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Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters
ONESIPHORUS was an elder in the Church of Ephesus, and a better elder there never was. Paul is but taking Onesiphorus's portrait when he says that an elder must be blameless, vigilant, sober, humble-minded, given to hospitality, one that ruleth his own house well, having his children in subjection with all gravity; moreover, he must have a good report of them that are without. Altogether, a striking likeness of a rare and a remarkable man. Paul had been Onesiphorus's minister for three years, and they had been three years of great labours and great sufferings on Paul's part, and you come to know your elders pretty well in three years like Paul's three years in Ephesus. The sacred writer has supplied his readers with Paul's farewell address to the elders of Ephesus, and a right noble address it is. "You know," he said, "from the first day I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons. Therefore, watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one of you night and day with tears. And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them that are sanctified." And from that he goes on to give us the great scene on the seashore, when Onesiphorus fell on Paul's neck, and could not be torn off Paul's neck till the ship had almost sailed away without Paul. Onesiphorus sorrowing most of all at the words which Paul spake that he should see his face no more. And, no wonder at Onesiphorus's inconsolable sorrow, since it is a universal and an absolute law that you love a man, and cannot part from him, just in the measure that you have long loved him, and done him good, and suffered for his sake in time past. All the elders in Ephesus loved Paul, and had good reason to love him, but all taken together they did not love Paul as Onesiphorus did. For it was Onesiphorus, more than all his colleagues in the eldership of Ephesus, who had kept the apostle alive during those three years of such temptations and so many tears. Many and many a time Paul would have fainted altogether had it not been for Onesiphorus. It was of those heartbreaking years of his in Ephesus that Paul was thinking when he said to Timothy that an elder must be vigilant, and hospitable, and not a novice. That is to say, Onesiphorus never let Paul out of his sight, day nor night, all those three trying years to Paul. "Night and day with tears," is Paul's own summing up of his three years' ministry in Ephesus. But, then, Onesiphorus always wiped away Paul's tears faster than Paul shed them, such was his extraordinary vigilance and hospitality towards Paul. Many were the nights when after a trying day and then a refreshing supper Onesiphorus would give out this well-selected psalm at family worship-
Who sow in tears, a reaping time
Of joy enjoy they shall.
That man who, bearing precious seed,
In going forth doth mourn,
He doubtless, bringing back his sheaves,
Rejoicing shall return.
It was of those many Sabbath evening supperparties that Paul remembered and wrote to Timothy in his Second Epistle to him: "How oft Onesiphorus refreshed me, and in how many things he ministered to me at Ephesus, thou knowest very well."
Now before we leave Ephesus and go to Rome with Onesiphorus, there is a lesson and an example here both for ministers who would fain imitate Paul, and for elders who would fain imitate Onesiphorus. Our ministers all have their own tears and temptations like the apostle. All men, indeed, have their own temptations and tears, but it is ministers we have now in hand. Our ministers, over and above the tears and the temptations which they share with all other men, have their own peculiar tears and temptations which it takes all Onesiphorus's vigilance to find out, and all his hospitality to alleviate. But, with all that, none of these things must move our ministers. They must only all the more bury themselves in their work. They must let none of these things move them but to more and to better work. They must not let the praise of men, nor anything that man can do for them, be dear to them. Nothing must really be dear to our ministers but to finish their course with joy, and their ministry, which they have received of the Lord Jesus. At the same time, there is always plenty of scope for Onesiphorus, and for all his vigilance, alongside of every such ministry. I do not remember that it is in as many words in our elders' ordination oath, that they are always to refresh their minister's heart when he would otherwise faint. But Onesiphorus did it out of his own vigilance of love, never thinking whether it was in his ordination oath or no. And I myself have been as well looked after as ever Paul was, and far better. I have always had elders myself, who, with all their own occupations and preoccupations, never let me out of their vigilant minds and hospitable hearts. I could give you their names, and I am tempted to do so in order to give point and authority to what I am now saying. But I daresay you all know the names of those elders yourselves. For such elders as Onesiphorus was do not content themselves with refreshing their minister's heart only; they carry out their holy office to all the flock over the which the Holy Ghost hath made them overseers. The whole world knows Onesiphorus's name now; and even in our own so unapostolic day, the house of Onesiphorus still holds on its vigilant and hospitable way.
But all that is years and years ago. And things have by this time come to this pass with Paul that he is now ready to be offered up, and the time of his departure is at hand. In other words, the apostle is just about to be brought before Nero for the second time, and everybody knows what that means. Now it is out of these circumstances that Paul pens these beautiful words to Timothy: "When Onesiphorus arrived in Rome, and was there, he sought me out with all the greater diligence that he knew I was in chains, till at last he found me." Now there are two interpretations of these words, and you are free to take either of those two interpretations that best commends itself to you. What do you think? How are you led to read this passage about Onesiphorus and his visit to Rome? Do you think it would be this? That Onesiphorus, being a business man, had some mercantile errand to Rome; and then, after his hands were free of that matter he bethought himself that he would like to see his old minister before he returned home to Ephesus? Or does your heart revolt from that poor and mean and contemptible interpretation? And do you stand up for it, that it was something far better than the very best business-errand that brought Onesiphorus all the stormy way from Asia to Italy? Was it not once more to see his dearest friend on earth with whom he had so often transacted the great business of the soul, till he had by this time a great treasure laid up in heaven? If any of you owe your own soul, or your children's souls, to any minister, that entitles you to interpret this passage to us, and to say whether it was business or religion, money or love, that brought Onesiphorus to Rome toward the close of Paul's second imprisonment. Like all other interpreters, you will understand Onesiphorus just according to what you would have done yourself had you been in his place. Whatever it was that brought Onesiphorus from Ephesus to Rome, we are left in no doubt at all as to what he did before he left Rome and returned to Ephesus. Paul might be the greatest of the apostles to Onesiphorus, and he may be all that and far more than all that to you and to me, but he was only "Number So and so" to the soldier who was chained night and day to Paul's right hand. You would not have known Paul from any incognisable convict in our own penal settlements. Paul was simply "Number 5," or "Number 50," or "Number 500," or some such number. From one barrack-prison therefore to another Onesiphorus went about seeking for Paul day after day, week after week, often insulted, often threatened, often ill-used, often arrested and detained, till he was set free again only after great suffering and great expense. Till, at last, his arms were round Paul's neck, and the two old men were kissing one another and weeping to the amazement of all the prisoners who saw the scene. Noble-hearted Onesiphorus! We bow down before thee. What a coal of holy love must have burned in thy saintly bosom! Thou hast taught us all a much-needed lesson tonight. For we also have friends, and especially in the ministry, whose backs are often at the wall, whose names are often under a cloud, and who are forsaken of all men who should have stood by them. May we all come to be of thy vigilant and hospitable household! May we all have thy life-long and unquenchable loyalty to all those who suffer for righteousness' sake!
But now, my brethren, with all that, let us take very good care that the warmth of our present feelings over Onesiphorus does not all evaporate with this apostrophe to Onesiphorus. Let us not only admire and exalt Onesiphorus, let us forthwith imitate him. Let us, like him, seek out, and that too with all diligence, those who need, and especially those who deserve, our sympathy and our support. Ministers especially. Let us write them a letter of sympathy, let us make them a visit of sympathy, let us send them a gift of sympathy. Let us, in such ways as these, refresh them under their chains. Let us make them to feel that they are not so forgotten or so forsaken as they think they are. And this also. Like Onesiphorus also let us bring up our children to the same life of love. Let us take them with us sometimes when we go about doing good. Let them taste early the sweetness of doing good. And especially the sweetness and the reward of doing good to the suffering and the fainting in the household of faith. Let us set them to visit some godly and lonely old soul who will pray down present-day and last-day blessings on our head and on their heads, as Paul here does on the head of Onesiphorus and on the heads of his household. Send your children to the Sick Children's Hospital on the Sabbath afternoons with books and flowers. Send the older ones to the Infirmary and to the Incurable Hospital with the same and other gifts. And go to the prison yourself like Onesiphorus in Rome. And do it at once, before all this about Paul and Onesiphorus evaporates off your heart and leaves it harder than it was before. For if it all evaporates off your heart it had been better you had never heard Onesiphorus's noble name. We have all seen tonight Onesiphorus in Ephesus and in Rome, and we shall all see him at least once again; only, not in this world. We shall all see him again, but not till "that day," as Paul has it in the text. We have had too short time to give to him and to ourselves tonight, but there will be no such hurry on "that day." For that will be a long day. An immense amount of divine business will have to be taken up and gone through on that day. Do you think that the accounts of the whole world could be got through in a day such as we have hitherto counted days? Almighty God Himself will not be able to do it in a day of twelve hours. No, nor in twenty-four hours. And you may depend upon it He will not once rise off His great white throne till He is justified in all His judgments. There will be plenty of time that day. There will be all eternity to draw upon to make up that day. The sun will stand still as soon as he is well up, and he will not set till the last deed of mercy done on the earth has been sought out, and its reward made to run over. In spite of itself your left hand will be made to know on that day all that your right hand has hidden from it in this world: in Ephesus, and in Rome, and in Edinburgh. I was led a few moments ago to speak by way of illustration of some of our own Onesiphorus-elders. And one of them, who often refreshed his ministers, used to sit up there in the front gallery. I see him still as I now speak. It was dear Donald Beith. He will get a surprise on that day. He also will be found out on that day. Nay, I have found him out myself before that day. And since he is not here to deny it, I will tell you what you will hear about him from better lips than mine on that day. This will be told in your hearing, and you will say that you once heard it before in your accepted time, and in your day of salvation. More than one dark night my great friend sent his servant out to Fountainbridge, and up a dark stair, where a godly old soul lived without food or clothes or coals. The servant had strict injunctions to lay the heavy parcels up against the door, and then to knock and knock till he heard the deaf old cripple crawling toward the door, when he was to escape down the stair and out into the dark night like a thief from a detective. Donald Beith was a wily old Edinburgh lawyer, but I found him out sometimes, and you will see him with your own eyes found out again, to his consternation, on that day. What a day of surprises that day will be! What a day of leaping of all kinds of secrets to everlasting light will that day be! No wonder Paul so often calls it "that day," and the "day of Christ," and many suchlike great names. What a surprise, surprise after surprise, will Paul and Onesiphorus get on that day, and all stealthy and backstair men like Donald Beith. I think I see Paul, and Onesiphorus, and Donald Beith, and his Fountainbridge friend, all on one another's necks on that day, with their Saviour smiling over them as He sees of the travail of His soul in them, and proclaims that He is satisfied. O my God, may I be among them and one of them on that day; both I and all those whom Thou hast given me! The Lord grant unto me also that both I and they may find mercy of the Lord in that day!
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Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Onesiphorus'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wbc/o/onesiphorus.html. 1901.