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So who, exactly is this Mark?
According to Acts 12:12, Mark’s mother Mary had a large house that was used as a meeting place for believers in Jerusalem. In the early days, churches were house churches. The first church buildings didn’t appear until several hundred years after the death of Christ, though tradition says that the apostle Thomas was responsible for a building in India as early as 50 years after the resurrection. When we consider that there were thousands of believers after Pentecost we can hardly imagine how many house churches were functioning in the early years described in Acts.
The apostle Peter apparently went to this house often because we are told that a servant girl recognized his voice when he appeared at the gate of the house after God sent an angel to released him from prison (Acts 12:13-16). Barnabas was Mark’s cousin (Colossians 4:10), but Peter also had a huge influence on his life. In 1 Peter 5:13 Peter refers to Mark as his “son” and it appears that Peter was the apostolic authority behind Mark’s gospel and served as Mark’s primary source of information. In Mark 14, in the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus was betrayed and taken away, there is a reference to young man who fled the scene along with the other disciples. It is believed by some that this young man was Mark.
But the most important moment in Mark’s spiritual journey came in his relationship with Barnabas, his cousin, and with Paul, who partnered with Barnabas in the first missionary journey. Here’s the story from Acts 12 and 13:
“When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark. In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (12:25-13:3).
And that’s how the first missionaries began their first journey. They had barely gotten started when for some reason, Mark decided that the missionary life wasn’t for him. Acts 13:13 says: “From Paphos, Paul [Saul] and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John [Mark] left them to return to Jerusalem.” Later, after Paul and Barnabas had returned to Jerusalem to report what had happened on their first trip, and were ready to start on the next one, Barnabas wanted to take Mark with them again. Here’s how the Scriptures describe their conversation:
“Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.’ Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. [Believers can disagree and part company over something other than a doctrinal issue!—my note.] Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches” (15:36-41).
Paul is known for his brusque manner. He had no time and little patience for anyone who couldn’t keep up to him. Barnabas, on the other hand, was a mellower sort of person. His name means “son of consolation.” He was the kind of person you like to have with you beside a deathbed or when dealing with someone like Mark. Paul saw a failure; Barnabas saw a young man who needed a second chance.
We don’t know anything about what happened to Barnabas and Mark during their journey together—the focus falls on Paul. But that’s not such a bad thing. When you are healing and growing, you don’t need the public spotlight. You aren’t ready for it and it doesn’t serve any purpose in that process of restoration.
What we do know is that Paul and Mark would team up once again about twelve years later. Paul was then in prison in Rome. He wrote a lot of letters while he was in prison and several times refers to Mark as being with him: “My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, was does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him)” (Colossians 4:10) and “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner for Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.” (Philemon 24).
At the end of his life, Paul writes to Timothy and refers to Mark this way: “Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke us with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry” (2 Timothy 4:9-11).
Mark had made a mess of things. Why or how doesn't really matter. What does matter is that someone, Barnabas, took the time to help get him back on track, with the result that he became useful in the ministry and was chosen by the Holy Spirit to record what we have in the gospel that bears his name.
It is supposed that Mark wrote his record while accompanying Paul in Rome. Apparently he was writing to a Gentile, or non-Jewish audience, because he leaves out things that wouldn’t be of interest to them, like the list of all Christ’s ancestors that we find in Matthew and Luke's Gospel. He leaves out prophecies, references to the Law and some of the Jewish customs mentioned in the other gospels.
His purpose for the gospel is stated right from the beginning: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). So all that follows will explain who the book is about—JESUS CHRIST, who this person is—THE SON OF GOD, and why knowing about him is good news. The first ten chapters show the reader Jesus Christ, the servant. The last six chapters show the reader Jesus Christ, the Saviour.
But let’s return for a moment to Mark, the failure. Who can’t identify with him? His story strikes a cord in all of us, because all of us have needed, a one time or another, a second chance. I particularly identify with Mark’s situation on that first missionary journey. I was three months into my first term of service in Colombia and came within a hair’s-breath of throwing it all away—totally my fault—and a story too long to tell here. After three months in Colombia, I was forced to return home because I didn’t have a work permit. The Colombian government had decided not to grant any more permits to missionaries until they could get their records straight as to who was where doing what. So I had come into the country on a three-month tourist visa. I went back to Canada pretty much convinced that I was going to resign and walk away from something that I had dreamed of, and prepared for, since I was 9 years old.
I told the Director of the mission my decision and he, the wise man that he was, simply said: “I’ll be back here in three days and we’ll talk about this again.”
I went home, miserable, just as miserable as I had been since I returning to Canada. But God, like Barnabas, wasn’t ready to let me go yet. During those few days He showed me the things in me that were the cause of the problem, and granted me the grace to confess to Him my foolishness and my own sin. As soon as I did that, the misery went away. When our Director returned three days later, her knew as soon as he saw my face coming through the door that something had happened to change my attitude. And within days of this change, I got word that my visa had been approved and I had a legal work permit which would allow me to go back to Colombia.
When I think of how close I came to throwing away all those years of ministry to which God had called me, I can’t help but be thankful that God is the God of second chances, and third ones, and four ones… When I read Mark’s story, I can relate and be thankful on his behalf that Barnabas, and eventually Paul, as well as God, gave him another chance.—we’d be missing the Gospel of Mark otherwise!
Psalm 141 expresses what can be our cry to the God of second-chances: “I cry aloud to the Lord; I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy. I pour out my complaint before him; before him I tell my trouble. When my spirit grows faint within me, it is you who know my way. In the path where I walk men have hidden a snare for me. Look to my right and see; no one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for me. I cry to you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.’ Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need; rescue me from those who pursue me, for they are too strong for me. Set me free from my prison that I may praise your name. Then the righteous will gather about me because of your goodness to me.”
Need a second chance? Go to God. Isaiah 55:6, 7 tells it all: "Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon."