John Mark on John Mark

Confused already? Hang in there. This is a print version of a sermon I recently delivered on the New Testament character known as John, also called Mark (Acts 12:12, 25; 15:37), or traditionally known as John Mark. I think it is the first time I have ever “preached” a lesson focused on John Mark.

John is his Hebrew name, and Mark is a Greco-Roman name. Like Saul who was also called Paul, he had two names: a Jewish one and a Greco-Roman one. This was not uncommon in the first century. Jewish believers lived in both a Jewish world and in the world of Roman occupation and imperial rule.

We don’t know John Mark’s origins in any detail but we do know something about his mother, Mary. She owned a house in Jerusalem with a gateway (thus, larger than typical) and her household included servants, at least one whose name was Rhonda. Her home was a gathering place for believers as they assembled there to pray for Peter’s release from prison. Once released, Peter intuitively went to Mary’s house. Her husband is not mentioned; perhaps she was a widow. Whatever the case, she is a well-known leader in the Jerusalem community (Acts 12:12-17).

We may suppose that John Mark grew up in Jerusalem and was well-acquainted with the events surrounding Jesus. Some believe John Mark is the unidentified young man who fled naked from the Garden of Gethsemane to avoid arrest (Mark 14:51). At the very least, John Mark knew the leaders of the early Christian movement.

Sometime around the mid-40s, Barnabas and Saul travelled to Jerusalem from Antioch in order to share with the Jerusalem church a monetary gift to help with the famine. When they returned to Antioch, they took John Mark with them. Paul and Barnabas are clearly the leaders, and John Mark accompanies them. He is the a junior member of the team. Perhaps they chose John Mark because he was a cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10). Perhaps this was a kind of mentorship or apprentice move for the son of a prominent leader in the church at Jerusalem.

In Antioch, the Holy Spirit set aside Barnabas and Saul for the Gentile mission. They first went to Seleucia and then to Cyprus where they entered the synagogue at Salamis. There they “proclaimed the word of God.” They announced the message of God for the people of God at the synagogue. John Mark is still accompanying them.

John Mark is named as almost an afterthought, which confirms his ongoing junior status. But he is given a job. He is called a uperetes (Acts 13:5). The root of this word describes an enslaved galley ship oarsman. It became a general term for a servant or attendant. In military circles, it described an adjutant or staff officer (cf. Acts 5:22, 26). In a religious context, Luke uses it to describe a liturgical assistant in the synagogue (Luke 4:20). John Mark is an “assistant” of some sort rather than a teacher or prophet, but we don’t know in what exact way he assisted Barnabas and Saul.

However, after the next leg of that trip, when they sailed to Perga from Cyprus, John Mark left them (Acts 13:13). It is a curious note. Luke offers no explanation; it is stated rather matter-of-factly. Yet, why did John Mark leave?

The verb apolchorein means to depart, leave, or go away. While the term can mean something negative like withdrawal in battle, it does not necessarily have any negative meaning. We cannot deduce any rationale for John Mark’s return to Jerusalem. Perhaps he was homesick, or perhaps his mother needed him. Perhaps he did not like how Paul was becoming more prominent than Barnabas as if he was becoming the team leader. Perhaps he had grown fearful after several incidents on Cyprus. Perhaps he was uncomfortable with the Gentile mission. We don’t know. We do know he returned to Jerusalem, which is where we will see him again in Acts 15:36-40.

After leaders and members gathered in Jerusalem to discuss the question of circumcision (Acts 15:1ff), Barnabas and Paul decided to revisit the congregations they had planted in the Gentile mission on what we know as the “first missionary journey.” Barnabas proposed to bring John Mark along again. Luke uses the same word he used in Acts 12:25. Perhaps Barnabas wanted to continue to mentor John Mark and apprentice him in the work of ministry.

But Paul regarded his previous withdrawal problematic. He thought it inappropriate or unwise to take John Mark with them. Perhaps Luke indicates why. At this point, Luke used a different word for “depart” or “withdraw” in Acts 15:38 than he did in Acts 13:13. Here the word is apostanta, which is used for desertion, defection, or apostacy (cf. Luke 8:13). They took John Mark along with them as part of the team, but John Mark withdrew and returned to Jerusalem. Paul does not want to take him again. They had previously taken John Mark “into the work” of ministry (Acts 15:38), but John Mark did not complete the journey with them. Luke characterizes John Mark’s withdrawal as a sort of desertion or even apostasy. It appears John Mark’s defection was a serious one rather than something more emotional or relational. He, it seems, abandoned the work they had set out to do. Perhaps Paul viewed John Mark as a threat to the Gentile mission; perhaps Barnabas thought the Jerusalem council settled the matter for John Mark as it did for so many others.

Barnabas wanted to take him, undeterred by John Mark’s previous actions. Paul did not because he was concerned about his previous decision. Consequently, a “sharp disagreement” arose between them (Acts 15:39). This was a severe argument, an intense disagreement. We derive the English word paroxysm from this Greek word. The English word means a sudden and intense outburst of strong feelings or activity. The Greek verb means to stir up or provoke, perhaps to become incensed. This is how Paul felt when he saw the idols in Athens (Acts 17:16). This was an angry dispute.

What to do? On the one hand, John Mark’s track record gave Paul considerable pause. More than pause, he rejected the idea with intense passion. To him, it was a bad idea to take John Mark along on a second trial run. John Mark’s withdrawal must have hurt Paul deeply or, at least, severely disappointed him. The mission was too important to Paul to risk further disturbance. The Gentile Mission had just been under attack, and Paul probably did want any complications.

On the other hand, John Mark was Barnabas’s cousin, a family member. Perhaps he had more grace and a longer history with John Mark whose mother was Barnabas’s aunt. They came from a well-to-do family in Jerusalem and were leaders in the Jerusalem church. Barnabas wanted to give John Mark another shot at this work. The “son of encouragement” lived up to his name with John Mark.

Who was right? I don’t know. Perhaps we are not supposed to take sides. John Mark disappears, along with Barnabas, from the history in Acts. We don’t hear about either of them again.

But here is what we do know.

Despite the disagreement, Paul was willing to divide the “work” between them and form two teams. His problem with John Mark did not mean John Mark should be totally excluded from the Gentile mission. The division of labor still included John Mark. So, while the two teams separated, they were still doing the same work–caring for newly planted congregations. Paul, for example, did not follow behind Barnabas and John Mark to make sure they were doing it right or to bad-mouth them among the churches. They divided the labor, they trusted each other, and went to separate regions to water the fields earlier planted.

Ultimately, John Mark became a valuable asset to Paul in subsequent years. By the time Paul is imprisoned either in Ephesus in the mid-50s or in Rome in the early 60s, John Mark is with him (Philemon 24; Colossians 4:10). Apparently, some kind of reconciliation was reached between them, but more than mere “bygones be bygones,” they became partners in ministry. In his last letter, nearing his own execution, Paul tells Timothy to bring Mark with him “for he is very useful to me for ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11). The word “useful” reflects someone who is of great value. Mark was no longer a hindrance to Paul’s mission but a valued minister.

Perhaps sometimes it is good to accentuate the mission more than any particular person, and sometimes it is good to accentuate the person in light of the long-term interests of the mission.  Paul put the mission first, and Barnabas put John Mark first. Was one wrong and the other right? Or, were they both right? Or, perhaps, it is not a matter of right and wrong but each discerning what is best in the moment for the sake of the kingdom. Discernments don’t always have to agree for the kingdom to prosper.

Two teams emerged rather than one. The mission was enlarged, and John Mark was recouped. Two goods came out of a sharp disagreement. It was the sort of disagreement that meant separation but not disfellowship. It was the sort of disagreement that necessitated two separate teams instead of one team, but it did not subvert the mission. It enlarged it. Sometimes good comes out of disagreement. Though their disagreement was passionate, angry, and contentious, shared mission can transcend such disagreements and God can open more doors that we dreamed possible.

Disagreements and separations do not necessarily mean the subversion of the kingdom and its mission. It may enhance it as long as the disagreement does not undermine the mission and generate abusive hostility between the parties.

Oh, and by the way, apparently–at least according to tradition–John Mark also accompanied Peter at times, recorded his preaching, and authored a Gospel (1 Peter 5:13).

Peter calls him a son, which may reflect their intimate history going back to the days when Peter was released from prison in Jerusalem, or before.

The deserted John Mark became one of the most influential writers in the Christian tradition–the author of what many regard as the first canonical Gospel.

Perhaps Barnabas was right? Or, maybe they both were. Either way, in God’s good providence, the mission was furthered.

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