Onesiphorus, ye Troublemaker: Is 2 Timothy Chapter 1:18 a Prayer for the Dead?

So Polycarp and TC are blogging about this fellow, whom most of us I suspect have never really paid any attention to, one Onesiphorus:

2Ti 1:16-18 NET. May the Lord grant mercy to the family of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my imprisonment. (17) But when he arrived in Rome, he eagerly searched for me and found me. (18) May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day! And you know very well all the ways he served me in Ephesus.

2Ti 4:19 NET. Greetings to Prisca and Aquila and the family of Onesiphorus.

The question being debated is whether 2 Ti 1:18 is a sign that Paul sanctioned prayer for the dead. Needless to say, the opinions over the millenia have been various. Here are a few quotes about that troublemaker, Onesiphorus:

From McClintock and Strong, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (Onesiphorus, profit-bringing), a believer of Ephesus, who came to Rome during the second captivity of Paul in that city (A.D. cir. 64), and having found out the apostle, who was in custody of a soldier, to whose arm his own was chained, was “not ashamed of his chain,” but attended him frequently, and rendered him all the services in his power. This faithful attachment, at a time of calamity and desertion, was fully appreciated and well remembered by the apostle, who in his Epistle to Timothy carefully records the circumstance; and, after charging him to salute in his name “the household of Onesiphorus,” expresses the most earnest and grateful wishes for his spiritual welfare (2 Timothy 1:16-18; comp. 4:19). It would appear from this that Onesiphorus had then quit Rome (Kitto).

It has even been made a question whether this friend of the apostle was still living when the letter to Timothy was written, because in both instances Paul speaks of “the household” (in 2 Timothy 1:16) and not separately of Onesiphorus himself. If we infer that he was not living, then we have in 2 Timothy 1:18 almost an instance of the apostolic sanction of the practice of praying for the dead. But the probability is that other members of the family were also active Christians; and as Paul wished to remember them at the same time, he grouped them together under the comprehensive “household” (2 Timothy 4:19), and thus delicately recognized the common merit, as a sort of family distinction. The mention of Stephanas in 1 Corinthians 16:17 shows that we need not exclude him from the Stefana oikon in 1 Corinthians 1:16. It is evident from 2 Timothy 1:18 that Onesiphorns had his home at Ephesus; though if we restrict the salutation near the close of the epistle (4:19) to his family, he himself may possibly have been with Paul at Rome when the latter wrote to Timothy. Nothing authentic is known of him beyond these notices.

According to a tradition in Fabricius (Lux Evang. p. 117), he became bishop of Corone, in Messenia.

From A. Plummer The Pastoral Epistles, Expositors’ Bible Commentary
Now let us turn to the ease of Onesiphorus, whose conduct is such a marked contrast to these others. In the most natural way St. Paul” first of all tells Timothy what he experienced from Onesiphorus in Rome; and then appeals to Timothy’s own experience of him in Ephesus. In between these two passages there is a sentence, inserted parenthetically, which has been the subject of a good deal of controversy. “The Lord grant unto him to find mercy of the Lord in that day.” On the one side it is argued that the context shows that Onesiphorus is dead, and that therefore we have Scriptural authority for prayers for the dead: on the other that it is by no means certain that Onesiphorus was dead at the time when St. Paul wrote; and that, even if he was, this parenthesis is more of the nature of a pious wish, or expression of hope, than a prayer. It need scarcely be said that on the whole the latter is the view taken by Protestant commentators, although by no means universally; while the former is the interpretation which finds favor with Roman Catholics. Scripture elsewhere is almost entirely silent on the subject; and hence this passage is regarded as of special importance.

But it ought to be possible to approach the discussion of it without heat or prejudice.Certainly the balance of probability is decidedly in favor of the view that Onesiphorus was already dead when St. Paul wrote these words. There is not only the fact that he here speaks of “the house of Onesiphorus” in connection with the present, and of Onesiphorus himself only in connection with the past: there is also the still more marked fact that in the final salutations, while greetings are sent to Prisca and Aquila, and from Eubulus, Pudens, Linus, and Claudia, yet it is once more “the house of Onesiphorus” and not Onesiphorus himself who is saluted. This language is thoroughly intelligible, if Onesiphorus was no longer alive, but had a wife and children who were still living at Ephesus; but it is not easy to explain this reference in two places to the household of Onesiphorus, if he himself was still alive. In all the other cases the individual and not the household is mentioned. Nor is this twofold reference to his family rather than to himself the only fact which points in this direction. There is also the character of the Apostle’s prayer. Why does he confine his desires respecting the requital of Onesiphorus’ kindness to the day of judgment? Why does he not also pray that he may be requited in this life? that he “may prosper and be in health, even as his soul prospereth,” as St. John prays for Gaius (3 John 1:2)? This again is thoroughly intelligible, if Onesiphorus is already dead. It is much less intelligible if he is still alive. It seems, therefore, to be scarcely too much to say that there is no serious reason for questioning the now widely accepted view that at the time when St. Paul wrote these
words Onesiphorus was among the departed.

With regard to the second point there seems to be equal absence of serious reason for doubting that the words in question constitute a prayer. It is difficult to find a term which better describes them than the word “prayer” and in discussing them one would have to be specially careful in order to avoid the words “pray” and “prayer” in connection with them. It does not much matter what meaning we give to “the Lord” in each case; whether both refer to Christ, or both to the Father, or one to Christ and the other to the Father. In any case we have a prayer that the Judge at the last day will remember those good deeds of Onesiphorus, which the Apostle has been unable to repay, and will place them to his account. Paul cannot requite them, but he prays that God will do so by showing mercy upon him at the last day.

Having thus concluded that, according to the more probable and reasonable view, the passage before us contains a prayer offered up by the Apostle on behalf of one who is dead, we seem to have obtained his sanction, and therefore the sanction of Scripture, for using similar prayers ourselves. But what is a similar prayer? There are many kinds of intercessions which may be made on behalf of those who have gone before
us into the other world: and it does not follow that, because one kind of intercession has Scriptural authority, therefore any kind of intercession is allowable. This passage may be quoted as reasonable evidence that the death of a person does not extinguish our right or our duty to pray for him: but it ought not to be quoted as authority for such prayers on behalf of the dead as are very different in kind from the one of which we have an example here. Many other kinds of intercession for the dead may be reasonable and allowable; but this passage proves no more than that some kinds of intercession for the dead are allowable, viz., those in which we pray that God will have mercy at the day of judgment on those who have done good to us and others during their life upon earth.

But is the right, which is also the duty, of praying for the departed limited by the amount of sanction which it is possible to obtain from this solitary passage of Scripture? Assuredly not. Two other authorities have to be
consulted, — reason and tradition.

I. This pious practice, so full of comfort to affectionate souls, is reasonable in itself. Scripture, which is mercifully reticent respecting a subject so liable to provoke unhealthy curiosity and excitement, nevertheless does tell us plainly some facts respecting the unseen world.

(1) Those whom we call the dead are still alive. God is still the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob: and He is not the God of the dead, but of the living (Matthew 22:32). Those who believe that death is annihilation, and that there can be no resurrection, “do greatly err”(Mark 12:27). And

(2) the living souls of the departed are still conscious: their bodies are asleep in this world, but their spirits are awake in the other. For this truth we are not dependent upon the disputable meaning of the parable of Dives and Lazarus; although we can hardly suppose that that parable would ever have been spoken, unless the continued consciousness of the dead and their interest in the living were a fact.

Christ’s parables are never mere fables, in which nature is distorted in order to point a moral: His lessons are ever drawn from God’s universe as it is. But besides the parable (Luke 16:19-31), there is His declaration that Abraham not only “exulted” in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah, but “he saw” that coming “and was glad” thereat (John 8:56).

And there is His promise to the penitent thief: “Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Can we believe that this promise, given at so awful a moment with such solemn assurance (“Verily I say unto thee”), would have been made, if the robber’s soul, when in Paradise, would be unconscious of Christ’s companionship? Could Christ then have “preached unto the spirits in prison” (1 Peter. 3:19), if the spirits of those who had died in the Flood were deprived of consciousness? And what can be the meaning of “the souls of them that had been slain for the word of God” crying “How long, O Master the holy and true, dost Thou not judge and avenge, our blood?” (Revelation 6:10), if the souls of the slain slumber in the unseen world?

It is not necessary to quote Scripture to prove that the departed are not yet perfect. Their final consummation will not be reached until the coming of Christ at the last great day (Hebrews 11:40).

If, then, the dead are conscious, and are not yet perfected, they are capable of progress. They may increase in happiness, and possibly in holiness. May we not go farther and say that they must be growing, must be progressing towards a better state; for, so far as we have experience, there is no such thing as conscious life in a state of stagnation. Conscious life is always either growing or decaying: and decay is incipient death. For conscious creatures, who are incapable of decay and death, growth seems to be a necessary attribute. We conclude, therefore, on grounds partly of Scripture and partly of reason, that the faithful departed are consciously progressing towards a condition of higher perfection.

But this conclusion must necessarily carry us still farther. These consciously developing souls are God’s children and our brethren; they are, like ourselves, members of Christ and joint-heirs with us of His kingdom; they are inseparably united with us in “the Communion of Saints.” May we not pray for them to aid them in their progress? And if, with St. Paul’s prayer for Onesiphorus before us, we are convinced that we may pray for them, does it not become our bounden duty to do so? On what grounds can we accept the obligation of praying for the-spiritual advancement of those who are with us in the flesh, and yet refuse to help by our prayers the spiritual advancement of those who have joined that “great cloud of witnesses” in the unseen world, by which we are perpetually encompassed (Hebrews 12:1)? The very fact that they witness our prayers for them may be to them an increase of strength and joy.

II. Tradition amply confirms us m the belief that this pious practice is lawful, and binding upon all who recognize its lawfulness. The remarkable narrative in 2 Maccabees 12. shows that this belief in a very extreme form was common among the Jews, and publicly acted upon, before the coming of Christ. It is highly improbable that prayers for the dead were omitted from the public worship of the synagogue, in which Jesus Christ so frequently took part. It is quite certain that such prayers are found in every early Christian liturgy, and to this day form part of the liturgies in use throughout the greater portion of Christendom. And, although the mediaeval abuses connected with such prayers induced the reformers of our own liturgy almost, if not quite, entirely to omit them, yet the Church of England has never set any bounds to the liberty of its members in this respect. Each one of us is free in this matter, and therefore has the responsibility of using or neglecting what the whole of the primitive Church, and the large majority of Christians throughout all these centuries, have believed to be a means of advancing the peace and glory of Christ’s kingdom. About the practice of the primitive Church there can be no question. Doubt has been thrown upon the liturgies, because it has been said that some portions are certainly of much later origin than the rest, and therefore these prayers may be later insertions and corruptions. But that cannot be so; for the liturgies do not stand alone. In this matter they have the support of a chain of Christian writers beginning with Tertullian in the second century, and also of early inscriptions in the catacombs. About the meager allusions to the departed in our own liturgy there is more room for doubt: but perhaps the most that can safely be asserted is this; — that here and there sentences have been worded in such a way that it is possible for those who wish to do so to include the faithful departed in the prayer as well as the living. Bishop Cosin has given his authority to this interpretation of the prayer that “we and all Thy whole Church may obtain remission of our sins and all other benefits of His passion.” By this, he says, “is to be understood, as well those that have been here before, and those that shall be hereafter, as those that are now members of it:” and as one of the revisers his authority is great. And the prayer in the Burial Service, “that we, with all those that are departed in the true faith of Thy holy name, may have our perfect consummation and bliss, both in body and soul,” is equally patient of this meaning, even if it does not fairly demand it. For we do not pray that we may have our consummation and bliss with the departed; which might imply that they are enjoying these things now, and that we desire to join them; but we pray that we with the departed may have our consummation and bliss; which includes them in the prayer. And the petition in the Litany, “remember not, Lord, our offences, nor the offences of our forefathers,” may, or may not, be a prayer for our forefathers, according to the way in which we understand it.

All this seems to show that neither Scripture nor the English Church forbids prayer for the departed; that, on the contrary, both of them appear to give a certain amount of sanction to it: and that what they allow, reason commends and tradition recommends most strongly. It is for each one of us to decide for himself whether or no he will take part in the charitable work thus placed before him.

A.C. Hervey, Pulpit Commentary
Ver. 16. — Grant for give, A.V. Grant mercy . This connection of the words is only found here. The house of Onesiphorus. It is inferred from this expression, coupled with that in 2 Timothy 4:19, that Onesiphorus himself was no longer living; and hence ver. 18 (where see note) is thought by some to be an argument for prayers for the dead.

The inference, further strengthened by the peculiar language of ver. 18, though not absolutely certain, is undoubtedly probable. The connection between this and the preceding verse is the contrast between the conduct of Phygelus and Hermogenes and that of Onesiphorus. They repudiated all acquaintance with the apostle in his day of trial; he, when he was in Rome, diligently sought him and with difficulty found him. and oft refreshed him with Christian sympathy and communion, acting with no less courage than love. He was no longer on earth to receive a prophet’s reward (Matthew 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…

…Ver. 18. — To find for that he may find, A.V.; ministered for ministered unto me, A.V. (The Lord grant unto him). The parenthesis seems only to be required on the supposition that the words are a kind of play on the preceding verse. Otherwise it is better to take the words as a new sentence. The repetition of “the Lord” is remarkable, but nothing seems to hang upon it.

The second seems to suppose the Lord sitting on the judgment throne. As regards the amount of encouragement given by this passage to prayers for the dead (supposing Onesiphorus to have been 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. In how many things, etc. St. Paul does not say, as the A.V. makes him say, that Onesiphorus “ministered unto him” at Ephesus. It may have been so, but the words do not necessarily mean this. “What good service he did at Ephesus” would faithfully represent the Greek words; and this might describe great exertions made by Onesiphorus after his return from Rome, or it may refer to former ministrations when Paul and Timothy were at Ephesus together. There seem to be no materials for arriving at absolute certainty on the point.

John Calvin
2Ti 1:16
16May the Lord grant mercy From this prayer we infer, that the good offices done to the saints are not thrown away, even though they cannot recompense them; for, when he prays to God to reward them, this carries in it the force of a promise. At the same time, Paul testifies his gratitude, by desiring that God will grant the remuneration, because he is unable to pay. What if he had possessed abundant means of remuneration? Undoubtedly he would have manifested that he was not ungrateful.

To the family of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed meIt is worthy of attention, that although he praises the kindness of Onesiphorus alone, yet, on his account, he prays for mercy to the whole familyHence we infer, that “the blessing of God rests, not only on the head of the righteous man,” but on all his house. So great is the love of God toward his people, that it diffuses itself over all who are connected with them.

And was not ashamed of my chainThis is a proof, not only of his liberality, but likewise of his zeal; seeing that he cheerfully exposed himself to danger and to the reproach of men, in order to assist Paul.

2Ti 1:18
18May the Lord grant to himSome explain it thus: — “May God grant to him that he may find mercy with Christ the Judge.” And, indeed, this is somewhat more tolerable than to interpret that passage in the writings of Moses: “The Lord rained fire from the Lord,” (Gen_19:24,) as meaning, — “The Father rained from the Son.” Yet it is possible that strong feeling may have prompted Paul, as often happens, to make a superfluous repetition.

That he may find mercy with the Lord on that day This prayer shews us how much richer a recompense awaits those who, without the expectation of an earthly reward, perform kind offices to the saints, than if they received it immediately from the hand of men. And what does he pray for? “That he may find mercy;” for he who hath been merciful to his neighbors will receive such mercy from God to himself. And if this promise does not powerfully animate and encourage us to the exercise of kindness, we are worse than stupid. Hence it follows, also, that when God rewards us, it is not on account of our merits or of any excellence that is in us; but that the best and most valuable reward which he bestows upon us is, when he pardons us, and shews himself to be, not a stern judge, but a kind and indulgent Father.

Adam Clarke
2Ti 1:18
The Lord grant – that he may find mercy of the Lord – Some think that this is a prayer to God the Father to communicate grace to him, that he might find mercy in the great day at the hand of Jesus Christ the Judge. It is probably only a Hebraism for, God grant that he may here be so saved by Divine grace, that in the great day he may receive the mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. See a similar form of expression, Gen_9:16; Gen_19:24; Exo_24:1, Exo_24:2.

Albert Barnes
2Ti 1:16
The Lord give mercy unto the house of Onesiphorus – The family of Onesiphorus – for so the word house is often used. He was himself still living 2Ti_1:18, but not improbably then absent from his home; compare the notes at 2Ti_4:19. He was evidently of Asia, and is the only one who is mentioned from that region who had showed the apostle kindness in his trials. He is mentioned only in this Epistle, and nothing more is known of him. The record is entirely honorable to him, and for his family the apostle felt a warm interest on account of the kindness which he had showed to him in prison. The ecclesiastical traditions also state that he was one of the seventy disciples, and was ultimately Bishop of Corone. But there is no evidence of this. There is much force in the remark of the Editor of the Pictorial Bible, that “the pretended lists of the 70 disciples seem to have been made out on the principle of including all the names incidentally mentioned in the sacred books, and not otherwise appropriated.”

For he oft refreshed me – That is, showed me kindness, and ministered to my needs.

And was not ashamed of my chain – Was not ashamed to be known as a friend of one who was a prisoner on account of religion. Paul was bound with a chain when a prisoner at Rome; Phi_1:13-14, Phi_1:16; Col_4:3, Col_4:18; Phm_1:10; see the notes at Act_28:20.

2Ti 1:18
The Lord grant unto him that he may find mercy of the Lord in that day – The day of judgment; notes at 2Ti_1:12. This proves that Onesiphorus was then alive, as Paul would not offer prayer for him if he was dead. The Papists, indeed, argue from this in favor of praying for the dead – assuminG from 2Ti_4:19, that Onesiphorus was then dead. But there is no evidence of that. The passage in 2Ti_4:19, would prove only that he was then absent from his family.

And in how many things he ministered unto me at Ephesus – This was the home of Onesiphorus, and his family was still there; 2Ti_4:19. When Paul was at Ephesus, it would seem that Onesiphorus had showed him great kindness. His affection for him did not change when he became a prisoner. True friendship, and especially that which is based on religion, will live in all the vicissitudes of fortune, whether we are in prosperity or adversity; whether in a home of plenty, or in a prison.

2 thoughts on “Onesiphorus, ye Troublemaker: Is 2 Timothy Chapter 1:18 a Prayer for the Dead?

  1. Pingback: More Thoughts on Praying for the Dead | The Church of Jesus Christ

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