‘Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry’, 2 Tim. 4. 11. What praise is this! Mark must have well earned it for Paul’s standards were very high. Nor should we diminish the full meaning of these words in any way. Mark was now a trusted, willing and capable help to Paul. ‘Ministry’ in the New Testament sense is a very comprehensive term and is applied to Martha’s ‘serving’, the ‘administration’ of a relief fund, the ‘service’ of deacons, Paul’s own ‘service’ of reconciliation, and the Lord used the word of Himself saying, ‘I am among you as he that serveth’.
We should never think in terms of some types of service for the Lord Jesus Christ as being of the lesser importance to Him. Men and women, differing in abilities and experiences, will all find appropriate work to do for Him. The Lord will use everyone according to their potential capacities and not their achievements. There needs to be, however, a willingness to serve, see Luke 10. 40; 22. 27; John 12. 2; 2 Cor. 4. 1; 5. 18; 8. 19, 20.
Scripture records for us how that just once Mark failed in service, and failed badly. The further references to him show us how that a past failure and a tarnished reputation can be overcome, with the Lord’s help and our willingness to redeem the past. The Lord went on to use this man and all his experiences He put to good effect.
Mark was the son in a family in whose home in Jerusalem the disciples used to meet for fellowship and prayer. His mother’s name was Mary, and she was probably a widow, because his father is not mentioned. Their house was large enough to have an outer door and gateway, with a maidservant to receive visitors, Acts 12. 12-14 margin.
Barnabas was Mark’s cousin, and when he and Saul had completed their relief work in Judea and returned to Antioch, they took Mark with them. Later, when the two set out on their first missionary journey, Mark accompanied them as their minister or attendant. His duties may have been of a humble nature, but they were what the Lord would have him do, see Acts 12. 25; 13. 5; Col. 4. 10 RV.
The circumstances and consequences of his failure
At an early stage of this endeavour Mark left them and went back to Jerusalem. Luke records his departure with no hint of blame, but later Paul says that Mark had ‘abandoned’ them, and ‘not gone with them to the work’. Paul considered this a serious defect in Mark’s character, and when they were preparing to go out on another missionary journey, Barnabas insisting on taking Mark, Paul could not agree. After sharp words, they separated. Barnabas took Mark to Cyprus, and Paul chose Silas to go with him to Syria and Cilicia, and beyond. From this time onwards there is no further mention of Barnabas or Mark in Acts, Acts 13. 13; 15. 38 JND.
We would have wished that the ‘sharp contention’ and the ‘separation’ of these two friends had not occurred, but the Lord would not have these things covered up. We should always be aware that, in all our dealings with each other, the Lord is witness. It would be unwise, however, for us to seek to apportion blame, or take sides with either of these two godly servants of the Lord Jesus Christ. If there was any blame, the Lord will judge. Also, there are occasions when in the sovereignty of God, He countenances events brought about by human disagreement, and says, ‘this thing is from me’, 1 Kgs. 12. 24. God overrules our human failings and divisions to further His purposes.
Failure always has a positive face
Let us think about some of the potential good that this failure produced. Could it be, that on account of this matter Mark would be made the more aware of how his conduct had resulted in consequences beyond what he could have anticipated? In turn this might have prompted him to a greater awareness of his own personal responsibilities to others, and a wish to see the two friends reconciled. If Mark were of a sensitive nature, how heavy would have been his burden over this issue.
As things turned out Mark was given another chance, and Silas, already one of the ‘chief men among the brethren’, was as a consequence introduced to missionary work and went on to prove himself ‘a faithful brother’. Of course, the will of the Lord is that we all should ‘endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’, and not be divided from each other, but, ‘to be of the same mind in the Lord’, Eph. 4. 3; Phil. 4. 2.
Mark went on to become a good and faithful servant, and take an honoured place among those whom the Lord called. Perhaps we could imagine him, made more conscious by his failures, preparing to take ‘the lowest room’, yet hears, ‘Friend come up higher’.
Our personal failures may be many and great, but they can give strength to restoration once overcome, and those ‘years that the locust hath eaten’, blighted, wasted years, when we were living only for ourselves, prove fruitful after all, Joel 2. 25; Luke 14. 10. The Lord Jesus is always gracious, longsuffering, and so wonderfully considerate and thoughtful and always willing to restore us. Which one of us will not fail Him? Matt. 26. 75; Mark 16. 7.
It does help to consider reasons for failure
What led Mark to leave the two servants of the Lord and the work? We do not know, because Scripture is silent, but we can assess the possibilities as we look into our own hearts. Was it a case of turning back because the difficulties were felt to be too great for him? This is what Paul seems to have concluded, and why he later has no confidence in him when it comes to going again. Did Mark doubt that he had the ability to ‘endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ’? He was aware of the possible dangers before they went, surely?. None is called to serve the Lord under false pretences, see Ps. 78. 9; Prov. 25. 19; Mark 8. 34-38; 2 Tim. 2. 3; 3. 12.
Perhaps Mark had family worries and even a caring son’s concern for his widowed mother? These things will be a real challenge to some, and the Lord Jesus recognized this, ‘He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me’, Matt. 10. 37; Mark 10. 29, 30.
Was he finding his subordinate role in the work irksome, and longing for a more prominent place in the work? How natural this would be especially for a younger man. The prophet said, ‘Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not’, Jer. 45. 5. The Lord Jesus said, ‘If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all’, Matt. 20. 26. All personal glory in this world is but fleeting. We ever need to walk humbly, to keep low to the ground, and be content with whatever He asks us to do, Mark 9. 35. It is good to remember that some of the most used for God started serving Him by ministering to others, 1 Kgs. 19. 21; 2 Kgs. 3. 11.
Is it possible that Mark had some physical weakness or bodily ailment? Some are challenged by such things for not all the Lord’s servants have strong stomachs and healthy bodies. Remember, ‘My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness’, 2 Cor. 12. 9. Such things can only be understood by the spiritual mind, but one thing is certain, human strength and vigour will fail, 1 Tim. 5. 23; Jas. 4. 6.
The road to recovery can be long and difficult but always worthwhile
Whatever it might have been, Mark would have regretted his action and been the more determined to go on. We know that ultimately he was fully and wholeheartedly reconciled with the apostle and welcomed in all the churches. Mark shared Paul’s Roman imprisonment, and he is included among the brethren who sent their greetings to Philemon. He was also with Peter in Rome who refers to him as his son, a term of spiritual affection to a younger man. Peter refers to Rome contemptuously as Babylon, a name the churches would readily recognize from its use in Revelation, see Philem. 24; 1 Pet. 5. 13.
Mark’s association with Rome is among the many biblical coincidences we find in Scripture, and explains some of the distinctive features of the Gospel of Mark. When the Holy Spirit inspires men, He uses them as they are, with their own individual and unique personalities and experiences. Mark was familiar with the language of Rome and when he wrote his Gospel, he sometimes used Roman words, transliterated into Greek words for familiar things and persons. For example, the paralysed man’s ‘bed’, and the ‘centurion’ on duty at the crucifixion, while others use the accepted words of the wider Greek-speaking world. It is only Mark who tells us that Simon of Cyrene had two sons, and one of them is greeted by Paul in his letter to the Romans. Mark would have known them, Mark 15. 21; Rom. 16. 13.
Mark also explains for the benefit of non- Jewish readers what ‘the tradition of the elders’ was. This is not found anywhere else, Mark 7. 3, 4.
For us there are lessons to be learned
But above all else it is especially remarkable that God should use a failed servant to write the Gospel that portrays Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and the perfect Servant. We would have supposed that, a man who had so signally failed would not be the man for that job. How wonderfully Mark rose to his sacred task! In his Gospel of the perfect Servant we read of the Lord, ‘coming’ and ‘going’, ‘walking’, ‘calling’, ‘teaching’, ‘casting out’, ‘healing’, ‘rising up early’ and ‘praying’. All these things in the first chapter! At the end of the Gospel, the Lord Jesus Christ is still ‘working’, 16. 20. Surely we are compelled to acknowledge that His thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are our ways His ways. God knew and used the potential that Mark had, because He saw his heart and did not look only at that which men saw.
In yet another way, Mark would have been of use to the Lord for his experience of his own failings made him sensitive to what he saw in others. It has been well observed that Mark’s Gospel is the hardest so far as criticism of the disciples is concerned. We may notice our Lord’s vigorous rebuke of the disciples for their being so ‘dull’ and for not using their eyes and ears, dismaying them by pointedly asking what it was they had been disputing in the way, and reproaching them for their ‘unbelief and hardness of heart’ in not accepting testimony to His resurrection. The Basic English Bible says in this last place, ‘He said sharp words to them’, Mark 8. 17, 18; 9. 33, 34; 16. 14.
Servants of the Lord Jesus will, sometimes, find the work daunting. Mark alone records the incident of the youth, who, clad only in a linen cloth, followed the Saviour into Gethsemane. He is a picture of tentative bravery and vulnerability. That cloth, his only covering, he had to leave behind, when some made to lay hands on him. He wriggled from their grasp and fled naked. Some have suggested that the youth was Mark himself, but this is pure speculation. However, Mark undoubtedly included this record on purpose, and he may have seen in the youth not only a reflection of himself, but others too who follow the Saviour with beating hearts, and seemingly alone.
Serving the Lord requires courage and obedience. Joshua, like Mark, had been a ‘minister’ and a ‘servant’, Exod. 24. 13. From the beginning he was called to be very courageous, ‘Only be thou strong and very courageous, that thou mayest observe to do according to all the law … turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest prosper whithersoever thou goest’. So did Joshua right through to the end of his life, Josh.1. 7; 24. 15.
We cannot serve the Lord in our own strength, or ‘how we will’. The secret is to be very courageous, strong and obedient. Such qualities enabled Mark to put aside past failures and become ‘a vessel unto honour … meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work,’ 2 Tim. 2. 21. If we fear the Lord and obey Him, then all other fears and challenges will be overcome.