Summary: Everyone needs encouragement—even the seemingly strong and mature—but especially those who suffer.
Today, in honor of International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, we will stand and kneel with our brothers and sisters in Christ who share our faith but not our freedom.
Second Timothy is the Apostle Paul’s final written communication before his death. He was chained to a soldier in a prison cell in Rome. Although he is writing to encourage his spiritual son, Timothy, Paul reveals a great need of encouragement, himself. The long, lonely hours and his facing almost certain death made his isolation very difficult for him. His message shows that:
Everyone needs encouragement—even the seemingly strong and mature—but especially those who suffer.
Paul shares here the combination of pathos and joy. On the one hand, he recalls so vividly how everyone from the province of Asia in the western part of Asia Minor (Ephesus was its capital) deserted him. His experience was very much like Jesus’ whose friends also forsook him and fled.
And probably for the same reason - fear! His was a political charge and it was fear for their own safety which caused believers to abandon him. He mentions two men by name (probably well known to Timothy) who especially disappointed him in their desertion.
But on the other hand, one man was loyal to the end. His name was Onesiphorus, which means “profitable” or “help-bringer.” He was obviously one of Paul’s key co-workers during the three-year period Paul spent in Ephesus, longer than anywhere else (Acts 20:31). Paul indicates that Timothy was well aware of this. From there (Ephesus), the preaching of the Gospel reached every part of the province (Acts 19:10). Onesiphorus was the instrument of encouragement to the Apostle Paul during his very trying time in the Roman prison.
Three Ways the Persecuted Need Encouragement
In his helping Paul while in prison, Onesiphorus demonstrated three specific ways to encourage those who are suffering:
1. Refresh Them (verse 16)
Paul was appreciative that Onesiphorus “often refreshed me.” Once he found Paul’s cell, he no doubt made every effort to supply Paul’s physical and spiritual needs – as well as his social needs by just being there. This Paul could only define as “refreshing.”
Those who are persecuted are most encouraged when they learn of brothers and sisters praying for them. Just the knowledge of this is refreshing for their spirits. But what solidifies the reality of prayer is when they – especially those in prison – receive cards and letters from around the world. Some prisoners have literally received thousands of these letters and cards. Colonel David De Vinatea was in prison in Peru unjustly on a fabricated charge of narco-trafficking. His son Daniel informed us how encouraged his father was by the hundreds of letters he has received inside the prison. These messages confirm to the prisoner how many prayers are daily offered up on their behalf. What encouragement to the lonely and isolated!
2. Don’t Be Ashamed of Them (verse 16)
In Paul’s situation, perhaps the greatest refreshing came to him by virtue of the fact that Onesiphorus was not ashamed to identify with Paul even though that was dangerous and he was taking his life in his hands. When all others had turned away, one man stuck “closer than a brother”. This willingness to personally identify with Paul and share the reproach of the cross brought the Apostle great encouragement.
When Brother Andrew began his ministry to the Suffering Church in Eastern Europe in 1995, he was often told, “Just your being here is worth ten sermons!” Now he hears this same comment as he travels in the Middle East. Personally identifying with brothers and sisters in their suffering is a great encouragement to them.
This happens also with those who travel as Bible couriers. A group from Australia saw a small country church during their Bible courier travels inside Vietnam. They stopped in but the pastor – who did not speak English - was suspicious and seemed fearful. So they all knelt down and began to pray out loud in English. This so touched the pastor that he joined them in prayer and soon burst into tears. Later he sent them a letter that read:
“It was deeply moving that you and I could pray and praise the name of Jesus together. Although we have different languages, we can understand each other in the love of the Lord and through the Holy Spirit. We know that you want to give our church the Bible. We praise the Lord that He revealed our need to you...and He will help you bring the Bibles in. We have told Him about this need and we are awaiting His answer.”
3. Search Them Out (verse 17)
What Paul really appreciated was the perseverance Onesiphorus exhibited in actually finding him. This was no easy task. William Barclay pictures this scene: