The Ministry of Refreshment
Onesiphorus: A 1st Century Challenge for 21st Century Christ-Followers
You didn’t misread the title of this article. It really is Ministry of Refreshment, not Encouragement. The two are different.
The Apostle Paul received encouragement from many people over the course of two decades of service for the Lord. But he mentions being “refreshed” by only one: Onesiphorus, whose name meant “bringer of profit”:
“May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he
often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains.” II Tim. 1:16, NIV
Paul carefully chose the word he used to describe how Onesiphorus helped him. It is the Greek word ANAPSUCHO and means “to cool down.” Onesiphorus cooled down Paul’s spirit.
Overheating can happen anywhere, to anything. Engines. People. Economies. Even worlds, as in “global warming.” Things simply get too hot.
I recently saw a driver stopped on an interstate with his hood raised. Clouds of steam spewed out. The cooling system had overheated, making his car momentarily useless.
There are similar times in our lives when our spiritual systems overheat. We know when we physically feel bad. Spiritual overheating results in feeling bad spiritually. We’re out of fellowship with God and we sense it, but getting spiritually healthy again can prove difficult.
Sometimes we don’t think clearly. We get out of touch with reality and respond inappropriately with our emotions. With our will, we make faulty decisions. We are likely to find ourselves on the side of life’s road virtually immobile, unable to go any farther, or do any more, until first we cool down. The unrelenting pressure and flow of daily life makes us feel overwhelmed, like we are being washed downstream out of control. Events in our lives, the influence of difficult people, tragedies, losses, and reversals can stress us out. We overheat spiritually and emotionally, and can’t function as the Christ-follower we yearn to be.
Christians with overheated spiritual systems? Yes! Prolonged strain can take a massive toll on us. Disappointment, personal failure and the failure of others, and increasing, unrelenting pressure from any source can make us look like an over-inflated balloon. We need relief.
If “encouragement” means to pour in courage, to inspire and hearten, comfort and empower, then “refreshment” means to make fresh, or freshen by wetting or cooling, much like sprinkling refreshes flowers. Refreshment means to replenish, restore, and revive the spirit of a person, especially following depression or fatigue.
What refreshes you when the gears of your life are grinding and your spirit is running hot? Cold lemonade? A short nap? Or the unexpected call or visit of a friend when your back is against the wall?
Paul said Onesiphorus refreshed him as no one else had, that he “fleshed out” the Ministry of Refreshment. In Paul’s life, Barnabas unquestionably served as the Encourager, but Onesiphorus would have been the Refresher. Am I suggesting the great Apostle faced times of depression and extreme fatigue? Yes.
Try putting yourself in Paul’s sandals. It’s summer, 66 A.D. You are the prisoner of Rome for a second time, awaiting your fate, and manacled to a Roman soldier 24/7. You are treated as a common felon, convicted of political crimes, and probably kept in the terrifying Mamertine dungeon. The next soldier entering might carry the parchment ordering your life to be snuffed out. Consider these excerpts from Paul’s letters:
“For I am already being poured out. . .the time has come for my departure. I
have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
II Tim. 4:6-7, NIV
“You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including
Phygelus and Hermogenes.” II Tim. 1:15, NIV
“Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me . . .only Luke is with me.”
II Tim. 4:10-11, NIV
“At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me.”
II Tim. 4:17, NIV
Onesiphorus’ greatest usefulness seems to come very late in Paul’s life. All the powerful sermons had been preached. The high popularity and great crowds have gone. His followers and supporters have deserted him. He is old and out of favor with the leaders of the churches of Asia. In prison. In chains. Soon to die. Alone and seemingly forgotten, except for Dr. Luke. Paul was not on the way up, but on the way out. I believe he was in grave danger. For understandable reasons, his spiritual system had overheated during this time of reversals. It was a low water mark in Paul’s life.
Then came word that someone from Asia was there trying to connect with him. A man called Onesiphorus, who told the guards Paul would know him.
His appearance must have refreshed Paul like a glass of cold water slakes the thirst of a man parched by the merciless sun. He had come from home, Ephesus. Paul had not sent for him, and had no idea he was coming.
We are not told Onesiphorus said anything profound, clever, or quotable. None of his words or deeds are recorded. He was just “there” for Paul at this perilous hour, not for what he could gain, but what he could give.
Maybe it happed, as some suggest[i] , that Onesiphorus’ visit to Paul was a side line, that he was in Rome anyway on a business trip. Yet he found time to locate him in a city brimming with a million people. The suggestion is strong he had considerable difficulty locating him. One writer has drawn a vivid picture of his search:
“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 on
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.”[ii]
Others suggest that, in the course of seeking, finding, and aiding Paul, Onesiphorus hazarded and even lost his own life.[iii] Anyone wanting to talk to a felon convicted of political crimes would become highly suspect.
Paul remembers the three years he had spent at Ephesus (Acts 19:1-20:1) He would have been Onesiphorus’ pastor, and Onesiphorus would have been a leader. He was probably with the elders who came hurriedly to meet Paul at Miletus for a tearful farewell (Acts 20:17-38) and heard Paul plaintively remark, “You will see my face no more.”
That three year period at Ephesus included a time in which Paul was emotionally and mentally at the lowest point in his life, a time he “descended into a spiritual valley in which his soul endured stresses that nearly shattered him.”[iv] If John Pollock is correct in his interpretation of what happened at Ephesus during late 54 A.D. to spring 55 A.D.,[v] Paul endured a time of mental and spiritual affliction, which he described as:
“. . .the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great
pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.
Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death.” II Cor. 1:8, NIV
In this time of terror, Onesiphorus was there to repeatedly refresh him, long before he came to Rome.
What an admirable character is Onesiphorus! How rarely we find one like him whose mantra is “just do it.” He probably had a wife and family to support. . .an occupation or business. . .his church at Ephesus. . .community responsibilities. . .a busy person, like most of us. . .yet he makes time for this incredibly important ministry.
Jail is a bad place for bad people, the last spot on earth many Christians would want to go. But Onesiphorus was there. By himself; representing no one. The place, the people of the place, the danger of going there—none of these things deter him.
Onesiphorus is our model, our mentor, in the Ministry of Refreshment. He gets past all the theory and theology, the debate and religious talk, the trappings of church, including endless meetings. He just blows on past all of these and gives a cup of cold water to a thirsty man.
There was no struggle, no complicated decision to make about whether to help or not. No pros and cons to be weighed; no impact studies or risk assessments to be done. Leave all that for others. Onesiphorus is booking passage to Rome while the church study committees are in session figuring out how to distance themselves from Paul. He is a helper, and that’s all there is to it. He acts out of who he is. Naturally. Effortlessly. “This is Christianity in shoe leather.”[vi]
What about you? And me? In whose life can we bring cooling refreshment and cheer today? Who is the man or woman, boy or girl, you can refresh today? In whose life can you be like a breath of fresh air, or cup of cold water?
When a friend goes down. . .when a believer makes a train wreck of his life or family. . .when someone crashes due to sin, or whatever. . .go to him or her immediately. Proactively seek them out. Help them if you can. Bring them “profit.” Never be ashamed, as the Asian Christians were of Paul, of a fellow believer who has fallen into what some would call a disgrace. Refresh them in their failure, personal tragedy, or crisis, in whatever “jail” they manage to get themselves into. Chains of sorrow and affliction may be the awful penalty of sins found out.
How can we perform it, this “Ministry of Refreshment”? Paul’s cameo of Onesiphorus tells us:
—“he often showed me kindness
—(he often) ministered to my needs, comforting and reviving and bracing me
like fresh air
—he was not ashamed of my chains and imprisonment (for Christ’s sake)
—he searched diligently and eagerly for me
—he found me
—what a help he was at Ephesus.” II Tim. 1:16-18, Amplified Bible
Look around your circle of influence today. What friend, what brother or sister in Christ, is spiritually and emotionally overheating? About to drop out of the race? What would it take for you to refresh and cool them down so they can function again? A surprise visit or call? A kind word? A delicious, unexpected prepared meal? Caring for a child or aged parent to give a breather to an exhausted caregiver? An errand you could run or a detail you could handle?
Warren Wiersbe says the qualities found in Onesiphorus, three of them, are as vital and valid as they were twenty-one centuries ago for any Christian who seeks to share this ministry:
“The essentials for a successful ministry have not changed: courageous enthusiasm, shameless suffering, and spiritual loyalty.”
It isn’t enough for a Christian to just do no wrong. He is to intentionally, proactively do what is right. And doing right includes caring for the people God loves:
“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ . . .
as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong
to the family of believers.” Gal. 6:2, 10 NIV
Refreshment is never an easy ministry, and performing it may cost us dearly. It could involve taking risks and exposure to difficulties. Onesiphorus could have piled reason on top of reason why he shouldn’t make the dangerous, costly trip from Ephesus to Rome. He came anyway. When we imitate his service, we are entering the rarified air of God’s choicest servants. There are few in the Company of Refreshers.
Thank you, friend Onesiphorus, for your gentle reminder today.
[i] Barnes, Albert. Notes on the New Testament, Vol 12 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book Hour) Reprinted from the l884-1885 edition, Pg. 219
[ii] Harrison, P. N., Cited in Barclay, William, The Letters to Timothy, Titus and Philemon (Philadelphia: Westminster Press) 1960, p. 178
[iii] Barclay, ibid., P. 179
[iv] Pollock, John, The Apostle (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company) 1969, p. 164
[v] Pollock, ibid., See Chapter 27, “Affliction in Asia” (pages 161-169)
[vi] Foster, Robert D. The Challenge Newsletter (Colorado Springs, CO) June 15, 1974