By C. Robert Wetzel
The apostle Paul is in jail again. It is hardly a new experience for him. Like a common villain, he has seen the insides of several jails. But there is something different about this imprisonment. To begin with, he is feeling his age in a way he had not when he was imprisoned in Philippi or Jerusalem. The cold damp of the dungeon is going right to his bones. He writes his young friend Timothy and says, “Bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas . . .” (2 Timothy 4:13).
Something else is different. Always before when he was in jail he had some assurance of being released. Somehow God always seemed to let him know there was still more work for him to do. But now he doesn’t have that assurance. There is a finality in the death sentence that has been handed down. And thus, in what seems to be his final letter he writes, “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:6, 7).
Yes, Paul has kept the faith and does not fear martyrdom. But there is a note of sadness and loneliness as he writes to Timothy: “Do your best to come to me quickly for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Timothy 4:9, 10).
Meeting Demas in Thessalonica
There was a time when you could drive down Highway 1 in Yugoslavia without fear of finding yourself in the middle of a war. My wife and I drove that highway three times in the 1970s when we took Milligan College students on the Humanities Tour of Europe. There were nine of us plus luggage and camping equipment in a Volkswagen van—without air conditioning. It took two days of hard driving to make the trip from Vienna to Thessalonica in Greece.
The first year we made that trip was the most taxing. Upon reaching Thessalonica we traveled about 10 miles southeast of the city around the coast of the Aegean Sea. There we found a beautiful seaside camp at Agia Trias. The name means “Holy Trinity,” and never have I found myself a more enthusiastic Trinitarian.
We pitched our tents and cooked supper. But by then we had had more than enough of togetherness. The students went to explore, leaving my wife and me in two canvas chairs on the beach. We sat there and watched the sun go down over the Aegean Sea. And soon we could see the lights of Thessalonica across the bay. It was one of the most beautiful and peaceful experiences of our married life.
Later as I reflected upon Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, I remembered some of the Thessalonian Christians had gotten it into their heads that the second coming was imminent. Therefore some simply quit working and waited for the Lord to return.
For the first time I not only understood those misguided Thessalonians; I sympathized with them. If I lived in such a beautiful, peaceful place I too would want to quit work and simply wait for the Lord to return.
The Lure of the World
I can understand why Demas went to Thessalonica. And, regretfully, we can readily understand his love for the world. The world is, and always has been, a seducer trying to woo the bride of Christ away from her first love. Of course in that image we, the church, are the bride of Christ. And therefore the apostle John warns us,
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever (1 John 2:15-17).
On many occasions I have agonized when someone has left the church, when a practicing Christian sharing in the life of the congregation just dropped out.
We probably called upon them, talked to them, and encouraged them to “come back to church.” If they mentioned specific problems, we tried to help them and to work with them. With the Good Shepherd as our model we kept looking for that lost sheep.
Sometimes we were successful in bringing that person back into the fold. But I am sad to say, in my experience, there are far more lost sheep who are determined to stay lost, who do not even know they are lost, and who would just as soon the shepherd get lost rather than bother them. God forgive me if I have been going about shepherding in the wrong way, but that is my experience.
I think of the young, single mother we worked with us in England. She had known her share of Hell on earth and she was living in squalor. Our congregation ministered to her, refurbished her apartment, provided things for her baby, and in many other ways showed her the love of Christ. She began attending services and seemed to be making progress in the Lord.
And then one day she wasn’t there. When we checked we found she had invited a man to live with her—a man with a criminal record and a pathological bent to violence. As it turned out, the man killed himself before killing anyone else.
But in her twisted emotional state she developed a deep sense of guilt for his death. Try as we did, she did not come back to the church.
Perhaps we can all think of friends in ministry who simply one day walked away. The reasons they gave may or may not have seemed credible, but they did not just walk away from a ministry. They walked away from their commitment to Christ.
Well, Demas got fed up. It wasn’t as though he had not tried. He had obviously made some of those arduous and dangerous missionary journeys with Paul. And he, along with Luke, was standing by to help Paul during Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome (Colossians 4:14; Philemon 24).
But enough was enough. Paul had had his chance. He had been released. Would he leave well enough alone and settle down in a comfortable church setting? Not on your life. He was off again on a fourth missionary journey and going farther than he had ever gone before. And, of course, once again he got himself arrested and hauled back to Rome for imprisonment.
This time Paul received the death sentence. Demas knew it would eventually happen, and it did. Furthermore, this time Paul lost hope of being released. And if Nero could have Paul executed, what would happen to Paul’s associates? It was not a good time for a Christian to be in Rome!
And after all, Demas was not the only one to desert Paul. “You know,” said Paul, “that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes” (2 Timothy 1:15). But there must have been something particularly hurtful about the desertion of Demas.
Did Demas try to rationalize his decision? Had he heard the arguments of the Stoics and Epicureans against the Christian doctrine of the resurrection? We know these philosophers cracked up laughing when they heard Paul talk about the resurrection of the dead (Acts 17:32). There were substantial arguments against the possibility of a dead person coming back to life. Still are today.
You see, when we fall in love we can always find the arguments to support our affections. That is the beauty of being in love. It is also the danger of being in love. And Demas was in love. He was in love with this world.
The life of a young evangelist traveling with someone like Paul could not have been easy. Whenever they visited a place like Ephesus, it seemed like everyone was having fun but him. While others celebrated in the worship of the many-breasted Diana, Paul and his followers ended up in a riot with a mob. While others were eating and drinking and making merry, Demas had to put up with Paul’s fare, the diet of an old man with stomach trouble. When Demas tried to explain to Paul about his difficulty controlling his sex drive, Paul simply advised that it is better to stay single.
Demas could have given you many good reasons to justify what he did. But Paul sums them up in one phrase: “. . . because he loved this world.” And because he loved this world, he thought it better to be in a beautiful place like Thessalonica than hanging around a Roman dungeon awaiting Paul’s execution.
The Voice of Demas and the Voice of Christ
I agonize for Demas, this young man who had heard the good news of the Christ, had accepted him as Lord, had traveled as an evangelist, but now turns his back on it all. I agonize for him out of pastoral concern, but I also tremble to realize there is a little bit of Demas in all of us. Sometimes quite a bit!
The Demas voice within us challenges our Christian worldview. It speaks to both the reason of the mind and the affections of the heart. There are times when the voice is loud and shouts to us: “This world is all that there is to life. You had better enjoy it while you can.”
And even when we tell this noisome voice to shut up, it simply goes quiet. It is still there as a whisper.
Setting Heart and Mind
While Demas was still alongside him, Paul wrote to the church at Colossae. Perhaps it was not only the Colossian Christians he had in mind when he wrote:
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:1-3).
There it is! Being a Christian, staying a Christian, requires a conscious act of setting our hearts and minds—our affections and our reason—on “things above.” The person who loves Christ in response to his love sets heart and mind on the Beloved. Likewise, the person who loves the world sets heart and mind on the world. And once heart and mind are fixed on what we love, they become a powerful force working together to convince us we have made the right choice.
Of course, they cannot both be right. Jesus claims to be the truth, the way, and the life. And so we proclaim him to be. And that is why we preach Christ, who today is still foolishness to those who demand a certain kind of worldly reason. That is why we preach the person of Jesus Christ to those who find him a stumbling block. He does not pander to their worldly affections and experiences.
And John Mark?
There was another young man who deserted Paul. It happened early on. John Mark was bright and enthusiastic. He heard Paul and Barnabas talk about their missionary travels when they stayed in his mother’s home. He wanted to go with them. But this young man from a wealthy family was not prepared for the hardships they would face. Before the tour was half over he bailed out and went home.
Later Paul and Barnabas came by. He apologized, asked their forgiveness. I doubt either Paul or Barnabas had any difficulty forgiving him. But when John Mark said he would like to try it again, Paul said no. Good old Barnabas, the encourager, took Paul aside. But under no circumstances would Paul take John Mark.
John Mark did go, but not with Paul. He went with Barnabas. The great evangelistic team of Paul and Barney had been broken up by a personal squabble. Paul took Silas and went one way. Barnabas took John Mark and went another. It turned out all right. Two missionary journeys were made instead of one. And John Mark proved he was worth a second chance.
And now, many years later, Paul, an old man awaiting execution, deserted by Demas, takes pen in hand and writes to Timothy: “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11).
Well, Paul, Mark was not only helpful to you. He was helpful to quite a number of us. He later wrote the second Gospel.
I said earlier there is a little bit of Demas in all of us. There is also a little bit of Mark in us. May there be a whole lot of Christ in us.
Bob Wetzel is president of Emmanuel School of Religion, Johnson City, Tennessee.