Monday 15 May 2023

Paul 4 (John Mark)

Paul’s first missionary journey began in 45 AD with his visit to Cyprus with the apostle, Barnabas and a young man whose name was John Mark. After Cyprus Paul, Barnabas and the others who were in their company left Paphos and sailed to Perga in Pamphylia. However, John Mark left, not to return to the church in Antioch, Syria, but rather to return to Jerusalem, to his mother’s house.  There is reference to John Mark’s mother in the story of Peter’s escape from prison at the hands of an angel of the Lord. (Acts: 12) When Peter found himself freed, and out of prison, we are told that he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John, also called Mark. 

We can assume then, that Mary was a devoted follower of Christ and that there, in Jerusalem, John Mark would have grown up under her influence.  The other thing we should know about John Mark is that he was the cousin of Barnabas.  We know this to be true because Paul makes direct reference to this in his letter to the Thessalonians.  John Mark, we can see, was brought up in the early Christian church, and his cousin, Barnabas was a well loved and respected member of that church.  This family relationship explains why John Mark was at the church in Antioch and why he was allowed to accompany Barnabas and Saul on that first missionary journey, where, as we have seen, their first port of call was Cyprus.  The other thing to say is that John Mark, although a young man at that time, was a valued member of the team.  His inclusion in this highly significant undertaking was not based simply on family connections alone, but on capability.

Paul, it is evident, was greatly disappointed at what he clearly saw as Mark’s desertion. In fact, this disappointment was still very much an issue when, after several years, approximately AD 50, Paul and Barnabas decided to undertake another missionary journey, but a bitter dispute arose between the two men since Barnabas wanted to take John Mark along with them.  But Paul kept insisting they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia.  The split was permanent. William Barclay wrote:

We are not told of the reasons for John Mark’s desertion – there are a number of theories, perhaps conflict with the group, Barclay suggests that: He may have been afraid of the proposed next leg of the journey after leaving Cyprus, a journey up into the plateau where Antioch and Psidia, for it was one of the hardest and most dangerous roads in the world; perhaps because he came from Jerusalem he had doubts about his preaching to the gentiles, perhaps at this stage he was one of those lads who was better at beginning things than finishing them; perhaps – as Chrysostom said, long ago, the lad wanted his mother.  However, it was, he went for a time Paul found it hard to forgive.  

What we do know, of course, is that eventually, Paul did indeed forgive John Mark. Ten years later as a prisoner under house arrest in Rome, Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians, and in his final greeting he speaks favourably of those who were ministering to him, and one of those names mentioned favourably in that letter is John Mark.  And then, in probably Paul’s final letter, (2nd Timothy 4:11) he told Timothy “Get Mark and bring him with you for he is useful to me for my ministry.”  As far as we know, these are Paul’s last words concerning John Mark’s status.  So, we know that in the end there was a reconciliation; Mark came good and did redeem himself.

We could say ‘so what?’ a promising and capable young man deserts his colleagues and falls from favour, but then as time passes, he grows up, matures, and once again becomes a valuable and accepted member of the church.  We could say that there is nothing remarkable in that, the same could be said of countless thousands of men and women who have fallen by the wayside only to resume and redouble their efforts. 

Perhaps we could point the finger at Paul who for several years appears to be most unforgiving, remembering how he even fell out with Barnabas on this question, refusing to have John Mark accompany them on the second missionary journey some years later.  Surely, as an apostle, a founder – if not the principal founder of the Church, Paul should have been the exemplary Christian leader, the personification of love and forgiveness, but by all accounts, he wasn’t. 

But here, within the same movement, the early church, when we speak of Paul and Barnabas in the same breath, we are dealing with two different personalities.  The first mention we have of Barnabas in the Acts of the Apostles, he is introduced as Joseph the Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’).  Barnabas sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.  So, the story of Barnabas begins with Barnabas being seen in a favourable light – he was well thought of, they honoured him by giving him that name ‘Barnabas’: Son of Encouragement.  I think from this we can easily imagine Barnabas as being someone having a sunny disposition, someone always ready to offer words of encouragement, a kind man, and generous too, but perhaps not quite as hard headed as Saul.  At the same time, we will remember Paul’s past as Saul, the fiery Pharisee whose passion and conviction led him to be implicated as an accessory to the murder of Stephen, the first martyr, Saul who until the intervention of Christ on the road to Damascus, was persecuting the early Church, the followers of the way. 

Perhaps at the heart of this dispute between Paul and Barnabas, John Mark’s desertion, was that during the visit to Cyprus, Paul supplanted Barnabas as the leader of the mission.  We cannot know for sure, but a close reading of this text shows us that out of the two men, in spite of Barnabas’ obvious qualities, that the kind of firm, decisive leadership that Paul displayed, were in fact the exact kind of qualities required in unknown, uncertain and dangerous situations. Such circumstances would demand exactly that kind of leadership. Paul’s leadership. Not that Paul was perfect of course, he wasn’t.  He once described himself as ‘the worst of sinners,’ saying that only as a result of the mercy of Jesus Christ was, he saved.

Again, we see that in the end Paul was reconciled to John Mark.  How can we account for it, but in the passing of time, that changes everything.  John Mark matured, he grew up and Paul mellowed.  It’s all part of God’s plan.  What we can take from this is that as long as we live on earth, as long as we continue in our mortal existence, we too will have problems and challenges, and occasionally we will fail.  I was once told that there is no such thing as failure, until you give up trying.  These days I think there are times when we can give up trying, but the simple answer to that, I think, is to give up giving up!  And start trying again.  Paul recognised the significance of his mission, the establishment of the Christian church, and if there was a code word for that mission it might well have been called ‘Mission Paramount.’  It’s no wonder then that Paul would call himself the ‘Apostle to the Gentiles,’ because with the exception of the Jews we do inhabit a largely gentile world.  He might as well have said that he was the apostle to the world.  And when we think about that we might get the measure and a sense of the weight of that responsibility resting on his shoulders.  When we think of the hardships Paul chose to suffer, and did suffer, for the cause of Christ, we might see that this harsh judgement in dealing with John Mark may pale significantly.

As for ourselves, in the throes of life, we will find that we often can only resort to trusting in God. Pusey said that God knows us through and through.  God knows us better than we know ourselves.  In life, as Pusey puts it, there is providence, but often our hopes and desires can be thwarted. But through these trials or setbacks, our spiritual state is being sculpted.  How often have we met failure, been let down, and had our hopes dashed by foreseen events.  But the truth is that all is in accordance with God’s plan.  Pusey said “As we know ourselves, we, thus far, know God.”  It’s not for us to know the future. And how many times have we desired something, only to realise afterwards how blessed we were indeed, not to realise those vain or foolish desires?

When we get those kinds of insights, we can learn something about ourselves.  Pusey says, until we come to this knowledge, we must take all in faith, believing, although we know not, the goodness of God towards us, as we know ourselves, we thus far know God.  Perhaps one thing we can know from the story of John Mark is that although we might lose hope and experience failure, but we can still be redeemed, we can still make good.  John Mark may have been a deserter, but in the end, he was restored and earned the praise of Paul and that we would have to say would certainly have been an accolade, a prize worth having.