Demas. His name is on a list of names posted in 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 scraps of 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 life.
The Man in Question
In all fairness, there is next to nothing explicitly known about Demas and we are forced in many ways to stretch out (within fair limits) as much as possible from what we do know about him and his company.
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.
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 happened?” 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.
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; there was much to do.
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). 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.”
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). Paul and Peter were both caught up in the persecution; both were arrested and executed under Nero. In fact, early tradition says their executions happened around the same time, the fourteenth year of Nero (A.D. 67-68).
It is quite possible that the fierceness of the persecution and atmosphere in Rome played a factor for Demas to stay or flee. Paul writes 2 Timothy (his final letter) and reveals an unfortunate casualty: “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (4.10 ESV). For this reason, he asks Timothy to leave Ephesus and come to Rome in a hurry (4.9). Ironically, Timothy would sail out to help Paul from the Aegean Sea, waters shared with Thessalonica.
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.
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.
− 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 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!
- 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), 144.
- William Smith, A Dictionary of the Bible, revised and edited by F. N. Peloubet and M. A. Peloubet (Chicago, Ill.: 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, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1962), 1:815.
- The term means, “a fellow-worker”, the verb form means “I work along with, I co-operate with” (cf. 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, N. Y.: American Book Co., 1886), 603-04.
- Michael Grant, The Roman Emperors: A Biographical Guide to the Rulers of Imperial Rome 31 B.C. – A.D. 476 (1985, Repr. New York, N.Y.: Barnes & Noble, 1997), 38.
- See Wayne Jackson, “Nero Caesar and the Christian Faith,” ChristianCourier.com. Accessed 17 Sept. 2013. URL: https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/623-nero-caesar-and-the-christian-faith.
- Harvey E. Dana, The New Testament World, 3rd edition (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1937), 176.
- E. E. Ellis, “Pastoral Letters” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 662.