“When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem [to Antioch], taking with them John, also called Mark.” Acts 12:25
One of the most inspirational lives recorded in the Scriptures is John Mark. This is the same brother who writes the first widely accepted “Gospel of Jesus,” which is known to this day as the Book of Mark. His Hebrew name, John, would be translated, “Yohanan” which means grace. His Latin name was Marcus which probably indicates that he was a Roman citizen. Most likely, in his younger years, he was known primarily as “John Mark” to distinguish him from others who had the common Jewish name of John. Throughout his life, he was privileged to walk besides not only Jesus, but the most gallant preachers of the early church: Barnabas – the son of encouragement, Peter – the apostle to the Jews, and Paul – the apostle to the Gentiles.
The Coptic (Egyptian Orthodox) Church tradition, backed by Alfred Edershim’s extensively researched book The Life And Times Of Jesus The Messiah, holds that Jesus and His Twelve had their last Passover meal together in the “upper room” in the home of Mary and her husband, the parents of a teenage John Mark. (Mark 14:12-16) Most believe that John Mark was perhaps 14 or 15 years old. Some even connect the Passover’s “upper room” of Mark and Luke 22, to be one and the same “upper room” as Luke mentions in Acts 1-2, where the 120 gathered led by the Twelve after Jesus’ ascension. Here, they collectively receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
However, not one scholar doubts that we are “officially” first introduced to John Mark in his gospel when Judas – accompanied by the temple guards and “a crowd armed with swords and clubs” – has Jesus arrested. Only Mark of the four gospel evangelists records that after “everyone deserted [Jesus] and fled” that there was a “young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, [that] was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.” This is Mark humbly introducing himself to his readers. His point is simply, if you leave Jesus, you have nothing. This is a lesson, he himself would learn years later.
In 42 AD, King Herod puts James the apostle to death. Immediately following, he arrests and imprisons Peter. All of the house churches throughout Jerusalem were praying for Peter’s release. (Acts 12:5) Upon being miraculously rescued by an angel, Peter goes “to the house of Mary, the mother of John, also called Mark.” (Acts 12:12) Seemingly, by this time, John Mark is about 25 years old and his father has passed away, some traditions say by martyrdom. Peter must have been a frequent visitor to the house, because even the servant girl Rhoda recognized his voice as he tried to gain entrance to the house church. From this passage, we can surmise that John Mark comes from a wealthy family as his home is a large two-story dwelling and his family has servants. (Luke 22:10; Acts 12:13) And yes, John Mark is what we would call a “Kingdom Kid!”
From the epistles, we also learn that “Mark” is the cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10), and at some point becomes Peter’s son in the faith. (1 Peter 5:13) Mark must have been a young disciple of great promise because, “When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission [to bring relief funds to the Jerusalem Church – during which was Peter’s release from prison] they returned [to Antioch], taking with them John, also called Mark.” (Acts 12:25) So in 44 AD, Mark goes to be “an intern” in Antioch. Perhaps, about three years later in 47 AD, the Holy Spirit sets apart Barnabas and Saul from the other leaders of the Antioch Church for the first planned missionary journey. Luke simply records, “John was with them as their helper.” (Acts 13:5) This missionary journey began by sailing to Cyprus, Barnabas’ home nation, where they established churches in the cities of Salamis and Paphos. Amazingly in Paphos, despite strong opposition to the gospel from the wicked Elymas the sorcerer (ironically named Bar-Jesus – son of Jesus – but blinded and called “Bar-Devil” – son of the Devil – by Paul), the proconsul Sergius Paulus becomes a disciple! After these amazing events, Barnabas, Paul and John Mark sail on to what is in our modern world, the southern coast of central Turkey. During this second phase of the first missionary journey, the Galatian churches of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe would be planted! However, before Barnabas and Paul had begun to travel to the first Galatian city of Pisidian Antioch, when they docked at the coastal city of Perga, “John left them to return to Jerusalem.”
This unexplained but unquestioned desertion from the mission of Jesus would be to John Mark’s shame for years to come. Having seen so many miracles and conversions in Cyprus, let alone all the answered prayers which included Peter’s release from prison, having been raised by awesome Christian parents, and even having been there at Jesus’ arrest and seeing Jesus’ courage was simply not enough to stop him from turning back. He lost his “first love” and his faith. What devastation to the church, as the man who was mentored to be “the next great preacher” was now labeled a coward and a failure.
A few years later shortly after the great Jerusalem Council in 49 AD, Paul and Barnabas wanted to revisit the churches they had planted in Cyprus and Galatia, thus beginning their second missionary journey. However, “Barnabas wanted to take John Mark with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him because he deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company.” Afterwards, “Barnabas took Mark and sailed [home] to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left commended by the brothers.” (Acts 15:37-40) From my experience, I believe Paul was correct in his “hard-line stand” on who should be on a mission team. It seems that “the brothers” agreed with this, as only Paul not Barnabas was “commended” by them. However, Barnabas’s heart to disciple, heal, and “believe in” John Mark must now be vindicated, as by 61 AD, Mark is again ministering with and to Paul in his first imprisonment in Rome. (Colossians 4:10; Philemon 24) Interestingly, a few years later in 64 AD, he is mentioned in Peter’s first epistle as a son in the faith to Peter himself and most likely, since he was highly educated coming from a rich family, he served as Peter’s amanuensis.
Evidently, the Roman disciples pleaded with John Mark to put in writing what Peter had taught them about his days of walking with Jesus. Most agree that the outline of this book was approved by Peter, but since Peter died in 67 AD, he did not see the “final product” of the Gospel bearing Mark’s name. Of note, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, Tertullian and St. Jerome all signify that Peter was indeed the true author. This is the reason the Book of Mark is wholeheartedly accepted to be included in the New Testament canon is that in substance it was Peter’s Gospel, except for the description of Jesus’ arrest, as Mark was an eyewitness.
Later, during his second imprisonment in Rome when Paul is quite lonely and senses his impending martyrdom, he writes to Timothy, the “Lead Evangelist” in Ephesus in late 66 AD before his death in early 67 AD, that “only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he’s helpful to me in my ministry.” At the end of his life, Paul had his faithful friend Luke with him and desired only two other disciples to share his last days – his beloved Timothy and the now forgiven and much appreciated John Mark!
Very few disciples can say they never failed the Lord. Failure and the shame that’s attached to it often discourage disciples to never strive to once again do great things for God. However, this would not be the epitaph of our brother John Mark. Not only does he pen the Gospel of Mark from which Matthew and Luke borrow heavily, early church history records that Mark travels to Alexandria, Egypt where he preaches the Word with incredible fervor that only grace can bring. In 70 AD, he confronts a pagan parade in honor of the god Serapis. The mob ruthlessly seizes this seasoned and steeled preacher now 55 years old, and ties him with ropes to the back of a chariot dragging him to pieces ending his earthly life. It is then that John Mark is welcomed into glory by our Savior Jesus who presents to him the victor’s “crown of righteousness,” and is joyfully received into Heaven’s hallowed fellowship with hugs from the giants of the faith who preceded him – Barnabas, Peter, Paul, his dad and his beloved mother Mary.
As a disciple that has woefully failed, John Mark is an inspiring upward call to me. I have learned from him how to overcome failure and the ensuing “deadly sin of acedia,” which usually manifests itself in lethargic depression and spiritual numbness. As with John Mark, when you fail the Lord, repent and accept God’s grace shedding all shame, draw close to strong disciples who desire to help you, believe that God will use you in even greater ways, and never, never, never, never look back, but only look forward to bringing “as many as possible” to Heaven. If we do this without self-pity, then we too will be welcomed into “our Father’s house” with the words, “Well done good and faithful servant. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:21) And we too will be hugged by all the champions of the faith – including our brother John Mark! And to God be the glory!