Paul was no lone ranger. In general church life and in gospel ministry he surrounded himself with those who would encourage and strengthen him. Sometimes, however, other Christians deeply disappointed him. His honesty about both his encouragements and his disappointments serves to warn us and to give us hope.
Consider, for example, some of his closing words to his young friend and disciple, Timothy:
Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.
(2 Timothy 4:9–11)
Take note, in particular, of two names here.
First, consider Demas, who had long proven a faithful companion to Paul. He had been with prisoner Paul as he wrote to Colossae (Colossians 4:14) and had been imprisoned Paul’s “fellow worker” when he wrote to Philemon (Philemon 24). Demas was a great help to Paul in times of affliction and a great asset in gospel ministry. But something happened. We don’t know what, except that Demas fell so deeply “in love with this present world” that he “deserted” Paul.
What does it mean that Demas was “in love with this present world”? We are not told. He had stuck with Paul during initial imprisonments, but perhaps his fear of possible execution alongside the apostle eventually got the better of him. Perhaps the allure of prosperous Thessalonica distracted him so that he traded affliction for comfort. It is impossible, and ultimately unimportant, to know. All we need to know is that his affection for the present world outgrew his affection for gospel ministry so that he abandoned the work.
The word translate “deserted” speaks of leaving someone in dire straits. Paul felt Demas’s desertion keenly and the work suffered because of it. Though the progress of the gospel cannot be ultimately thwarted, it can suffer setbacks, and Demas’s desertion created one such setback.
But even as we consider the setback that Demas’s desertion created, we find encouragement at the mention of a second name: “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.”
Mark was Barnabas’s cousin, who had joined Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey as recorded in Acts 13–14. He later formed a close relationship with Peter (1 Peter 5:13) and is mentioned twice in the same context as Demas as Paul’s fellow worker (Colossians 4:10; Philemon 1:24). In 2 Timothy 4, Paul wrote of Mark’s usefulness for gospel ministry, but that was not always Mark’s legacy. Indeed, early on, Mark knew what it meant to shrink back from gospel ministry, much as Demas had done. Consider Luke’s account of Paul and Barnabas planning a second missionary journey:
And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
Mark had abandoned Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. Again, details are scarce, but the desertion was significant enough that Paul did not feel that Mark was equipped for gospel ministry. But something happened. By the end of his life, Paul considered Mark useful for gospel purposes.
In the space of a few verses, then, by reference to two companions, Paul gives us a word of warning and a word of hope.
The warning, with reference to Demas, is that we must take care to persevere. We don’t have the final word on Demas. He may well have repented. But the last inspired word is not encouraging. As far as the New Testament record is concerned, Demas serves as a warning to be soberminded and watchful, knowing that our adversary is looking for opportunity to destroy us. We must resist him, firm in the faith (1 Peter 5:8–9). We are all susceptible to the deceptions of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and we must consistently be on guard against giving into the temptation to run from Christ.
But Mark offers us a word of hope. Those who start poorly, who fall away from faithful gospel ministry, need not consider failure to be final. No doubt through Barnabas’s faithful discipleship, aided by Peter’s close companionship, Mark reversed course. Having once withdrawn, he had come back, and Paul recognised the great benefit he offered in gospel ministry. He was one who had once been faint and weary, and who had fallen exhausted but who, by waiting on the Lord, had found renewed strength to rise with eagles’ wings (Isaiah 40:30–31).
The God of the Bible forgives and restores the repentant to gospel usefulness. Knowing, therefore, our indwelling sin, which inclines us to believe lies, which ultimately lead to destruction, let us “flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called” (1 Timothy 6:11-12). Where we have failed, let us resolve now to pursue Jesus as our treasure and seek to live lives of useful service for him.