I always knew it would be true that looking back on years of ministry would produce many different perspectives than when I was a seminary student / first-time minister in a church. I could see that from the reflections of the older guys on our eight-member pastoral staff in my Dallas church.
Now, 35 years later, I can look back and have many of those same thoughts. It is a mixed bag of reflections. Along the way there have been so many amazing experiences of God’s work in peoples’ lives and of watching tremendous growth. But sadly, also, there are some who worked diligently and well for a season, but who walked away from endurance in the faith to live rather a simple, albeit less complicated life, I suppose.
Thirty years ago in my New Jersey church I did an intense discipleship program with five other guys my age – young adults with young wives and multiplying numbers of babies. Now, three decades later, three of those men are primary leaders in that church and another continues to serve faithfully in another part of the country. But the final member of the group has walked away from church involvement and expressions of faith, and I’m not sure what he truly believes in anymore … likely he is not sure either.
So on one hand, I rejoice; but on the other hand, I grieve the loss of this once-close associate who even served as an elder. I could beat myself up and wonder what I did not do to resource this fellow. But a passage such as we read today tells me that this mixed result is not rare, and if it happened to Paul’s disciples, it could happen with my own…
4:9 – Do your best to come to me quickly, 10 for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. 11 Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. 12 I sent Tychicus to Ephesus. 13 When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.
14 Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. 15 You too should be on your guard against him, because he strongly opposed our message.
16 At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. 17 But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth. 18 The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
So what happens that things go all wrong in the lives of some people, as we see in this passage? How does this occur? Even commonly. Even around the Apostle Paul?
- There are those who defect when the going gets difficult – the many who were afraid of identification with Paul, the prisoner
- Some fall prey to a love of this world – Demas
- Some show their true allegiance by working for the other team – Alexander
All of this defection from the faith could be very discouraging for the minister of the gospel, but it is not the whole story. Just as with Elijah, when he thought he was the only one remaining who was faithful to God, the Lord spoke to him and essentially told him to shut up and stop whining, that there were yet 7,000 in Israel who had not sold out to Baal (1 Kings 19). And Paul and Timothy had many remaining who were encouraging to them and enduring service for Christ in this sin-soaked world …
4:19 – Greet Priscilla and Aquila and the household of Onesiphorus. 20 Erastus stayed in Corinth, and I left Trophimus sick in Miletus. 21 Do your best to get here before winter. Eubulus greets you, and so do Pudens, Linus, Claudia and all the brothers and sisters. 22 The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you all.
Which Kind of Character Do YOU Want to be? Certainly nobody is going to say, “Yes, now that you lay out those categories, I really think God wants me to serve as an obstacle to ministry!” But how can you be a positive factor?
Start by being a good worker bee; that is a worthy goal. Support others and help wherever you can, and personal opportunities to maximize your gifts will come your way. See your resources as a stewardship from God, not allowing large numbers of dollars and other indicators of material success to become a root that holds you down, but rather to see your resources and their use as investments for the kingdom eternally. And that way you can have your resources today, and have them pay off forever!
There is no way around this other than to understand that we are all a cog in a big machine, or workers in the vineyard, or members of the same team, or parts of one body … choose your metaphor. But being involved intimately as a way of life leads us to living ultimately a productive life.