No one likes a deserter – you know, that person you thought you could count on; yet, in your greatest hour of need is nowhere to be found.
The military certainly frowns on deserters. But don’t most of us, military or not? If you’ve lived any length of time on this globe you’ve probably experienced the rancid taste of a relationship soured through disappointment. The person (Friend, relative, whatever) did not live up to your expectation of loyalty and support when you needed them most.
Paul experienced this in his ministry on multiple occasions. Acts 13:13 records one such episode. In this particular case, Paul and his ministry team were about to move on to the next place of Gospel evangelizing when one of their companions, John Mark, decided that going back to the comfort of home seemed a more attractive next move. And so, off John Mark went – back home to Jerusalem.
Paul and his team continued on and experienced some pretty severe opposition and threats as reward for their evangelizing efforts. Many were saved; however, a price was paid both emotionally and physically by Paul and Barnabbas. After some time they decided to pay a visit to Jerusalem and then on to deliver a letter from the Jerusalem Council to the church in Antioch.
When the time came for Paul and Barnabbas to move on, a sharp disagreement arose between these two ministry soldiers. Barnabbas wanted to take John Mark with them; however, Paul was settled in his conviction that this Mark was not reliable. He was a deserter and couldn’t be counted on when it really mattered. Acts 15:36-41 describes the separation of Paul and Barnabbas as they went off to do ministry with new assistants. Paul took Silas, and Barnabbas took Mark.
Around A.D.60, Paul wrote a few letters (Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, for example). One of the letters Paul penned around this time was a tiny little letter to a guy named Philemon. Essentially, this letter is a personal appeal from Paul to Philemon for the latter to receive back a runaway slave named Onesimus.
Prior to receiving Christ, Onesimus had deserted Philemon, his master, and had fled to another city. Somehow Onesimus came under the Gospel preaching of Paul and was saved. Paul found Onesimus to be very useful to him – a real blessing of service was given by this runaway slave-now-brother to Paul. In describing the new and improved Onesimus, Paul employs a play on words to explain the change in this man. In the English it simply says, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.” (vs.11) Paul is asking for Philemon to show grace in receiving Onesimus back as a brother in Christ.
Fast-forward about five years. It is now around A.D.65, and Paul knows that his time on earth is about over. You can tell in this short second letter to Timothy that he is aware of his impending demise. As he ends the letter we call 2 Timothy, he talks about some who have deserted him. But then he says something astounding, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.” Paul uses the same Greek word to describe his updated opinion of John Mark that he used when he recommended grace to be shown by Philemon to Onesimus, the man who had become so useful.
Onesimus and John Mark both needed grace. Paul knew Philemon needed to give grace. Perhaps Paul learned in the five years that passed since his letter to Philemon that he himself needed to give grace.
Deserters need grace. Those deserted need to learn grace. Deserters can become ministry performers, perhaps, if we will give them grace to try again. Interesting that, at the end of Paul’s life, his opinion ended up agreeing with Barnabbas’, don’t you think?
Grace wins. Grace enables. Grace gives space. Grace restores repentant deserters. Grace melts hearts once deserted. Learn grace.