Believer or Follower?

December 5, 2011   |   God   |   nate

** This is a guest post by my brother, Chris Carden, who is currently deployed to Afghanistan

Have you ever heard of Demas? Did you know he is mentioned in 3 books of the Bible? He was right there with Paul in Rome at the very beginning when Christianity began to take hold at the far reaches of the empire. I am sure that he saw God perform amazing miracles through the faith of those early believers, and I am certain that he was able to daily sit at Paul’s feet and hear the most God inspired teaching since Jesus’ death. Paul refers to him in Philemon 1:23-24 “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you his greetings. 24 So do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my co-workers.” From this we can infer several things.

First, Demas is probably a diminutive as his full name is probably Greek in origin.  I suspect his full name is Demetrius and that he encountered Paul on his second or third missionary journey. It will become more interesting as we look at Demas to know that Demetrius means follower of Demeter or the Greek god of the harvest.  His hometown was probably Thessalonica as we will see in 2 Timothy. He had probably never heard of Jesus until the old apostle arrived in his fifties talking about some crazy events that recently took place in Judea.

Second, we know that Demas was given a greater opportunity to impact the world for Jesus than most people in history. The second time Demas is mentioned is in Colossians 4 right after he finishes praising men like Mark, Epaphrus, and Aristarchus: v14 “Luke, the beloved doctor, sends his greetings, and so does Demas.”  Let’s examine for a moment these other “laborers in Christ” who are mentioned alongside Demas.  Mark, who wrote one of the gospels, traveled all over Italy preaching the good news before he sailed for Egypt where he died or was martyred.  Luke, in fact, wrote 2 books of the Bible, his Gospel and the book of Acts.  He was not Jewish but since his conversion he remained with Paul through some of the most awesome moments of church history as well as some of the most frightening.

Third, since Colossians and Philemon were written during Paul’s first Roman captivity in about 60 AD, we can guess that Demas may have traveled to Rome to be with Paul during the rapid growth of the church there. Since the book of Romans was written before Paul’s first captivity we can know that there was already a church present by the time that Paul arrived. From history and from Paul’s list of a number of “big name” workers with him we can be sure that the Roman church was growing exponentially every day. During this captivity Paul was allowed to preach, write letters, and was only placed in house arrest. Besides Paul’s inability to travel this was really a high point for the early church. The followers of the Way were still too new of phenomenon at this point for the government to take too much of interest. They probably met in each other’s homes and gathered at the Forum to preach and encourage one another. The leaders of this church mentioned by Paul were probably well renowned among the growing Christian population. The lay people probably saw them daily entering Paul’s house to meet and pray with one of the last remaining Apostles of their faith.  They probably saw these men healing the sick and casting out demons in Jesus’ name. When one of these leaders met with a group of Roman Christians in their home everyone sat on the edge of their seat gleaning the purest Gospel truths they could since much of the New Testament had not yet been written. It is obvious by the praise Paul gives his “fellow laborers” that this was a real spiritual high for the church in Rome.  As closely in tune as Paul was with the Holy Spirit he was not God and thus did not know the hearts of men and he certainly did not know Demas’ heart at the time.

Finally, Demas does not show his true heart to the world until sometime after the night when Rome became completely engulfed in flames.  By 64 AD the church in Rome and the Roman Empire must have been significant as it is believed that there were 1 million Christians by 100 AD. This number was no longer just some small sect at the far reaches of Nero’s empire.  The followers of the Way had crossed the entire Mediterranean Sea and now threatened the glorious image of a city built for the honor of the Roman gods. Didn’t Nero derive his power from Zeus himself? If this movement continued to explode as it already had, what would become of his reign?  As the flames that engulfed the buildings in Rome died down, new ones began popping up at neatly spaced intervals.  These were the bodies of many Roman Christians on whom Nero laid the blame for the destruction of Zeus’ great city.  It was at this time that the one of the greatest persecutions of the Christians faith began in earnest. Paul had been released from his house arrest by 62AD and was currently serving God on the most ambitious missionary journey of his life…at the age of 60!(Some retirement by the way)! According to various citations in some of his previous books we know that he had plans to visit the following: Colosse, Spain, Corinth, Miletus, Troas, Crete, Nicopolis, Philippi, Italy, Judea, Ephesus, and Macedonia.

During this time Nero’s thirst for Christian blood must have surely been known throughout the empire. In his annals written only a few years after the persecution of the Christians, Tacitus says,

“Therefore, to stop the rumor [that he had set Rome on fire], he [Emperor Nero] falsely charged with guilt, and punished with the most fearful tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were [generally] hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of that name, was put to death as a criminal by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea, in the reign of Tiberius, but the pernicious superstition – repressed for a time, broke out yet again, not only through Judea, – where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also, whither all things horrible and disgraceful flow from all quarters, as to a common receptacle, and where they are encouraged. Accordingly first those were arrested who confessed they were Christians; next on their information, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much on the charge of burning the city, as of “hating the human race.”

In their very deaths they were made the subjects of sport: for they were covered with the hides of wild beasts, and worried to death by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set fire to, and when the day waned, burned to serve for the evening lights. Nero offered his own garden players for the spectacle, and exhibited a Circensian game, indiscriminately mingling with the common people in the dress of a charioteer, or else standing in his chariot. For this cause a feeling of compassion arose towards the sufferers, though guilty and deserving of exemplary capital punishment, because they seemed not to be cut off for the public good, but were victims of the ferocity of one man.”

At some point around 66 AD many theorize that Paul was again recaptured and taken back to Rome.  It seems likely that this captivity was not quite as lenient as his first Roman captivity.  It was during this captivity that he wrote his final epistle 2nd Timothy.  In chapiter 1 verse 12 he says “That is why I am suffering here in prison. But I am not ashamed of it, for I know the one in whom I trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until the day of his return.” I love 2nd Timothy because it is so rich in sentimentality.  If you knew nothing else about Paul and his other works you could read 2nd Timothy and reasonably determine that it was probably the last letter written by an old man to a dear friend.  In it he compiles all his most precious truths that have guided him so faithfully during his ministry. In 4:6 he exclaims, “As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God. The time of my death is near. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. 8 And now the prize awaits me—the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on the day of his return.” He praises God for several of his faithful laborers in Christ, but he mourns the lack of faithfulness of many more.  It is at this point in 4:10 that we see Demas for the last time. He writes, “Demas has deserted me because he loves the things of this life and has gone to Thessalonica.”

What a sad last testament to a man who had such a great opportunity to witness for the Lord. Even Christian history has largely forgotten him. What is far more tragic is the fact that we might never get to meet Demas in Heaven. James 4:4 says, “You adulterous people,[a] don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” We don’t know exactly what motivated Demas to leave Paul, but my guess is that the fear of death and persecution may have given him the biggest incentive. When the passage first struck me a week or so ago I thought that his friendship with the world may have been something more related to material lusts. In my mind I pictured some bigger job opportunity awaiting him in his home town of Thessalonica or maybe it was a relationship that called him home.  I definitely disparaged him more before I studied the history of that time than I do now.  If perhaps, in the face of his friends being burned like candles, Demas did not have saving faith due to his attachment to the world, how many people in churches today will also not see heaven? How convenient and easy is it for Westerners to call themselves Christians?

There is nothing wrong with this period of comfort that God has allowed us, except for the fact that it allows many disciple pretenders to hide behind middle income salaries and luxury SUV’s with no dependence on Christ.  This is not condemnation, but simply conviction on my part. Would my faith stand in the face of persecution? I don’t think that salvation is best judged by a man’s measure of strength amidst persecution. Salvation is not something Christ gives you and then takes away if you fail a test.  I never knew Demas and only God can judge his heart, but I think that he was lost even while he prayed, sang, and worshipped with Paul. I think down in his heart he always loved the world and what it promised more than anything else. I think that he wanted to follow Christ… just not to carry his cross. Jesus said,

“If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my message in these adulterous and sinful days, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

in Europe many people say “I am a  believer, but not a practicing participant  of any  religion.”  I think even in English the evolution of our language has totally cheapened the word “belief.”  When asked a difficult question we sometimes respond “I believe so,” as if to say I think so but my assurance is not so high that I would be willing to stake my life on it. I think it is very difficult for anyone today to understand what it means to be saved by simply saying “I believe in Jesus.”  I think Demas was very comfortable with that phrase.  Instead, I think we should ask each other and ourselves: “Am I a disciple?” 

There are probably far too many of us who have either lived as Demas or have had a Demas shake the core of their hearts.  It may have been a father who left your mother after 10 maybe 20 years of marriage to live his remaining years in sin. It may have been a friend who revealed a dark secret that you could have never imagined, and now you feel like you don’t know that person anymore.  Maybe it was a respected leader in your church who has left you struggling with disbelief that Christ could have loved a bunch of hypocrites enough to die for them.

I know for sure that Christians make mistakes and that we still wage a war with sin everyday just as Paul says, but I firmly believe that when we belong to Christ that he will not let us go.  Far be it from me to ever judge someone’s eternal destination.  We can only hold each other up to the light of the scripture and pray that Christ will sustain us until the end as he did for Paul.  How do you want your life to be characterized?  Are you a “believer” in Christ or are you a disciple?  Choose today to forsake everything and carry your cross as you follow him so that you might look back on your life and say “Thanks to Christ, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful.”