As we read through the book of Acts we encounter a host of characters who helped form the early church. The two major individuals highlighted in the book are the apostles Peter and Paul. Their ministry is extremely well documented, but there are a number of other people who are mentioned in less detail. One such person is described in chapter 12 verse 12 as ‘John, whose surname was Mark’. His full name was John Mark, though we are much more familiar with his surname, Mark, as that is the title of the second book of the New Testament which he wrote, namely ‘The Gospel according to Mark’. He thus had the infinite privilege of being entrusted by God with the actual writing of part of Holy Scripture.

Mark’s life is a great encouragement to any of us who may feel that we have failed the Lord. Mark, too, failed the Saviour. He made an outstanding start to his Christian life and seemed to develop very well as a believer in Christ. Such a fine beginning is always a cause for praise. However, Mark became a tragic failure for God and that is detailed in the book of Acts. It serves as a warning for us that we too can fall into similar circumstances. Yet the great blessing is that he did not remain a failure but somehow rose above his failure and ultimately resumed his service for God. That service was of the most devoted kind and led to him writing part of the New Testament. So we see that the Bible does not gloss over or minimise the failures of the people of God and that gives it real authenticity. The Scriptures are both credible and creditable because they reveal both the positive and negative aspects of God’s servants. There is a ring of truthfulness and transparent honesty to the Biblical accounts.

If God could use John Mark, then he can use us despite our weaknesses and failures.

We too can rise above our defeats and reach out in faith for the Lord’s resources and go on in service for His glory. Thus ‘failure is not final’ for the Christian.

Mark’s life is documented in the book of Acts in chapters 12, 13 and 15.  There are also references to him in Colossians, 2 Timothy, Philemon and 1 Peter. Using these verses we will consider Mark’s life and ministry in three ways: firstly His Mother’s Influence, secondly His Missionary Failure and thirdly His Ministry Restored.

His Mother’s Influence

Mothers are vital in home life and they have a very great influence upon their children, especially it would seem their sons. Emerson once said: ‘Men are what their mothers make them’.

Mark’s mother was named Mary as is made clear in Acts 12:12. She may have been a widow as there is no mention of her husband. Yet she gave her son a great spiritual start in life. He knew the blessing of a Christian home. The home was in the great city of Jerusalem. So Mark was right on hand to witness the great events of early Christianity. He may have heard Peter’s powerful Pentecostal sermon (Acts 2) and may even have been one of the 3,000 who were converted to Christ that day. Certainly Peter refers to ‘Mark my son’ in 1 Peter 5:13. This would seem to be strong evidence that Peter had been instrumental in leading young Mark to faith in Christ.

Mary’s home was a house of prayer. Acts 12 indicates that when Peter was imprisoned by Herod the Christians gathered in Mary’s home for a night-time prayer meeting. This was not just for one or two people, but it says, ‘many were gathered together praying’. (Acts 12:12). No doubt they were praying for Peter’s safety and possible release. That prayer was answered and the apostle was miraculously delivered and his first call was to visit the believers gathered for prayer in Mary’s house. He must have known that he would be welcomed, receive fellowship and refreshment at her home.

Christian homes should be homes of prayer. To meet a Christian is a great joy but to meet a Christian family and to experience a true Christian home is even more wonderful. That was Mary’s home and that was the atmosphere in which Mark lived.

The Christian home has an atmosphere of Christ. He is the central figure. Such a home is a place of welcome, love and hospitality. It is not a place of harshness, fear and repression, hypocrisy or bigotry. In such a home the family altar is erected, where the family members meet to read God’s Word and pray together and the ancient saying is still true, ‘the family that prays together, stays together’. There fellow believers can come and relax, enjoying the atmosphere of a true Christian home. Today we need more genuine Christian homes where God’s people can be assured of a warm welcome and where prayer is freely offered to the Lord.

Such a home was Mary’s home and Mark would have met many Christian people right there in his own house. We cannot imagine that Peter’s night-time visit after his release from prison was his only visit. No doubt he was a regular visitor and brought the ministry of the Word of God to bear upon that household and the various Christians who met there. Mary’s brother Barnabas would no doubt have been another frequent visitor. He is described as ‘a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith’ (Acts 11:24). It is inconceivable that he would not have regularly visited his relatives when he was in Jerusalem and we can imagine the wonderful example he set for Mark and the spiritual influence he produced.

Thus Mark had the great privilege of living in a Christian home. Christians seem to have been constantly in and out and he was exposed to their prayers, ministry and godly example. This enabled him to make a great start in his Christian life and when Paul and Barnabas set off on what is described as the ‘first missionary journey’ Mark was part of the missionary party as Acts 13:5 says: ‘John was with them as their helper’.  We can imagine that his mother was so pleased, just delighted that her boy was helping to spread the Gospel into unevangelised areas. Mark’s spiritual life and service had made a very bright start and then things went badly wrong and he became:

A Missionary Failure

In Acts 13:13 we read, ‘From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John left them to return to Jerusalem.’  This was a clear case of desertion and a failure to continue in the work of the Lord. Such a conclusion is clearly implied in Colossians 4:10 where Paul urges the Colossians to welcome Mark, as if to say ‘despite his failure do receive him’. Acts 15 also makes it clear that Mark’s actions were failure, for Paul refused to allow him to accompany them on the second missionary journey. It was clearly a case that Mark had given up, he had had enough and returned home.

He had let people down. We can imagine how disappointed his mother might have been, the apostles felt increased pressures as they soldiered on without Mark’s help and certainly God would have been grieved, for the Lord Himself had called Mark to missionary service and also gifted him for that work, yet the young man had given up and gone home to Jerusalem.

The call of God is just as strong today and reaches every Christian. That call may be to missionary service abroad or to continued work at home within the local church, but wherever we are called that call must not be ignored, rejected or disobeyed. It will never be easy to serve the Lord and fulfil His call, but despite the pressures we must persevere and continue in obedience until He moves us on to another situation. Let us take warning from the experience of Mark.

I have often wondered why Mark decided to give up and go home. We are not told but at some stage he became self-centred instead of Christ-centred and decided to follow his own inclinations rather that obey the directive of the Lord. There may have been many reasons for his failure but let us just consider some possibilities.

His failure may have been due to FEAR.  Fear is not necessarily a bad sensation, for example in the face of imminent danger we should experience fear. In such circumstances fear enables us to focus upon essentials namely escape from danger. It is thus a mechanism which the Lord has implanted in us for survival. However as with everything else this faculty has been corrupted by sin and we find ourselves afraid in situations which frankly are not a danger to us. This is when the fear mechanism goes wrong, it causes us to act irrationally and temperamentally we have problems. When fear takes over we do unusual things, we act out of character and say and do things which at other times we wouldn’t dream of saying or doing. Fears may cloud our judgement and can cause us to act against our principles and fear is recognised as a great problem in the Bible. That is why the phrase ‘Fear not’ is mentioned so many times.

Mark’s failure could have been due to fear. The persecution from forces hostile to Christianity was always a very real threat. Indeed after he left the missionary journey his two colleagues Barnabas and Paul faced dreadful persecution in Lystra and Paul was even stoned and left for dead. So fear of persecution may have driven him back to his home. However, there were certainly other causes for fear such as the unknown wilds of Asia Minor with its pagans, rough terrain, robbers and antagonistic crowd. There can be many causes for fear and the courageous person is not the one who has never known fear but is the one who has faced up to fear and conquered it. Mark may have failed to do that, instead he may have given into his fears and in deep anxiety returned home to his mother’s house.

God does give us resources to help in this whole area of fear. The great resources include his promise to the Christian ‘I will never leave you or forsake you’ and ‘I am with you always’. We can be assured that no matter what the circumstances of our lives may be He is always with us. Also we have the wonderful facility of prayer. The Lord is only a prayer away and He has promised peace to those who are willing to spend time in genuine, believing prayer. ‘Be anxious for nothing: but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 4:6-7) So the antidote to fear and anxiety is prayer. Such prayer is not perfunctory, casual or formal. Such prayer is genuine, real and truly being in touch with the Lord. It is thus more than words and is essentially drawing close to God. When prayer is real fears can be overcome.

Let us know boldness and not fear as we seek to serve the Lord.

Mark’s failure may, on the other hand, have been due to HOMESICKNESS. Maybe there was a sort of pining for city life and home comforts. In the wilds of new lands and the discomfort of missionary life, no doubt Jerusalem and his mother’s home seemed idyllic. Perhaps he could not see beyond immediate difficulties to the fullness of vision in evangelism in which he was engaged. The point came when he could endure the hardness of the work and ministry no longer and he went home to rest, enjoy an easier life and to avoid the strenuousness of the work. Thus the pull of home was stronger than the pull of the call of God. Somehow or other the priorities of God were lost to him and he went home in failure.

Whatever work we engage in for the Lord will not be easy. There will be difficulties and battles to be fought. The temptation is to moan and complain, to feel bitter if others are not working as hard as we would like them to and to make up excuses to give up and have an easier life. The idea of commitment is not a top priority in our generation and sadly this can also be true for Christians as they serve the Lord.                       

Let us not seek ease and personal comforts at the expense of the rigors of serving the Lord.

However, it may be that Mark’s cause for failure was PRIDE. Increasingly Paul was taking the leading role and Mark’s relative Barnabas was out of the limelight. Indeed this is highlighted in Acts 13: 13 where it uses the words, ‘Paul and his company..’. Paul was clearly seen as the leader of the missionary group, undoubtedly being the main spokesman and preacher. We can picture Mark feeling a sort of hurt family pride. He may have wanted his uncle to have a more prominent role. He may have wanted a more public ministry for himself. Did this cause him to become huffy and depart home with a bruised ego and a sense of injured pride?

One of the most deadly sins is that of arrogance and pride. Such a sin undermines the work of God, causes division and focuses upon the trivial. A Christian’s attitude is always more important than his ability. Good ability will be undermined by a bad attitude, especially the attitude of arrogance. John the apostle wrote of one Christian leader who badly disrupted the church and even drove people away because ‘he loved to have the pre-eminence’. It is so important to learn the lesson that what I think or feel is not important, what God requires of me is of vital importance. We must always develop an attitude of service and love towards others, an attitude which says I care about your needs before my own and especially so with the work of God.     

Let us be more concerned for the Lord and His glory than for ourselves and our pride and standing.

So Mark (for whatever reason) failed. He had started well, but had given up and it is always sad to witness spiritual failure in fellow-believers. We must weep and pray for those who have failed, just like Samuel did in the Old Testament when he grieved all night because of the failure of King Saul. Grieving not glorying is the only right and true response towards those who have failed. It is even sadder when that failure is a young Christian, and more so when he had such ability and had made such a bright start for the Lord.

Yet Mark’s failure (as with all failures) had consequences. It became the basis of dispute and division between the two veteran missionaries Barnabas and Paul, for when they decided to embark upon the second missionary journey and revisit the churches they had founded on the first such journey, the question of their companion arose. Barnabas was intent upon taking Mark with them as he was sure that the young man was now restored to the Lord and had overcome his failure. Paul was not so sure and felt that the same desertion might happen a second time and refused to countenance Mark’s participation in the missionary journey. Sadly we read in Acts 15:37-41, ‘And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark. But Paul thought it not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with to the work. And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: Barnabas took Mark, and sailed to Cyprus; And Paul chose Silas, and departed, being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches.’

Mark’s sin affected others, as it became the cause of dispute between Paul and Barnabas who decided to go their separate ways. Sadly we never read of Paul and Barnabas working together again after that incident. Sin can never be done in isolation it will always have its repercussions.

Yet the wonderful thing is that Mark did not remain defeated and failed somehow or other he was able to rise above those events and he found:

His Ministry Restored

At some stage Mark must have been restored to fellowship with the Saviour, and then, and only then could his ministry be restored. We don’t know exactly how it all happened but he once again became involved in Christian service and proved profitable in the work of God.

The Psalmist wrote ‘If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.’ (Psalm 66:18). So as long as unconfessed sin resides in the Christian’s heart, there can be no peace, joy or usefulness in the service of God. Thus the time must have come for Mark when he confessed his sin and unburdened his soul to the Lord. He followed the instructions which all Christian believers need to follow when they sin, namely the words of 1 John 1:9, ‘If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’

We can imagine this young Christian pouring out his soul to the Lord in confession, repentance and the renouncing of sin. We can see the Lord’s gracious arms going around this defeated believer and like the prodigal in the story being drawn into the heart of the Father. God does not like to see His children defeated and failed and longs for our genuine repentance so fellowship can be re-established and a useful ministry be restored.

Gradually Mark found acceptance again amongst the people of God, even with those whom he had let down so badly. The first to recognise his restoration and repentance was Barnabas, as Acts 15 makes clear. Barnabas was even willing to take Mark on the second missionary journey and ultimately took him on a ministry tour of Cyprus.

Paul would not take Mark on his ministry journey, maybe he believed that Mark needed to wait and prove himself a little longer before being entrusted with missionary responsibilities.

Eventually, even Paul recognised the change in Mark and speaks highly of both his integrity and ministry. In Philemon v.24 he describes Mark as a ‘fellow labourer’. This highlights two qualities. Firstly Mark worked hard in God’s service and so could be described as a ‘labourer’. Secondly, he was an integral part of the team, able and willing to work in harmony with his fellow workers. No longer did pride, fear or desire for comfort divert his attention from the essential task of doing the will of God in harness with fellow missionaries.

In 2 Timothy 4:11 Paul has this to say: ‘Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry.’ This is a glowing endorsement of the young man who had been such a failure. Previously he had been unprofitable or useless in the work of the Gospel, but now he was profitable and useful in ministry for the Lord. No longer did failure and defeat characterise this young man but success and victory as he served God with full devotion.

In Colossians 4:11 Paul again wrote about Mark: ‘My fellow-prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.)’ Here we realise that Mark was with the apostle as he wrote the Colossian epistle and must have known the Colossian Christians and so sends them his greetings. Also Paul emphasises that the church at Colosse should receive or welcome Mark, if he ever visited them. Clearly Mark was being commended to this particular church in Asia Minor.

So in addition to being accepted by individual leaders of the churches like Paul and Barnabas, Mark, together with his ministry was accepted and appreciated by all the churches. Today we rejoice in Mark’s rehabilitation and appreciate the great gift which he used for God’s glory. Every time we pick up ‘the Gospel according to Mark’ we are giving witness to the fact that God’s Spirit inspired him to contribute to the canon of Holy Scripture. Thus today we too accept Mark and accord him a place with the spiritually great people of God, for only a few people were entrusted by the Lord to write His precious Word and Mark was one of those special people.

Mark’s Gospel is very fast moving. In many ways it is like an express train because Mark doesn’t linger on any particular event. It always seems that he wants to hurry on to the next incident and everything moves at rapid speed. His favourite word, which occurs over forty times in the book is ‘immediately’, and there are few parables, discourses or sayings recorded in the Gospel. Mark concentrates upon the works of Jesus rather than His words. He is intent upon demonstrating the deity of Christ through what He does. As Mark rushes through the events of the life of Jesus there is a sense in which he seems to be making up for lost time. The time which he had lost when he failed and disobeyed God was being redeemed by doing the Master’s will and being fully committed to His service.    

Like Mark we too may have failed, somehow we have spiritually lost our way and are outside the Lord’s will for our lives. We need not stay failed. Mark rose above his failure and was used in a mighty way for God’s service. Mark walked in the footsteps of others who failed but somehow didn’t stay failed.

In the Old Testament we read of Abraham in the book of Genesis he failed God by telling lies and being deceitful on some occasions and by being faithless to God in his relationship with Hagar. Yet God does not hold him up as an example of failure but of faith and called Abraham His friend. Thus he was called the Friend of God not because he never failed but because he didn’t stay failed. He rose above failure through faith.

Again we read of King David in the Old Testament and we find that he committed adultery, murder and failed to trust God by counting the people. Yet God calls him ‘a man after my own heart’. This was not because he didn’t fail by because he didn’t stay failed. He rose above failure through faith and Psalm 51 is a powerful confession of sin and seeking God for forgiveness.

In the New Testament we read of Peter who denied any knowledge of having been with Jesus. He issued his denials with swearing and cursing. That was Peter the coward, a dismal failure. Yet he became the great preacher of the Gospel on the day of Pentecost not because he never failed but because he didn’t stay failed. He rose above failure through faith and it is interesting that it is commonly believed that Mark’s Gospel found its source in Peter. Some consider that Mark simply wrote down the dictation of Peter. This may be so as they had a close spiritual relationship and each had at one time failed the Lord and moved outside His will.

So it is encouraging to know that God does not write off as useless Abraham, or David, or Peter, or John Mark and neither does He write off you and me who are Christians. In fact He says in Romans 8:1, ‘There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.’ He has forgiven our sins and has removed them far from us, but there are times when we fail and let the Lord down. At such times we feel miserable and we see ourselves as failures. What do we do?

Firstly, we need to come to the Lord in genuine confession of sin. Spend time in the Lord’s presence relating our sins and repenting of them. This is not a two minute process but requires a real seeking of the Lord. It also involves asking the Lord to help us in the on-going battle against temptation. True prayer is the basic factor in moving from failure into service for the Lord. However, we might have to say ‘I’m sorry’ to people whom we might have sinned against, because so often our failures are in the area of human relationships. We cannot restore our fellowship with the Lord and fail to restore our fellowship with people.

In addition we need to maintain our daily quiet time of prayer and Bible reading. This is a time spent each day with the Lord. We speak to Him in prayer and He speaks to us through His precious Word. Such times are vital if we are to live lives which will not keep on creating failures, sins and disappointments. Such times are the essential building blocks for growth in the Christian life. Nothing should be allowed to divert us from meaningful times with the Lord each day. These times become the foundation for effectively serving the Saviour every day and fulfilling His will for our lives. When we live like this the glaring failures will become a distant memory and like John Mark we may be entrusted by the Lord with ever greater responsibilities for His Glory.

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