We’ll use a few headings and explanation to look at the life and ministry of Mark the evangelist over the next two or three weeks. As told in the title, Mark could be summarized as one who was faithful despite failure.
Beginnings: A Christian Home
Mark (also known as John or John Mark; cf. Acts 12:12) lived with his mother Mary (likely a widow) in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 12:12). Acts 12:12–17 gives the account of an all-night prayer meeting to pray that God would release Peter from prison. To have a house large enough to accommodate such a group indicates Mark enjoyed his mother’s relative wealth. They even had a servant named Rhoda (Acts 12:13). This house was likely one of the meeting places for the Jerusalem church, a well-known place where Peter could easily go and find at night after he was released from prison.
From all these facts, we could easily suggest that Mark’s Christian heritage allowed him to regularly rub shoulders with apostles and other Christians on an informal and formal basis as meetings and gatherings took place at his home. He had all the potential to become an excellent Christian who would be a tremendous and resourceful help to the body of Christ.
Many Christians today enjoy such a background. The question is, what will you do with such a privileged upbringing? How can you take advantage of such a heritage? For Mark then and for us today, Jesus might say, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48). Likewise, Paul could add what he said to Timothy, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:14–15). All the more we should persevere if we have been given a Christian heritage that has strengthened our faith since childhood.
A Chance at Ministry: The Connection of a Christian Cousin
Mark had an extended family member who was a well-known Christian as well. Mark was cousin to Barnabas (Col 4:10), the “son of encouragement” who was a powerful preacher of truth and one who performed miracles alongside Paul for at least two missionary journeys (Acts 11:29–30; 13:1–3). In attempting to restore Mark to ministry after his failure (see below), Barnabas stayed with Mark and parted ways with Paul (Acts 15:36–41). To have this kind of encouraging Christian as a cousin surely had to have had an eternal impact on his soul.
Besides the encouragement he afforded, Barnabas also gave Mark a unique opportunity for ministry as well. After delivering money to Jerusalem during a time of famine, Barnabas and Paul took Mark with them on Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 12:25). It is probably safe to assume that Mark had excellent repute for his Christian service and was likely a gospel teacher would boldly witness to others as well. He seemed a natural fit for the missionary team.
A Failure in Ministry: From Missionary in Action to Missing in Action
From all that we know of Mark so far, it seems hard to imagine that he would turn out to be a major disappointment to Barnabas and Paul. As he traveled, he heard the Spirit speak through the prophets to call Barnabas and Paul for a missionary journey (cf. Acts 13:1–3). He witnessed Paul’s smiting of the magician Elymas with blindness (Acts 13:4–11). He saw the Gentile and Roman proconsul come to Christ as a result (Acts 13:4–12). But, despite his heritage, family, and privileged opportunity for service, Mark left the missionary journey to return home in Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). In fact, he deserted Barnabas and Paul, as the verb aphistēmi (ἀφίστημι) indicates in Acts 15:38—he was “one who had withdrawn from [i.e., deserted] them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work.” In Luke 8:13, Jesus is recorded to use this same verb to comment on Luke 8:6, explaining that the seed that falls on rocks will grow up but then wither due to lack of moisture. The spiritual lesson is this, “But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away” (Luke 8:13). There is nothing to indicate that Mark fell away from the faith altogether, but his root was certainly not deep enough to withstand the pressures of missionary ministry with Barnabas and Paul. He abandoned his needed ministry during an important journey that the Spirit had sent him to join (cf. Acts 12:25; 13:1–3).
Why did he leave? It’s hard to say because the text doesn’t explicitly say. Guessing from the context, perhaps Paul’s newfound role as lead missionary was frustrating (cf. Acts 13:2, “Barnabas and Saul” with Acts 13:13, “Paul and his companions). Perhaps the salvation of a Gentile was disconcerting to his Jewish upbringing (cf. Acts 13:12). It was noted that the Hebrew John left, not the Greek Mark (Acts 13:13). Perhaps the trip across the Mediterranean from Paphos to Perga was too rough for him to handle (cf. Acts 13:13). Perhaps he didn’t want to keep going north into places where there would be persecution (cf. Acts 13:50, expulsion; 14:19, stoning). Perhaps he didn’t like being 450 miles from home. Perhaps the overall rigors of missionary work were simply too much for the well-to-do, soft-skinned son of Mary to handle at this point in his life. Whatever the case, he packed up his bags, left, and went home. So what happened to Mark? How did he go from being a missionary failure to a faithful minister? I’ll answer these questions next week.