The Lord give mercy unto the house of Onesiphorus; for he oft refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain: but, when he was in Rome, he sought me out very diligently, and found me.
II Timothy 1:16-17
A plunge into the clear water of Lake Michigan on a hot, summer day. A cold glass of lemonade after working in the garden. A long, hot shower after a grueling day of work. Refreshment. You may relate to these illustrations, or ones similar, when you think of what brings you refreshment. We experience this in many different ways, but spiritual refreshment is the idea most frequently expressed in Scripture (Is. 28:12; Rom. 15:32; I Cor. 16:18; Phile. 1:7). Perhaps for most believers, rest on the Sabbath is what comes to mind as one is refreshed by the Spirit through the preaching of the Word (Ex. 31:17; I Cor. 2:4).
For the apostle Paul, refreshment was brought to him by Onesiphorus, and the timing must not be overlooked. Onesiphorus, a man whose name is mentioned only twice in the Bible, is referenced both times in II Timothy (1:16 and 4:19). Onesiphorus was most likely from the city of Ephesus, and was converted by Paul in this same city during his third missionary journey (II Tim. 1:18; Acts 19:10). Onesiphorus’ name means “bringing profit,” and he certainly lived up to it. Paul’s second letter to Timothy, Paul’s protégé laboring in Ephesus, was written under dire circumstances, for Paul was facing certain execution in Rome (II Tim. 4:6-8).
In order to understand the significance of the spiritual refreshment brought by Onesiphorus, it is important to understand what Paul was experiencing at this time. Paul experienced two Roman imprisonments: the first took place during the years A.D. 60-62, when he wrote four epistles; the second occurred shortly before his death in A.D. 67, when he wrote II Timothy. Luke’s narrative of the work of the apostles, missionary journeys, and the life of Paul in the book of Acts ends with Paul’s first Roman imprisonment. Because Paul had been charged with heresy by the Jews in Jerusalem at the conclusion of his third missionary journey, he was sent to Rome as a prisoner, but allowed to have his own rented house and relative freedom (Acts 28:30-31). Here he was able to receive visitors, continue his ministry, and write to different church communities (Phil. 1:13; Eph. 6:20; Col. 4:10; Phile. 1:1). In addition, because Paul had appealed to Caesar as a Roman citizen, he was very optimistic of being released (Phil. 1:25; 2:23-24).
If there were an Acts 29, it would begin to tell the rest of the story, culminating in a second imprisonment in Rome. In contrast to the first Roman imprisonment, however, Paul’s second Roman imprisonment was very different than his house arrest. Now Paul is being held in chains in a cold, dark dungeon, potentially knee deep in Roman sewage at times. It is no wonder that in II Timothy 4:13 he asked for the cloak that he left in Troas. This same verse gives a clue that Troas may have been where Emperor Nero arrested him, for in addition to needing his cloak, he asks for the books and parchments that had been left behind. This arrest shows that Nero now associates Paul with the Christian movement that was being seen as a threat to the polytheism of the Romans. This second trip to Rome brings Paul as a treasonous criminal, with his optimism for release shattered.
By the grace of God, Onesiphorus wanted to associate himself with such a criminal. We remember Peter’s bold statement that he would never deny his Lord; yet, when pressed by the fear of man, he denied Jesus three times on the same night. This same Peter was given the name “rock,” whose confession and epistles centered on Christ would form the apostolic foundation of the church (Matt. 16:18; Eph. 2:20). In contrast to Peter, we have lowly Onesiphorus, a man with only a passing reference in the New Testament; yet, he sought Paul out and found him (II Tim. 4:17). He searched for the apostle when the attitude of the Roman Empire towards Christianity was shifting. The same emperor who had released Paul from prison five years previous had arrested him, now charging him with a crime that required execution. This attitude of Rome towards Christianity led to one of the most severe persecutions of Christians in human history (A.D. 64-68), all orchestrated by Nero: Christians being thrown into the Roman coliseum for hungry lions; Christians sewn into animal skins, impaled, and set on fire to serve as nightly illumination while Nero walked his gardens. Under those circumstances, Onesiphorus braved the spiritual climate of Rome to seek Paul out. And he found him. There. In Rome.
And what did Onesiphorus do when he found Paul? He refreshed him. Often. He continually brought to Paul a level of spiritual encouragement that he needed as he faced the reality of death. His words were like a cool, mountain stream, cascading down the mountainside, providing refreshment to the deer who pants after those water brooks (Ps. 42:1). This refreshment that Onesiphorus brought was powerful, even exhilarating, reviving the soul of the apostle. Make no mistake. He needed it, for Paul was virtually alone at this time (II Tim. 4:11). His dungeon dwelling was not being used as punishment; rather, it was being used while he awaited trial and execution. He had Jehovah God by his side in that dungeon, of course, but according to His perfect plan, God used Onesiphorus to refresh Paul by giving him a calm facing of death and the increased certainty of experiencing heavenly communion with his Lord Jesus Christ.
Also worth noting from II Timothy 1:16 was that Onesiphorus was not ashamed to be by Paul’s side. This was Peter’s aforementioned sin of disassociation, when the Man he so loved and had followed for over three years was being rejected by the ungodly Jews, ready to be offered on the cross. For Paul, spending his final days in a dungeon, the same holds true as men began distancing themselves from him, men like Demas who were beginning to sense the spiritual climate change (II Tim. 4:10). What courage then for Onesiphorus to carry out this mission, traveling to Rome to that cold, dark dungeon! How significant is Onesiphorus’ boldness in seeking out Paul and not being ashamed of his circumstances! He was willing to stand by the side of this faithful messenger to the Gentiles, the one who himself was “not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth” (Rom. 1:16). Onesiphorus was unashamed of the gospel that Paul had so faithfully preached; therefore, he was unashamed of Paul’s chain, for it was that very same powerful gospel that had led to Paul’s chain.
Paul’s revealing of the spiritual refreshment that Onesiphorus brought to him shows us something about Paul, too. What we see in Paul in the fourth chapter of II Timothy is a man full of reflection. Read through this chapter and you will find many names—acquaintances, companions, and close friends. Was Paul thinking of his IRA? His bank account? Certainly not. His thoughts were full of remembrances of those he loved, those who supported him in the gospel ministry, and those who were used by God to spread the gospel. This same message took such strong root that it could not be stamped out by even the harshest persecutions from the Neros of the world. Clearly and beautifully, Onesiphorus and his refreshment were one of those fond remembrances of Paul, as he desired Timothy to bring greetings to Onesiphorus’ household (II Tim. 4:19). We do not know the state of Onesiphorus at this time; perhaps he had died for the cause of the gospel, and had never returned to his native Ephesus. Paul speaks of Onesiphorus in the past tense, so this very well may have been the case. If so, he became a martyr for Christ indeed.
When men like Onesiphorus and Paul died for the sake of the gospel, they were like branches being clipped off the trunk of a large oak tree. The tree will still stand, because God preserves through the root system He has established in Christ. When the emperors, kings, and presidents of the world persecute that glorious church by cutting away some branches, the church will stand secure because she has a God who has preserved her through all of history, never forsaking her. God knew exactly when to change Rome’s attitude towards Christianity; namely, when the ‘shoots’ of His church of the New Testament age were well established as He worked through Paul to establish church communities on his missionary journeys. Nero foolishly thought he was taking down the whole tree, but God knew otherwise. His timing in working through the rulers of this world is always perfect, and His timing in sending Onesiphorus to Paul in Rome was also perfect.
Paul’s recognition of Onesiphorus’ refreshment reveals that Paul understood his place in the church. He was a leader, yet a servant. He brought the Word in its power, yet was not so high and lofty in his position as an apostle that he was beyond the scope of being refreshed by others. Paul knew his gifts and abilities to bring comfort to those in the early church; yet, he also recognized that refreshment was a two-way street, and he, too, needed encouragement as he carried out his ministry (Rom. 15:32, I Cor. 16:18; Phile. 1:20). Paul saw in Onesiphorus a man who was bold, brave, and willing to put his life on the line to bring cool refreshment to a brother in need.
As was mentioned, Paul was refreshed by Onesiphorus during his final days, but knew exactly where he was going after death. He did not need Onesiphorus to tell him about heaven. He did not need Onesiphorus to give him hope and comfort as if he was in a state of doubt and confusion. He did not need Onesiphorus to remind him that he would soon hear from his Lord, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” The child of God can easily understand this. When visitors are received at the funeral home for a dear loved one who has gone on to glory, the bereaved know where their loved ones are when they die in Jesus Christ. Yet, many of us can testify that the expressions of sympathy are sweet refreshment, lifting the spirits of those that mourn as they experience the love of the communion of the saints. God uses our comfort and prayers to strengthen our fellow believers in God’s all–sufficient grace.
Do you want to be an Onesiphorus to others? Do you want to be a Christian full of this cool, spiritual refreshment for those around you? Remember the dear saint Onesiphorus, who now sits at the feet of his Lord, experiencing the ultimate refreshment as described in Peter’s sermon in Acts 3:19, “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord.” That is the refreshment for which we long.