15 This you know, that all those in Asia have turned away from me, among whom are Phygellus and Hermogenes.
16 The Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain;
17 but when he arrived in Rome, he sought me out very zealously and found me.
18 The Lord grant to him that he may find mercy from the Lord in that Day—and you know very well how many ways he ministered to me at Ephesus.
Asia (v.15) — Asia Minor (what is now Turkey), a province of Rome of which Ephesus (where Timothy was ministering) was the capital. Paul had ministered there for more than two years (Acts 19:10) and many of the people grew to love him (Acts 20:36-38).
mercy (v.16) = the practical expression of pity — It assumes the need of mercy by the recipient.
household (v.16) = family
Onesiphorus (v.16) = “benefit-bearer”
refreshed (v.16) = lit. “made cool”
chain (v.16) = manacle, handcuff — Paul was chained to a Roman soldier 24 hours a day.
not ashamed of my chair (v.16) — not deterred from visiting Paul in prison
very diligently (v.17) = with extraordinary diligence, more than could be looked for or expected
that day (v.18) — when he will appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10)
very well (v.18) = “better” — Timothy, as pastor of the Ephesian church knew better than Paul did all that Onesiphorus had done.
It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on here.
Some think that Paul’s prayer for mercy for Onesiphorus means that he was one of those who had turned from Paul, but that Paul, in grace, wanted him to be rewarded for his earlier service.
Some think Onesiphorus was dead when Paul wrote this, perhaps because of his visit to Paul in prison, because Paul keeps referring to his house (here and in 2 Timothy 4:19).
Some think that the “turning away” (v.15) was a turning away from sound doctrine because of all Paul has been saying to Timothy, especially in verses 13 and 14, and what he says in the next chapter — But shun profane and idle babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness. And their message will spread like cancer. Hymenaeus and Philetus are of this sort, who have strayed concerning the truth, saying that the resurrection is already past; and they overthrow the faith of some (2 Timothy 2:16-18).
Some think the “turning away” just refers to the former church leaders, perhaps including Onesiphorus, but that many of the rest of the people were still faithful.
Stam has this to say:
Does the apostle mean that all the believers in this area had turned from the truth? Surely not, for at that very time Timothy was at Ephesus as the pastor of the church there.
What Paul meant was rather that they had turned away from him in his hour of need, ashamed of his bonds and evidently afraid that they might be implicated in the charges against him if they stood with him.
Some commentators feel that there is evidence that it was at his return to Ephesus that Paul was arrested by Roman soldiers for the second time, and that it was at this time that the stampede, the flight of his friends there, took place, all afraid that they too might be arrested and perhaps even executed as accomplices with Paul in the “crime” of preaching Christ and the riches of his grace. In any case, the leaders in the Asian stampede away from Paul were evidently Phygellus and Hermogenes (v.15).
Likewise, at Rome, the temptation of Paul’s friends to avoid him would be great, stemming from the fear that they might lay themselves open to suspicion by visiting him. From 2 Timothy 4:9-11 we learn of at least one who had “forsaken” him, while he says of two others simply that they had “departed.” “Only Luke,” he says, “is with me.” — Stam, pages 163-164.
Most of this is speculation, and in trying to keep to what the text actually says, I think I’m leaning toward the opinion that Onesiphorus remained faithful to Paul and the message. As for whether Paul’s statements about his house mean that he was dead or whether it just means that his family joined with him in ministering to Paul, I don’t know.
As for the turning away, I think Paul’s repeated statements about being “ashamed” of his imprisonment (verses 8, 12 and 16) probably indicate that many were turning away from him out of fear for being implicated in the persecution (see my introduction to 2 Timothy). But I also think there was a strong movement away from the truth as seen in Paul’s statements in the second chapter (2 Timothy 2:16-18 — see above) and all of Paul’s encouragement to Timothy to hold fast to sound doctrine. I’m not sure that Timothy’s ministry in Ephesus proves that there were still many believers there — this entire book has a lot to say about standing firm for the truth in the face of opposition and discouragement.