What did Onesiphorus do that endeared him to the Apostle Paul and won him a place in Scripture?
DURING THE final days of his life, Paul was bound in chains in a Roman cell, awaiting his appeal to Caesar, and ultimately his own execution. We know from his letter to Timothy that, in spite of the circumstances, his faith remained strong (2 Tim. 4:7-8, 17-18). At the same time, however, he was not immune to some of the natural human emotions that go with such a difficult situation.
The aging apostle suffered physical distress. While his first imprisonment in Rome could be described as “house arrest” (Acts 28), and he was given a certain measure of freedom, this period of bondage was quite different. According to tradition, his final imprisonment took place in the “Well-Dungeon” near the capital, a damp and cold vaulted pit.1 In his letter to Timothy he urges him to bring his cloak (2 Tim. 4:13) and to do his best to come before winter sets in (2 Tim. 4:21).
Though he was aware of the Lord’s presence with him, Paul must have experienced times of loneliness. “Only Luke is with me” (2 Tim. 4:11), he wrote. He also encountered great disappointment. Some of the friends he was counting on to testify on his behalf had left. “You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes” (2 Tim. 1:15). One of his faithful traveling companions, Demas, also deserted him (2 Tim. 4:10, Col. 4:14, Phlm. 1:24). “At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me…” (2 Tim. 4:16).
During these dark days of loneliness, discomfort, disappointment, and uncertainty, the Lord provided strength and renewal. He did so through His presence, but He also used a man – a man whose name is obscure and difficult for us to pronounce, and who is mentioned briefly only twice in the New Testament. Yet to the Apostle Paul, this man became a dear friend and a choice servant for the Lord. His appreciation for this man overflows into intercession that is unique in Paul’s writings: “May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus…” (2 Tim. 1:16), and again, “May the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! …” (2 Tim. 1:18).
Who was this man? What was it that so endeared him to Paul?
His name was Onesiphorus (On-e-siph’-o-rus). Like many biblical names, its meaning holds significance. Onesiphorus means “profitbringer.” The valuable ministry he brought to Paul made him a treasured servant whom Paul would value eternally. This ministry is described in 2 Tim. 1:16-18.
A MINISTRY OF REFRESHMENT
“May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me…” (2 Tim. 1:16).
Onesiphorus provided a ministry of refreshment to the weary apostle. The word refreshed literally means, “to brace up or revive by fresh air.” It means “to freshen again” or “to cool again.” The word calls to mind an image of a hot, stale, stuffy room in which those inside are oppressed by the heat. Seeking relief, someone opens a window and allows the cool, fresh breeze to pour into the sweltering room. The fresh air gives a new surge of strength and energy to everyone in its path.
Refreshment is the feeling a person gets when he sits down under a shade tree to rest after a long, hot spell of yard work. As he sips a cold glass of iced tea, he feels a delightful breeze begin to blow across his sweaty brow. He sighs, “Ahhhh! Feel that breeze!” Soon he is refreshed and ready to get back to work with new strength and energy.
The ministry of Onesiphorus was a ministry of refreshment. He sought to bring relief from pressures, weariness, loneliness, and discouragement. He provided refreshment to the spirit so that his friend could continue on with new strength and a different perspective.
What did it take for Onesiphorus to bring this renewal to his friend? What made him an effective “minister of refreshment”?
While we are not given many details about the exact services Onesiphorus rendered, Paul provides some clues. We see first that Onesiphorus had a genuine, continuing concern for his brother. His visit to Paul was no isolated incident. His refreshing service was repeated on several occasions. In 2 Tim. 1:16, Paul notes, “He often refreshed me… Onesiphorus had been involved in helping others long before he came to Rome. Paul reminds Timothy, “…You know very well in how many ways he helped me in Ephesus” (2 Tim. 1:18).
It’s common for people to say to someone in need, “Now, if there’s anything I can do, just call.” Usually, the person in need won’t call … and all too often, the friend won’t check back. Problems and pressures often remain for some time, or they have a way of returning. Friends like Onesiphorus are so greatly appreciated because they are willing to be there to help … and help again!
THE RISK OF RIDICULE
We see also that the “minister of refreshment” was willing to set aside his own concerns and risk his good name by helping his friend. “He often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains” (vs. 16). Apparently, many were more concerned about their own welfare and reputation than Paul’s needs. Perhaps it seemed too risky to be associated with the controversial prisoner. “What might others think?” Onesiphorus, the great refresher, was not hindered by such concerns. He accepted the risks involved in order to meet the needs of his brother. Being the Lord’s servant means being willing to move outside of the “comfort zone” to help someone else.
TENACITY IN THE TASK
We note as well that Onesiphorus’ ministry was marked by persistence. He was committed to his task: “…when he was in Rome he searched hard for me until he found me” (2 Tim. 1:17). Another person might have thought, “If I have some free time, I might try to make contact with Paul.” Not Onesiphorus! He made diligent effort to seek out Paul and minister to him. He overcame great obstacles just to locate his friend. After days of winding through the maze of prisons and prison cells in this capital of the empire, he could easily have given up. “This is too difficult!” “I’ve already invested several hours looking for him, and he is not to be found.” “It must not be the Lord’s will – the door seems to be closed,” he might have reasoned. In spite of the difficulty of the task, he persevered. To be used of the Lord to meet people’s needs – to be a minister of refreshment – may mean “going the extra mile.” It may not be easy or convenient. It may take persistent effort and personal sacrifice. Onesiphorus was willing to pay the price.
HITTING THE SPOT
Have you noticed that often it is the timing of a thoughtful gesture, rather than its scope, that makes the difference? That glass of iced tea tastes best when you’re hot and thirsty! An act of kindness that may seem small and insignificant to us could mean a lot to a person who needs it.
For a lonesome serviceman or woman, that refreshing lift could be a timely letter or a card. For a frazzled couple with young children, it could be an offer to baby-sit so they can go out for an evening or a weekend get-away. For a discouraged Christian worker, it could be a weekend at a conference or a retreat. For an elderly person or shut-in, a card, a call, or a visit could be the highlight of the week. For a student feeling pressured and homesick, it might be an offer to go out to lunch, or to help study for an exam. For a frustrated Sunday school director who can’t seem to find anyone who will help, it could be an offer to fill in wherever you’re needed most.
The ministry of refreshment involves genuine concern, willingness to take risks, and persistence in service. It requires being alert to the needs of others and seeking to provide relief from the pressures that burden them.
Do you know people who fit any of the following descriptions?
- In unfamiliar surroundings
- Feeling tired and weary
- Lonely, wondering if anybody cares
- Experiencing disappointment or discouragement
- Uncertain about the future
- Facing extra pressures, difficulties, or limitations
They probably need new strength and new energy. The Lord has promised that those who hope in Him shall gain new strength and be renewed (Isa. 40:29-31). He may use a supernatural means to fulfill this promise. Is it possible, though, that he might want to use a human instrument – an Onesiphorus – to minister to them? Might He want to use… you?
1. Edmond Hiebert, Second Timothy (Chicago: Moody Press, 1958), p. 48.
Stephen S. Hopper, Discipleship Journal