It has been said that, if we want an antidote for the poison of discouragement, we should read biographies. The way in which other people have ultimately triumphed over their failures, disappointments and troubles can be a real source of encouragement to us today. This is certainly true of many Bible characters, and in this article we will consider one person from the pages of Scripture, namely John Mark.
We can glean all that we know about Mark from only a few scattered verses in the New Testament. Several verses relate to him in Acts 12, 13, 15, and there are several more isolated references to him in the Epistles. Thus even though his life and spiritual service are not well documented, the little we do know can be a wonderful source of spiritual encouragement to us.
Mark’s home was in Jerusalem, Acts 12. 12, and it seems likely that he was a Jew. This verse shows that his mother’s name was Mary, while the missionary Barnabas was his uncle, Col. 4. 10. It seems probable from 1 Peter 5. 13, “Marcus my son”, that the apostle Peter was instrumental in bringing Mark to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus Mark was blessed with a Christian home, one in which the Name of the Lord Jesus was reverenced and honoured, and where time was set aside for prayer. When Peter was led out of prison by the angel, he went “to the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark; where many were gathered together praying”, Acts 12. 12. Mark was thus privileged to have a Christian background. Those of us who are blessed to have Christian parents, and to have been brought up in a Christian home, should always be thankful for such a privilege.
Mark seems to have become a Christian while still a comparatively young man. His testimony must have shone forth, for when Barnabas and Saul left Jerusalem for Antioch, they took Mark with them, Acts 12. 25. This was an encouraging start for this young believer; he was beginning active service for the Lord Jesus with two experienced and mature Christians. At Antioch, Barnabas and Saul were commended to evangel-istic work, and set out on their first missionary journey with Mark as their helper, 13. 4, 5. Having arrived in Cyprus, Mark no doubt had the opportunity to preach and to minister to new converts, thereby being a continual source of help and encouragement to his older companions at that time.
However, when they set sail from Cyprus and arrived in Asia Minor, in the town of Perga in Pamphylia, Acts 13. 13, “John departing from them returned to Jerusalem”. For some reason, at this stage of the journey, Mark decided that he had had enough, and so went home. What a transformation! Previously he had been a bright young Christian worker, radiating spiritual help and enthusiasm to others; now he had decided to retreat, to give up and go home. Somehow, he could not face going on, and he allowed himself to become a failure. He deserted the cause, leaving his two companions to fight on alone, and leaving the work which the Lord had given him to do in Asia Minor. God had entrusted him with work to do, and he had failed, Luke 9. 62.
Reasons for Mark’s Failure. Various reasons have been suggested as to why Mark left Paul and Barnabas. It is obvious that something must have caused this failure, so in the next paragraphs we consider four possible reasons which may account for this failure.
Firstly, some have suggested that Mark had a certain amount of racial pride or prejudice that caused him to return home. Perhaps he recoiled from the idea of having fellowship with new Gentile believers. With such a feeling, it would be natural for him to leave the work of evangelizing the essentially Gentile area of Asia Minor.
Certainly this problem of racial strife between Jew and Gentile was evident in the early church. In Caesarea, Peter had to learn at an early stage that he should not call any man common or unclean, Acts 10. 28. Yet later Peter was rebuked publicly by Paul for showing racial prejudice and not eating with Gentile believers, Gal. 2. 11-14. Perhaps Mark still held to such ideas, not having realized that Christianity breaks down all barriers and prejudices resulting from race, language or colour: “Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all”, Col. 3. 11. Today, believers must never boast of nationality or race – our only boast must be in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and in His cross, Gal. 6. 14. Perhaps here is the cause of Mark’s failure, in that he did not realize that Christ died for all, and that in His sight all are seen as sinners needing a Saviour, whether they be Jew or Gentile, Rom. 3. 9.
Secondly, a reason proposed for Mark’s failure is that of severe homesickness. Possibly he was pining to go home and see his family again, Luke 9. 61, preferring his home with its comforts and familiar surroundings to the rigours of serving the Lord in an unknown country. He may even have preferred to fulfil his own selfish desires, instead of doing the will of God. We must be watchful that we do not seek after physical comforts and material well-being at the expense of hardships that we would experience in the Lord’s service.
Thirdly, some have suggested that Mark took offence on account of pride in his family. Paul now appeared to be taking the role of leadership; moreover, he and not Barnabas was the main spokesman: “Now when Paul and his companions loosed from Paphos”, Acts 13. 13. By now Paul was the outstanding personality, with Barnabas graciously receding into the background. Mark, perhaps, failed to realize that God bestows gifts in service on whom He will, and here Paul was given the leading role. Did Mark feel slighted at this, feeling that Barnabas should have been more prominent? Believers must always commit themselves humbly to the Master’s use, not minding if we or our family are given seemingly minor roles to play in the service of God. Whatever we are given to do, we must do it faithfully, with all our might. To push for pre-eminence in Christian service leads to tension and ultimate failure. Was this the cause of Mark’s failure?
Fourthly, the final suggestion is that Mark was afraid. There could well have been a sense of sickening fear in his heart as he contemplated the unknown towns, rivers, mountains and people that he would encounter in Asia Minor. It has to be admitted that fear can drive people to do things which are otherwise very much out of character. Peter had denied the Lord with cursing and swearing, saying, “I know not the man”, Matt. 26. 74, because it seems that he was afraid. Had fear attained such a hold upon Mark’s heart that it clouded his judgment and forced him to turn back for home? It certainly could go a long way in explaining his failure.
The Lessons for Believers Today. We are exhorted, “Be careful (anxious) for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus”, Phil. 4. 6-7.
We have noted four possible reasons for Mark’s failure. These are only suggested reasons, as no one can be sure what caused his failure. Whatever the reason or reasons, the truth remains – he failed and let the Lord down.
His conduct was so unlike that of the Lord Jesus who, knowing all that was to beset Him, carried through to its final conclusion the work that His Father had given Him to do. There was, and could be, no failure as far as the Lord Jesus was concerned. He completed all that God had given Him to do. He endured the cross, despising the shame, and paid the price for sin. Today, all honour and glory reside in the Person of the Lord Jesus. Similarly all who serve God faithfully are rewarded. God has given us a work to do, and we should seek to do that work with all our might. Honour will then be ours at the judgment seat of Christ, when God honours them who have served Him well.
Yet we may, like Mark, fail and fail most miserably. We may shirk the work that God has given us to do. Yet we must remember that Mark did not remain defeated. At some time he must have repented of his sin, and confessed his failure to God. The Lord was then only too willing ,to accept him once again for service. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”, i John i. 9. We can be sure that Mark was immediately forgiven, and that he was given new strength and renewed desire for service. With this came renewal of joy for Mark.
Two years later, Paul and Barnabas were about to commence their second missionary journey. Mark’s renewal seemed so genuine that Barnabas was willing to take him with them again. Paul, however, said, “No”, Acts 15. 36-39. Paul probably felt that Mark still needed a little more time and discipline after his renewal. In this case Paul was, we feel, correct.
Years later, we find that Paul accepted the change in Mark as complete and genuine. He therefore commended Mark to the church at Colosse, Col. 4. 10. Also, when all had forsaken the aged apostle at Rome, he requests Timothy to bring Mark with him. By now, Mark was profitable to the aged apostle Paul, 2 Tim. 4. 11. Finally, Mark is mentioned in the Epistle to Philemon as a fellow labourer with Paul, Philem. 24. So Mark overcame his early failure and became a great help to the apostle. Indeed, he became a real worker for Christ. Eventually he was privileged to be inspired by God to write the first account of the Lord’s ministry on earth, “The Gospel according to Mark”. Thus in spite of his initial failure, he was later mightily used of God.
Mark was the failure who made good. The grace of God triumphed in his heart and life. Believers today are just as likely to let the Lord down, at times by failing Him. Our joy and wonder in Christ will drain away at such times, and our communion with God will grow cold. Then we should remember that we are saved to work, thereby coming back to the Saviour in repentance, confessing our failure. We know that He is always ready to help us, refresh us and encourage us to go forward once again on the pathway of true service. No failure is too great for us to overcome by the grace of God. We can, like Mark, move forward confidently to a life of useful and profitable service for our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,