When Paul prays for “mercy” for the house of Onesiphorus (v.16) in this life, but for “mercy” for Onesiphorus himself in the next life at the Judgment Seat of Christ (v.18), we have to assume that he is dead and his family is still alive. Especially since Paul greets his family (IITim.4:19) but not him. So Paul was doubtless praying for the kind of mercy his household would need now that the breadwinner of the family was gone, the food kind of mercy (Ps.136:25).
In time past, God provided this kind of mercy in miraculous ways for the families of His servants (IIKi.4:1-7), but in the dispensation of grace God shows mercy through His people (Rom.12:8).
Why would Onesiphorus himself need mercy at the Judg-ment Seat of Christ? He is mentioned in context of those who departed from the faith (v.15), so we have to conclude he was one of the Asians who started strong but left the faith. Praying for mercy for his family shows a dispensational difference. In time past, men cursed the families of men who went astray (cf.IISam.3:29; Ps.109:10-12).
We don’t know how Onesiphorus “refreshed” Paul (v.16). Perhaps physically (cf.Ex.23:13) by doing things for him so he could rest. Perhaps emotionally, the kind of refreshing David needed after being cursed and stoned (IISam.16: 13,14). Paul was often cursed, and was once stoned! Perhaps Onesiphorus faithfully delivered some of Paul’s epistles (cf.Pr.25:13). Paul used men like Onesiphorus to deliver his epistles (Col.4:7), and women too (Rom.16:1,2). Perhaps he refreshed Paul in all of these ways, for he “oft” refreshed him. His name means “help-bringer,” and he certainly lived up to it!
Onesiphorus was not ashamed of Paul’s chain (v.16), i.e., his imprisonment. With these words, Paul is providing Timothy a good example, with these words coming right after telling Timothy not to be ashamed of him (1:8). When he says Onesiphorus sought him out “diligently” (v.17) and then later told Timothy to “diligently” seek him out (IITim.4:9,21), we know he was pressing this example. Paul wasn’t a baby that needed company, he just wanted to be sure Timothy grew a backbone. He knew if he didn’t stand for Paul before he died he wouldn’t stand for him afterward.
Finding Paul wouldn’t have been easy. In his second imprisonment he was in Caesar’s palace (Phil.1:13; 4:21,22), but his first imprisonment was in a hired house (Acts 28:30). There were about a million homes in Rome!
In Paul’s mind, Onesiphorus’ faithfulness in the past entitled him to mercy at the Judgment Seat, so he prayed for this. Mercy is when God doesn’t give us what we deserve (cf.Ezra 9:9,13). Onesiphorus deserved to lose rewards for his unfaithfulness, but Paul prayed he wouldn’t.
Prayers like that are not new. God honored a prayer like that in Deuteronomy 9:12-27 because Moses reminded God that He promised He’d make Abraham a great nation, not him, and He had to honor that. God remembered, of course, He was testing Moses to see if he remembered. And since he prayed according to God’s will, God let him “influence” His judgment. The same thing happened when Moses prayed that God wouldn’t allow His name to be reproached among the Gentiles (Numbers 14:12-20).
All that explains why God would let Paul “influence” His decision not to allow Onesiphorus to lose rewards. It is God’s will for faithful service to be rewarded. It is not God’s will to take away rewards if we stop being faithful. The only people who will “suffer loss” of rewards at the Judgment Seat of Christ are those who never earned any. They will suffer the loss of what they could have had. For men like that Paul prayed that they would get what they deserved (II Tim. 4:14,15). For men like Onesiphorus, Paul prayed like he prayed in II Timothy 4:16.
How’s that make you feel about your rewards? They are as eternally secure as you are! Nehemiah wasn’t sure about his rewards (Nehemiah 13:14), but you can be sure of yours. You’ve got God’s Word on it!