When they (Paul and Barnabas) arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. John was with them as their helper... Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia where John left them to return to Jerusalem... Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work.(Acts 13:4, 5, 13; 15:37 NIV. See also 2 Timothy 4:11, Colossians 4:10; Philemon 24; 1 Peter 5:13b)
In Paul's letters, we read of the many men and women whom he calls his fellow workers. Among them were men of the stature of Barnabas and Silas. He worked with Luke and Silvanus; these were faithful fellow workers who contended for the faith and wrestled in prayer. But there were also others. Some were well known for their failures.
John Mark worked with Paul and then later with Peter. It is from him whose hand we have the gospel named after him. What do we know of John Mark? In Acts 13, Paul and Barnabas are about to set out on their first missionary journey. They needed a helper, an assistant. Barnabas suggests that they take his cousin: he should make an excellent companion. Remember Barnabas from Acts 4, the last verses. His name is Joseph, but he has a nickname: Barnabas – Son of Encouragement. Barnabas is a gentle kind soul; one who gives away his wealth to the church. Now he is about to set out with Paul. He is giving his life away to the Lord. He takes along his cousin, John Mark.
All went well for a time. Mark must have thought, “I love this!” What excitement as they made their way to the coast and set sail for the island of Cyprus. “New faces, new marketplaces, new cities to visit.” Paul and Barnabas were tent makers. They would have worked in the marketplace, cutting and sewing their tents for travellers and soldiers. Perhaps Mark was a young apprentice who was working for Barnabas and so he went along.
We do not know, but maybe John Mark thought that they would only go to Cyprus, a few days sailing from home. But this was not the case. They traversed Cyprus and sailed on to what we now know as Turkey. As they arrived there, John Mark decides he has had enough. The stories in the Bible are told with swift brevity. In Acts 13:13 we read that John left them and returned to Jerusalem. John Mark chickens out. He does not stick to the task at hand. He decides he has had enough. Without the consent of Paul or Barnabas he heads for home, for Jerusalem!
And so we see in this young man an image of ourselves. When the going gets tough we quit. This was what John Mark faced: To be a plodder or a quitter? To be loyal to Christ, to family, to fellow Christians, or to myself? That was the battle. What of John Mark? What of him? Well, he heads for home. He quits his task. He will not do what he must do. He deserts the work.
How do we know that he went home against the will of his cousin and Paul? We can read in Acts 15:37 how Paul and Barnabas were going to head out on another preaching journey. They plan to visit the many churches that the Lord had established. And who does Barnabas, that gentle man, want to take along? John Mark! Here is a man who repented of failure. He had gone home, to Jerusalem from where he came. But he must have realized that he had done wrong. He had run away from duty. Jesus had taught that his bread and drink was to do his Father's will. He had taught that discipleship might well cost everything: lands and homes; family friends; even life itself. But John Mark had chickened out. He had run from the big task, from real duty, from his Lord.
Two Years Later
Paul and Barnabas, when they had returned from their journey, went up to Jerusalem. They went there for what we call “the Jerusalem Council.” There they must have met John Mark. Gentle, kind Barnabas took him back to Antioch. When Paul and Barnabas decide to head out again to visit the churches, Barnabas wants to take John Mark along. Paul, however, says, “No way! We cannot take him.” Barnabas says, “Yes, we must, he has repented.”
Two years have passed since Paul and Barnabas had returned. Now as they set out they again need an assistant. Mark? Paul thought it best not to take one who deserted the work. Who was right? Barnabas or Paul? Perhaps Paul was right! Deserters need a time of proof. Not just promise but proof of amendment. Perhaps Barnabas was right! Accept the repentant sinner with grace. Even so, the fact remains that John Mark's return and repentance was real and glorious. Even Paul, in the end, is at last convinced of the young man's restoration and they take him along.
Many Years Later
More than ten years have passed since that day that Mark walked out. Paul is a prisoner in Rome: an apostle in chains. He writes to his spiritual son, one of the other young men who had become attached to Paul's work. He writes to Timothy who is about to set out for Rome from Ephesus. Paul writes, “Take Mark with you: for he is very helpful in serving me.” Amazing! What a tribute to a young man who failed and then made good! What a tribute to the Lord Jesus Christ who can work with failures and quitters and turn them into faithful helpful servants. He can take failure and turn it to success. He can take fear and turn it into courage. He can take prejudice and turn it into love. He can take us when we are ready to quit and to retreat from God and duty, and turn us around to face the task and to work in his kingdom and his church. We see in John Mark's life, the perseverance of the saints. A saint restored after a lamentable fall (Canons of Dort V 4, 5).