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319

CHAPTER XXVIII.

THE HEARTLESSNESS OF PHYGELUS AND HERMOGENES.—THE DEVOTION OF ONESIPHORUS.—PRAYERS FOR THE DEAD.

“This thou knowest, that all that are in Asia turned away from me; of whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes. The Lord grant mercy unto the house of Onesiphorus: for he oft refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain; but, when he was in Rome, he sought me diligently and found me (the Lord grant unto him to find mercy of the Lord in that day); and in how many things he ministered at Ephesus, thou knowest very well.”—2 Tim. i. 15–18.

We have here one of the arguments which St. Paul makes use of in urging his beloved disciple to stir up the gift of God that is in him through the laying on of hands, and not allow himself to be afraid of the ignominy and the sufferings, which the service of Jesus Christ involves. After reminding him of the holy traditions of his family, of the glorious character of the Gospel which has been committed to him, and of the character of the Apostle’s own teaching, St. Paul now goes on to point out, as a warning, the conduct of those in Asia who had deserted him in his hour of need; and, as an example, in marked contrast to them, the affectionate courage and persistent devotion of Onesiphorus. Timothy is not likely to follow those in Asia in their cowardly desertion of the Apostle. He will surely bestir himself to follow an example, the 320 details of which are so well known to him and so very much to the point. Timothy’s special knowledge of both cases, so far as the conduct referred to lay not in Rome but in Asia, is emphatically insisted upon by St. Paul. He begins by saying, “This thou knowest, that all that are in Asia turned away from me:” and he concludes with the remark, “In how many things he ministered at Ephesus, thou knowest very well;” or, as the Greek comparative probably means, “thou knowest better than I do.” And it is worth noticing that St. Paul uses a different word for “know” in the two cases. Of his desertion by those in Asia he uses a word of general meaning (οἶδας), which implies knowledge about the things or persons in question, but need not imply more than hearsay knowledge of what is notorious. Of the devoted service of Onesiphorus at Ephesus he uses a word (γινώσκεις), which implies progressive personal experience. Timothy had of course heard all about the refusal of Phygelus and Hermogenes and others to recognize the claim which St. Paul had upon their services; what he saw and experienced continually gave him intimate acquaintance with the conduct of Onesiphorus in the Church of which Timothy had the chief care.

There has been a great deal of discussion about the meaning of St. Paul’s statements respecting these two contrasted cases, Phygelus and those like him on the one side, and Onesiphorus on the other: and with regard to both of them a variety of suggestions have been made, which are scarcely compatible with the language used, and which do not after all make the situation more intelligible. It must be admitted that the brevity of the statements does leave room for a certain amount of conjecture; but, nevertheless, they 321 are clear enough to enable us to conjecture with a fair amount of certainty.

And first with regard to the case of those in Asia. They are in Asia at the time when this letter is being written. It is quite inadmissible to twist this plain language and force it to mean “those from Asia who are now in Rome.” Οἱ ἐν τῇ Ἀσίᾳ cannot be equivalent to οἱ ἐκ τῆς Ἀσίας. If St. Paul meant the latter, why did he not write it? Secondly, it is the proconsular province of Asia that is meant, that is the western portion of Asia Minor, and not the continent of Asia. Thirdly, the “turning away” of these Christians in Asia Minor does not mean their apostasy from the faith, of which there is no hint either in the word or in the context. St. Paul would hardly have spoken of their abandonment of Christianity as turning away from him. It means that they turned their faces away from him, and refused to have anything to say to him. When he sought their sympathy and assistance, they renounced his acquaintance, or at any rate refused to admit his claim upon them. It is the very expression used by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount; “From him that would borrow of thee, turn not thou away” (Matt. v. 42). This was exactly what these Asiatic disciples had done: the Apostle had asked them to lend him their help and support; and they had “turned away from” him. But what is the meaning of the “all”? He says that “all that are in Asia turned away from” him. Obviously there is some qualification to be understood. He cannot mean that Timothy is well aware that every believer in Asia Minor had repudiated St. Paul. Some have supposed that the necessary qualification is to be found in what follows; viz., “of whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes.” 322 The meaning would then be that the whole of the party to which Phygelus and Hermogenes belong rejected the Apostle. But the arrangement of the sentence is quite against this supposition; and there is nothing either said or implied about these two men being the leaders or representatives of a party. The expression respecting them is exactly parallel to that in the First Epistle respecting those who “made shipwreck concerning the faith: of whom is Hymenæus and Alexander” (i. 19, 20). In each case, out of a class of persons who are spoken of in general terms, two are mentioned by name. What then is the qualification of the “all,” which common sense requires? It means simply, “all whom I asked, all to whom I made an appeal for assistance.”8989   See below on “All forsook me,” in No. XXXVII, p. 420. At the time when this letter was written, there were several Christians in Asia Minor,—some of them known to Timothy,—to whom St. Paul had applied for help in his imprisonment; and, as Timothy was very well aware, they every one of them refused to give it. And this refusal took place in Asia Minor, not in Rome. Some have supposed that, although these unfriendly Christians were in Asia when St. Paul wrote about them, yet it was in Rome that they “turned away from” him. They had been in Rome, and instead of remaining there to comfort the prisoner, they had gone away to Asia Minor. On this supposition a difficulty has been raised, and it has been pressed as if it told against the genuineness of the Epistle. How, it is asked, could Timothy, who was in Ephesus, be supposed to be well aware of what took place in Rome? And to meet this objection it has been conjectured, that shortly before this letter was written some one had gone with news 323 from Rome to Ephesus. But this is to meet an imaginary difficulty with an imaginary fact. Let us imagine nothing, and then all runs smoothly. Every one in Asia Minor, to whom application was made on behalf of St. Paul, “turned away from” him and refused to do what was asked. Of such a fact as this the overseer of the Church of Ephesus could not fail to have knowledge; and, distressing as it was, it ought not to make him sink down into indolent despondency, but stir him up to redoubled exertion. What the precise request was that Phygelus and Hermogenes and the rest had refused, we do not know; but very possibly it was to go to Rome and exert themselves on the Apostle’s behalf. Of the two persons named nothing further is known. They are mentioned as being known to Timothy, and very possibly as being residents in Ephesus.

Now let us turn to the case of Onesiphorus, whose conduct is such a marked contrast to these others. In the most natural way St. Paul first of all tells Timothy what he experienced from Onesiphorus in Rome; and then appeals to Timothy’s own experience of him in Ephesus. In between these two passages there is a sentence, inserted parenthetically, which has been the subject of a good deal of controversy. “The Lord grant unto him to find mercy of the Lord in that day.” On the one side it is argued that the context shows that Onesiphorus is dead, and that therefore we have Scriptural authority for prayers for the dead: on the other that it is by no means certain that Onesiphorus was dead at the time when St. Paul wrote; and that, even if he was, this parenthesis is more of the nature of a pious wish, or expression of hope, than a prayer. It need scarcely be said that on the whole the latter is the 324 view taken by Protestant commentators, although by no means universally; while the former is the interpretation which finds favour with Roman Catholics. Scripture elsewhere is almost entirely silent on the subject; and hence this passage is regarded as of special importance. But it ought to be possible to approach the discussion of it without heat or prejudice.

Certainly the balance of probability is decidedly in favour of the view that Onesiphorus was already dead when St. Paul wrote these words. There is not only the fact that he here speaks of “the house of Onesiphorus” in connexion with the present, and of Onesiphorus himself only in connexion with the past: there is also the still more marked fact that in the final salutations, while greetings are sent to Prisca and Aquila, and from Eubulus, Pudens, Linus, and Claudia, yet it is once more “the house of Onesiphorus” and not Onesiphorus himself who is saluted. This language is thoroughly intelligible, if Onesiphorus was no longer alive, but had a wife and children who were still living at Ephesus; but it is not easy to explain this reference in two places to the household of Onesiphorus, if he himself was still alive. In all the other cases the individual and not the household is mentioned. Nor is this twofold reference to his family rather than to himself the only fact which points in this direction. There is also the character of the Apostle’s prayer. Why does he confine his desires respecting the requital of Onesiphorus’ kindness to the day of judgment? Why does he not also pray that he may be requited in this life? that he “may prosper and be in health, even as his soul prospereth,” as St. John prays for Gaius (3 John 2)? This again is thoroughly intelligible, if Onesiphorus is already dead. It is much less intelligible 325 if he is still alive. It seems, therefore, to be scarcely too much to say that there is no serious reason for questioning the now widely accepted view that at the time when St. Paul wrote these words Onesiphorus was among the departed.

With regard to the second point there seems to be equal absence of serious reason for doubting that the words in question constitute a prayer. It is difficult to find a term which better describes them than the word “prayer:” and in discussing them one would have to be specially careful in order to avoid the words “pray” and “prayer” in connexion with them. It does not much matter what meaning we give to “the Lord” in each case; whether both refer to Christ, or both to the Father, or one to Christ and the other to the Father. In any case we have a prayer that the Judge at the last day will remember those good deeds of Onesiphorus, which the Apostle has been unable to repay, and will place them to his account. Paul cannot requite them, but he prays that God will do so by showing mercy upon him at the last day.9090   With the double use of Lord here, compare Exod. xxxiv. 9, where Moses prays, “O Lord, let the Lord, I pray Thee, go in the midst of us.” Comp. also Gen. xix. 24.

Having thus concluded that, according to the more probable and reasonable view, the passage before us contains a prayer offered up by the Apostle on behalf of one who is dead, we seem to have obtained his sanction, and therefore the sanction of Scripture, for using similar prayers ourselves. But what is a similar prayer? There are many kinds of intercessions which may be made on behalf of those who have gone before us into the other world: and it does not follow that, because one kind of intercession has Scriptural authority, 326 therefore any kind of intercession is allowable. This passage may be quoted as reasonable evidence that the death of a person does not extinguish our right or our duty to pray for him: but it ought not to be quoted as authority for such prayers on behalf of the dead as are very different in kind from the one of which we have an example here. Many other kinds of intercession for the dead may be reasonable and allowable; but this passage proves no more than that some kinds of intercession for the dead are allowable, viz., those in which we pray that God will have mercy at the day of judgment on those who have done good to us and others during their life upon earth.

But is the right, which is also the duty, of praying for the departed limited by the amount of sanction which it is possible to obtain from this solitary passage of Scripture? Assuredly not. Two other authorities have to be consulted,—reason and tradition.

I. This pious practice, so full of comfort to affectionate souls, is reasonable in itself. Scripture, which is mercifully reticent respecting a subject so liable to provoke unhealthy curiosity and excitement, nevertheless does tell us plainly some facts respecting the unseen world. (2) Those whom we call the dead are still alive. God is still the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob: and He is not the God of the dead, but of the living (Matt. xxii. 32). Those who believe that death is annihilation, and that there can be no resurrection, “do greatly err” (Mark xii. 27). And (2) the living souls of the departed are still conscious: their bodies are asleep in this world, but their spirits are awake in the other. For this truth we are not dependent upon the disputable meaning of the parable of Dives and Lazarus; although we can hardly 327 suppose that that parable would ever have been spoken, unless the continued consciousness of the dead and their interest in the living were a fact. Christ’s parables are never mere fables, in which nature is distorted in order to point a moral: His lessons are ever drawn from God’s universe as it is. But besides the parable (Luke xvi. 19–31), there is His declaration that Abraham not only “exulted” in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah, but “he saw” that coming “and was glad” thereat (John viii. 56). And there is His promise to the penitent thief: “Verily I say unto thee, To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise” (Luke xxiii. 43). Can we believe that this promise, given at so awful a moment with such solemn assurance (“Verily I say unto thee”), would have been made, if the robber’s soul, when in Paradise, would be unconscious of Christ’s companionship? Could Christ then have “preached unto the spirits in prison” (1 Pet iii. 19), if the spirits of those who had died in the Flood were deprived of consciousness? And what can be the meaning of “the souls of them that had been slain for the word of God” crying “How long, O Master the holy and true, dost Thou not judge and avenge our blood?” (Rev. vi. 10), if the souls of the slain slumber in the unseen world?

It is not necessary to quote Scripture to prove that the departed are not yet perfect. Their final consummation will not be reached until the coming of Christ at the last great day (Heb. xi. 40).

If, then, the dead are conscious, and are not yet perfected, they are capable of progress. They may increase in happiness, and possibly in holiness. May we not go farther and say, that they must be growing, must be progressing towards a better state; for, so 328 far as we have experience, there is no such thing as conscious life in a state of stagnation? Conscious life is always either growing or decaying: and decay is incipient death. For conscious creatures, who are incapable of decay and death, growth seems to be a necessary attribute. We conclude, therefore, on grounds partly of Scripture and partly of reason, that the faithful departed are consciously progressing towards a condition of higher perfection.

But this conclusion must necessarily carry us still farther. These consciously developing souls are God’s children and our brethren; they are, like ourselves, members of Christ and joint-heirs with us of His kingdom; they are inseparably united with us in “the Communion of Saints.” May we not pray for them to aid them in their progress? And if, with St. Paul’s prayer for Onesiphorus before us, we are convinced that we may pray for them, does it not become our bounden duty to do so? On what grounds can we accept the obligation of praying for the spiritual advancement of those who are with us in the flesh, and yet refuse to help by our prayers the spiritual advancement of those who have joined that “great cloud of witnesses” in the unseen world, by which we are perpetually encompassed (Heb. xii. 1)? The very fact that they witness our prayers for them may be to them an increase of strength and joy.

II. Tradition amply confirms us in the belief that this pious practice is lawful, and binding upon all who recognize its lawfulness. The remarkable narrative in 2 Maccabees xii. shows that this belief in a very extreme form was common among the Jews, and publicly acted upon, before the coming of Christ. It is highly improbable that prayers for the dead were omitted 329 from the public worship of the synagogue, in which Jesus Christ so frequently took part. It is quite certain that such prayers are found in every early Christian liturgy, and to this day form part of the liturgies in use throughout the greater portion of Christendom. And, although the medieval abuses connected with such prayers induced the reformers of our own liturgy almost, if not quite, entirely to omit them, yet the Church of England has never set any bounds to the liberty of its members in this respect. Each one of us is free in this matter, and therefore has the responsibility of using or neglecting what the whole of the primitive Church, and the large majority of Christians throughout all these centuries, have believed to be a means of advancing the peace and glory of Christ’s kingdom. About the practice of the primitive Church there can be no question. Doubt has been thrown upon the liturgies, because it has been said that some portions are certainly of much later origin than the rest, and therefore these prayers may be later insertions and corruptions. But that cannot be so; for liturgies do not stand alone. In this matter they have the support of a chain of Christian writers beginning with Tertullian in the second century, and also of early inscriptions in the catacombs. About the meagre allusions to the departed in our own liturgy there is more room for doubt: but perhaps the most that can safely be asserted is this;—that here and there sentences have been worded in such a way that it is possible for those, who wish to do so, to include the faithful departed in the prayer as well as the living. Bishop Cosin has given his authority to this interpretation of the prayer that “we and all Thy whole Church may obtain remission of our sins and all other benefits of His 330 passion.” By this, he says, “is to be understood, as well those that have been here before, and those that shall be hereafter, as those that are now members of it:” and as one of the revisers his authority is great. And the prayer in the Burial Service, “that we, with all those that are departed in the true faith of Thy holy name, may have our perfect consummation and bliss, both in body and soul,” is equally patient of this meaning, even if it does not fairly demand it. For we do not pray that we may have our consummation and bliss with the departed; which might imply that they are enjoying these things now, and that we desire to join them; but we pray that we with the departed may have our consummation and bliss; which includes them in the prayer. And the petition in the Litany, “remember not, Lord, our offences, nor the offences of our forefathers,” may, or may not, be a prayer for our forefathers, according to the way in which we understand it.

All this seems to show that neither Scripture nor the English Church forbids prayer for the departed; that, on the contrary, both of them appear to give a certain amount of sanction to it: and that what they allow, reason commends, and tradition recommends most strongly. It is for each one of us to decide for himself whether or no he will take part in the charitable work thus placed before him.9191   Sec J. M. Neale, Liturgies of St. Mark, St. James, St. Clement, St. Chrysostom, etc., 1859, pp. 216–224; C. E. Hammond, Liturgies Eastern and Western, 1878, pp. 45, 75, 113, 156, 183, 217, etc.; E. Burbridge, Liturgies and Offices of the Church, 1885, pp. 34, 222, 249; M. Plummer, Observations on the Book of Common Prayer, 1847, pp. 125–127; Church Quarterly Review, April 1880, pp. 1–25; H. M. Luckock, After Death, 1879: also various articles in the Dict. of Christ. Antiquities, 1875, 1880.


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