Onesiphorus was a friend of the apostle Paul, who mentions him twice when writing to Timothy. In the former of the two passages where his name occurs, his conduct is contrasted with that of Phygellus and Hermogenes and others–all of whom, like Onesiphorus himself, were of the province of Asia–from whom Paul might well have expected to receive sympathy and help. These persons had “turned away” from him. Onesiphorus acted in a different way, for “he oft refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain; but, when he was in Rome, he sought me diligently, and found me.”
Onesiphorus was one of the Christians of the church in Ephesus; and the second passage, where his name is found, merely sends a message of greeting from Paul, which Timothy in Ephesus is requested to deliver to “the household of Onesiphorus.” (the King James Version).
Onesiphorus then had come from Ephesus to Rome. It was to Paul that the church at Ephesus owed its origin, and it was to him therefore that Onesiphorus and the Christians there were indebted for all that they knew of Christ. Onesiphorus gratefully remembered these facts, and having arrived in Rome, and learned that Paul was in prison, he “very diligently” sought for the apostle. But to do this, though it was only his duty, involved much personal danger at that particular time. For the persecution, inaugurated by Nero against the Christians, had raged bitterly; its fury was not yet abated, and this made the profession of the Christian name a matter which involved very great risk of persecution and of death.
Paul was not the man to think lightly of what his Ephesian friend had done. He remembered too, “in how many things he ministered at Ephesus.” And, writing to Timothy, he reminded him that Onesiphorus’s kindly ministrations at Ephesus were already well known to him, from his residence in Ephesus, and from his position, as minister of the church there.
It should be observed that the ministration of Onesiphorus at Ephesus was not, as the King James Version gives it, “to me,” that is, to Paul himself. “To me” is omitted in the Revised Version (British and American). What Onesiphorus had done there was a wide Christian ministry of kindly action; it embraced “many things,” which were too well known–for such is the force of the word–to Timothy to require repetition.
The visits which Onesiphorus paid to Paul in his Roman prison were intensely “refreshing.” And it was not once or twice that he thus visited the chained prisoner, but he did so ofttimes.
Though Onesiphorus had come to Rome, his household had remained in Ephesus; and a last salutation is sent to them by Paul. He could not write again, as he was now ready to be offered, and his execution could not long be delayed. But as he writes, he entertains the kindest feelings toward Onesiphorus and his household, and he prays that the Lord will give mercy to the household of Onesiphorus.
He also uses these words in regard to Onesiphorus himself: “The Lord grant unto him to find mercy of the Lord in that day.” It is not clear whether Onesiphorus was living, or whether he had died, before Paul wrote this epistle. Different opinions have been held on the subject.
The way in which Paul refers twice to “the household (the Revised Version (British and American) “house”) of Onesiphorus,” makes it possible that Onesiphorus himself had died. If this is so–but certainty is impossible–the apostle’s words in regard to him would be a pious wish, which has nothing in common with the abuses which have gathered round the subject of prayers for the dead, a practice which has no foundation in Scripture.