It is time to rehabilitate Demas, the companion of the apostle Paul, from the slander than judges him a turncoat or even worse an apostate.
The King James Version translates 2Tim 4:10: ‘For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world, and is departed unto Thessalonica; Crescens to Galatia, Titus unto Dalmatia’ 2Tim 4:10 and other versions tend to translate it similarly.
This is commonly interpreted in a bad light for Demas. Most current versions copy each other and say that Demas has deserted Paul, or abandoned him. Only Young’s Literal Translation, the Darby Bible Translation and the Weymouth New Testament point to the correct sense about this present world, although each of these still retain the concept of Demas deserting Paul.
A less tendentious translation is: ‘For Demas has left me, having chosen to love the present life, and went to Thessalonica, Crescens to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia’ 2Tim 4:10.
It does not say that Demas has left Christ nor the gospel, which is an example of eisegesis, but that he has left Paul. The Greek word egkataleipo ‘to leave behind’ is used in both a good and a bad sense. There is little excuse for repeating the negative sense when long ago John Gill has drawn attention to the alternative: ‘he might forsake the apostle, and yet not forsake Christ.’
Paul is in prison in Rome and facing death 2Tim 4:6 under emperor Nero’s persecution of Christians. Demas, Crescens and Titus have left him and only Luke is still with him. Although Paul is justified in feeling lonely and even abandoned, he is not justified in thinking that Demas should remain with him and risk his own life as a martyr. The Scottish martyr George Wishart would not let the young John Knox accompany him to his trial and execution. He advised him to save his own life, saying ‘One is enough for a sacrifice.’ More to the point, Jesus’ advised His disciples: ‘when they persecute you in this city, flee into another’ Mat 10:23. Christians are to ‘live to fight another day’, to continue to witness and preach elsewhere. Augustine had to write against the opinion of those Christians who actively sought out martyrdom, a message for current muslim suicide bombers Jn 16:2. Christians should not think it is cowardice to flee from persecution and many early Reformers fled from England to Continental Europe during the persecution under ‘bloody Mary’.
The slander against Demas is the suggestion that he had gone back to the sinful world, contrary to Christian teaching to ‘love not the world’ 1Jn 2:15. Paul in this text does not say that Demas did so.
1. rather, Demas went to Thessalonica and evidently Paul knew this. If he was abandoning Christianity, why would he tell Paul where he was going? Thessalonica had a Christian congregation, and Paul mentions in the same breathe that Crescens went to Galatia and Titus to Dalmatia, the very same verb poreuomai ‘to go’ applying to all three.
2. the Greek words for ‘this present world’ mean ‘this current age’ or ‘this present life’. It is used of ‘this world’ in contrast to ‘the world to come’ Mat 12:32, in the sense of ‘this life’ or one’s ‘time in this world’ Mat 13:22. Instead of going into eternity as a martyr like the apostle Paul, Demas had chosen to remain in this life, which he was quite entitled and even commanded by Christ to do.
3. the Greek word for ‘having loved’ is not the complacent love of delighting in something but agapao, the love of goodwill, the benevolent love of choice.
The common exegesis that thinks that Demas was in love with this world in the sense of 1Jn 2:15 is an unwarranted slander of his Christian character. It is based on faulty exegesis because it is ‘this current age’ rather than ‘this wicked world’ for which he had a love. He had a benevolent Christian love to continue to spread the Gospel to this current age, rather than a complacent love for this wicked world. Rather than an unnecessary martyrdom, he chose to continue to spread the Gospel and left Paul to go to the church in Thessalonica.
So why has Paul applied this qualification to Demas and not to Crescens and Titus? We cannot be sure that he did. Paul is notorious for his shorthand phraseology. It is possible that Paul meant it to apply to all three. He explains that the reason for their leaving him is their desire to serve Christ further in this life rather than suffer an unnecessary martyrdom. Paul was ‘ready to be offered’ 2Tim 4:6 and while it is possible that he expected too much from others, more than Christ had commanded Mat 10:23, yet this is not certain and such a suggestion is a reflection upon Paul as well as a reflection upon Demas.
Paul may be disappointed that they, or at least Demas, did not remain with him as Luke did, but as he had sent Tychicus to Ephesus, and was still actively engaged in organising where different preachers were working, this appears to be a better explanation for Demas going to Thessalonica. Such an explanation exonerates Paul of peevishness or selfishness, of expecting too much from Demas, and of this too common interpretive demeaning of Demas. Paul may have felt lonely, but Luke was still with him. He exhorts Timothy to visit him quickly and to bring Mark with him, as well as his cloak, books and parchments. Paul was still in ‘organising mode’.
Let those Christians who are ready to condemn Demas ask themselves what they would do in similar circumstances, and why.
Jesus opened the way of escape for His disciples in the garden of Gethsemane. ‘Jesus answered, I have told you that I am He: if therefore you seek Me, let these go their way’ Jn 18:8. Peter didn’t make use of the opportunity given to him and fell into Satan’s sieve and denied His Master three times, as he tried to make good his bold assertion that ‘Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee’ Mat 26:35, contradicting both the Saviour’s prediction Mat 26:34 and failing to avail himself of the Saviour’s route of escape. He would have been wiser heeding his Master’s advice, and so should we.