2 Timothy 1:15-18 “You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes. 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.”
The Lord Jesus once told his disciples, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household” (Matt. 10:34-36). Following Christ brings division into a family. Then Jesus also told his disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13:34&35). In the first word Jesus warned that his claims and his discipleship were bound to bring division into the world, even into the most sacred of institutions, that of marriage. Jesus did not say, “Marriage relationship trumps everything else. Nothing must divide members of a family.” He did not say that. Our relationship with the God who made us and sustains us and then saves favoured men and women and keeps them, providing all their needs – our worship of him and the service we give him is our first obligation. Nothing may get priority over that. He tells us we are to love God more than we love our own spouses or parents or children. And this Jesus brings a sword into a country, into a friendship and into a family.
And so it was when he travelled around Galilee and Jerusalem and preached to them the people were divided over him. Some said he was the prophet, even the Messiah, while others said he was the ambassador of the devil. And so it’s been with his disciples. They divided communities and synagogues when they preached Christ and his claims. And yet they were under obligation to love these people, to love their neighbours as themselves, to love them as Christ loved them, patiently and forgivingly, and that meant not holding back any of the claims of Christ to be the only name under heaven given amongst men whereby we must be saved. Jesus warned of these two unavoidable realities that come from following him: there will be division and there will be enduring love. And if we are a true gospel congregation, and if I am a true gospel preacher, then both those realities will be present here, there will be division, and there will be love. And I am saying that in this passage before us today we see both those realities as they were experienced and commented on by Paul to Timothy. He spoke of what he had gone through. He did not think that telling Timothy of the sadness and also the delights that the conduct of professing Christians had brought into his life was something private. God the Holy Spirit, writing through Paul, was not gossiping or speaking ill of people whose identity he reveals to us, those who had betrayed Paul. God names them. Paul needed to say these things and so we need to ask what they can teach us. But then a man who loved Paul and showed his love magnificently is also named. The warnings and the examples are here for us to study and learn from, negatively and positively.
- THE PROFESSING CHURCH IN ASIAEN MASSE TURNED AGAINST PAUL.
“You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes.” It is an incredible statement. You have to read it twice and think of what it is saying. He is referring to the Christian church in the province of Asia. Remember there were no denominations at this time. There was one collection of congregations, the churches of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth, the body of Christ. The province of Asia consisted of the nation we know today as ‘Turkey’ but then was a centre of Greek influence. It was in the Roman Empire. It was a huge area. Paul is in prison in Rome and he writes and sends this letter. It is taken from Italy in a boat across the Adriatic to Greece, from its west cost to the east on land, and then onto another boat and across the Aegean Sea to Ephesus, the most prominent town in the Province of Asia, right in the middle of the west coast of the land. Paul in prison a thousand miles away, knows the situation there in Asia, and that Timothy is standing alone. The defections are staggering. Once Paul had been again locked up in prison and not likely to be let out again, never going to visit the seven churches in Asia, those congregation abandoned him, including their most famous preachers, Phygelus and Hermogenes (how strange those names seem to us, like the names of drugs – “Rub a little Phygelus in it every day . . . and take a Hermogenes tablet first thing in the morning.” But these men was not a physic but a poison). They could have been men who actually owed their conversion to Paul and certainly their understanding of the person and work of Christ and free justification and pardon from him. We know nothing at all about them except their names here.
They had jumped ship and had taken the churches with them, because preachers have influence over men and at that time particularly so because other letters and gospels were slow in circulating. God gave other gifts until the canon of Scripture was complete, words of wisdom and knowledge, prophecies and tongues and interpretations, and one can see how easily claimants of having those gifts could tell a congregation something like this, “A word has come from God to say that Paul could no longer be relied on to be their apostle and a messenger from God. Now God had raised up Phygelus and Hermogenes. Hallelujah!” You can imagine the prophecies in their meetings of the glorious future lying before them, of the desert blossoming like the rose, and new rain falling on the land and a great revival coming and everybody had to be busy and active; “Let’s close the chapter of Paul and let’s get into this exciting new chapter of Phygelus and Hermogenes.” It would have been absolutely intoxicating, and young Timothy was under such pressure from the mass exodus of the surrounding congregations to join them in leaving Paul. Was he accused of pride, and being a loner, and a difficult man, and a youth that he didn’t seem at all enthusiastic about these developments in the other six churches, that he was absent from presbytery and association meetings?
The fact of this secession is the connection with what Paul has been telling Timothy in the earlier verses; “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you – guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us” (vv.13&14). “Timothy don’t be bought by their smiles, by their offer to make you the new moderator, or area superintendent, or the principal of their new training school of prophets. Timothy don’t be frightened by their frowns because remember what I have told you already in this letter, “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline” (v.7) and so you must fan into flame the gift that God has given you and be a burning and a shining light in the province of Asia as the churches are going down the tubes”. Their desertion of the apostle certainly means that they had abandoned their loyalty to Paul, and if that is the case then that would mean they had abandoned his gospel because the only way you could desert someone a thousand miles away in prison would be to abandon his theology, and that is how this word ‘desert’ is used in these pastoral epistles (in the fourth chapter and verse 4 and also in Titus chapter one and verse 14).
So let us understand this. Paul had not relinquished his office as Christ’s apostle. The Son of God had not decommissioned him. The Lord was still using him, inspiring him to write this his final letter to its jots and tittles. Paul had not become heretical in any way at all, what he teaches us the Lord Jesus is teaching us still today. Paul had not become immoral. He had not had an affair with a slave girl who had gone to him for counsel whom he’d got emotionally and unwisely and sinfully involved in. There was no hint of scandal whatsoever. What he told Christian men to do, to treat older women as mothers and younger women as sisters, Paul himself did. More than that, Paul was full of the Holy Spirit. By anyone’s definition of being baptized by the Spirit, the apostle was baptized in the Spirit, and by any examination of his ministry he had been the most successful of all church planters, taking the gospel to Asia.
Especially we know he had taken it into Galatia, and Colosse, and Laodicea, and Ephesus, and Pisidian Antioch and then across the Aegean he had sailed to Philippi and Thessalonica and Corinth and Athens and he had left behind him thriving churches whom he constantly prayed for and wrote letters to. He was the supreme evangelist, and church planter, and preacher and counselor and theologian, and he had written for the early church the definitive work on the nature of the Christian gospel in his letter to the Romans. These men and these congregation had abandoned him. They had deserted him during a time of a mighty work of the Holy Spirit in spreading the gospel through Europe. It was not a barren time, without much oil of the Spirit helping the wheels of Christian living and evangelism to turn sweetly and quickly. The Spirit of God was there in abundance and Peter was preaching and he had just written a letter to the churches in the province of Asia and his theology was 100 percent in harmony with what Paul believed and preached. And yet at such a blessed time people en masse left the pattern of sound teaching that Paul had given them, the good deposit that God had entrusted to them. They had abandoned that to follow two little men! Timothy was very much on his own and so Paul writes to him and then you see the wisdom of all he says in these first dozen verses about stirring into flame the gift of God, and that God had given Timothy a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline, and that Timothy was not to be ashamed of Paul being in prison in Rome.
“Suffer with me! This is my gospel,” Paul tells him, “God has saved us and called us to a holy life – not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” Was that the new gospel that Phygelus and Hermogenes were preaching? Paul tells Timothy had God had appointed him a herald and an apostle and a teacher of that old gospel. It has brought him a life of suffering but he told Timothy, “Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.” So Timothy do not be ashamed of standing alone! Do you see now where this letter was coming from, the historical context in which it was written, and Timothy, being alone and ostracized, needed to be reminded that he had the Holy Spirit living in him (v.14). He was not alone in having to resist all these pressures from the errorists who had left Paul; “You are not alone Timothy. The Holy Spirit could not be any closer to you. He is living in you!” One with God is in the majority.
So I can turn this fact of the deserting of Paul by the many churches in this way, that we should not be surprised that there was such a mass abandonment in Wales a century and more ago of confessional Christianity, of the historic Christian faith. We are not to be at all surprised that that was the case, and the terrible desert that that has led us into with today’s barrenness and the steady shrinking of the professing church. God has removed the candlestick and the light of Christ has gone out because the theological colleges and the pulpits turned away from confessional Christianity, from the pattern of sound teaching that is found in all of Scripture. There is nothing new or revolutionary about such defection at all! Then I can turn it like this, that if men deserted the apostle who was blameless and holy and knew God and was full of the Holy Spirit then we must not be at all surprised if people leave spiritual pygmies like us.
- SOME CHRISTIANS WERE UTTERLY LOYAL TO THE APOSTLE
So Paul wants Timothy to hear good news from Rome. As Asia was going down, so Romewas going up. It happens doesn’t it, in the history of the churches, certain cities and villages are favoured for a time – Hippo in North Africa, Wittenburg in Germany, Geneva in Switzerland, Kidderminster and Bedford and London in England, Llangeitho and Trefecca and Port Talbot in Wales, Northampton in New England, America. What favoured times those places once knew, and Rome was the place to be when Paul wrote this letter, though he was in prison there. What a congregation to be able to visit and receive and understand and do what Paul had written to them in his letter to the Romans. What spiritual maturity to grasp his mighty teaching which even the apostle Peter acknowledged contained some things hard do be understood. But that congregation in Rome did not only talk the talk they also walked the walk. We see that when Paul opens a window on one of the Christians who came to the city of Rome and was outstanding in what he did for the apostle. This is what he tells us: “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” (vv.16-18).
Isn’t Scripture beautiful? When we are all serious and sad about what happened in Asia and tut-tutting Phygelus and Hermogenes, then suddenly Paul wants to tell Timothy some good news, about what a man from Asia had done for him in Rome, a wonderful, caring, mature believer named Onesiphorus (another curious name. You will never find any Christian parents in Wales sending out birth announcements telling you the date their child was born, the weight of their new-born son, and that his name was . . . wait for it . . . Onesiphorus! I would feel sorry for that little boy carrying that name with him through life, wondering how it would be abbreviated and what nickname would he be given. But Onesiphorus is a magnificent person in the Bible, worthy to have baby boys named after him. Nothing bad about him is recorded in Scripture).
i] Onesiphorus had the spiritual gift of refreshing Christians. Many of you seem to have that gift. What a wonderful gift it is. I sometimes notice you entering a room, and as I sit or stand there my heart leaps with pleasure and anticipation at your appearing. What a precious gift God has given you. You may not have the theological grasp of others and that is sad. You would be a more useful and wiser Christian if you did. That is why God has given us the Bible exactly as it is, but God has given you the grace to refresh other followers of Jesus Christ by your presence and words and works of faith and labours of love. The coming into our lives of an Onesiphorus is like being given a glass of cool water on a hot and sultry day. There are many Christian people like him; they spend perhaps just a short time with you, but afterwards you are a changed man. They’ve lifted you up. You can thank God for them. Things are looking up; they are not as bad as you thought.
You notice what we are reading in this second letter of Paul, how he is actually refreshing Timothy and often in his letters to the churches he does the same thing. He never damns with faint praise. He is never clever or puts people down or expresses his frustration with them. When he addresses the church in Galatia which was departing from the gospel he speaks to them manfully and directly full of loving warnings. Well, let us think of what we can learn from the example of Onesiphorus and maybe some of the ways that we can be engaged in this ministry of refreshment.
A) Let’s be aware of the need to become people with a ministry of refreshment, that we could edify others, that we could comfort them, that we could feel warm affection towards them, that we want them to feel that they really belong in our congregation, that their contribution is worthwhile, So that in every encounter and relationship, though we are witty people, and have stories to tell about what is happening in our world or in our church, we always make it part of our business to refresh them so that after we’ve gone they feel better, they feel that they can cope and are encouraged by our visit.
B) Let’s try to be aware of the needs of the people in our fellowship. Do we know today roughly where many in the congregation stand, what their position is? I’m not speaking of inquisitive prying into the lives of others or developing a censorious and critical attitude, but being aware of the needs of people we greet on Sundays. Who in the congregation is discouraged? Who is close to giving up in various directions? Who is weak? Who is feeble-minded? Where are the problems, and where are the risks, and where do we all stand, and where are the needs? Paul tells Timothy that he was physically cold, that it was chilly in his cell and could he bring a blanket with him, and also he had no intellectual stimulation, no reading matter and so could he bring that with him when he came to Rome, “and by the way, come soon, come before winter.” That is a broad picture of what ministries of refreshment can mean. You think that I know where the needs are in the congregation, and I do know some, but I don’t know all of them, and there are people who will turn to their best friends for help. They say that they do not want to bother the pastor. That’s great, but I think it would be no bother to me. I am not that busy. Do we know where the anxieties and sorrows are? Who is in danger of losing heart and falling by the wayside? Do we know? Then should we move in to refresh them?
C) Again, think of the brother of low degree, the man or woman who is illiterate and lives very modestly, and has no family, has little personality and is prone to discouragement, who slips out of church straight after the service and never fits into any of the congregational groupings. “How can I refresh him?” you could ask yourself. I might or might not be able to help you there. But I know that you could do so by reminding him of God’s love for him, God sending his Son to seek and find and save him, our great High Priest praying for him, our heavenly Father protecting him, meeting all his needs and working all things together for his good. Refresh him with that message so that he will boast in his Lord and take pride in being a son of the king, like the Cornwallpreacher, Billy Bray. Didn’t the Lord say to his disciples who were all deeply flawed men, that from that time he was going to refer to them as his ‘friends,’ that they really mattered to him that much. Refresh one another with your words! How God the Father refreshed God the Son on his mission when his sweat was like drops of blood and he longed for another cup. God sent a messenger to the Garden to refresh the Lord Jesus. God wanted to deliver him from being crushed by a spirit of self-destruction. Tell the little old Christian man that he really matters to God.
D) Maybe the most eminent Christian man in the church, the senior elder, the pastor, a missionary working in Kenya, is secretly a discouraged person. You would never think so. He has been a help to many people for many years, and you would be amazed to consider that he needed the comments of an anonymous Onesiphorus. But consider Elijah so soon after his mighty triumph on Carmelhow low he became, virtually suicidal and feeling no better than all his fathers who’d failed to stop the rot in Israel. He needed a personal word from God and a recommission. So God spoke to him and refreshed his servant.
E) Let’s trust the Holy Spirit to help us. By his power we can refresh those who are grieving over the death of a loved one, those who are caring for spouses that have dementia, those who are suffering or imprisoned for their faith – standing side by side with those cruelly treated. Sympathizing with the afflicted, those being chastened by God, those going through a period of spiritual desertion, those who are dry and weary because the thorn in the flesh given to them is not easy to bear. Move in and try to refresh them. God can mightily bless lisping, stammering words. People are carrying heavy loads and they are almost sinking under the weight of the yoke. Get alongside them and help them bear it. Move in with the inspiration of the Word of God. You really can become an Onesiphorus, but you won’t be one until you try, asking the Spirit of God to help you. Be in your place on Sunday and ask God to lead you in your conversations afterwards and see how you respond to the people God brings to you. You can refresh some people who are here today. Isn’t that one of the reasons that we gather on the Lord’s Day, that we are refreshed, that our struggles are worthwhile and we can drink the cup that God has given us, and do something for God in our lives. I should be saying during the Sunday announcements that the two ‘refreshments’ next Sunday will be at 10.30 and 6, and the Tuesday night ‘refreshment’ is at 7.30. So Onesiphorus had the gift of refreshing a Christian in need.
ii] His ministry of refreshing was at times unrewarding and demanding. We are told that he “searched hard for Paul until he found him.” Paul was simply a statistic in the great city where there were dozens of prisons and finding the cell where one inconsequential man was incarcerated was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Onesiphorus was from Asia a thousand miles away. He didn’t know his way around, and Nero had set alight to a large area of the city and blamed the Christians. There was a new spirit of fear and suspicion and locked doors, and they didn’t want to make inquiries about arrested men and the Christians weren’t looking for Paul – shame on them. So Onesiphorus was on his own, a foreigner in the biggest city in the world, but he went to one prison and talked there to some folk. They were unhelpful members of the staff, and then they may have suggested another prison, he went there and no one had heard of the apostle, and they suggested another but he drew a blank there too, and another, and another. Doors slammed; suspicious eyes were turned on him; he was asking dangerous questions, but Onesiphorus didn’t give up. His love for his Saviour and his love for the apostle constrained him to keep on walking from one prison to another, and finally what joy when he was allowed into one prison and there he met Paul. What holy kisses and thanks to God they both gave, and then he found out what Paul needed and arranged to get things for him, but most of all his refreshing Paul was in terms of Christian fellowship and truth and holy love. No one else was seeking out Paul. Everyone else was leaving it to someone else – they didn’t know who but they reckoned someone was looking after Paul. Only this brother didn’t give up, and he refused to give up until he found him. He didn’t salve his conscience after a day or two by saying that he had tried. No one could have searched for Paul more thoroughly than he had, and that was true, and he was weary and lonely, but the hymn tells us that when we have reached the limit of our resources then God giveth and giveth and giveth again. One way you know that you have a gift from God is persistence in exercising it in the face of much discouragement. Always abound in the work of the Lord.
iii] Onesiphorus had always been like this. These two men had thing going on, a past, a relationship of work and labour and fellowship in Christ. It was well known in the church in Ephesus where Timothy was the pastor. Paul says, “You know very well in how many ways he helped me in Ephesus” (v.18). They were both beloved members of the congregation and maybe they did door to door work together and arranged meetings and spoke at them, and Onesiphorus helped Paul in many ways. The gifts of the Spirit come to us in regeneration by the indwelling of the Spirit, and we continue to develop them and exercise them throughout our discipleship. If you asked Paul to write a reference for Onesiphorus then he would say those three words of our text, “He helped me.” He helped Paul years ago in the fledgling church in Asia and then in the last weeks of Paul’s life in Europe he was still helping him. He has received a charisma from God and he steadfastly exercised it year after year.
iv] God noticed Onesiphorus’s work and will reward it. You see what Paul says? He says it twice and he says it very carefully. He prays that the Lord will show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus. Then he repeats it with a slight variation and with what we call an eschatological perspective; “May the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day!” We know nothing about the household of Onesiphorus except that his parents (if they were still alive) and his wife and children were all a thousand miles away from him in the east in Ephesus. He was a long way from home, and it seems that Paul (who knew the family well, and who was probably much indebted to them for hospitality during his time in Ephesus), was concerned for them with their head and bread-winner so far away. Maybe there were some dangers or illnesses and Paul prays that God will show mercy to them and that they will all be united one day again.
But then he his mind moves on and he thinks of a far more important day when sinners may receive immediate and personal mercy from the Lord’s lips. There is a day coming when we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ to receive recompence and reward for the deeds we have done in our bodies. The great Shepherd will gather together his sheep and will separate them from the goats. As I have often told you, we live in a moral universe, that the God who has blessed us with intelligence and health and strength and loving families is going to evaluate how we spent our lives, and see whether we ate and drank and worked and rested and lived doing everything to his glory, or did we do it all according to our own devices? “What have you been sowing until today? Because what you have sowed that you will also reap.”
Now you would think that Paul would say of Onesiphorus, “Of course he will be fine! No fear about where he will spend eternity. Once saved, always saved. He will get a great entrance into the kingdom of God. The Lord will reward him greatly in that day for his life and labours.” We tend to think like that and talk like that, particularly when we are talking about other Christians whom we admire, but if we heard people saying things like that about us – that we were bound to be going to glory – we would be a little alarmed. We know our own hearts. We would say to them, “I am hoping in the mercy of God. My hopes are in the Lord Jesus Christ alone, and I hope I will endure to the end trusting in him because only those who keep on the narrow path are going to be saved, and I hope I do. I hope I will be kept by the power of God unto the great full salvation of heaven. May I find mercy from the Lord on that day! May you find mercy from the Lord on that day! When God asks you why he should allow you into his heaven to be in his presence for ever and ever, I hope that you will say from your heart that it is because his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, lived the loving holy life that you have failed to live, and died to making atonement for your sin, obtaining forgiveness for your sins by taking your guilt and condemnation in his own body on the cross. His righteousness is imputed to everyone who believes. The sins of every believer were imputed to him. So it is only because of Jesus that you can gain mercy in that day. He must be all your plea. Do you believe that? Are you still believing that? That is what Christians believe. That is how everyone has been and will be received into heaven. And do you live a credible godly life like Onesiphorus, seeking to refresh other Christians and so serve the Lord? May you all find mercy from the Lord on that day. That mercy is in Christ. He is the incarnation of mercy now and eternally. No one went to hell asking for mercy from Jesus Christ.
17th January 2016 GEOFF THOMAS