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Lesson 7: The Ministry of Refreshment (2 Timothy 1:15-18)

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Stored in a safe place at the Library of Congress is a small blue box. The label reads: “Contents of the President’s pockets on the night of April 14, 1865.” As you probably know, that was the fateful night on which President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

The box contains five things: (1) A handkerchief embroidered “A. Lincoln”; (2) A country boy’s pen knife; (3) A spectacles case repaired with string; (4) A purse containing a $5 bill—in Confederate money! (5) Some old and worn newspaper clippings.

The clippings are concerned with the great deeds of Abraham Lincoln. One of them reports a speech by John Bright, a British statesman, saying that Abraham Lincoln is one of the greatest men of all time.

That is not news for us who live over a century later. We all know that Lincoln was a great man. But in 1865, the jury was still out. The nation was divided and Lincoln had fierce critics on both sides as he made decisions that he hoped would restore the Union. Remember, Lincoln hadn’t read the history books on himself!

There is something poignantly pathetic about picturing this lonely figure in the Oval Office reaching into his pocket and spreading out these newspaper clippings as he re-read the encouraging words of a man who believed that Lincoln was a great man. It gave him the courage and strength to go on. People, especially leaders, need encouragement! (From an article by Charles Swindoll in the newsletter of the First Evangelical Free Church, Fullerton.)

Shift the scene from the Oval Office of Abraham Lincoln to a dungeon in Rome. It is dark and cold. A dim ray of light filters in through the opening at the top. Inside sits an aged, weathered little Jewish man, chained to a guard. It is Paul of Tarsus awaiting execution. Keep in mind that Paul didn’t know that his life and teachings would radically change the course of world history. All he knew was that the end was near and that many of those whom he had loved and taught were abandoning him like sailors jumping off a sinking ship.

Suddenly, there was a noise above as the guard opened the hatch to his cell. The old man squinted into the light, but couldn’t see who was climbing down the ladder to visit him. But he recognized the friendly voice, “Paul, Paul, I’ve found you at last!”

“Onesiphorus! Is that you, my good friend?” The two men embraced warmly in spite of the stench of the prisoner and his squalid cell. Then Onesiphorus, whose name means “bringing help or profit,” opened his bag and gave Paul fresh bread, fruit, cheese, and wine. He stayed a long time and he came back often, bringing good news of the progress of the gospel across the Roman Empire. Each time he came, Paul was refreshed in body and spirit.

Onesiphorus could have thought, “Paul is strong. After all, he’s the great apostle, who has suffered often. This isn’t his first time in prison. Who am I to try to minister to someone like him?”

But the reality is that everyone needs the ministry of refreshment at times. Even the Lord Jesus, in His hour of agony in Gethsemane, took His three closest disciples with Him and asked them to watch and pray with Him there. If Christ needed it and if Paul needed it, then we all need it. That means that we all need to look for those in need of refreshment and minister to them.

God has called us all to the ministry of refreshment.

As you know, Timothy was not naturally courageous, able to stand against the flow of public opinion when he needed to do so. And so three times in 2 Timothy 1, Paul exhorts Timothy not to be ashamed: He does it directly (1:8); he points to his own example (1:12); and, he calls attention to Onesiphorus, who “was not ashamed of my chains” (1:16). Apart from Paul’s greeting to the household of Onesiphorus (4:19), this is the only reference to this man in the Bible. His fleeting appearance on the stage teaches us three characteristics of a refresher, as seen in Onesiphorus:

1. A refresher seeks out a person in need.

We don’t know whether Onesiphorus was in Rome on other business and looked up Paul while there or whether he went there solely on a mission to find Paul. Even if he had other business to take care of while there, I think his main reason for going to Rome was to visit Paul. He had to risk his life to do it. The Jews no doubt had gotten Paul arrested as a man who was stirring up sedition. He was politically dangerous. Visiting Paul in prison would be like visiting a terrorist suspect at Guantanamo Bay. You would make yourself a target for arrest by doing so.

Also, as one author put it, “He went to Rome at a time when every Christian was trying to get out of it” (Albert MacKinnon, cited by Guy King, To My Son [Christian Literature Crusade, 1976], p. 34). Nero was covering Christians with pitch and burning them to light his garden parties. Others were being thrown to the lions in the Colosseum to satisfy the public’s perverted lust for blood. Onesiphorus deliberately went into this dangerous situation and tracked down Paul because he had heard that his beloved friend and spiritual leader was in great need.

Before we look at the positive example of Onesiphorus, Scripture sets before us the negative example of verse 15:

A. A discourager turns away or ignores one in need.

Paul reminds Timothy, who was in Ephesus, the capital of the province of Asia, of what he already knew, that “all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes” (1:15). We do not know who these men were. They may have been ringleaders of the defection or men whom Paul would have thought the least likely to turn against him. Some think that they also turned away from the faith, but others say that they probably were just self-promoting Christians, trying to build a following for themselves by attacking Paul. Whoever they were, they acted with selfishness, cowardice, and unfaithfulness toward Paul at precisely the time he needed their support, when he was arrested.

It is difficult to interpret Paul’s statement that all who were in Asia turned away from him. Just ten years before, Paul had a tearful, affectionate farewell with the Ephesian elders. Although at that time Paul predicted that from among them, some would “arise, speaking perverse things to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:30), it is hard to believe that they all defected within so short a time. So how should we understand Paul’s words?

It may be the hyperbole of a depressed man, so that Paul means, “many in Asia” had not been willing to risk standing with him when he was arrested. Or, it may refer to “all those who were in a position to help” in the aftermath of his arrest. The Christians who had influence with the Roman authorities, who could have gone to them and argued for Paul’s release, had instead drawn back out of embarrassment or fear. They didn’t want to risk being implicated with Paul on the charge of spreading sedition. Maybe it would hurt their business. So they played it safe to save themselves.

Probably some of these defectors owed their salvation to Paul, humanly speaking. He had spent time nurturing them and teaching them how to live as Christians. He had prayed for them. I can say from personal experience that it is discouraging when you have ministered to people, only to have ringleaders stir up a controversy in the church. Rumors and false accusations are spread behind your back. People that you have personally cared for leave the church without even coming to talk to you. But I take comfort that the same thing happened to Paul. So why should I expect better treatment? When that happens, you need a man like Onesiphorus.

B. A refresher seeks out the person in need and ministers to him.

Onesiphorus didn’t tell Paul, “If you ever need anything, let me know.” Rather than thinking about himself and how inconvenient it would be to travel to Rome and find Paul, Onesiphorus demonstrated selfless love, courage, and faithfulness by seeking out Paul. He ministered in four ways:

(1). A refresher ministers by his presence.

He just showed up! We don’t know a single word that he said, but his presence spoke volumes. Just going to be with someone in his or her time of need says, “I care about you and I’m here to stand with you.” Sometimes when someone has suffered the loss of a loved one or some other severe crisis, we hesitate to visit because we don’t know what to say. The best thing is probably to say very little. Job’s comforters sat silently with him for seven days, but they got into trouble when they opened their mouths and tried to explain the reason for his trials. Just ask the hurting person questions and let him talk. Or, sit with him in silence.

A magazine once asked the readers for their definitions of a friend. The one that won said, “A friend—the one who comes in when the whole world has gone out.”

(2). A refresher ministers by his acceptance.

Paul writes that Onesiphorus “was not ashamed of my chains.” He didn’t cast disparaging looks at Paul’s chains as they clanked in that dungeon. Nor did he ignore them as if they weren’t there. I’m sure that he didn’t tell Paul that if he just had enough faith, God would deliver him. He didn’t share the story of how God had delivered Peter from prison, thus implying, “What’s wrong with you, Paul?” He didn’t offer advice: “Paul, next time you need to be a little more tactful in your preaching.” He just accepted Paul, stench and wretched conditions and all.

This doesn’t mean that we should allow someone to wallow in self-pity or sinful thoughts endlessly without correction. There is a time when we must help a friend think biblically and move on with life. But we all need the refreshment of a friend who accepts our chains without condemnation.

(3). A refresher ministers by his cheerfulness.

The text does not specifically say that Onesiphorus was cheerful. But based on the fact that Paul was refreshed (the Greek word has the idea of a breath of fresh air), I conclude that Onesiphorus didn’t come under a giant gloom cloud complaining, “Ooh, Paul, it’s bad out there. Nero is killing all the Christians. Many are defecting from the faith. I, only I, am left and they are seeking my life, too.” Maybe it was Onesiphorus who suggested, “Paul, you may be in chains, but the word of God is not” (2:9).

I’m not saying that Onesiphorus was Mr. Pollyanna Positive, who ignored reality. The two men no doubt talked about those who were defecting (1:15). But I surmise that the main thrust of their conversation was on God’s faithfulness and how the gospel was changing lives. When Onesiphorus left, Paul was filled with renewed hope and encouragement in the Lord. When you minister to someone in need, you don’t need to avoid reality and pretend that everything is rosy when it’s not. But your overall demeanor should reflect the joy and hope that we have in Christ.

Thus a refresher seeks out a person in need and ministers by his presence, his acceptance, and his cheerfulness. Also,

(4). A refresher ministers by his persistent focus on others.

Paul says, “he often refreshed me.” He reminds Timothy (1:18), “you know very well what services he rendered at Ephesus.” This was Onesiphorus’ lifestyle, to look for ways to refresh others.

There is only one explanation for his track record: he was focused on the Lord and others, not on himself. Many go around thinking, “I need to have my needs met.” They often leave church disappointed that others did not meet their needs. Their focus was on themselves.

On the other hand, there are those that are always thinking, “Lord, use me to minister to others.” The interesting thing is that these servants usually are fulfilled and satisfied with the joy of the Lord. When the tired disciples first served the loaves and fishes to the hungry multitude, they discovered that they each got a full basket of leftovers. So the first mark of a refresher is that he seeks out those in need and ministers by his presence, his acceptance, his cheerfulness, and his persistent focus on others.

2. A refresher bucks crowd opinion to serve selflessly.

Crowd opinion is always selfish: “Protect yourself! Look out for number one! I wouldn’t get involved like that if I were you. You’ll only get hurt!” But Onesiphorus wasn’t swayed by such notions. This brief sketch reveals three things about selfless service:

A. Selfless service is based on conviction.

To do what Onesiphorus did, you must operate on the conviction that you are called to serve rather than to be served. Sometimes this means going against crowd opinion to stand alone with those who aren’t popular. Some of the believers in Ephesus had turned against Paul or at least were ignoring him in his time of need. But sometimes even the Christian crowd is wrong. We need to follow Christ, not the crowd.

I sometimes watch the evening news while I’m exercising. There is a commercial right now that I appreciate. The scene is at a high school. A bully knocks the books out of the hand of a weaker boy, while the bully’s friends jeer. But another boy walks over, asks the boy if he’s all right, and helps him pick up his books. I don’t know who sponsors the ad, but it encourages young people to have the conviction to do the right thing.

At church, I sometimes notice people talking to their friends, while a visitor sits alone nearby. We’ve gone to churches on vacation where no one made an effort to talk with us, even though we hung around after the service. It’s not a great feeling. The golden rule would say, “Treat a newcomer as you would want to be treated.” But to do it you have to have the conviction to say to your friends, “Let’s go over and meet that new person.” Otherwise, you’ll go along with the crowd.

B. Selfless service is not convenient for the person serving.

Paul says (1:17), “he eagerly searched for me and found me.” Just getting from Ephesus to Rome was no small feat in those days. But when he finally got to that huge city, Onesiphorus had to look all over for Paul. The prison officials were probably suspicious of anyone trying to track down a prisoner, and they usually weren’t noted for their helpful customer service. But Onesiphorus persisted until he found Paul.

Some have suggested, and it may be likely, that because Paul sends greetings to the household of Onesiphorus (4:19), but not to Onesiphorus himself, that perhaps he had also been imprisoned or executed because of his association with Paul in Rome. The main problem with that view is that then it seems that Paul is offering a prayer for the dead when he says (1:18), “The Lord grant to him to find mercy from the Lord on that day.” The Catholic Church uses that verse to support prayers for the dead.

But the idea that our prayers could change the eternal destiny of someone that has died goes against all of Scripture. The moment a person dies, if he has believed in Jesus Christ as His Savior he goes instantly to heaven. Or he goes to hell because he rejected Christ. There is no such place as Purgatory, and all of the prayers in the world cannot get a deceased person into heaven if he died as an unbeliever. So we must understand Paul’s words as a sympathetic desire that the Lord will reward Onesiphorus for his sacrificial service.

But whether he died or not, it was not convenient for Onesiphorus to minister to Paul in these difficult conditions. It seldom is convenient to serve. Of course, there are times when we must say no to requests or opportunities to serve simply because we are finite and must juggle other demands. But we’ve all got to fight against the selfish mentality that only serves when it’s convenient. Usually, it’s not!

C. Selfless service is not convenient for the family of the one serving.

Both in verse 16 and in 4:19, Paul mentions the family or household of Onesiphorus. Paul’s request that the Lord grant them mercy shows that they had to pay a price by releasing Onesiphorus to serve Paul.

I do not agree with those who sacrifice their families on the altar of ministry. One of the most tragic stories that I have read was written by the daughter of the late Bob Pierce, who founded World Vision. He was gone for months every year, preaching in Asia while his family was floundering without him in California. His marriage finally broke up and one daughter committed suicide. The daughter who wrote the book had to work through many deep problems as a result of her father’s abandoning the family. The Bible is clear that a man’s family must be in order before he is qualified to serve as a leader in the local church. It requires adequate time together as a family to foster healthy relationships.

Yet at the same time, a family needs to be committed to serving the body of Christ. It’s not right to focus on the family to the detriment of serving Christ. That just fosters selfish living. I like the balance that Edith Schaeffer describes in What is a Family? [Revell, 1975]. As you may know, the Schaeffer’s raised their children at L’Abri in an open home, where many people came at all hours. In one chapter, Mrs. Schaeffer describes the family as a door with hinges and a lock. The hinges open to welcome those in need, but the lock gives the family time to grow and be refreshed for ministry. They did not damage their family by over-commitment to ministry, and yet they instilled in their children a ministry-mindset.

Thus a refresher seeks out a person in need. He bucks crowd opinion to serve selflessly. Finally,

3. A refresher will be rewarded by the Lord.

He will receive “mercy from the Lord on that day.” “That day” is the day of judgment, as we saw in 1:12. Paul was living in view of “that day.” You may wonder, “Why does a servant like Onesiphorus need mercy on that day?” Phygelus and Hermogenes need mercy! But why Onesiphorus?

The answer is, we all need mercy from the Lord on that day! Perhaps Paul was echoing Jesus’ Beatitude (Matt. 5:7), “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” It is not that anyone can earn or deserve mercy because of his good deeds. We all deserve God’s judgment, because we all have sinned. Even servants like Onesiphorus have to battle selfishness on a daily basis. So we all must cast ourselves on God’s mercy as our only hope for eternity.

I read about an 11-year-old boy who got his first job working at a garden center. His dad was anxious about his first day on the job, so he stopped by before noon to check on him. He sensed that something was wrong, especially when he saw a tear trickle down his son’s cheek. The boy explained, “When I came to work this morning, they said they’d pay me 50 cents an hour. I’ve been here three hours now, and nobody’s been around with my 50 centses!”

If you get involved in the ministry of refreshment, you need to remember that story. The rewards will be handed out in eternity. You may or may not see rewards in this life. The world may think you’re stupid to sacrifice yourself for others and the church may forget to recognize you at the awards ceremony. But the Lord does not forget. He will be merciful to you on that day.


In one sentence, the Bible writes the biographies of Phygelus and Hermogenes: they turned away from Paul in his time of need. Whether because of fear or embarrassment or selfish motives, they did not minister refreshment. In another sentence, the Bible writes the biography of Onesiphorus: he often refreshed Paul and was not ashamed of his chains.

How would the Bible write your biography in one sentence? Do you seek out those in need to minister refreshment? Do you serve selflessly, no matter what others are saying or doing? If so, the Lord will reward you in that day.

Application Questions

  1. Is it right to focus on our own needs before we focus on others’ needs? Where is the biblical balance?
  2. Where is the biblical balance between time together as a family versus time ministering away from the family?
  3. Since we’re all different, how can we know whether a hurting person wants our presence or wants to be alone?
  4. Is it wrong to serve in order to be rewarded at the judgment? Is this selfish?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Spiritual Gifts, Fellowship, Empower

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