The Story Of John Mark
Our text for our message today is in the thirteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, verse thirteen: “Now when Paul and his company loosed from Paphos, they came to Perga in Pamphylia: and John departing from them returned to Jerusalem.”
“John departing from them, returned to Jerusalem.” From the various references in the New Testament to John Mark, we don’t have much difficulty in having a fairly clear insight into his life and character. He was the son of a Christian lady who lived in Jerusalem whose name was Mary, the sister of Barnabas.
It was at her house they were having a special prayer meeting, you remember, when Peter escaped from prison. John Mark, no doubt greatly impressed with the wonderful deliverance of God to Peter, volunteered to join Barnabas and Saul as they went from that point to Antioch, back to missionary service. As they started out on their missionary journey, Barnabas and Saul together once again, you find John Mark going with them as their assistant. But no sooner had they arrived in Cyprus and set sail for Asia Minor than for some reason John departed from them and went back home.
As they set out later on their second missionary journey, Barnabas was anxious to give his nephew another chance, but Paul said, “No.” There was a considerable diversion of view between Barnabas and Saul about that, and from that point Barnabas departed back again to Cyprus and disappears altogether from the New Testament story, and Mark went with him. Unquestionably, Barnabas sacrificed his missionary career for the sake of this young man.
But that isn’t the end of the story of John Mark, for later on you will find him in the epistle to the Colossians, in Philemon, and Timothy. You will find him with Paul in imprisonment, a comfort and blessing to Paul. Soon after Paul’s death, it would seem that Mark associates himself with Peter, and under his guidance and direction writes the second Gospel which bears his name, the Gospel according to Mark.
Now that’s simply the bones of the story. What I am concerned about is putting flesh and blood into it as the Lord shall help me. I pray that the Spirit of God may speak to all our hearts about this man John Mark, for there are lessons here to learn which I believe can make all the difference to many of us.
First of all, let’s just look for a moment into his, and I can call it nothing else but his apostasy. “John departing from them returned to Jerusalem.” If you will look into the previous verses of that chapter and understand when John Mark left them, I think you would understand why he left them.
The first place they went, the fourth verse of this chapter tells us, as they sailed from the port of Antioch, from Seleucia, was back to Cyprus. Cyprus was Barnabas’ home, and here John Mark would find himself in familiar surroundings, with friends and relatives. Everything would be very pleasant and comparatively easy. He wouldn’t find any difficulty at all as he accompanied them that far.
But from Cyprus they sailed to Pamphylia in Asia Minor, and no sooner had this young man set foot on strange soil, among strange people, in different surroundings, away from his relatives and friends; in other words, no sooner did sacrifice and hardship begin to touch his life, then he quit and went back home to his mother in Jerusalem.
Now before we are too hard on John Mark, I think it is important, my dear friend, that you and I look around, and perhaps most of all, look within our own hearts, because how many in Christian service, not merely missionary work abroad, but in Christian work for the Lord, how many have run well at one point, but something hindered them in some other point?
One thing perhaps has hindered one person and another thing another, but whatever it is, that quick resolution, made perhaps on the spur of a moment at a missionary meeting or at a church service or in conversation with a friend, has died down just as quickly as it flared up.
Of the hundred people who volunteer for Christian work, only three or four, as the old Book says, “By patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life.”
The fervor of those early days dies into coldness, that river of Holy Spirit life and blessing which at one time filled our hearts with warmth, love, purpose, and determination, which flowed within us so that through us there was that sense of heavenly music and divine control upon our hearts, that river has become sluggish and stagnant, its flow has been dammed up by worldliness, by indulgence. I wonder over how many of us could be written today that tremendous statement from the fifteenth chapter of the Acts concerning John Mark, of whom it was said that he “went not with them to the work.”
Some people listening to my voice perhaps have dropped out of training. For one reason or another they have given it up. They came to prepare their lives for Christian service and for missionary work, but something has happened. Others perhaps were on the mission field for a year or two, served for a first term, and now for one reason or another are back home.
I was privileged to speak at the annual meeting of Inter-Mission Candidate Training School in Detroit, which is now called Missionary Internship. A tremendous work for God is being carried on under the auspices of no less than twenty-four evangelical, fundamental missionary societies. It was reported by the director, Mr. R.E. Thompson, that of those who had gone through seven months of intensive practical training for the various field, (who incidentally were already accepted missionary candidates) between ten and fifteen per cent had been screened and dropped out in those few months. For one reason or another they have proved themselves unsuitable and unfit for missionary work. What a tragedy, but yes, what a saving to a missionary society. Far better, if there be failure, to find it out before we get there than to find it out there with all the expense, tragedy, and heartbreak involved. The mission field today seems to be the graveyard of one-term missionaries who put their hand upon the plow and look back.
But not only does that apply to missionary service; it applies in Sunday school teaching, and in every aspect of Christian work. We have put our hand to it, but something or other has come in the way—for some people the pull of the world; for some, may I say, television has taken the spice and tang from Christian testimony; for some a friendship out of God’s will; for some the fear of going through life without a partner, alone.
Many, who at one time gave great promise, great determination, to go right through with the will of God, who ought to be blazing a trail for the Lord on the mission field, are sitting listening to this sermon today, out of God’s will. Instead of believing the great promise of our Lord in Matthew 6:33, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you,” instead of launching out in complete dependence upon God’s faithfulness and His promises, there has been the fear of loneliness, the fear of no companionship in life, the desire for indulgence, when all the time God has said, “If you’ll put me and my kingdom first, then everything that is within my good and perfect and acceptable will, I will add to you.”
I wonder if John Mark had become so strangely familiar with Christian surroundings in his own home life that Jesus Christ had never been real to him. He had been brought up as we would say in a Christian home, a godly home if you like, with all the privileges that that means to us, and yet with all the perils of a sheltered life and a second-hand religious experience.
Certainly it is clear from this chapter that the Holy Spirit who unmistakably spoke to Saul and Barnabas, at least spoke to the church concerning them, and said, “Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them,” did not speak in the same way to John Mark. Perhaps truth had never gripped his heart, perhaps the reality of the Gospel had only been a mental conception. It hadn’t been something that burned like a fire within him, it wasn’t truth that gripped his soul until he could do nothing but preach the Gospel. Maybe he just put up a show, a front of piety and of enthusiasm, but perhaps deep down there was no real victory in his life.
Ah, how many people do that—just make a front, put on the appearance of being keen for God, out and out for souls, but deep down there is no victory, no reality. Jesus Christ is not burning within them in the power of His Spirit like a fire. Whatever be the cause, I am sure that you and I need to ask ourselves, dear Christian friend, whether the seeds of this thing that got hold of John Mark, in some measure are to be found in our hearts today.
I don’t like it, but I often talk over with the Lord that lovely hymn of William Cowper’s:
“O, for a closer walk with God,
A calm and heavenly frame,
A light to shine along the road
That leads me to the Lamb.
Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is that soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus and His word?”
And don’t you think that many of us need to pray with all our hearts today, with earnestness, a verse with which theologically you may not be entirely in agreement, but at least experimentally we need to ask—
“Return, O holy Dove, return,
Sweet messenger of rest;
I hate the sins that made Thee mourn,
And drove Thee from my breast.”
Mark’s apostasy. “He went not with them and departed from them, returning to Jerusalem.” What a tragedy, but let me take you a step further. Notice in the fifteenth chapter where we find what I would call Mark’s complete eclipse, at least for a while. What interesting verses these are at the conclusion of this chapter, from verse thirty-six onward. Here we have the story of how Paul and Barnabas differed as to how to deal with John Mark. I said differed, but I paused a moment afterwards when I realized that that is an understatement, because in that thirty-ninth verse you read of a sharp contention. I am terribly sorry to have to tell you that the literal meaning of those words is “paroxysm of rage.”
Paul, Barnabas, a paroxysm of rage—in other words, hard words, hard talk and real anger. That would perhaps make some people feel a bit good—“If that happened to them no wonder it happens to us,” but I don’t think that ought to be our reaction. I think it ought to be a tremendous warning that these men were human as you and I are human. It is almost unbelievable to think of these two dear friends coming to such a sharp division of view that led to complete break. Who was right? Oh, there is something in me that says, “Come on, Paul, surely this young fellow ought to have another chance. Give him a try.”
Barnabas, the son of consolation, a man with a big heart, was of course, the uncle of the young delinquent—but should that relationship have been allowed to interfere in the situation and influence him?
Would it not have been disastrous to send this young fellow back into the spiritual warfare unless there was in his heart and acknowledgment of sin and a genuine repentance? It is quite clear as you read these verses that the church sympathized strongly with Paul. Do you notice the striking contrast between the unsympathetic silence regarding the departure of Barnabas and Mark in verse thirty-nine? “So Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus.” Just that and nothing more.
Then note the emphasis that is given to a valedictory service for Paul and Silas, “And Paul chose Silas, and departed, being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God.” Significant, isn’t it?
But, listen, my friend, that teaches me something, and I’m not speaking simply to the missionary, but to all of us as Christian workers. Listen to me, some of you perhaps are out of Sunday school teaching and out of Christian work today. Before tasks are given again to you who have dropped them, I would suggest to you that this portion teaches us that there needs to be some genuine evidence of Holy Spirit conviction and repentance. A forgiving God does not mean that we have an indulgent God, and the man who quits from the will of God is hurting God, wounding the Spirit, grieving the Holy Ghost. Sin matters in heaven, even though perhaps we don’t think it matters very much. When Paul faces Barnabas and says to him, “No such work is fit for this man’s hands until his heart has been broken and healed,” that is simply part of the severity of the love of our Father in heaven.
I suggest to you, because I think all of us would find at some time or other that John Mark is a reflection of our own experience, that his greatest punishment for shirking work was to discover he was without any. To be faithful in the little sphere that God has given us is the sure way to the opening up of a greater one. But the reason why so many Christians today are without service and say as those in the parable said, “No man doth hire us,” is that past tasks have been dropped and given up, tasks that were offered, sometimes even forced upon them, have just been dropped when it came difficult and hard. The days of opportunity have gone by, and God has put somebody else where you should have been.
I wonder how Mark felt as he heard of the victories of Paul and Silas. I wonder what he thought when he saw Silas setting off with Paul, when news came of blessing and of tremendous movement of the Spirit with souls being saved. I wonder if he spent those years, out of God’s will and blessing, moping and miserable, broken in heart, as he thought, “I should have been in the thick of that fight, in the front line of battle, in the thrill of it all.” But now he is idle with no work to do. What bitter regret must have filled his heart as he thought of his cowardliness and his indulgence.
You know, the Lord Jesus told us, dear Christian friend, do you remember, in that wonderful parable of the talents that the slothful servant hid his talent and buried it, and on his lord’s return found to his chagrin that the thing that he had buried was not only useless but was lost. “Unto everyone that hath shall be given…but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that he hath.”
Oh, my friend, the heartbreak, the tragedy of years spent out of God’s will, because they are wasted years that can never be recovered.
I’m so thankful that that is not the end of the story. I’m so glad that I have a God who is able to restore the years that the locusts have eaten, so glad we have a Saviour who is able to do better for us than at our beginning.
Therefore, I want you to look for a moment with me at Mark’s recovery. As I think of this man I know but for the grace of God what I would be, and perhaps today what many of you would be. It may be you find yourself at this very point in my message just where John Mark was. You’ve quit, given up, but something has called you back. The work that you determined to do is left undone, or the work to which God called you has been passed on to somebody else. You find yourself still here in this church and listening to this message, when you know down in your heart you are out of the will of God.
Ah, but what has this story to tell us about Mark’s recovery—something very precious. If you look further in the New Testament story, how your heart will rejoice. Look in the fourth chapter of Colossians, verses ten and eleven, and also at the twenty-fourth verse of Philemon. How precious these words are! As I think of that young man, out of work, out of the will of God, miserably unhappy, feeling that life after all is useless, futile, for all the rest of the journey, recalling how it is going to look when he comes to meet the Lord, I see him realizing he has allowed this indulgence and that friendship, this sin and that habit to bog him down and keep him out of God’s service.
But see, Colossians 4:10 and 11 tell us that Mark is one of these who has been a comfort to Paul in his imprisonment and he asks the Colossian Christians to welcome him. In sending greetings to Philemon he places Mark alongside Demas and Luke, and he says, “Mark, Demas, Luke greet thee.” A backslider who got back to usefulness—Mark; Demas—a backslider who never returned, and Luke—a doctor who was faithful right to the very end.
But perhaps the loveliest touch of all is in 2 Timothy 4:11. If we look at that verse a moment in our New Testaments, what do we read? In the very last chapter, the very last word that Paul ever wrote, from a prison in Rome, with a missionary career ended, he says, “Only Luke is with me. Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry.”
“Profitable.” I turned that word over in my mind during the days of this week, and as I did so, I discovered something. That word is a Greek word which only finds its way twice into our English New Testament—both occasions in the epistle to Timothy. Here it is translated “profitable.” Where do you think we find it again? And what do you think the significance of its meaning is? Oh, how amazing is the grace of God!
You’ll find it in 2 Timothy 2:19: “Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity. But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonour. If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honor, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work.”
“See, take Mark, bring him with thee. He is profitable unto me,” and there it is again—“sanctified, meet for the master’s use.”
“Mark, you, you runaway coward, you who quit missionary service and turned away from that tremendous life of possibility and conflict, you who went home again to your mother, back to the home base, quit from the front line of the battle, you one day still meet for the master’s use?”
Don’t you think that Paul’s discipline was justified after all? I do. Oh, the matchless patience of our God! I’m so glad that my Lord Jesus is so patient with us, aren’t you? Where would we be if He weren’t? How wonderful that even our early failures and sins of young manhood and womanhood which have put us out of Christian work for a while, which have caused us to lose the passion for souls and burden for the lost, which have caused us to seek after a more comfortable job and an easier position, oh, how wonderful it is that when they are confessed and repented of, we are the better fitted for the task to which God calls us.
You see, the secret of it is just this. The man who at one time departed from the work has now in later life departed from iniquity. He departed from work because of a bias toward something easier, something that would gratify his ego a bit more, but now has departed from iniquity.
I’m not a doctor, (there are doctors listening to me) but I understand that a bone after it has been broken is stronger at the point where it has been fractured than it was before it was broken.
I believe that the very sin that we have committed, the very breakdown and failure of which we have been guilty, when we have acknowledged it, labeled it as sin, forsaken it and turned to Christ for forgiveness and cleansing, then that very thing can be the means of our greater strength.
The first book of Samuel and the seventh chapter tells us that the children of Israel fought twice on the same battlefield on different occasions against the same enemy. On the first occasion they were shamefully beaten, but on the second occasion they routed the enemy and raised a memorial which said, “Ebenezer, hitherto hath the Lord helped us.”
Oh, my dear fellow Christian worker, my dear young fellow and woman here listening to me. Have you lost a battle somewhere lately? Have you quit from some battlefield? Have you given up, have you withdrawn, have you stopped teaching children who need your message so badly?
Listen to me, the past need never be a specimen of what the future can be in the hand of God. You may yet by the power of a risen Lord and through the cleansing of His blood put your foot on the sin into which you have fallen and gain victory. The page of your life that has yet to be written need never have the blots on it like the pages you’ve turned over. The sin that you and I have learned to know for sin and to hate teaches us humility and dependence; the sin that we confess is forgiven on the ground of the blood of Jesus Christ, and it draws us close to Him in a sense of utter unworthiness and deep longing to be like Him. Beaten completely out of our false sufficiency in ourselves, we find ourselves drawing upon His strength which is always sufficient.
I think of the two ends of Mark’s life. I think of him as a young man flying at the very first suspicion of danger, sulking away home, out of God’s will and out of the place of usefulness, on the shelf, cast aside, but I think of the end of his life—“meet for the master’s use.”
And, beloved, how I end my life matters so much more than how I began it. It is through a broken reed that God breathes some of His sweetest music, and says some of His loveliest things. In fact, it’s only through a broken reed that God does work.
I would urge you in the words of the prophet Hosea to return unto the Lord, and say unto Him, “Lord, take away all iniquity, and receive me graciously.” If you do, the answer from heaven will surely be, “I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely…I will be again as the dew unto Israel.”
Oh, get back right to the cross for forgiveness, for cleansing, and then step out of this place triumphantly in the will of God. We find ourselves perhaps where John Mark was. We have put our hand to the plow, but we’ve looked back again. We are on the verge of being spiritual casualties. Something of indulgence and selfishness and habits of sin has crept in to take our eyes away from the goal to which Christ pointed us. Remember the day He called. That call has never been revoked. He waits to take you again into His loving arms if you will but confess and forsake your sin, and acknowledge, “Lord, thou hast a plan for my life and all I want is to walk in it.”
In spite of the years that have been wasted, yet you and I can be vessels unto honour, sanctified and meet for the Master’s use. In spite of everything, we can hear Him say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant…enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”