe that Philemon was written while Paul was in prison for a short period of time while in Ephesus during his third church planting mission. John Pollock believes that the letter to the Philippians was written from a prison in Ephesus which I also hold to as well (1). Paul’s mention in Philemon to “prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers” seem to indicate that Paul was in Ephesus since it “was so much nearer to Colossae than Rome was (100 miles over against more than 1000)” (2) where Philemon lived. There is perhaps a better reason for Paul having written the way he did to Philemon and still have written it from Rome. Within the first year or so of being in prison in Rome Paul seems to have gotten word from Epaphras and others that because of certain legalists and false teachers that had found there way into the the churches in Asia, like what happened in the Galatian churches and the Corinthian church, Paul may have decided to change his plans of going to Spain after his Roman imprisonment (did his being in prison in Caesarea and Rome already cause Paul to change his mind to go to Spain that he mentioned in his letter to the Romans a few years earlier?). It seems the arguments for Paul’s need to return to Asia “outweighed” his necessity to go to Spain indicates he probably wrote the letters from Rome versus having written Philemon from an Ephesian prison (3).

These letters of Paul are among the most beloved! The letter to the Colossians gives a glorious picture of Christ, His fullness and His supremacy over “all things;” the letter to Philemon is Paul’s only personal letter in the New Testament (not a pastoral letter as tradition holds, in fact are not all of the New Testament letters pastoral letters?); and the letter to Ephesians speaks of Christ as “head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” They are the “sum” of Paul’s previous writings, like Revelation is the sum of the writing of all of Scripture (4). Because of Paul’s focus on the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ, specifically in Colossians and Ephesians, I am incline to also believe that when Paul went back to Ephesus and subsequently to Colossae, Laodicea, etc that he wrote the letter to the Hebrews, since the focus of Hebrews is to show the centrality and supremacy of Jesus over all that was written in the Old Testament to the Jewish Christians while Colossians and Ephesians shows the centrality and supremacy over all things to the primarily Gentile Christians.

Colossians, Ephesians, Hebrews are each incredible letters when read together and gives us Jesus Christ in all of His glory, revealing the mystery: “Christ in you, the hope of glory!”

(1) Pollock, John, The Apostle: A Life of Paul, Chariot Victor Publishing, 1985, 193-202.
(2) This describes F.F. Bruce’s comments on the argument by G.S. Duncan and C.H. Dodd. Bruce, F.F., The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, The new Internaional Commentary on the New Testament, William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1984, 194.
(3) Ibid, 196.
(4) Ibid, 229.

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