by Gordon Franz
In the early 1990’s, I was teaching the Wheaton in the Holy Land short-term program at the Institute for Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. The Wheaton program was hosted by Dr. and Mrs. James Hoffmeier. On our Negev field trip we visited the Timnah Copper Mines, just north of Eilat. In the month of June, southern Israel gets hot … very hot. Dr. Hoffmeier had a watch with all the bells and whistles on it. Not only did it give the time, it also gave a whole host of other things including the outside temperature. As we stood over the deepest copper mine in the park, Jim showed us his watch. The afternoon temperature registered 136 degrees Fahrenheit! When we finished our hike we refilled our water bottles and drank plenty of water. We were very appreciative of our bus driver for aligning the back of the bus to the sun, pulling down all the shades and keeping the air-conditioner on full blast so it was a cool 75 degrees Fahrenheit when we got onto the bus. We were refreshed by the considerate act of the bus driver.
The Apostle Paul states that Onesiphorus, one of the less-spoken about Christians in the New Testament, “often refreshed me” (II Tim. 1:16). The acts of kindness that Onesiphorus performed on behalf of the apostle, both in Rome and Ephesus, were like our bus driver being concerned for our “creature comfort”. After a blazingly hot hike we were able to return to a refreshingly cool air-conditioned bus.
Onesiphorus and his household are mentioned only twice in the Bible, both times in Paul’s second epistle to Timothy. We read: “This you know, that all those in Asia have turned away from me, among whom are Phygellus and Hermogenes. The Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain; but when he arrived in Rome, he sought me out very zealously and found me. The Lord grant to him that he may find mercy from the Lord in that Day – and you know very well how many ways he ministered to me at Ephesus” (II Tim. 1:15-18). “Greet Prisca and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus” (4:19).
The Apostle Paul, when he penned the second epistle to Timothy, was concerned that his son in the faith might follow the ways of many of the church leaders in Asia Minor. These leaders abandoned Paul because he was in prison and called an evil doer by the Imperial Roman government (II Tim. 1:15; 2:9). Some church leaders were ashamed of Paul and did not want to be associated with a state criminal.
In the first chapter of this epistle, Paul uses the word “ashamed” three times. The first time he uses the word he admonishes Timothy not to be ashamed of the Lord or of Paul because he was in prison (1:8). Previously, Paul had reminded Timothy of his genuine faith (1:5), the spiritual gift that was bestowed upon him (1:6), and that God has not given him the spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind (1:7).
The second time the word is used, Paul states that even though he is suffering persecution and in prison, he is not ashamed of the Lord because he knows the Lord Jesus is the One in whom he has believed and is persuaded that the Lord will keep him secure until the Judgment Seat of Christ (1:12; cf. 4:6-8).
In the third usage, Paul contrasts his dear friend with the leaders of the churches of Asia who abandoned Paul and says Onesiphorus is not ashamed of Paul’s chains (1:16). This dear friend was the example that Paul wanted Timothy to emulate.
The Chronological and Historical-Geographical Context of the Life of Onesiphorus
While Onesiphorus and his household are mentioned only twice in the Bible (II Tim. 1:15-18; 4:19), they are mentioned several times in church tradition that might have some historical validity.
According to the second century AD apocryphal book, the Acts of Paul and Thecla (Schmeemelcher 1992:2:213-270), Onesiphorus is living in Iconium when Paul, apparently on his first missionary journey with Barnabas in AD 47, approaches the city. Onesiphorus and his wife Lectra and their two children, Simmias and Zeno, met Paul on the “royal road to Lystra” [the Via Sebaste] and invited Paul and his traveling companions to stay at their home in Iconium (Acts of Paul and Thecla 2-3). Paul accepts their invitation and hospitality and uses their house for home Bible studies.
The book includes a sermon given by the Apostle Paul in Iconium. Most likely it is a “Reader’s Digest” version, or a sermon outline, of a much longer message. Much of what is recorded is from the Sermon on the Mount, including “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matt. 5:7; Acts of Paul and Thecla 5-6). It is also recorded that: “Onesiphorus had left the things of the world and followed Paul with all his house” (Acts of Paul and Thecla 23). In other words, he and his household probably gave up the local entertainment scene, i.e. the gladiatorial games, the theater and the symposiums (drinking parties) in order to follow Paul and minister to his needs (cf. Josh. 24:15).
This apocryphal book was not inspired by the Holy Spirit, but its lack of Divine inspiration does not mean that it is not important or that it does not have a defined historical core and some historical validity. Some scholars have objected to its validity concerning Onesiphorus because the Acts places Onesiphorus’ home in Iconium, but the Second Epistle to Timothy places his residence in Ephesus (II Tim. 1:18; 4:19). I do not think, however, this objection is valid. It is very plausible that Onesiphorus and his household moved from Iconium to Ephesus. I suspect, but can not prove, that Onesiphorus moved to Ephesus after Paul established his teaching center in the School of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9) during his third missionary journey (AD 52-55).
An example of New Testament believers that moved around the Roman world for the sake of the gospel are Aquila and Priscilla. Aquila was originally from Pontus, on the southern coast of the Black Sea (Acts 18:2) and possibly came to Rome with the Apostle Peter in AD 42. Most likely he met and married Priscilla in Rome and both were expelled from the Eternal City by the decree of Emperor Claudius in AD 49 (Acts 18:2). They met the Apostle Paul in Corinth in AD 50 and ministered with him in that city until he departed, and took them with him to Ephesus in AD 52 (Acts 18:18, 19). There they had a church meeting in their home (I Cor. 16:19; cf. Acts 18:26). Most likely they ministered in Ephesus until after the death of Emperor Claudius in AD 54 at which time they returned to Rome. By AD 58, there is a church meeting in their home in Rome (Rom. 16:3-5). Most likely they returned to Ephesus after the Great Fire in Rome during AD 64 when Emperor Nero blamed the Christians for the disaster and began to persecute them. The Apostle Paul greets them when he writes to Timothy in Ephesus in AD 65 (II Tim. 4:19). Aquila has moved at least six times within a 25 year time-frame. It is very plausible that Onesiphorus could have gone from Iconium to Ephesus in order to help Paul while he was teaching at the school of Tyrannus.
I believe that Onesiphorus resided and ministered in Ephesus for the next ten years until AD 65 when he visited Paul in prison in Rome. Scripture is silent as to what happened after his trip to Rome. Some have conjectured, based on verse 18: “The Lord grant to him that he may find mercy from the Lord in that Day” that Onesiphorus was dead. They suggest he was arrested in Rome because of his association with Paul and then executed. It has also been suggested that verse 18 is actually a prayer for the dead.
There is, however, another possibility. According to the Acta Sanctorum, Onesiphorus visited Spain, apparently after Paul’s fourth missionary journey, and was eventually martyred with Porphyrius, a member of his household, “at Parium, a city of Mysia, situated near the western end of the Sea of Marmora, where it narrows to the Hellespont” between AD 102 and 114 during the reign of Emperor Trajan (Ramsey 1897-98: 495).
If this is historically accurate, and I suspect it is, then Onesiphorus was not dead, but very much alive and ministering in Spain when Paul sent this wish-prayer to the Throne of Grace. Thus this is not a prayer for the dead, but rather, a prayer that Onesiphorus would find mercy from the Lord at the Judgment Seat of Christ (cf. 4:8).
An Exposition of II Timothy 1:15-18
Paul has encouraged Timothy not to be ashamed of the Lord Jesus or Paul himself. He sets forth two examples of people with whom Timothy was very familiar. The first example was negative and demonstrated people who were cowards (1:15). The second example was positive and showed someone with courage (1:16-18). The positive example consists of three verses that contain two wish-prayers for Onesiphorus and his household and four acts of mercy displayed by Onesiphorus.
All Asia Deserted Paul – 1:15
One of the saddest verses, penned by the Apostle Paul was: “Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world” (II Tim. 4:10). And an equally sad verse is: “This you know, that all those in Asia have turned away from me, among whom are Phygellus and Hermogenes” (1:15).
There are several things to notice in this verse. First, all those in Asia did not turn away from the Lord and abandon their faith, rather, they deserted Paul. “All those in Asia” can not mean 100% of the believers deserted Paul because at least Timothy and Onesiphorus and his household were still loyal to Paul. More than likely it means all the leaders in the churches of Asia deserted Paul (Plummer nd: 323; Lenski 1964:772). A possible scenario is that when Paul was imprisoned he wrote to the church leaders in Asia and invited them to come to his defense and be character witnesses for him before Nero. They said to Paul, “Nothing doing, you are a state criminal and we will have nothing to do with you!” He singles out Phygellus and Hermogenes because they might have been from Ephesus and could exert some negative influence on Timothy. Paul probably also expected them to show more loyalty to him.
Wish-pray for the Household of Onesiphorus – 1:16a
Paul now turns Timothy’s attention to Onesiphorus as a positive example of one who is not ashamed of Paul’s chains. He begins with a wish-prayer: “The Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus.” (On wish-prayers, see Towner 2006: 482).
Mercy, in this context, “envisions God … seeing someone’s suffering and being moved (by compassion) to share in it, bringing help in time of need, when people are incapable of helping themselves” (Towner 2006: 482).
Apparently Onesiphorus’ household was loyal to the apostle Paul and in full support of Onesiphorus’ trip to Rome. They probably assumed that Onesiphorus would go to Rome, find Paul, refresh his physical and spiritual needs and then return home. Paul, however, had other ideas. According to the Acta Sanctorum, Onesiphorus went to Spain.
It would make sense that Paul sent Onesiphorus to Spain to follow-up on his church planting activities during his fourth missionary journey right before he was imprisoned in Rome a second time. This was more “time away from home” than expected by Onesiphorus’ household, so Paul prays that the Lord would grant mercy to the household while the head of the that household was away. The implication of that prayer is that the Lord would provide for their daily needs while the bread winner was way.
Onesiphorus was merciful towards the Apostle Paul by being a cool breeze – 1:16b
Paul now states the first merciful act of kindness that Onesiphorus shows to Paul: “for he often refreshed me.” This is the only place in the New Testament where the word refreshed is used. However, contemporary papyri use the word as a “cool, refreshing breeze for a man about to faint” (Hiebert 1992:181). The Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, uses the word four times (Ex. 23:12; I Sam. 16:23; II Sam. 16:14; Ps. 39:13). The use in Exodus 23 is very instructive. The text states: “Six days you shall work, and on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female servant and the stranger may be refreshed” (23:12; Seekings 1914:170). As Jesus would later state: “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The purpose God gave Shabbat to His people was so they could rest, relax and rejuvenate their bodies and be ready for another week of work.
Roman prisons are not like prisons in the United States where prisoners are respected by law and have numerous rights, comforts and conveniences. Roman prisons were dark and damp, and the prisons did not provide meals to their prisoners. That was the responsibility of the family and friends of the person who was incarcerated. Dr. Luke was in Rome and helped out Paul, but they were both relieved when Onesiphorus showed up. Not only did he provide for Paul’s physical needs, but also much needed fellowship which he did on a number of occasions.
What exactly Onesiphorus did for, or to Paul to refresh him, we are not told. Perhaps Paul deliberately did not tell Timothy, and us, so that we might draw broad applications for our own lives. How can we minister to someone in order to refresh them?
Onesiphorus was merciful towards the Apostle Paul by being a courageous brother – 1:16c
The second merciful act of kindness that Onesiphorus showed to Paul was that he was not ashamed of Paul’s chain. Sometimes Paul uses the word chain / chains in a metaphorical sense for his imprisonment, but in the historical context he is referring to literal chains (1:16; 2:9). Towner has observed: “Paul wore the chains on his hands, a mark of shame in society, as a badge of honor earned by his solidarity with Jesus Christ and refusal to “be ashamed” of the cross” (2006: 483).
Paul was a state criminal, chained to a Roman guard, and treated as an evil-doer (2:9). Onesiphorus did not care what other people thought of his friend; he showed a tremendous amount of courage and remained loyal to his brother in the faith, Paul.
Herbert Seekings states: “That eager searching involved greatest peril, for it implied an acknowledged identification with one who was accused as a teacher of heresies and a traitor to the emperor. But Onesiphorus did not shrink from the test. He was neither ashamed of Paul’s chain nor afraid for his own safety” (1914: 172).
Perhaps Onesiphorus had a copy of the epistle to the Hebrews and sought to apply two verses that he had read. The first was a promise of God which stated: “For both He [the Lord Jesus] who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren” (2:11).
If he had that copy, perhaps Onesiphorus knew that God was working in his life, taking the rough edges off of him as he was being sanctified and conformed to the image of His Son, yet Onesiphorus also knew he still had a sin nature, could stumble and fall, and embarrass the Lord and His work. Yet the promise of God was: “The Lord Jesus was not ashamed to call him a brother!” Since the Lord Jesus was not ashamed of Onesiphorus, even with his faults and rough edges, this encouraged Onesiphorus not be ashamed of his friend and brother in the Lord, even if the imperial state labeled him as an evil-doer.
The second verse was a command: “Remember the prisoners as if chained to them – those who are mistreated – since you yourselves are in the body also” (13:3). Onesiphorus was probably as closed to being chained to the Apostle Paul as one could get without actually being chained. He courageously visited him and “often refreshed him.”
Onesiphorus was merciful towards the Apostle Paul by being a consummate bloodhound – 1:17
Bloodhounds were bred for their extremely sensitive nose that could follow a faint scent until they were successful in finding the object that they were tracking. This makes them the canine of choice for police and law enforcement when they want to track on-the-loose criminals or to find lost children. Onesiphorus was a consummate bloodhound when it came to tracking down the Apostle Paul while he was imprisoned in Rome. Verse 17 states: “but when he arrived in Rome, he sought me out very zealously and found me.”
The text does not record why Onesiphorus came to Rome in the first place. It could be that he was in Rome on business and heard that Paul was in prison. Or, perhaps he was on vacation and wanted to do some sight-seeing in the Eternal City. But most likely, word had gotten back to Ephesus of Paul’s imprisonment and he specifically went to Rome to find the Apostle Paul and minister to him.
Unlike Paul’s first imprisonment where he was under house arrest in a rented apartment and had access to visitors (Acts 28:16, 23, 30), his second imprisonment found him chained and in an undisclosed location. This made it very difficult for Onesiphorus to find him. Most likely he had never been to Rome before so he did not know his way around the city which a year or so before had been burned and a large portion of the city was in ruin. The fire, blamed on the Christians, caused those believers who survived the subsequent persecution to flee the city, thus information on Paul’s whereabouts from Christians was scarce. Those Christians who did remain in the city might be suspicious of this stranger and unwilling to share any information about the apostle with Onesiphorus (Hendricksen 1957:239). Perhaps he was finally able to track down the apostle because he had a chance meeting with Dr. Luke. Somehow, like a bloodhound on an almost cold trail, he found Paul!
When Onesiphorus first arrived in Rome, he could have been discouraged by the daunted task of finding Paul and said to himself, “There is absolutely no way I am going to find Paul.” He may have wanted to give up and go home. Yet he remembered the words of Paul when he was preaching in Onesiphorus’ home in Iconium, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matt. 5:7; Acts of Paul and Thecla 6). This encouraged him to continue the search so he could minister to the physical and spiritual need of the Apostle Paul.
Wish-pray for Onesiphorus – 1:18a
The Apostle Paul was keenly aware of the demands of the Christian life and the fact that believers in the Lord Jesus still have their sin nature. In fact, he wrote to the believers in Corinth and reminded them of the potential of being disqualified from the Christian race (I Cor. 9:24-27; cf. II Tim. 4:6-8). Paul was not saying, however, that believers could lose their salvation. That, he clearly states, was eternally secure in Jesus Christ (II Tim. 1:12). What Paul was saying is that they would not be used of the Lord and would suffer the loss of rewards at the Judgment Seat of Christ.
Paul makes it clear that all believers in the Lord Jesus, and only believers, will appear at the Judgment Seat of Christ (II Cor. 5:10). The unsaved, those who have rejected the Lord Jesus as their Savior, will appear at the Great White Throne Judgment to determine their degree of punishment in Hell forever (Rev. 20:11-15).
At the Judgment Seat of Christ, however, the issue of sin is not brought up because they had been dealt with by the Lord Jesus on Calvary’s cross where He died in order to pay for all our sins (John 1:29; I John 2:2; Heb. 10:1-18). At this judgment, however, believers works are judged (I Cor. 3:12-15).
Thus, Paul’s prayer for Onesiphorus is that God would grant mercy to him so that he would remain faithful to the Lord and continue in His work, by His grace, in His strength and for His glory. If he does, when his works are tested by fire, they will endure and Onesiphorus will be rewarded by the Lord. If, on the other hand, his sin nature gets the better of him, his works are burned up and he will suffer the loss of rewards. But Paul is quick to add: “but he himself will be saved, yet so as through the fire” (I Cor. 3:15). In other words, he will be saved by the skin of his teeth, but will have nothing to show for it, so he will be ashamed at the coming of the Lord (I John 2:28).
Onesiphorus was merciful towards the Apostle Paul by being a caring benefactor – 1:18b
Paul now records the fourth, and final, merciful act of kindness that Onesiphorus showed to Paul. He writes: “And you know very well how many ways he ministered to me at Ephesus.”
Paul does not enumerate the many things that Onesiphorus did to minister to Paul in Ephesus; Timothy knew what they were from personal experience. Perhaps Paul and his fellow workers were the recipients of Onesiphorus’ hospitality and ate meals with the household. Or, perhaps Onesiphorus labored with them in the School of Tyrannus and helped pay the monthly rent. We can only speculate because Scripture is silent on this matter.
There are at least three lessons we can learn from the life of Onesiphorus and hopefully apply them as we grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
First, Paul wanted Timothy to emulate and follow the examples of Onesiphorus and not to be ashamed of the Lord and Paul’s chains like the church leaders in Asia Minor. Onesiphorus was a “cool breeze” refreshing the Apostle Paul when he was in need. He was a “courageous brother” who was not afraid of Paul’s chains. He was a “consummate bloodhound” who zealously sought out Paul while he was imprisoned even though it seemed a hopeless task. He was a “caring benefactor” ministering to the needs of the apostle while he was laboring in Ephesus. Paul gives little details of the merciful acts of kindness that Onesiphorus showed toward Paul because Timothy was well aware, from first hand experience, of the things this “cool breeze”, “courageous brother”, “consummate bloodhound”, and “caring benefactor” did for Paul. This should encourage us to be creative in the ways we can emulate and follow Onesiphorus.
Second, Paul was keenly aware of the demands of the Christian life so he uses athletic metaphors to describe that life as a race, a boxing match, and a wrestling match. He presents himself as an athlete who brings his body into subjection and disciplines his life so he will not be disqualified from the athletic contests. When Paul penned these words to Timothy he knew for him, that the contest was over and he was about to be martyred. He also knew he had kept the faith and won the athletic contest and would be rewarded by the Righteous Judge, the Lord Jesus Christ, at the Judgment Seat of Christ (II Tim. 4:6-8).
Paul, however, still prayed for Onesiphorus and his household, that the Lord would grant mercy to them. First, because they showed mercy to Paul and there was no way he could humanly speaking return their kindness; and second, because they were still engaged in the spiritual athletic contest and there was a possibility of being disqualified from that contest. Paul’s prayer would be for their faithfulness in the work and it would be done by the grace of God, in His strength and for His glory.
Do we pray for individual believers? I do not mean a general: “God bless everybody in the church!” but specific prayers for individuals. Awhile back I observed a young Christian who was struggling in her walk with the Lord. The Lord impressed upon me to pray for this individual on a daily basis. My prayers for the spiritual life of this person were threefold: First, the Lord would draw this person close to Himself. Second, the Lord would work in this individual’s life to conform them to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:28-29). And finally, the Lord would give this person a desire to study His Word, the Bible, and apply it to this individual’s life. I also pray for some specific personal and physical needs as well. This was how Paul prayed for Onesiphorus and his household.
Third, the prayer that Paul prayed for Onesiphorus was not a prayer for the dead because he was very much alive. In fact, the Bible does not teach that believer can, or should, pray for the dead because their eternal destiny was determined by them in this life. Did they trust the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior or not? If they did, when they died, they would go into the presence of the Lord (II Cor. 5:1-8). If they did not trust Christ as their Savior, they would spend all eternity separated from God in Hell. Have you trust the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior?
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