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The Faithless Many And The Faithful One

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You know this, that as a whole the people who live in Asia deserted me, and among the deserters are Phygelus and Hermogenes. May the Lord give mercy to the family of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain. So far from that, when he arrived in Rome he eagerly sought me out and found me—may the Lord grant to him mercy from the Lord on that day—and you know better than I do the many services he rendered in Ephesus.

Here is a passage in which pathos and joy are combined. In the end the same thing happened to Paul as happened to Jesus, his Master. His friends forsook him and fled. In the New Testament Asia is not the continent of Asia, but the Roman province which consisted of the western part of Asia Minor. Its capital was the city of Ephesus. When Paul was imprisoned his friends abandoned him—most likely out of fear. The Romans would never have proceeded against him on a purely religious charge; the Jews must have persuaded them that he was a dangerous troublemaker and disturber of the public peace. There can be no doubt that in the end Paul would be held on a political charge. To be a friend of a man like that was dangerous; and in his hour of need his friends from Asia abandoned him because they were afraid for their own safety.

But however others might desert, one man was loyal to the end. His name was Onesiphorus, which means profitable. P. N. Harrison draws a vivid picture of Onesiphorus’s search for Paul in Rome: “We seem to catch glimpses of one purposeful face in a drifting crowd, and follow with quickening interest this stranger from the 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. Having once found his way Onesiphorus is not content with a single visit, but true to his name, proves unwearied in his ministrations. Others have flinched from the menace and ignominy of that chain; but this visitor counts it the supreme privilege of his life to share with such a criminal the reproach of the Cross. One series of turnings in the vast labyrinth (of the streets of Rome) he comes to know as if it were his own Ephesus.” There is no doubt that, when Onesiphorus sought out Paul and came to see him again and again, he took his life in his hands. It was dangerous to keep asking where a certain criminal could be found; it was dangerous to visit him; it was still more dangerous to keep on visiting him; but that is what Onesiphorus did.

Again and again the Bible brings us face to face with a question which is real for every one of us. Again and again it introduces and dismisses a man from the stage of history with a single sentence. Hermogenes and Phygelus—we know nothing whatever of them beyond their names and the fact that they were traitors to Paul. Onesiphorus—we know nothing of him except that in his loyalty to Paul he risked—and perhaps lost—his life. Hermogenes and Phygelus go down to history branded as deserters; Onesiphorus goes down to history as the friend who stuck closer than a brother. If we were to be described in one sentence, what would it be? Would it be the verdict on a traitor, or the verdict on a disciple who was true?

Before we leave this passage we must note that in one particular connection it is a storm centre. Each one must form his own opinion, but there are many who feel that the implication is that Onesiphorus is dead. It is for his family that Paul first prays. Now if he was dead, this passage shows us Paul praying for the dead, for it shows him praying that Onesiphorus may find mercy on the last day.

Prayers for the dead are a much-disputed problem which we do not intend to discuss here. But one thing we can say—to the Jews prayers for the dead were by no means unknown. In the days of the Maccabaean wars there was a battle between the troops of Judas Maccabaeus and the army of Gorgias, the governor of Idumaea, which ended in a victory for Judas Maccabaeus. After the battle the Jews were gathering the bodies of those who had fallen in battle. On each one of them they found “things consecrated to the idols of the Jamnites, which is forbidden the Jews by the law.” What is meant is that the dead Jewish soldiers were wearing heathen amulets in a superstitious attempt to protect their lives. The story goes on to say that every man who had been slain was wearing such an amulet and it was because of this that he was in fact slain. Seeing this, Judas and all the people prayed that the sin of these men “might be wholly put out of remembrance.” Judas then collected money and made a sin-offering for those who had fallen, because they believed that, since there was a resurrection, it was not superfluous “to pray and offer sacrifices for the dead.” The story ends with the saying of Judas Maccabaeus that “it was an holy and good thing to pray for the dead. Whereupon he made a reconciliation for the dead, that they might be delivered from sin” (2 Maccabees 12:39–45).

It is clear that Paul was brought up in a way of belief which saw in prayers for the dead, not a hateful, but a lovely thing. This is a subject on which there has been long and bitter dispute; but this one thing we can and must say—if we love a person with all our hearts, and if the remembrance of that person is never absent from our minds and memories, then, whatever the intellect of the theologian may say about it, the instinct of the heart is to remember such a one in prayer, whether he is in this or in any other world.

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