There is a certain fascination about some of the characters in the Bible who receive a passing mention but about whom we know little. It would be interesting to learn what caused Euodia and Syntyche to fall out in the church at Philippi (Philippians 4. 2) – an argument about flower arranging? What was the full history of Onesimus, the slave mentioned in the Epistle to Philemon who ran away, became a Christian and was returned to his master with Paul’s commendation? Demas appears three times in the New Testament: he is associated with Luke and others in the company of St. Paul (Colossians 4:14; Philemon 24) but his final appearance is as a deserter who had left the missionary enterprise. Was he actuated by the fear of persecution, or the wish for a more comfortable and materially profitable way of life? His name remains among the apparent black sheep of the early Church, with such as Alexander the coppersmith (2 Timothy 4. 14) and Diotrephes ‘who likes to put himself first’ (3 John 9). Despite his earlier loyalty, he stands as a sad record of defection and loss.
It is so easy to fall away; the Parable of the Sower tells of the many who hear the Word of God and receive it with joy, but succumb to indifference, worldly care or self-interest. It is sometimes the most devout and assiduous worshippers who prove in time to have no root in themselves. One has seen students seized with fervour near to religious mania who in a few years are scornful atheists or indifferent agnostics. St Paul, who experienced many disappointments from the initially pious, warned the new Christians at Corinth, ‘If you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall’ (1 Corinthians 10. 12).
We must pray constantly that it will not be so with us. This is a time when Christians of traditional integrity have been forced to look closely and deeply at the foundations of their faith. The challenges in the Church of England, and in other churches too, have not been totally negative in their results, for they have made believers examine themselves and brought them to value more highly the duties and privileges which have been threatened with loss. The crest of the wave does not last for ever, and it is patient acts of the will and obedience which are the best safeguard against apostasy.
Perseverance to the end is what we all desire, and it is guaranteed by God to those who really desire to know and love him, for ‘he will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Corinthians 1. 8). we pray for ourselves, and find a place in our intercessions for all like Demas who, known or unknown to us, are in peril from too much love of this present world. We trust that Demas has received God’s mercy for the faith that he once had; but let us hope that the last word on our own lives is not that we failed to stay the course.
Raymond Chapman is Emeritus Professor of English in the University of London.