John Mark: Margins of Miraculous
a guest blog by Shawn Blythe
You’re not good enough.
These are words that we have all likely heard at one time or another. They are typically a judgment regarding our ability to complete a task, or at the very least an unfavorable comparison with somebody else who can perhaps do it better. They are never words that we enjoy hearing. Whether it be related to our jobs, family or our ministry – nobody likes to be told that they don’t measure up.
There is a perspective that we are known by what we do rather than what we say. If there is a Biblical character who reflects this, it is John Mark. There is not a single recorded quote from him in the entire Bible. Yet we find him playing a significant role in Peter’s, Barnabas’, and Paul’s ministries. Further, he is very likely the author of the second gospel. Although he (like many people of his time) had both a Jewish name (John) and a Roman name (Mark), for simplicity, I will refer to him as Mark in this brief study.
We are introduced to him in Acts 12:12 as the son of a Jerusalem homeowner named Mary. Mary had a home large enough to host “many people” who had gathered there following Peter’s arrest by Herod. She was also wealthy enough to have at least one servant as it was her employee Rhoda who answered the door when Peter came knocking following his miraculous escape from prison. It can be reasonably assumed that Mark lived in some level of comfort.
It was during this time that Paul and Barnabas visited Jerusalem bringing famine relief from the Christians in Antioch. When they completed their mission of aid, they took Mark with them on their return to Antioch. It is certainly possible that Barnabas knew of Mark through familial relationships as Mark and Barnabas were cousins (Colossians 4:10). Although Barnabas was from Cyprus, he clearly spent at least some time in Jerusalem as he was there in the early days of the church and was reasonably well known by the apostles (Acts 4:36). Given that he had family in Jerusalem, it is at least plausible that he visited – or perhaps even stayed with this Aunt Mary during his stay in Jerusalem.
Paul, on the other hand, likely had less basis for an evaluation of the usefulness of Mark to their ministry. Perhaps Paul made his own assessment regarding Mark’s suitability for ministry, or equally likely he may have simply deferred to Barnabas. But in either case, by the time they left to return to Antioch, Mark had joined them. When the church at Antioch subsequently sent them on to Cyprus, Mark accompanied them “as their helper”. After completing their mission in Cyrus, he also accompanied them to Perga (located in modern-day southern Turkey).
It is at this point where Mark leaves Paul and Barnabas in order to return to Jerusalem. We have no information regarding the reason for his return, but whatever the cause, it was significant enough for Paul to strenuously object to Barnabas’ later suggestion to have Mark join them on their second missionary journey (Acts 15:37-38). Mark’s decision to return to his home in the middle of the first missionary journey apparently raised a red flag for Paul regarding Mark’s suitability for further mission work. His cousin Barnabas felt differently, and this led to a split between Paul and Barnabas – Paul taking Silas on his second missionary journey and Barnabas setting out with Mark on a return trip to Cyprus (Acts 15:39-40). Given that the book of Acts is primarily focused on Paul’s ministry, Neither Barnabas nor Mark is mentioned again in this book.
Barnabas had a history of sticking up for people who others feared or mistrusted. You may recall that it was Barnabas who vouched for Paul in front of the apostles when they were too fearful to meet with him when he came to Jerusalem for the first time after his conversion. If Barnabas didn’t shy away from standing up for Paul (an acknowledged persecutor of the faith), it is not particularly surprising that he would stand up for his cousin Mark. It may have been particularly frustrating to Barnabas that he was not able to sway Paul’s opinion of Mark as he had the apostle’s opinion of Paul.
It is worth spending a moment on Paul’s perspective as well. It was not that long ago that Paul needed an advocate. When he came to Jerusalem to join the disciples following his conversion, nobody would meet with him (Acts 9:26). He was an avowed persecutor of the faith. He took an authoritative role in the stoning of Stephen. He had thrown people in jail. He was a man who couldn’t be trusted, and it was only through the advocacy of Barnabas that the apostles were willing to meet with him (Acts 9:27). Paul needed somebody to vouch for him and Barnabas volunteered for the task.
The credibility of Barnabas that Paul relied on so heavily in his initial meetings with the apostles was no longer sufficient when it came to Barnabas’ support of his cousin. Paul’s own perspective and misgivings regarding Mark’s suitability superseded those of Barnabas. I wonder why Paul couldn’t compare the baggage that he brought to the ministry with his concerns regarding Mark. It is difficult to imagine that Mark’s transgression or weakness was greater than the harm perpetrated by Saul prior to his conversion.
Finally, there is the perspective of Mark. The target of the “You’re not good enough” assessment. It’s a phrase that can devastate a person. Marriages are torn apart, family relationships shattered, and friendships are destroyed by this judgment of one’s suitability. We have no way of knowing specifically what the issue was and it is interesting to me that none of the New Testament authors felt it was even important enough to explain. But somehow Mark overcame it, and the important thing was that the ministry continued.
I suspect that we have all been in a situation where we have been judged to be “not fit for purpose”. In some cases, it is we ourselves who make the determination. We take a look and judge ourselves to be inadequate for a particular task at hand. We don’t have enough training. We don’t have enough experience. We don’t have enough spiritual strength. In other cases, it’s somebody else who makes this judgment for us. They deem us to be lacking in some area critical relevant to the objective.
The evaluation of our skills as deficient is likely less important than what we do with it. Mark was no different. Despite Paul’s reservations, Mark continued in the ministry alongside Barnabas. There is no record of the missionary work done by Barnabas and Mark on Cyprus (apart from an apocryphal account of dubious veracity written roughly 500 years after the fact), but the work must have been substantive enough to warrant both Peter and Paul’s attention in later years.
Mark is mentioned in four separate letters, all written within the same ten year period. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he mentions Mark as being with him in Rome. He apparently even sent a letter of recommendation of sorts in the event that Mark eventually visits Colosse. Whatever rift that existed previously is obviously long since resolved. When Paul needed him most, Mark is there with him and “proved a comfort” to him (Colossians 4:10-11). He is also mentioned in Philemon (likely written in the same time period as the letter to the Colossians) as being present with Paul in Rome.
By the time that Paul writes his second letter to Timothy, Mark is no longer with him. but he implores Timothy to bring Mark back with him when Timothy visits Paul in Rome. Paul states that Mark is ‘helpful’ to him in his ministry (II Timothy 4:11). It could be that Mark had joined Peter in his ministry by then as Peter’s first letter indicates that both Silas and Mark are with him at this point (I Peter 5:13). This is particularly interesting since Silas was Paul’s selected replacement for Barnabas and Mark in his second missionary journey! The bottom line is that Mark didn’t let Paul’s assessment derail a life of ministry. Perhaps he ignored it completely and got on with his mission. Perhaps he took the assessment to heart and addressed Paul’s concern. But in either case, he became a trusted partner to a man who once deemed him to be a liability.
Consensus times would suggest approximately fifteen to twenty years between Mark’s rejection by Paul and the written confirmation of full reconciliation. It is reasonable to assume that the reconciliation happened earlier as by the time Paul gets to Rome, he is already convinced of Mark’s usefulness to him. Most scholars also believe that it was during the later part of this period that Mark wrote the gospel of Mark (perhaps largely based on Peter’s testimony). His gospel would be a guiding influence in both Matthew and Luke’s account.
Mark had the opportunity to serve with three of the most well-known Biblical evangelists: Paul, Barnabas and Peter – and is very likely the author of the gospel that bears his name. It’s not bad for a man who was judged to be ‘not good enough’. There is a lesson here for all of us who have been judged deficient (whether by ourselves or others) in our ability to serve in a ministry. What is deficient in man’s eyes (even a man such as Paul) is not always indicative of our value in God’s eyes. There is also a lesson here for all of us who have judged somebody else’s contributions as lacking. Whether the original assessment was accurate or not, it is not a permanent, definitive statement regarding that person’s intrinsic value. It is an observation at a point in time and should not preclude a second look under different circumstances.
I can only speak for myself when I say that God has made a habit of putting aside yesterday’s critical evaluation in favor of a new assessment opportunity. Yesterday’s failures become nothing more than lessons learned for the next task. The provision of a fresh start is a never-ending source of inspiration and opportunity. I am, in fact, ‘not good enough’ – but I know the One who has an unwavering belief that I will be.