Does 2 Tim. 1: 16–18 teach that Paul doubted the salvation of Onesiphorus, and by implication, that he prayed for the salvation of one who had died?
2 Tim. 1: 16–18 reads: “The Lord grant mercy to the house of Onesiphorus, for he has often refreshed me, and has not been ashamed of may chain; but being in Rome sought me out very diligently, and found [me]––the Lord grant to him to find mercy from [the] Lord in that day––and how much service he rendered in Ephesus thou knowest best.”
Later in the same epistle, Paul sends greetings to the saints, but in so doing he salutes just the house of Onesiphorus (2 Tim. 4: 19) rather than Onesiphorus and his house. Since the epistle was written to Timothy, this indicates that Onesiphorus was not with Timothy at the time of writing. Again, the fact that Paul uses the past tense in his description of Onesiphorus’ labours clearly shows that he was not at that time with Paul in Rome (Paul does not say “for he often refreshes me”, but “for he has often refreshed me”). This is supported by 2 Tim. 4 : 11 where Paul says “Luke alone is with me”. Now while it is possible that Onesiphorus had left Rome and was on his way back to Ephesus, it does not seem likely in view of the way in which Paul speaks of him in relation to “that day”. “That day” is the day of the Lord’s assessment (see 2 Tim. 4: 8) when the rewards will have been given at the judgment seat (see Rom. 14: 10–12; 2 Cor. 5: 10). Thus it does look as if the service of Onesiphorus had ended and that he had died. So are the Romanists right in saying that Paul was praying for his salvation––praying for the dead?
Now there is a principle woven into the fabric of Scripture from beginning to end which can be expressed in a single phrase: ‘Thou and thy house’. God identifies a man’s house, so far as earth is concerned, with the man himself. Thus God says to Noah “Go into the ark, thou and all thy house” (Gen. 7: 1). On what ground? For “thee have I seen righteous before me in this generation”. Noah’s house was saved from judgment on earth, not on the grounds of the individual faith of the members of the house, but on account of Noah’s righteousness. On the other hand, Eli’s house suffered divine judgment because of Eli’s conduct (see 1 Sam. 3: 10–14) in that he had known of the iniquity of his sons and he did not restrain them. Note carefully v12: “In that day I will perform against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house”. Such is the identity of the man with his house, so far as earth is concerned, that God describes the coming judgment as “against Eli”, even though it was actually against his house, rather than Eli himself. Now this principle flows through the NT as well as the OT. For example, in Luke 19: 9 the Lord says to Zacchaeus “To–day salvation is come to this house”. Why? ––“inasmuch as he also is a son of Abraham” (my emphasis).
In 2 Tim. 1: 16 we read “The Lord grant mercy to the house of Onesiphorus, for he has often refreshed me”––Paul desired mercy for the house solely on the grounds of what Onesiphorus himself had done. (His household would certainly need the Lord’s mercy in those days if the breadwinner had died.) Now if you examine the passage you will find that it is all about what Onesiphorus had done––there is not a word as to any service rendered by his house. So what about v18: “the Lord grant to him to find mercy from [the] Lord in that day”? It is not difficult to see that the language is similar to the first clause of v16. There Paul desired mercy for the house; in v18 he desired mercy for the man. In v16 mercy was desired for the present; in v18 it was desired for the future. I think v16 was for temporal blessing; v18 was for both temporal and eternal blessing––not for Onesiphorus personally but for his house. Let us now look at this section in the context of the epistle.
Paul was in a Roman prison expecting to be shortly executed. All had turned away from him in Asia, of which Ephesus was the chief city. Despite this there was one from Ephesus who, when in Rome, had sought Paul out––a task not without its own dangers––and found him. The moment that Paul thinks of the Lord’s mercy (for such it surely was) in giving Onesiphorus to find the apostle, Paul turns aside from what he is saying and in a virtual parenthesis, gives this ejaculation (rather than a prayer) desiring that Onesiphorus may find mercy in that day. Not for himself personally, for his labours testify to his salvation, but for his house––that he might find in that day that the members of his household had been brought through and saved.