There are two characters in our New Testament whose lives and service for the Lord appear to be inextricably linked. We are privileged to be able to view them at different stages of their careers: at the beginning, the middle, and the end (at least as far as their association with the apostle Paul is concerned). These two are John Mark and Timothy. In comparison with one another, they stand on the pages of scripture as the servant who failed and the one who did not. As such they become, as so often in scripture, a picture of the first man and the second man, that is, Adam and Christ. Mark, it may be remembered, was Paul’s first young helper, Acts 13. 5, whilst Timothy was his second, 16. 3. However, it is beautiful to see, in the case of Mark in particular, that failure is not final and that there is always room for recovery.
Both had godly mothers whose names are known to us. Nothing is known of Mark’s father, whilst Timothy’s was a Greek and, as far as scripture is concerned, they had no spiritual influence that was worth recording. In contrast, their mothers stand out as patterns to be emulated! They show us what value the Spirit of God would place on the role of mothers in the spiritual education of their children! Such a role is a precious privilege but also a tremendous responsibility. What can we learn from these two mothers and their homes? In Acts chapter 12, when he is released from prison by the angel, Peter considers what to do next. Having done so, it says that he ‘came to the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark; where many were gathered together praying’, 12. 12. This tells us several things about Mary’s home. First, it was a home that was open to the Lord’s people. Not only so, but it was a place where they habitually went, or why would Peter go there rather than somewhere else? There he knew that he could contact the most believers in the shortest possible time to give them personally the news of his release. Secondly, it was a place where there was an atmosphere of prayer. What an impression this must have made on the young John Mark. How important the company of the Lord’s people is in the upbringing of young children, not just in the context of the gatherings of the assembly but outside as well. How vital it is that the home is a place where the importance of prayer is clearly seen, where our dependence upon the Lord is evident. Mothers – and fathers too – do you pray with your children?
Beautifully complementary is the home of Eunice, the mother of Timothy. In 2 Timothy chapter 1 verse 5, we read, ‘when I call to remembrance the unfeigned faith that is in thee, which dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois, and thy mother Eunice’. Here we have three generations characterized by ‘unfeigned (lit. un-hypocritical) faith’. What a godly example was shown to the young Timothy by his mother and grandmother! What a challenge to our souls! It is in the home that we are seen for what we really are. Often, possibly, we forget that there are little eyes that are watching, and that can see the inconsistencies and incongruities of our lives. The believers may see one thing in the assembly, but do our children see something different at home? Could it be said of us that our faith is ‘unfeigned’? The second influence in Timothy’s home was the scriptures. ‘From a child thou hast known the holy scriptures’, writes Paul, ‘which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus’, 2 Tim. 3. 15. How vital it is that our children are taught the scriptures. They are the holy scriptures, the sacred writings: there is no book more important that they could get to know. Nor is reading them an end in itself, because the scriptures are able, they are ‘of power’ to make our children wise unto salvation, whether as children or, later, as the Spirit of God brings to their remembrance things that they have learned in times past. Those of us who come from homes where the scriptures were taught us at an early age can thank God for the foundation that was laid in our own experience. Remember that the mind of a child soaks up far more than the mind of an adult, the difficulty of retention only increasing with advancing years. Scriptures learned as children never seem to be forgotten. It is the responsibility of parents, and especially mothers, to teach their children the scriptures.
Whilst it is always important not to read into scripture what is not there, it is always interesting to see what is said, and what is not. For example, it is instructive to notice what is said (or not) about Mark and Timothy prior to their accompanying Paul on his missionary journeys. As far as Mark is concerned, we read nothing about him until when, in Acts chapter 12 verse 25, Barnabas and Saul ‘took with them John, whose surname was Mark’. Similarly, when they set out for Cyprus, it is said, almost in passing, that ‘they had also John to their minister’, 13. 5. Nothing is said about his character, activity, or reputation prior to this point. In contrast, we read of Timothy that he was ‘well reported of by the brethren that were at Lystra and Iconium’, 16. 2. It is not surprising then, that we read, ‘Him would Paul have to go forth with him’, 16. 3. Why did Paul and Barnabas take Mark with them? Was it because he was related (Barnabas’ nephew, Col. 4. 10)? Was it the desire to encourage a younger man? Of course, we cannot answer the question definitively – we are not told the reason – but it does highlight the need for sensitivity and discernment in our dealings with younger believers. That Mark was clearly not ready for such a step, can be seen by the sad words ‘and John departing from them returned to Jerusalem’, 13. 13, recorded so soon after starting out, and even before there was significant opposition.
Each one of us needs to ensure that the activities in which we are engaged for the Lord are the result of personal conviction and exercise, otherwise we will not stand the tests of time or opposition. How sad to bring disappointment and heartache to others and regret to ourselves! When we look at Timothy, we find a young man who was working for the Lord where he was, and who had (in a relatively short time) already built up a good testimony before other believers in his locality. Indeed, if we have desires to serve the Lord, and are wondering about the possibility of service further afield, the place to start is at home, in our own local area. We should be prepared to do what we can, when we can, and where we can, and that starts at home. Let us never be fooled into thinking that it will be any easier to serve the Lord elsewhere.
The principle of older men taking younger men ‘under their wing’ should be highlighted. Although we have noted the need for discernment in doing so, it is clear that Paul, in particular, felt that it would be advantageous to the work to have a younger man with him. There are three reasons that come to mind. First is the vigour and enthusiasm characteristic of the young, the former of which tends to diminish with advancing years. Second, the wisdom and experience of the older brother can be used to channel the younger in the right direction, and to develop service for the Lord. Third, the younger brother can bring comfort and encouragement to the older.
When we come to Acts chapter 15, we find that Mark’s failure has continuing consequences. The memory of him that stuck with Paul, and indeed with us, all these years later, is that ‘he departed … and went not with them to the work’, v. 38. How true it is that a testimony can take years to establish, yet it can be destroyed in an instant, and never recovered in the same way again. In the incident described here, was Paul, or Barnabas right? The answer is, quite simply, that they both were. Paul was right, in that the path that lay ahead of him was, again, one of difficulty, danger, and suffering. If Mark had not been ready for that the last time, how much less would he be now, having to live with his past failure? It would not have been fair, either to himself or to Mark, to subject him to the rigours of such a trip at this stage.
Yet Barnabas, too, was right. He, the great encourager, the ‘son of consolation’, realized that if Mark were left with his failure, to wallow in it, he would be of no further use for the Lord. He needed encouraging, he needed restoring, in delightful imitation of the perfect Servant, ‘a bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench’, Isa. 42. 3. Surely the fact that Barnabas took Mark to Cyprus is also significant, for this was familiar territory – Mark had already been there before with Paul and Barnabas, before his failure. This, too, is a scriptural principle. Abram, when he came back from Egypt, returned to Bethel, the place from where the departure occurred, Gen. 13. 3. In the re-commissioning of Peter, the Lord Jesus, by asking him three times whether he loved Him, took him back to the night when he had denied Him. So Mark was forced to confront his failure and deal with it, but also to remember the days before it had happened, when things were going well, days which could be enjoyed once again.
It would seem fair to say that Mark’s recovery may be attributed to the ministry of Barnabas. How we need those like Barnabas amongst us today! It is so encouraging to realize that failure does not have to be final. How lovely to turn to Colossians chapter 4 and to see what Paul has to say about Mark there. Paul is now in prison. The road has not got any easier for him, yet he sends greeting from ‘Marcus, sister’s son to Barnabas’, 4. 10. Mark is not ashamed to identify with Paul in his suffering. Yet this is not all that Paul writes about him. It appears that the Colossians had received some instruction about Mark in the past, but the situation is altogether different now, v. 10. Mark is now described as one of his ‘fellow workers unto the kingdom of God’, who had been ‘a comfort’ to Paul, v. 11. How different from Acts chapter 15! The one who had left before the work really started is now a fellow worker. The one who had abandoned Paul when most he needed him is now a comfort. How thankful we are that God is the God of recovery!
Timothy, by way of contrast, is Paul’s faithful companion; the one whom Paul could trust implicitly. From the book of the Acts and the different Epistles, a picture can be built up of his movements. Having been taken into the company of Paul’s companions in Acts chapter 16 he travels with them throughout Phrygia and Galatia, 16. 6, coming down to Troas, whence they travel into Macedonia. When Paul left Berea for Athens, 17. 14, Silas and Timothy remained there. When they joined him in Athens, Timothy was sent to Thessalonica, 1 Thess. 3. 2. It is not clear what happened next, whether Timothy joined him again in Athens and was sent back to Thessalonica with a letter, or whether Paul moved on to Corinth. In the meantime, Timothy joined him there, Acts 18. 5. Already, however, the picture is emerging of a man whom Paul could trust implicitly and whom Paul could send to different places to continue the work of the Lord. To Thessalonica, for example, Timothy was sent ‘to establish you, and to comfort you concerning your faith’, 1 Thess. 3. 2. He could also be trusted to bring back an accurate report of how things were, v. 6. Similarly, he was later sent to Corinth, and Paul writes this commendation: ‘(he is) faithful in the Lord, who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach every where in every church’, 1 Cor. 4. 17. Note his faithfulness. Later on in the same Epistle, Paul says, ‘He worketh the work of the Lord, as I also do’, 16. 10. What a commendation! Could the same be said of us?
The consistency of Timothy’s testimony can be seen, in that he appears in letters from various periods of Paul’s ministry. Perhaps the highest commendation of him comes when he is put forward as an example to the believers of selfless service, a man who put the interests of Christ above his own, in contrast to many, if not the majority, of his contemporaries. In contrast to the sad indictment that ‘all seek their own and not the things which are Jesus Christ’s’, Phil. 2. 21, Paul says of Timothy, ‘But ye know the proof of him’, v. 22. Again, could the same be said of us?
We may note, before we leave this section, that if Mark is mentioned in Colossians chapter 4 as being with Paul, Timothy is also there, see Col. 1. 1. The two servants are linked as we come to the end of this phase of their story.
We turn, finally, to the end of Paul’s life, as recorded in 2 Timothy chapter 4. There is much in this chapter to sadden as we read of those who have turned away from the apostle, or left him to continue the work of the Lord elsewhere. We cannot fail to be moved by the words ‘only Luke is with me’, v. 11. We can imagine the loneliness of the great apostle as he stands alone to make his defence before the emperor, albeit with the Lord standing by him. In his extremity, therefore, to whom does he turn? Whose companionship and comfort does he seek? Twice over he appeals to Timothy, ‘Do thy diligence to come’, vv. 9, 21. The urgency of his desire is seen in the words ‘shortly’, v. 9, ‘before winter’, v. 21. Given what we have seen of Timothy’s character and faithfulness, it is no real surprise that Paul should desire him with him. However, Timothy is not the only one Paul wants. Verse 11 says, ‘Take Mark and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry’. Here we see recovery complete. The one whom Paul ‘thought not good’ to take with them in Acts chapter 15 is the one whom Paul would have Timothy bring now. The one who ‘went not with them to the work’ is the one who is ‘profitable for the ministry’. It may be supposed that many of us are more like Mark than Timothy, more acquainted with failure than faithfulness, but we may take courage and encouragement from their story. If fellow believers, or even the Lord’s servants, are in distress, are we the kind of people whom they would call upon to comfort and support them?