Did Paul pray for the dead in 2 Timothy 3:16-18?

There seems to be discussion on whether Paul prayed for the dead in 2 Timothy 1:16-17 (herehere, and here).

16 May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains.17 On the contrary, when he was in Rome, he searched hard for me until he found me. 18May the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! You know very well in how many ways he helped me in Ephesus.

The idea that this could be Paul praying for the dead seems to me to be ignoring context. Let’s look at the passage again, but this time reading the verses before it as well, 2 Timothy 1:13-18

8So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, 9who has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, 10but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. 12That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.

13What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. 14Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

15You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes.

16 May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains.17 On the contrary, when he was in Rome, he searched hard for me until he found me. 18May the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! You know very well in how many ways he helped me in Ephesus.

Notice that there is no break in the message. Paul was not writing in a parenthesis. The entire passage leading up to what some are claiming to be prayer for the dead is nothing but Paul telling us the Gospel and the fact that Paul was a teacher of the gospel and this was why he was suffering. Paul went on in verses 13-14 telling Timothy to guard what Paul had taught.

But the key to the entire question on prayers for the dead seems to be verse 15, where Paul tells us everyone in Asia deserted him. Then Paul goes on in to ask God mercy on Onesiphorus because of the help he had been to Paul’s ministry. He had begun the race well, but apparently did not finish well.  It is possible that Onesiphorus was an example of someone who did not abandon him or the faith. But it does not make sense that Paul, who KNOWS a saved person needs no more mercy other than what he received when he accepted Christ, would pray for God’s mercy upon Onesiphorus on that day. It makes more sense that Onesiphorus abandoned him also, along with Phygelus and Hermogenes.

I see the abandonment of Paul in Asia synonymously with abandoning Christ, because Paul spoke about being abandoned and then warned about disowning Christ. And because 2 Timothy 2:4 tells us of the need to teach reliable men who will endure. And verse 5 warning about needing to follow the rules to win the competition. And the encouragement/warning abut needed to not disown Christ in verses 11-13

This can be seen in the very next passage, 2 Timothy 2:1-13,

1You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. 2And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. 3Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 4No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs—he wants to please his commanding officer. 5Similarly, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules. 6The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops. 7Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this.

8Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, 9for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained. 10Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.

11Here is a trustworthy saying:
If we died with him,  we will also live with him;
12if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him,  he will also disown us;
13if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.

Paul was telling Timothy one must finish well – if we disown Christ, we will be disowned. It seems to me this is what Onesiphorus had done. Paul was also saying that Timothy had to pass on what Paul had taught to RELIABLE men who would endure and persevere and teach others, rather than abandon Christ.

So no, Paul was not asking God’s mercy on the dead, but upon the family of a man (and the man himself) who had been helpful to him, and may have even been a friend, but who had abandoned the Gospel.


13 Responses

  1. WB, I hope that I made it clear that I did not support the Roman notion of praying for the dead. I see nothing in this passage to support it, nor in any place in the New Testament.

    • You did make it clear. You believe O was only a positive factor in Paul’s life. and it may be you are right, but If so, I have yet to hear why Paul would pray for him, given that Paul taught we each are saved by faith in Christ. I read about 10 commentaries on it tonight, and I found each position weak.

  2. I can only guess that it could be, as Peter Kirk said, a Rest In Peace tradition which we have.

    • And perhaps you and Peter are correct. But the answer is unsatisfying. It may be O did persevere to the end and that is why he was not listed with P and H. Or it may be O did abandon Paul (& the faith) and it was a real shock to Paul and was a friend and this is why he was mentioned separately and he and his family were prayed for. Honestly, I am not preaching this verse and am glad for it! I find both positions reasonable, though today I find the idea of Paul’s prayer for O problematic if he was dead.

  3. To be honest, when I sat down to answer Andrew, I thought that it would be rather easy – but in the end, as you can see over several blogs and posts, it simply was not easy.

    The answer is the same – Paul never once offered prayer for the Dead, and to do so, in my opinion, would make him a mediator figure.

    While I disagree with your point about O leaving Paul, it does make sense – I can see that.

  4. Wb, I’ve been thinking more about this subject.

    In 1st John, we are told that we can pray for sins, but not the sin until death. If indeed O had abandoned Christ, then why would Paul pray for him?

    • I like that response.

      What is the sin that leads to death? I believe it is dying in a state of unbelief.

      But I did not say that O was dead. I said he abandoned Paul (and, I believe, the faith). Hebrews 6:4-6 tells us,

      4 It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, 6 if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.

      But I believe it is possible to live in the community of faith, think you have faith, work in the ministry, and only later come to realize you do not have faith. I’ve known of pastors who made professions of faith in seminary, and some who made them after being ministry 30 years. I’ve also known some who walked away from the faith.

      I think there is a difference between having had true faith (which lasts) and believing you have faith, until it is strongly tested and realizing you dont. I think if one comes to the realization that Christ IS the only way to be with God after walking/living/working in the community of faith and walking away from the faith, then no it is not unforgivable. It is possible O thought he had faith but did not – recall that one is only saved if one maintains faith to the end.

  5. […] we must conclude that Onesiphorus is absent -whether by abandonment, death, or in the field. Second, we note that Paul does not affirm that the absent will have mercy, […]

  6. Wb, I agree with you on the latter, which I think is also a key element in Paul’s prayer, something that has not be discussed yet.

    My point is, is if O had abandoned Paul and thus Christ, which I believe would fulfill Hebrews 6.4, etc…, why then would Paul pray for him?

    Of course, if you are right, and he did abandon Paul, it might be that Paul was being a bit sarcastic!

    It’s still a fascinating thing to dwell on.

    • It is fascinating.

      But I’m not sure O having abandoned Christ WOULD be an instance of Heb 6.4-6. It would depend on whether the faith had been real, and since he abandoned the faith, then by definition is was not. I think Heb 6:4-6 is speaking of something that is actually impossible.

  7. […] we must conclude that Onesiphorus is absent -whether by abandonment, death, or in the field. Second, we note that Paul does not affirm that the absent will have mercy, […]

  8. Have you considered the fact that God operates outside of time and space, so God can actually take prayers that are for the deceased and apply it to them just before they die. It’s mind boggling, but with God all is possible . Furthermore, the Jews and Christians have known this for a long time, after all, it’s in God’s name – I am, which means he is pure act, meaning he is outside of time and space. That is why God can be in three persons. Only creatures operate within time and space that is why we are one being to one person. Something to chew on!

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