Lessons Learned from Demas

Demas. His name is on a list of names posted on the pages of the New Testament as one of the most notorious of Christian apostates. There are only three references to his name and his contribution to Paul’s ministry (Col 4:14, Philm 24) and his later detraction from it (2 Tim 4:9-10).

From these limited Scriptural references what can be possibly learned from this Christian man? Apparently much. This is the goal of this particular piece, to consider the lesson of Demas who at some point was counted among Paul’s “fellow workers” but then deserted Paul at a most crucial point in his ministry.

The Man in Question

In all fairness, there is next to nothing explicitly known about Demas, so we are forced in many ways to stretch out as much as possible (within fair limits) from what we do know about him.

Demas was a common enough name to be found in documents found among the ancient papyri of the New Testament era and beyond. The name is found in the company of several Jewish names. His name is a shortened form either Demetrius (cf. Acts 19:24, 3 John 12), Demarchus, or Demaratos.[1]

He could either be a Greek convert or a convert from among the Greek speaking Jews like Timothy (Acts 16:1). The last time we read of him he is journey bound to Thessalonica (2 Tim 4:10), which could point to his origins. Paul and Silas established a congregation in that city made up Jews and Greeks (cf. Acts 17:1-9).

Ultimately, we are left with reasonable speculation as to his origins. At some point, Demas comes in contact with the Gospel and with Paul. His reputation for service is of such caliber that he joins Paul’s mission to the Gentiles (2 Tim 4:17, Acts 9:15-16, Gal 2:6-10).

All this being said, we must ask a puzzling question, “What went wrong?” Here is a gentleman that labored alongside the Apostle Paul during some of the most epic moments of his ministry only to defect at the last. It’s baffling, if not disconcerting.

Background

Perhaps a little background is in order. The New Testament reflects that Paul experienced two significant imprisonments in Rome. The first imprisonment lasted two years and dates roughly to about A.D. 61-62, the second traditionally dates around A.D. 64.

The letters of Philippians, Ephesians and Colossians, and Philemon were dispatched during the first imprisonment as he waited for his hearing before Caesar (cf. Acts 28), from which he was subsequently released (Phil 1:25-26, Rom 15:24).

Demas was there with Paul when the Apostle was awaiting trial. He stands alongside noteworthy men such as Tychicus, Onesimus, Mark, Jesus (Justus), Epaphras, and Luke (Col 4:10-17, Philm 23-44). Those arduous years in Rome were filled with much turmoil as well as victories.

No wonder he was labeled as a “fellow worker” (Philm 24). This word reflects the fact that Demas was no slouch. He was every bit as critical as those listed above. He helped in doing his part in the division of labor. Such is the meaning of the phrase “fellow worker” (Grk. synergos).[2] But just a few years later, his heart desired no part of this work.

Upon release, Paul was ready to set in motion the things necessary to go West in Spain as he wrote to Christians in Rome (Rom 15:24). Also, Paul addresses some matters with Timothy in Ephesus (1 Timothy), and Titus in Crete (Titus).

All things seem to be progressing. At some point, however, Paul is arrested again. This time it is for keeps. The city of Rome suffered a week long fire that catastrophically destroyed the center of the empire in A.D. 64. The Great Fire of Rome is said to have “deprived numerous families of their homes and caused widespread discontent.”[3]

It is widely accepted that the fire was created by Caesar Nero (A.D. 54-68), and that he blamed the Christians for this crime (Tacitus [ca. 60-120], Annals 15.44).[4] According to tradition, Paul and Peter were both caught up in the persecution which followed; both were arrested and executed under Nero.[5] In fact, early tradition says their executions happened around the same time, the fourteenth year of Nero (A.D. 67-68).[6]

Paul has the trial of his life before him and he needs “the books and the parchments” (4:13). He also needed heaven bound Christians; yet, Paul was aware that this time his outcome did not look good (4:6). Yet, he trusted in the Lord.

“Demas… has Deserted Me”

This brings us to 2 Timothy 4:10. In Paul’s final letter he laments Demas as an unfortunate casualty: “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (4:10 ESV). It is quite possible that the fierceness of the persecution and atmosphere in Rome played a factor in Demas’s desert towards Thessalonica. For this reason, he asks Timothy to leave Ephesus and come to Rome in a hurry (4:9). Ironically, Timothy would sail out of the Aegean Sea, waters shared with Thessalonica.

Paul is quite clear that Demas is a “deserter.”[7] That the desertion had already happened by the time the letter is obvious. Paul felt the sting of being left behind in his bonds by one who had been so trusted an ally in Christ. Demas forsook, abandoned, and deserted Paul while he was in a dire situation. This requires little exposition, Demas left Paul abandoned in his bonds and set his course to Thessalonica.

The real curious aspect of this text is the phrase, “in love with this present world” (or “having loved the present age”). The usual word translated “world” (kosmos) which suggests the material world and universe is not used here by the Apostle; instead, Paul employs a term which means “a very long time,” like the term “eternity” (Jude 25, John 6:51, 58). It may also mean the created world (Heb 1:2; 11:3), but this use is very limited; or, as is the case here, “a segment of time” as in an “age, an epoch.”[8]

There is a moral quality to this phrase. In 1 Corinthians 3:18b, Paul writes, “If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age.” There is a way one is wise in the things “which people in this world think” or “think are right.”[9] Again, in Mark 4.19 we read, “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” It is not that much different, then, to have a “high esteem” for the present world/age with all its “cares” and “wisdom.”[10]

Demas’s interest and concern (“being in love” or “having loved”) with this present age was materialized, then, in his desertion of Paul. In fact, it would be reasonable to understand “being in love with this world/age” as defining the nature of the desertion. Demas forsook Paul “in that he held a high appraisal of this present world” over the faithfulness of God and the promises of the Gospel. It is quite clear that the vigor of faith that he had early on was now replaced by a desire to be satisfied by what the world offers. So, he departed from Paul.

What Can We Learn?

There are some painful lessons to observe from Demas. But they call upon us to be vigilant of our motives for being followers of Christ. Briefly, here are some lessons:

  • Difficult times reveal the quality of one’s conversion. Moments don’t define the quality of our conversion, they reveal it.
  • Great Christians can fall. Demas was a guy that no one perhaps would have suspected to abandon his brethren in hard times.
  • What we care about can be dangerous. Demas had become so concerned with what the world valued that it became more alluring than his witness to the world with the Gospel.
  • What matters most to you will always be revealed. Demas was unable to stay focused on the temporary nature of this life; his love of this world outweighed his love for the next life.

Demas reminds us of how fragile faith can be. More specifically, Demas gives us a spiritual “wake up” call. It is time to pick up!

Sources

  1. James H. Moulton and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament Illustrated from the Papyri and Other Non-Literary Sources (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1914-1929), MM 144. William Smith, A Dictionary of the Bible, rev. ed., eds. F. N. Peloubet and M. A. Peloubet (Chicago, IL: Winston Co., 1884), 142. Smith defines Demas as “governor of the people” which is not as enlightening as we would like. B. H. Throckmorton, Jr., “Demas” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, edited by George A. Buttrick (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1962), IDB 1:815.
  2. The term means, “a fellow-worker”, the verb form means “I work along with, I co-operate with” (Alexander Souter, A Pocket Lexicon to the Greek New Testament [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1917], 248). See also Joseph H. Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (New York, NY: American Book Co., 1886), 603-04.
  3. Michael Grant, The Roman Emperors: A Biographical Guide to the Rulers of Imperial Rome 31 B.C. – A.D. 476 (1985; repr. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, 1997), 38.
  4. See Wayne Jackson, “Nero Caesar and the Christian Faith,” ChristianCourier.com.
  5. Harvey E. Dana, The New Testament World, 3rd ed. (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1937), 176.
  6. E. E. Ellis, “Pastoral Letters” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, eds. Gerald F. Hawthorne, et al. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), DPHL 662.
  7. Greek, engkataleipo. Walter Bauer, et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979), BAGD 215; Moulton and Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament, 179; Henry G. Liddell and Robert Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1889). This is in keeping with the classical meaning, “to leave in the lurch.”
  8. BAGD, 27-28. Liddell and Scott, Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon.
  9. Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, 2d ed. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), L&N 41:38.
  10. BAGD 4-5. Agapao, “of the love for things; denoting high esteem for or satisfaction with something.”
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