by Al Maxey

Issue #621 ------- June 13, 2014
Only solitary men know the full joys of
friendship. Others have their family; but to a
solitary and an exile his friends are everything.

Willa Cather (1876-1947)

A Faithful Friend to the End
Pauline Remembrance of Onesiphorus

I really appreciate the astute observation of Willa Cather in the quote at the top of this page. Cather, an American author and teacher, considered to be one of the best chroniclers of pioneering life in the 20th century (and also the great-great-great aunt of one of my fellow elders here: Jeff Cather), correctly noted that when people are exiled and alone, perhaps due to circumstances beyond their control, the care and concern of their friends is critical to their physical, emotional, and even spiritual well-being. To be abandoned, especially during a time of trial and tribulation, is a joyless experience. Thus, we feel the deep inner pain of the apostle Paul as he awaited his martyrdom in Rome, and as he bemoaned the fact that "at my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me" (2 Tim. 4:16), although he was quick to point out that "the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength" (vs. 17). Nevertheless, as the day of his execution loomed ever nearer, he urged Timothy to "do your best to come to me quickly" (vs. 9), for "only Luke is with me" (vs. 11). He added, "Get Mark and bring him with you" (vs. 11). Few people find any true comfort in dying alone; they long for those times of refreshing from their friends as they face those final moments.

Paul's second epistle to Timothy, who was residing in Ephesus, would be his last known letter. It was written late in 66 A.D., perhaps around the month of October (for the sea lanes would be closing for the winter in November, and Paul urged Timothy to "come to me quickly" -- 2 Tim. 4:9, and to "do your best to get here before winter" -- 2 Tim. 4:21). Paul would be executed shortly after the beginning of 67 A.D. According to tradition, he was led from his cell in Rome and beheaded. At his first defense during this second imprisonment (his earlier imprisonment in Rome, from 61-63 A.D., was under less harsh conditions; he was under house arrest, but was accorded a good deal of freedom -- Acts 28:30-31) people were fearful for their own safety, and as a result many who claimed to be his friends hesitated to come to his aid and defense. Paul was hurt by this, but he prayed that their fearfulness might not be held against them: "At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them" (2 Tim. 4:16). There was one person, however, who did not hesitate to come to the aid of the imprisoned Paul, thus showing the spirit of Christ in his attitude and actions: "I was in prison and you came to visit me" (Matt. 25:36). That man was Onesiphorus. While many deserted Paul during his dire straits, including Phygelus and Hermogenes (2 Tim. 1:15), this was not the case with the courageous Onesiphorus. Thus, Paul singled him out for special commendation: "May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains. On the contrary, when he was in Rome, he searched hard for me until he found me. May the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! You know very well in how many ways he helped me in Ephesus" (2 Tim. 1:16-18). And then, in the final section of this epistle, Paul writes, "Greet Priscilla and Aquila and the household of Onesiphorus" (2 Tim. 4:19). These are the only two places where this man's name appears in the NT writings; we know nothing further about him.

From what Paul wrote to Timothy, however, a few things may be deduced. The man was the head of a household in the city of Ephesus, and was known to Timothy. Paul also knew him while in Ephesus, for he mentions the fact that while there preaching the Gospel, this man "helped me in many ways." The Greek word translated by the NIV as "help" is from the word that is used to describe "deacons" and their service, which has led some scholars to believe Onesiphorus may have been one of the deacons in Ephesus. His service to Paul was so well known to Timothy, who at this time, according to tradition, was serving as the spiritual leader of the church there, that Paul did not even need to specify the ways in which Onesiphorus "ministered" to him. "You know very well in how many ways he helped me in Ephesus" (2 Tim. 4:19). It should be noted that in a few older manuscripts the word "me" is missing in this statement, thus perhaps indicating that the "ministering" of this man may have included far more people than just Paul (which, if this man truly possessed a ministering spirit, would certainly have been true). It may be fairly assumed, therefore, from this statement, that Onesiphorus was well-known among the disciples of Christ in Ephesus for his loving, sacrificial service to others.

It is believed by many scholars that Onesiphorus may have been a successful business man in Ephesus, which would explain, perhaps, why he might have made the long, difficult and expensive trip from Asia Minor to Rome. He may very well have been there conducting business, and while there took the opportunity to find Paul and minister to him during the latter's final imprisonment. That would certainly be in character with his ministering spirit. Whereas others found excuses to avoid Paul, perhaps thinking of their own safety, Onesiphorus took no thought of his own safety, but instead courageously sought out Paul and repeatedly refreshed him with his visits and ministrations. "He often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains" (2 Tim. 1:16). The Greek word translated "refreshed" is anapsucho, found only this one time in the NT writings, meaning: "to renew, refresh with cool air; a cool breeze to relieve the heat." The ministering presence of Onesiphorus was like a cool breeze of fresh air as Paul languished in the dungeon awaiting death. This, Paul says, Onesiphorus "often" did, being in no way "ashamed" of the chains that bound the apostle. Indeed, Onesiphorus "searched hard for me until he found me" (2 Tim. 1:17), which indicates this took some determination and effort on his part to locate Paul. Whereas many might use this as an excuse to avoid service to another, Onesiphorus was not to be denied this opportunity. He refused to cease searching until he found Paul, which speaks volumes about his character! "This involved much effort and personal danger, for during the Neronian persecution in the mid-60's it was not only difficult to track down a prisoner, but also dangerous to approach one imprisoned because of the persecution" [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 605]. This man literally put his own life at risk to minister unto Paul.

"By not being ashamed of Paul's chains, the apostle Paul means that Onesiphorus was not deterred from visiting him in prison by any danger which he might incur by reason of the fact that he was a friend of a prisoner who was a Christian, and who was on trial for his life" [Dr. Kenneth S. Wuest, Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek NT, vol. 2, p. 126]. In this man Paul truly had "a friend who sticks closer than a brother" (Prov. 18:24). Onesiphorus truly lived up to the meaning of his name: "profit-bringer." Like those commended in Hebrews 10:33-34, Onesiphorus "stood side by side with those publicly exposed to insult and persecution; sympathizing with those in prison." God will greatly reward such persons in the world to come, even though they may suffer affliction and death as a result of their dedication here in this present life. Indeed, the evidence is quite strong that Onesiphorus may have lost his life as a result of his ministry to Paul in Rome. Most scholars feel that at the time Paul wrote these words to Timothy, the devoted Onesiphorus was already dead. If you look at the statements of Paul about this man in his second epistle to Timothy, everything appears in the past tense, and Onesiphorus is never greeted (or sent greetings) personally, but rather his household is greeted. Paul does, however, pray that God will show mercy in judgment to this man who showed mercy to Paul. All of this leads most scholars to assume this man died, and most likely died as a result of his bold efforts to minister to a man condemned to death under the wicked Nero.

The Greek scholar, Dr. Kenneth Wuest, writes, "It is natural to suppose that he was dead. Dr. A. T. Robertson hints that he may have lost his life at the hands of Rome by reason of his visit to Paul in prison" [Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek NT, vol. 2, p. 126]. As noted by Wuest, Dr. Archibald T. Robertson, another noted NT Greek scholar, states, "Apparently Onesiphorus is now dead. If he lost his life for coming to see Paul, it was probably recently during this imprisonment" [Word Pictures in the NT, e-Sword]. "It is most natural to suppose that Onesiphorus himself was dead" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 4, p. 159]. "Paul does not speak of Onesiphorus in the present tense, but only in the phrase 'the house of Onesiphorus' (2 Tim. 1:16; 4:19). There are no personal greetings for Onesiphorus even in the context of such greetings (2 Tim. 4:19-21). This, along with the tone of the prayer in 1:18, has led many scholars to conclude that Onesiphorus was now dead" [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 605]. "There is little doubt that when Paul wrote this epistle Onesiphorus had recently died" [Dr. Herbert Lockyer, All The Prayers of the Bible, p. 259]. Just imagine the added distress felt by Paul, knowing this dear brother in Christ gave his own life in his attempt to minister to the condemned prisoner Paul. Yet, Paul remembered his sacrifice with great gratitude and love, offering this prayer: "May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus ... May the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day" (2 Tim. 1:16, 18). Paul knew the family and friends of Onesiphorus would be grieving over the loss of this disciple, and he prayed that God would be merciful to them in His displays of care and comfort. He also prayed that this departed brother, who had shown so much mercy to others, would receive mercy in return on the day of judgment. That is certainly a request fully in keeping with the words of Jesus Himself, who said in one of the beatitudes, "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy" (Matt. 5:7). Their love, mercy and compassionate service will not go unnoticed, or unrewarded, on that great day! In his prayer for his friend, Paul's request is: May it be so! "For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love that you showed for His sake in serving the saints" (Heb. 6:10, ESV).

Oddly enough, Paul's prayer for Onesiphorus has been the source of tremendous debate for hundreds of years, and is one of the areas of great divide between the Catholic and Protestant churches. "Most students conclude that Onesiphorus had already died. If this view be correct, an interesting point arises with regard to the prayer in 2 Tim. 1:18a. Is this a prayer for one who was already dead? Several who advocate the practice of prayer for the departed have quoted this passage in support of their position" [Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, vol. 2, p. 112]. The Catholic Encyclopedia declares, "we have here an instance of prayer by the Apostle for the soul of a deceased benefactor." We certainly know that "prayers on behalf of the dead did become a common practice in the early church" [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 605], and we also know that there was such a practice among some of the Jews, based on the precedent set in 2 Maccabees 12:38-46. Many hundreds of years later, in Roman Catholicism, this would evolve into a doctrine whereby the living could offer prayers for the dead in the hope of "praying them out of Purgatory," a practice strongly opposed by the Protestants. Yet, it was to this specific prayer of Paul for Onesiphorus that the Catholics appealed for justification of their practice. This led some Protestant scholars to insist that Onesiphorus was NOT dead, but just off on a trip somewhere (something they insisted upon in order to avoid Paul praying for the soul of a dead person).

It should be noted, however, that the language of the text specifies that the mercy to be shown is solicited "for that day," which would be the day of judgment following resurrection, and thus would have no bearing on the period of time between death and "that day." "Paul would never be able to repay Onesiphorus for the 'mercy' he had shown him, so he prayed God's 'mercy' upon him 'on that Day.' ... Since 'that Day' refers to the Judgment Day, Paul's prayer for Onesiphorus offers no support for prayer for the deliverance of souls from Purgatory" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 4, p. 538]. "As regards the amount of encouragement given by this passage to prayers for the dead, the mere expression of a pious wish or hope that he may find mercy is a very slender foundation on which to build the superstructure of prayer and Masses for the deliverance of souls from Purgatory. ... Onesiphorus was no longer on earth to receive a prophet's reward (Matt. 10:41), but St. Paul prays that he may receive it in the day of Christ, and that meanwhile God may requite to his family the mercy he had showed to St. Paul" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 21, p. 5]. Paul, thinking fondly upon the service rendered by his departed friend, prayed that God might remember and reward that service on "that day," which is far removed from some doctrine of "praying souls out of Purgatory."

"In the strange working of providence, Onesiphorus came to his end before Paul, but his good deeds lived after him, and caused him to be remembered by Paul. ... Such an expression of feeling is not to be forbidden us as we think of departed friends going forward to judgment; it is even to be found in inscriptions in the catacombs. But it has no connection with a belief in Purgatory, and is very different from the formal inculcation of prayers for the dead" [ibid, p. 18]. "It seems to be an undue pressing of the text to regard the sentence in 2 Tim. 1:18 as more than a pious wish on the part of the Apostle for one of whom he had very kindly memories. We have no foundation whatever for the Roman Catholic system of prayers for the deliverance of souls from the pains of Purgatory" [Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, vol. 2, p. 112]. "The prayer is simply the expression of an earnest desire, on the part of St. Paul, that the kind act of the dead Onesiphorus towards himself may be remembered on that day when the books are opened before the Judge of quick and dead. It, indeed, only asks -- looking fairly at the context -- that an act of unrequited and devoted love shown in this life may be remembered in the final judgment. Without touching upon the controversy itself, it seems only just to point out the extreme precariousness of pressing this text in support of a controverted doctrine" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 8, p. 224]. How sad that some have taken this touching tribute from a condemned man of faith for a departed man of faith and turned it into the basis of a dogma over which there have been centuries of debate. I pray that in this Reflections I've encouraged many to look beyond the theological wrangling about some "intermediate state of the dead" and whether we can rescue them from there, and to focus instead on the faith and devotion of the living and those who, by faith in Christ, will one day live again because of His grace and mercy! May God truly bestow His mercy upon Onesiphorus on "that day," and may He raise up many more ministering servants like him in "this day!"

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in California:

Al, your observations in "From Rescuer to Robber?" (Reflections #620) were brilliant! I must confess, it was you who actually saved me from eternal damnation. Though my family and I are now safely in the arms of another Christian faith-heritage group, it was the very attitudes and conduct of the legalists (which you bravely battle on a daily basis) that almost caused me to abandon Christianity altogether. However, your honest heart and pure motives (which I have witnessed in person) convinced me not to abandon Christ Himself, but rather to abandon the chains of legalism and sectarianism by which I had been bound. The fact that you are assailed on so many fronts is living proof that you are having a positive impact for Christ. I pray for you daily, and I direct a great many people to your web site for an honest and refreshing view of what it truly means to be a Christian! Al, I cannot even begin to express to you how valuable your Reflections ministry has been to me, and also to so many others.

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Thanks again, Al, for your willingness to continue "the good fight of faith." I too, like you, have been misrepresented as one who tells people that God's commands are unimportant, even though I have never said such a thing. But, since, like you, I point out that salvation is not based upon a person's ability to keep a written code, the accusation is made that I deemphasize God's commands. When such an accusation is made against me, it just lets me know that I am preaching the same gospel Paul preached, for I remember that the first century Jewish legalists charged Paul with the same thing! Paul answered their charge by telling his readers that his grace-faith message actually established the law as being so holy that man's efforts to keep commandments had fallen short, and that man must therefore rely upon the work of JESUS instead of his own effort. So, Al, continue to preach the gospel of Christ, and let the dogs bark! Since dogs are barking, you can take comfort in the knowledge that you must be preaching the same message Paul and other first century gospel preachers proclaimed! The dogs barked at them too!

From a New Reader in Mississippi:

I am writing to request to be added to your Reflections distribution list. I have read many of your articles online, in addition to reading your book on MDR (Down, But Not Out), and am refreshed by your willingness to ask the tough questions and to be honest with the Scriptures in arriving at your answers. My wife and I are going through a very difficult time with our church right now. We are struggling with many of the very issues you discuss in your articles. Honestly, because of the legalistic brethren in our congregation, it has become VERY difficult to worship God here with the right heart. Please pray that we may overcome the difficulties we face, and that we may grow in the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. May God bless you in your work.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Thank you, dear brother, for your continuing diligence in pursuing Truth no matter the reaction against you. There will always be those like Olan Hicks who will only embrace and endorse those who agree with them ("my way or the highway"). This behavior, by the way, is true in all denominations. I have had many good relationships with brothers and sisters in other Christian denominations, and my spiritual life is richer because of that. What is truly sad is that the world of darkness has nothing to fear from the "church" as long as we, in opposition to Jesus' prayer in John 17, continue to promote disunity. I am grateful for your efforts to counter this, brother. Keep on keeping on!

From a Professor at Lipscomb University:

"From Rescuer to Robber?" is an excellent article, Al, absolutely excellent. I am disappointed that Olan Hicks reveals such a lack of understanding. I have just finished teaching Hebrews to one class at our church, and have been asked to teach it again to the summer Wednesday night gathering. From my recent studies, it is apparent that you have done careful and diligent study, and have given deep thought to this wonderful epistle. In my humble opinion, you are exactly correct in your understanding of the relation of the Christian today to the law of God as opposed to what it was for the people of God before Christ. AMEN to your article! After having read your article again, and given it more thought, I realize that Olan Hicks is actually accusing you of antinomianism, which is not at all true! As I recall, the thinking in traditional Church of Christ circles is that our salvation is based on what we do: an obedience to the Gospel or the Word of God. We hear of "old law" and "new law," and I think they mean that obeying the Gospel and living faithfully so as to achieve salvation is obeying the "new law." Thus, one law is replaced by another, but one is still said to be saved by "keeping commandments."

Since the famous "Sermon on the Law" by Alexander Campbell, Church of Christ preachers and writers have developed the idea of the total removal of the "law of Moses" and everything in it, and its being replaced by the new. Sometimes this "new" has been defined as everything written after Acts 2 and the establishment of the church. It is really somewhat amorphic. However, if salvation is attained by obedience to this "new law" (the Gospel or the Word), it is more stringent and difficult to obey than the old, given Jesus' modifications in the Sermon on the Mount in which He included the intents of the heart. In any instance, as one son of a well-known preacher in the Churches of Christ, who "defected" to Grace, put it in a book he asked me to review: they have established a radical form of dispensationalism. The writer of Hebrews (I agree with you that it was likely Apollos) points out that law comes under priesthood, and a change of priesthood necessitates a change of law. It is not an abolition of law, as Jesus and Paul both point out. The change involves the nature of the law. It is no longer pursued as a means to justification, which it never actually was, but, as you state so well, a source and guide as to the will of God for our lives to which we respond in gratitude for our salvation by grace. The original recipients of Hebrews had grown sluggish and were unduly attracted to the old system, and the writer is warning them against such regression by encouraging them in many areas to keep focused on Christ, build up their faith, and hold tightly to their confidence, which can only happen with an informed faith. Well, I have said nothing that you don't already know or did not say or intimate in your Reflections article. I just felt moved to share my thoughts. The Grace of God is wondrous!

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, I just finished reading "Muscle and a Shovel," and I am amazed to read such blatant lack of understanding of the grace of God!! The cross is hardly mentioned. I know this kind of teaching still goes on, but to read a book spelling out such legalistic "stuff" written by a Church of Christ member today made me sick.

From a Minister in Florida:

Thank you so much for your Reflections. They have assisted me in my personal growth far more than you will ever know! God bless you and your family.

From Buff Scott, Jr.:

My Dear Brother Al, You have done well in replying to Olan Hicks and clarifying your Christian walk and sentiments. In my upcoming issue of Reformation Rumblings I will mention your reply to him, and I'll encourage my readers who do not receive your Reflections to send for this issue. Take care, my brother, and, as Leroy Garrett says, "Soldier On!!"

From a Minister/Author in Florida:

I appreciate your Galatians study very much (An In-Depth Study of Galatians), and I have used it and shared some of it when I taught Galatians in Singapore this year. Olan and Barbara Hicks visited in our home when I was the located preacher in -------, California, back in the early 80s, during the MDR firestorm controversy among "us" in the Churches of Christ when he was championing a view similar to mine. We even picked guitars together and sang. I am so sorry that he has turned to legalism and a spirit of condemning his brothers whom he used to fellowship! I hope he repents of this direction and turns to a Jesus-focused, Grace-oriented, Love-motivated spirit.

From an Elder in Colorado:

I just read your Reflections article "From Rescuer to Robber?" I felt very close to Olan Hicks back in the mid-80s. However, during the Tulsa Workshop a couple of years ago, Olan came to my booth and started talking about problems of believing in Grace. We talked for a few minutes, and then he really opened up! I stepped back and let him talk. After a bit, being very surprised, I decided I needed to be about other things. I was very disappointed in what he addressed and how he addressed it. What you wrote in your article is basically what I remember him projecting. It was so strong that I didn't care to engage him! Al, your writings and mine are, as I see it, right in the same ball park, although I arrive at my point of view (considering Jer. 31:31-34) from covenant or mechanics, while you get there from a theoretical point of view. Al, with respect to criticism, you know what water does on a duck's back. Yet, the duck doesn't stay out of the pond because water might get on his back! When one searches for understanding that has been basically swept under the carpet, some don't like that. Hang in there, brother; you are getting across to many people!

From a Missionary in Peru:

I cannot find any biblical support for what has become the general accepted teaching regarding the law. The result of receiving the Spirit is New Covenant obedience, and that is what the legalist does not understand. The Spirit causes us to live a life of growing holiness and fruitfulness, all fulfilled by the certain promise of God. We live by faith and feed on His promises, and He (the Son of God) through the Spirit fulfills all His covenant engagements on behalf of His people. How could we ever have assurance of salvation if in any part it depended on us?! Praise God that we are free men, never again to be in bondage to the commands of men, and their mishandling of the Word of God. Like Peter says, they wrest the Word to their own destruction. They don't point men to the beauty and perfections of the Lord, but rather to a fleshy and carnal obedience to laws. All their zeal is to no purpose, for they will find that their garments of works and regulations will not stand up in the judgment. What will be exposed in the judgment, though, is their harsh and false judgments against the Lord's true servants. Al, you must be doing a good work for the Lord if the wolves are frothing at the mouth because of you! By the way, I look forward to reading your new book coming out later this month!!

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

"From Rescuer to Robber?" is one of your best, as far as I'm concerned. It is a good reminder and explanation of your beliefs, with which I am 100% in agreement. Using the Bible as a law book results in a lot of problems, primarily because of the difficulties of interpretation. When you combine that with the belief that we have to follow the rules perfectly, we have real trouble! I'm surrounded by it here!

From a Reader in California:

I am a former Sunday School teacher, deacon, and elder. Before each Bible study time I would pray to God to let the Holy Spirit guide me into the Truth. He did. As I began to perceive this Truth, and proclaim it, the members of our congregation stopped speaking to me, and when they saw me approaching them on the sidewalk, they would actually cross the street. To me, this was as far from what Christ taught as a person could get. So, I went to another church (we now attend the Presbyterian Church) so I would not "bother" them anymore, and where I could get to be closer and closer to God through the Holy Spirit. Al, I really feel for you! These people, like Olan Hicks and Ray Downen, who are attacking you are lying about you! That is not a good thing. You deserve the best from everyone. I am with you all the way, and I pray for you all the time. I am almost 81 years old. I went to Lipscomb. I wanted to become a preacher, but then I saw how one had to preach the truth that the people believed, rather than the Truth the Holy Spirit revealed. That just did not sit well with me!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Al, you surely did respond to Olan Hicks with far more grace than I might have! Guess I need a few more years to "mature." The way I see it is: some folks are plainly jealous of another's following, and thus they criticize those people in order to "borrow recognition" for themselves. By Hicks (and others) constantly attacking you, he is in fact adding credibility to your work; it is actually a form of compliment and praise! Calling you a "robber" of your readers' salvation?! The poor guy doesn't understand your readers' hearts. You aren't robbing them of anything. According to the countless remarks I have heard over the years from those you teach, you have set them free!! Free from works, free from law, free from religion. Doesn't the Word say: where the Spirit of God is, there is freedom?! Your work, Al, will continue to withstand the testing flames; the work of others will not be so fortunate. Keep 'em coming, brother. There are still many behind spiritual bars who need your teaching!

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