When the apostle Peter was delivered from Herod’s jail by an angel, he "came to the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark; where many were gathered together praying." It is in this incidental way we hear of Mark for the first time. And it is noteworthy that he, rather than his mother, is prominent in the mind of the inspired writer, Mary being identified as "the mother of John, whose surname was Mark."
A delightful home, his was: a pious mother to guide it, keeping it open for the Lord’s interests - a home where prayer was wont to be made. How unusual must these advantages have been for one nurtured in such an atmosphere and how extensive must his knowledge of the Spirit’s activities in those early days have been!
The apostle Peter calls him "Marcus, my son," an expression which may describe him as a convert of that apostle. He had listened to the great Pentecostal address, doubtless; knew the man who was healed at the temple’s gate called Beautiful; had talked with Stephen and Philip; and no doubt he had become acquainted with Saul of Tarsus about the time his uncle Barnabas commended him to the assembly at Jerusalem.
But a few years having passed, we are now to see him in new circumstances. He has left the shelter of his home and has cast in his lot with Barnabas and Saul
Meeting them upon their arrival from Antioch with the bounty of the saints in that region (Acts11:30), and hearing their account of the work among the Gentiles, may have produced a desire to accompany them. However, all that we certainly know is that "they took with them John whose surname was Mark" (Acts 22:25).
Setting out from Antioch for the first missionary journey, the two apostles first go to Cyprus; they preach in Salamis in the synagogue of the Jews: "and they had John to their minister." At Paphos, on the south-western coast of the island, they meet the sorcerer Elymas and the deputy Sergius Paulus - the former being smitten with temporary blindness for opposing the gospel, and the latter converted upon believing. From thence the evangelists sail to Perga, on the mainland, and as they are about to get fully into the work for which they had set out, John Mark returns to Jerusalem.
Seven years have now passed away, and Paul and Barnabas are preparing to leave Antioch on a second missionary tour, when John Mark reappears. What he had been doing in the interval, how long he remained in Jerusalem, what he did or what passed through his mind in those seven years are questions we would like to be able to answer, but cannot. What we do learn is that Barnabas determined to take him with them, while Paul objected because he had departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work.
Writers have speculated as to whether Mark’s defection at that time was caused by resentment at the increasing prominence of Paul, or through fear of perils ahead, or home-sickness; but Paul leaves no room for doubt in the matter. He had one fatal defect - he had not kept to his work; he had turned back. It might be supposed that during the seven years of his truancy he had discovered and judged the state which accounted for his lack of application, but he appears not to have done so. There is still a lack of steadfastness and devotedness about him. The root of this defect seems to have been in the idea that the prestige of worthy connections qualifies for service. The fact that he allowed his uncle to seek his reinstatement indicated this trait in Mark. But this is the very thing which needed discipline from God.
No doubt it was good to have lived in Jerusalem and to be an eye-witness of its gospel-triumphs; it was good to associate at home with those prominent among Christ’s followers; and it was not small honor to be able to address the devoted Barnabas as his uncle. We need not underrate such advantages; they could have been turned to good account if the grace that was exhibited before Mark’s eyes in the circle wherein he moved had stirred his spirit and exercised his conscience before God; it would have lead to spiritual growth. But the mere fact of having possessed such advantages could not add one cubit to his measure, nor furnish one iota of fitness for service. At any rate Paul declared that he would not consent to share campaigns, such as he and Barnabas had conducted, with one who is not dependable. The consequent breach between Paul and Barnabas need not be described. We note, however, that Barnabas took Mark and sailed unto Cyprus - without Paul.
Here then is the result of the slackness of a brother who thought "more highly than he ought to think" and not soberly according as God had dealt to him the measure of faith (Ro. 12:3). And though it would be unjust to magnify the failure of one who eventually became devoted and efficient, much would be lost by ignoring the fact that his early ways led to a rupture between apostles of the Holy Ghost’s choosing, depriving Barnabas of association with the man to whom the ministry to the Gentiles was committed, and robbing Paul of the solace found in the company of this ‘son of consolation."
Some years have passed since the breach between Paul and Barnabas occurred because of John Mark’s early ways. But God has wrought in his soul. If we turn to 1 Peter 5:12-24 we find him in Babylon with the apostle Peter and with Silas. Silas is the brother Paul chose when Barnabas sailed for Cyprus with Mark; moreover he is the brother who, as Mr. Darby says, "preferred the work to Jerusalem," while Mark preferred Jerusalem to the work. But the fact that Mark is now in the company of Silas betokens a humble and spiritual mind; it has stopped all friction on his account; it turns him back to the work.
But time flies. The apostle Paul is now an old man, in actual years perhaps 67, but called "Paul the aged" as the result of his labors and sufferings. He is now a prisoner in Rome, and as he is writing to the saints at Colosse, we are greatly cheered to note these words in his letter: "Aristarchus my fellow-prisoner saluteth you, and Marcus, sister’s son to Barnabas (touching whom ye received commandments; if he come unto you, receive him); and … Justus… these only are my fellow-workers unto the kingdom of God, which have been a comfort unto me" (Col. 4:10-11).
Again he writes: "There salute thee Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus; Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellow-laborers" (Philemon 24). And two years later, as he is awaiting his sentence from Caesar, he writes to Timothy to come to him at Rome - not alone, for he adds: "Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry" (2 Ti. 4:11). Although Luke is with him, this veteran defender of the gospel desires to have two others with him ere he finishes his course, and these two are Timothy and Mark.
What a change! Mark is now acknowledged as a "fellow-worker," a "comfort," a "fellow-laborer," and "profitable for the ministry." What has made the change? This: Mark has learned his lesson.
Doubtless to most of the saints Mark had always seemed a very estimable brother, but in Paul’s spiritual mind a distinct work in Mark’s soul was necessary to support him in the place of activity which he had started to occupy; he can now discern it has taken place, and that he is a very different sort of John Mark - he is thoroughly dependable. Where the work of the Lord is, he is. If there is work to be done in Pamphylia, no power on earth could prevail to turn him back to Jerusalem. What means this continual reference to his comings and goings from and to Rome? Ah, Rome then and Rome now were very different in the Christian point of view. Rome now is the city where "religion goes in silver slippers" - as Bunyan would say. But Rome then was the city that "had not known an apostle except in chains!" Yet to find John Mark we must go to Rome, or if he has gone on the apostle’s errand it will not be long till he is back.
But that is not all. This precious servant of the Lord, before his home-going, leaves us a priceless heritage. He writes a book - a wonderful book - a unique book. What is its theme? Does he relate the scenes he had witnessed in those unforgettable early days of the infant church? No. Does he give us an account of his service at Babylon together with the apostle Peter and Silas? No. Does he describe - as he was well able to do - the latter days of our beloved "Paul the aged?" - or would he inform us that he stood by this faithful witness at Rome at the last? No. John Mark writes of ONE - the One who is worthy of all homage and praise; he writes the Gospel of Mark.
Not as Matthew does he especially portray Him as the anointed King, lifted up and cast down (Ps. 102:10) when presented to and rejected by Israel. Not as Luke does He distinctively set Him forth as The Son of Man obedient to God and the vessel of all grace to man. Nor does he, like John, describe who He is in the glory of His Person - the eternal Son of God become flesh and tabernacling among us. No doubt all of these glories, though veiled, shine in Him whom Mark describes, for "he could not be hid;" but with the fitness which God gives to the vessel He employs for a given work - even though that vessel be inspired - John Mark writes of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as The Servant in whose entire course no failure was found.
He writes of Him "straightway" doing this, or "immediately" doing that, and always at His Father’s business. Mark reveals Him at prayer "a great while before day" with a full working day following - eager to go "into the next towns" with the gospel, while multitudes press upon Him where He is. It is he, too, who informs us that while the privacy of His early prayers is interrupted by His disciples, and the "desert place apart" which He had sought for His disciples is invaded by the people, He is never ruffled by such things, but accepts them as a call for further labors. It is Mark again who forcibly reminds us of His desire to have those benefited by His service to "say nothing to any many" about it, yet relates the praise of those who - though charged to say nothing - say, "He hath done all things well."