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When Christians Clash Part III (4:10,14)

We’ve learned much from the clash of Paul and Barnabas over Mark. But there’s one more lesson to note. It comes by way of a painful contrast.

Among those listed in the concluding paragraph of Colossians is a man named Demas (Colossians 4:14). He, too, was with Paul in Rome, faithfully serving the apostle alongside of Mark, Luke, Epaphras, and others. But not for long.

Is there a more painful experience than being abandoned by a friend? One struggles to find words adequate for the distress that is felt when a close, trusted companion and fellow-worker (see Philemon 24) walks away.

It’s important to remember that this was Paul’s first Roman imprisonment when conditions were not so threatening. But things were to change. When Paul wrote again from prison in Rome, his life was in the balance. Here are his words to his spiritual son, Timothy: “Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Timothy 4:9-10). Ouch! Double ouch!!

Was Demas a “convenient” Christian, one who was happy to follow Jesus and assist the apostle so long as it was rewarding and safe? We can’t be sure, but it’s clear that Demas wanted nothing to do with Paul. The verb translated “deserted” in 2 Timothy 4:10 implies not simply that Demas had “left” but had “left him in the lurch,” had abandoned and forsaken him.

Paul would have recalled the wisdom of Solomon: “Trusting in a treacherous man in time of trouble is like a bad tooth or a foot that slips” (Proverbs 25:19). Nothing hurts quite like the disloyalty and betrayal of someone you trusted. It's like a decaying, rotten tooth and a palsied, disjointed foot. Not only are they functionally useless (for chewing and walking), they hurt!

For some of you, no doubt, your experience with this sort of person has made you hesitant to trust another. Perhaps you’ve closed your heart to starting new friendships or found yourself keeping folk at arm’s length. But Paul didn't let the betrayal and abandonment of Demas and others scare him off or sour him to friendship altogether. He didn't say, "Oh, Timothy, how do I know you won't abandon me like Demas did?" There’s an important lesson in that.

Demas abandoned Paul in his hour of need because he had fallen “in love with this present world” (2 Timothy 4:10a). He preferred material prosperity to spiritual blessings. Comfort and wealth and safety meant more to him than the advance of the gospel and the welfare of the apostle.

What lessons might we learn from the contrast between Demas and Mark?

First, and at first, when you look on these two men Demas appeared faithful and loyal while Mark gave every indication of cowardice and weakness. But as time passed, their situations reversed. Demas proved himself to be disloyal and unreliable and Mark grew into the sort of trusted friend whom Paul wanted at his side in his final days on earth.

Don't be hasty in making snap judgments about people. Initially, Paul thought Demas would never leave and Mark would never be of use. Now, Demas has left and Mark is back! We’re reminded by this that more important than how you start a race is how you finish. It’s been said before and I’ll say it again: the Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint! So let’s be careful and not place excessive responsibility on those who do well at first, nor give up entirely on those who appear to have slipped at the starting line.

Second, some say Mark was not a Christian when he abandoned Paul and Barnabas but converted later on. They also argue that Demas was a Christian but lost his salvation when he deserted Paul for love of the world.

But this is based on the assumption that a true believer is incapable of the sin of fear or cowardice (Mark’s transgression; Peter’s too!). It also assumes that someone who is born again cannot fall into the grip of materialism and self-protection (which may well have been Demas’s struggle).

I suspect, but can’t prove, that Demas was a Christian with whom God dealt no differently than he did with Mark. He would have come under the conviction of the Spirit and felt the call to repentance. Short of his restoration, divine discipline would have ensued. Was he restored? We don’t know. There are other instances in Scripture where discipline is temporally (but not spiritually) fatal (cf. Acts 5:1-11; 1 Corinthians 11:30-32). In the case of Demas, the Bible is silent and we must be content with that.

Third, and finally, Barnabas received Mark back. Peter received Mark back. Paul received Mark back. The Church as a whole received Mark back. But what about God? God used him to write the gospel of his Son! This miserable failure who initially proved so unreliable was received and restored by God to fulfill a task of awesome and eternal significance. As I said before, isn’t grace amazing!

Confident in the triumph of grace,

Sam