Onesiphorus—A Courageous Comforter
“KEEP in mind those in prison bonds as though you have been bound with them, and those being ill-treated.” (Hebrews 13:3) When the apostle Paul wrote these words about 61 C.E., he himself had already experienced imprisonment on more than one occasion and was to do so again before his death as a martyr. (Acts 16:23, 24; 22:24; 23:35; 24:27; 2 Corinthians 6:5; 2 Timothy 2:9; Philemon 1) The urgency existed then, as it does now, for congregations to care for fellow believers undergoing trials of their faith.
One first-century disciple particularly attentive to that need was Onesiphorus. He visited Paul during his second imprisonment in Rome. Concerning him, the apostle wrote: “May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often brought me refreshment, and he did not become ashamed of my chains. On the contrary, when he happened to be in Rome, he diligently looked for me and found me.” (2 Timothy 1:16, 17) Have you ever taken time to ponder over what those few words really mean? Doing so likely will increase your appreciation for Onesiphorus. You will see that he was a courageous comforter.
Paul’s Second Imprisonment
After being released from his first imprisonment, Paul was again in a Roman jail but under different conditions. Friends previously had access to him in his own rented house, and he seemed confident that release was imminent. Now forsaken by the majority, martyrdom loomed.—Acts 28:30; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16; Philemon 22.
Paul was in prison on this occasion about 65 C.E. Approximately a year earlier—in July 64 C.E.—fire swept through Rome, causing extensive damage in 10 of the city’s 14 regions. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, Emperor Nero was unable to “banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. . . . Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”
It was in an atmosphere like this and with similar prospects that Paul found himself in prison again. No wonder he was so grateful for the visits of his friend Onesiphorus! But let us look at the same situation from the standpoint of Onesiphorus.
Visiting Paul the Prisoner
Apparently, Onesiphorus’ family lived in Ephesus. (2 Timothy 1:18; 4:19) Whether Onesiphorus had come to the capital of the empire for his own business or specifically to visit Paul is not stated. In any case, the apostle remarked: ‘When Onesiphorus happened to be in Rome, he often brought me refreshment.’ (2 Timothy 1:16, 17) What kind of refreshment? Though Onesiphorus’ assistance may well have included material help, his presence evidently also served as a tonic to strengthen and encourage Paul. In fact, some translations read: “He has often cheered my spirits,” or “he has often comforted me.”
Fulfilling a desire to visit a Christian prisoner in Rome at that time presented challenges. Unlike during the days of Paul’s first imprisonment, the Roman Christians evidently had lost touch with him. In a large city like Rome, it was no easy task to find one obscure prisoner among the large number who must have been in bonds for various offenses. Hence, a diligent search was necessary. Scholar Giovanni Rostagno describes matters this way: “The difficulties may have been of diverse nature. Above all, uncommon prudence was needed in the search. Gathering information here and there and appearing to be anxious to discover the jail that held a fanatical old prisoner implicated in numerous crimes may have aroused undue suspicion.”
Writer P. N. Harrison draws a vivid picture of the same situation, saying: “We seem to catch glimpses of one purposeful face in a drifting crowd, and follow with quickening interest this stranger from far coasts of the Aegean, as he threads the maze of unfamiliar streets, knocking at many doors, following up every clue, warned of the risks he is taking but not to be turned from his quest; till in some obscure prison-house a known voice greets him, and he discovers Paul chained to a Roman soldier.” If that place was anything like other Roman jails, it was probably a cold, dark, and filthy place, where chains and afflictions of all sorts abounded.
To be recognized as the friend of a prisoner like Paul was risky business. It was even more dangerous to keep on visiting him. To identify oneself openly as a Christian was to run the risk of arrest and death by torture. But Onesiphorus was not content to visit just once or twice. He was neither ashamed nor afraid to do so “often.” Onesiphorus truly lived up to the meaning of his name, “Profit Bearer,” providing courageous and loving assistance despite the dangers.
Why did Onesiphorus do all of this? Brian Rapske noted: “Prison was a place not only of physical suffering, but a place of profound anxiety for the stresses it brought to the prisoner. In such a context, the physical presence and verbal encouragements of helpers could be a great boost emotionally to the prisoner.” Onesiphorus evidently realized that and courageously stuck by his friend. How much Paul must have appreciated such help!
What Became of Onesiphorus?
In his second letter to Timothy, Paul sent greetings to the household of Onesiphorus and said of him: “May the Lord grant him to find mercy from Jehovah in that day.” (2 Timothy 1:18; 4:19) Many think that the words “in that day” refer to God’s day of judgment and thus conclude that Onesiphorus had died. If that were the case, perhaps “Onesiphorus had ventured into this dangerous quarter once too often, and paid . . . the penalty with his life,” suggests P. N. Harrison. Of course, Onesiphorus may simply have been away from home, or Paul may have included him in the greetings sent to his entire household.
Some believe that there is special significance in the statement: “May the Lord grant him to find mercy from Jehovah in that day.” They feel that these words justify intercessory prayers in behalf of departed souls living and perhaps suffering in some spiritual realm. However, such an idea conflicts with the Scriptural teaching that the dead are not conscious of anything. (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10) Even if Onesiphorus had died, Paul was simply expressing a wish that his friend would find mercy from God. “That wish we are entitled to entertain for all,” says R. F. Horton. “But to pray for the dead, and to offer Masses for them, is a thought remote from the [apostle’s] mind.”
Let Us Be Loyal Comforters
Whether Onesiphorus actually lost his life while assisting Paul or not, he certainly risked it to find the apostle and visit him in prison. And there can be no question that Paul appreciated the much needed support and encouragement he got from Onesiphorus.
When fellow Christians experience trial, persecution, or imprisonment, we may be in a position to comfort and encourage them. May we therefore pray in their behalf and lovingly do all we can to help them. (John 13:35; 1 Thessalonians 5:25) Like Onesiphorus, let us be courageous comforters.
[Picture on page 31]
Onesiphorus courageously comforted the imprisoned apostle Paul