TWH: Onesiphorus was a valued co-laborer of Paul who lived in Ephesus and ministered to him during his imprisonment in Rome. His name (Ὀνησίφορος) comes from the Greek noun ὄνησις, which has a range of meaning including "profit," "benefit," "advantage." This word is compounded with the Greek ending –φόρος, common in references to people (e.g., ἀετοφόρος, γραμματηφόρος, etc.), which comes from the root φερ. Based on etymology alone, his name means "one who brings benefit." His name proved accurate as Paul benefited greatly from this dear brother's prison ministry.
Onesiphorus is only mentioned in the New Testament twice (2 Tim 1:16; 4:19). The first reference is found in Paul's update on his situation in Rome (2 Tim 1:15–18). He has already urged Timothy to not be ashamed of the gospel. With this statement, he also tells Timothy not to be ashamed of him, the Lord's prisoner (τὸν δέσμιον αὐτοῦ). Was there a chance that Timothy could be ashamed of his mentor? It is possible (see Lea and Griffin, 198). Whether or not it is a reflection of Timothy's heart towards Paul is a different story. Paul had already been forsaken by a number of people. In his words, "everyone in Asia has been turned away from me" (ἀπεστράφησάν με πάντες οἱ ἐν τῇ Ἀσίᾳ; 1 Tim 1:15). He even lists two such persons—Phygelus and Hermogenes. Paul's plea for Timothy reveals more about his attitude in prison than anything about Timothy’s heart for Paul. The last thing Paul wanted was for his son in the faith to be ashamed of the gospel, something he declared he was never ashamed of (Rom 1:16). Next to this, though, Paul did not want to lose his most trusted co-laborer in the work of the gospel. As bad as it must have felt for all of Asia to be turned away from him, it would be emotionally devastating for Timothy, into whom he poured his life (2 Tim 3:10–11), to abandon him.
In this context, Paul first mentions Onesiphorus. Paul uses personal examples more than any New Testament author. For example, in Philippians he uses the following positive examples: Himself (Phil 1:12–14; 3:4–14); Jesus (Phil 2:5–11); Timothy (Phil 2:19–24); and Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25–30). In the same letter, he uses negative examples as well: Those preaching out of poor motives (Phil 1:15–17); those who he calls "dogs" and "enemies of the cross" (Phil 3:1–4, 18–19). Here in 1 Tim 1:16–18, Paul offers a genuine prayer for Onesiphorus and his family. But he is no doubt using both the negative examples of Phygelus and Hermogenes, with rest of Asia, and the positive example of Onesiphorus to present two options for Timothy (Bassler, 137; Van Neste, 197). If there was even the possibility that Timothy could do what Phygelus and Hermogenes have done, he hopes that the example of Onesiphorus will be winsome enough to secure Timothy's partnership to the end.
Paul mentions six things Onesiphorus does that ministered to him. Two should be viewed together ("searched" and "found"). He tells Timothy that Onesiphorus "refreshed" him (ἀνέψυξεν, 2 Tim 1:16), which could be figuratively or literally (Dihle, 663–664). About the latter it could refer to literally applying water to his skin and cleaning up any wounds. This was a tougher imprisonment than Paul’s previous ones (see Acts 28:30–31), which is why Onesiphorus had to "eagerly search for" (σπουδαίως ἐζήτησέν) Paul (2 Tim 1:17). With this verb is provided the result of his eager search—he "found" (εὗρεν) Paul. He says in v. 16 that Onesiphorus was "not ashamed" (οὐκ ἐπαισχύνθη) of his chains, the exact thing he told Timothy in v. 8. The final verb reveals the type of person Onesiphorus was, namely a servant. Paul supplements the example he is giving Timothy with an additional memory. Timothy, who served with Paul in Ephesus and represented him there and its environs, was very familiar with Onesiphorus' testimony. What exactly he did in service (διηκόνησεν) to the believers there is undetermined. The use of ὅσα may signify that his service was great or numerous. Sacrificing in big ways was nothing unusual for this servant of God.
The prayer for mercy directed towards "Onesiphorus' house" (τῷ Ὀνησιφόρου οἴκῳ) in 2 Tim 1:16 and the greeting to “Onesiphorus' house” (τὸν Ὀνησιφόρου οἶκον) in 2 Tim 4:19 cause some discussion in the scholarly literature. Why does Paul not send his greetings directly to Onesiphorus and his house? One possibility is Onesiphorus is still with Paul in Rome. One major problem for this view is all the verbs describing Onesiphorus' actions are in the aorist (ἀνέψυξεν, οὐκ ἐπαισχύνθη, ἐζήτησέν, εὗρεν, διηκόνησεν). If he was still with Paul, almost certainly Paul would use the present.
Another option is Paul recognized the great sacrifice of Onesiphorus' family. In every relationship, Paul encourages a Great-Commission lifestyle. For example, in 1 Cor 7:29, Paul instructs Christians who are married to live as though they are not. Of course, he is not referring to sexual immorality, but living for something greater than marriage itself (i.e., the Great Commission). He recognizes the great sacrifice Onesiphorus’ family must have made in permitting the head of the household to leave them for an extended amount of time for the benefit of someone else. They would have felt extra burdens and, although they did not face the dangers of travel, they suffered some loss so that they could show the scandalous love of the cross to a fellow believer.
A third option is Onesiphorus has already died and entered the presence of the Lord (Harris, 160). This option would easily explain why Paul prays that God shows mercy to his family earlier in the letter, especially given the reference to an eschatological end (ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ). Lenski makes an important observation, though. The reference to Onesiphorus' household is not enough to conclude that he has already died. He points to 1 Cor 16:15, where Paul makes reference to Stephanas' household (Lenski, 773). And comfort would be a more appropriate request for his family if he had (Lenski, 774). At best, Bassler is correct when she calls them "vague hints of Onesiphorus's death" (Bassler, 137).