When we catch our first glimpse of John Mark, we may have seen all there is to see. Scholars have conjectured that the young man mentioned in Mark 14:51, who fled away naked into the night, was none other than John Mark. Scholars surmise that perhaps John Mark, probably a teenager at the time, was serving as the caretaker of his family’s garden near the Garden of Gethsemane, and had been sleeping up in the watchtower, dressed in nothing but his linen nightgown, when he heard the armed temple delegation come to lay hands upon Jesus. His curiosity piqued, he might have snuck down out of the tower to follow the processional of the arresting party. Then, when authorities became aware of his presence and tried to seize him, he slipped out of his night clothes and fled nude into the night. Was that young man John Mark? We can’t be sure. But I think it likely, for reasons that will become clear later.
We know for sure that John Mark grew up in Jerusalem in a home of some financial means. His mother Mary, a wealthy widow, owned a house capacious enough to accommodate a large gathering of Christians, which is what we find her doing in the twelfth chapter of Acts. Mary apparently was one of the few early believers able to offer substantial financial support to the Christian movement, and she offered her home as host to one of Christianity’s first house churches. Some scholars even conjecture that perhaps she hosted the Last Supper in an upper room at her house. All we can say with assurance is that John Mark grew up under the influence of a mother of strong faith who was one of the earliest and most generous of the Jerusalem Christians.
We know yet another important fact about John Mark; he had a cousin named Joe. His cousin Joe was also a man of considerable financial means, and he quickly became a committed and generous supporter of the Christian movement. In fact, Cousin Joe was so supportive that everyone knew him by his nickname, Barnabas, “the son of encouragement.” Not only had Barnabas made a substantial financial contribution to the Jerusalem church, but he was one of the foundational supporters of Christianity’s ministry to Greek-speaking Christians, the so-called Hellenistic Jews. Moreover, when a young man named Paul, who had made his name as a persecutor of Christians, showed up in Jerusalem claiming now to be a Christian convert, Barnabas ignored the reservations of the other Christian leaders, and vouched for young Paul with the Christian community. It was not long before Barnabas and Paul were commissioned by the early Christian church to embark on a church-planting mission among Gentiles throughout the Mediterranean region.
Nothing in the Biblical record suggests that young John Mark was any kind of spiritual prodigy. He seems to simply have had a remarkable knack for being in the right place at the right time. Yet Barnabas seems to have detected great potential in John Mark and thought that this missionary excursion might help develop it, so he invited John Mark to accompany Paul and him on this evangelistic venture. Scholars have debated exactly what John Mark’s role would have been on that missionary journey. He was probably their secretary, responsible for procuring food and lodging while Barnabas and Paul preached, making travel arrangements, setting up meeting times, and lining up engagements. Yet the term for “attendant” that Luke employed for John Mark could also refer to an instructor in a synagogue school, so it is possible that John Mark even had a teaching role in addition to his administrative assistant duties.
Whatever John Mark did or was supposed to do for Barnabas and Paul, he didn’t do it long. He abandoned them in Perga in Pamphylia and headed back to Jerusalem. Naturally, scholars have wondered why. Some have argued that maybe John Mark took exception to Paul’s usurping his cousin Barnabas’ leadership role along the way and resigned in protest. Perhaps in witnessing the fierce controversy and oppression that Barnabas and Paul endured from both Jews and Gentiles made John Mark realize that he wasn’t made of their stern spiritual stuff. Others suggest that maybe this pampered son who grew up in a privileged household found the rigors of the road too much to handle. Whatever the case, John Mark abandoned his companions and returned home to mama. Paul, for one, felt betrayed and deeply hurt by his early departure. In fact, after Barnabas and Paul had returned to Jerusalem to give account of their journey and replenish their resources for another trip, Barnabas was all for giving the kid a second chance as a missionary companion. Paul wouldn’t hear of it! Paul’s attitude was, ‘He quit on us once, he will quit on us again!’ The issue of John Mark’s future participation occasioned enough of a serious dispute between them that the two friends dissolved their missionary partnership. Paul recruited Silas, and they headed to Galatia. Barnabas invited John Mark to accompany him on a missionary journey to Cyprus.
At this point I suggest to you that John Mark’s life and witness could have gone either way. He had perhaps witnessed several great moments of faith and associated with great Christian leaders like Barnabas and Paul in action – but his own faith had proved inconsistent and inconsequential. He could have taken the attitude, ‘Having turned tail once, I would probably fail again. Having proved weak in the past, I will prove weak in the future.’ Instead, he took Barnabas up on his offer to go off on another journey – and he must have used his former weakness as a springboard for growing in faith and maturity. Why do I say that? Does the Bible offer any record of John Mark having done any great deed, or performing some great miracle, or preaching some great sermon? No, not at all. But the Bible indicates that somewhere along the way John Mark matured spiritually and started making a positive contribution to the Kingdom of God.
How do we know that? Well, we know it from several sources, including, ironically, from the Apostle Paul. Somewhere along the way Paul and John Mark reconciled, for in Colossians 4, Paul writes the church at Colossae, urging them to receive John Mark warmly. Obviously, John Mark has been attending to Paul while he has been in prison in Rome or Ephesus, and Paul speaks of what a “comfort” John Mark has been to him. Likewise, when Paul writes from prison to the slave owner Philemon in Colossae, he sends greetings to Philemon from John Mark, whom Paul refers to as a “fellow worker.” In 2 Timothy Paul implores Timothy to bring John Mark with him to visit him in prison, because, says Paul of John Mark, “he is very useful in serving me.” John Mark may not have performed any miracles or led any great evangelical campaigns, but he had ministered to Paul in the apostle’s time of great need, and Paul had come to have great respect for the faith, encouragement, competence and love of this extraordinary ordinary man.
John Mark’s contribution to the Christian faith didn’t end with his ministry to Paul. This ordinary man also enjoyed a close relationship with another of Christianity’s leading lights — Peter. I Peter 5:13 refers to John Mark as “my son.” Indeed, John Mark’s relationship with Peter may have been one of long standing. Certainly Peter had been well-acquainted with John Mark’s household since his days in Jerusalem. According to Acts, when an angel released Peter from prison, Peter headed straight to John Mark’s mother’s house, where he was so well-known that Mary’s maid, an airhead named Rhoda, recognized Peter’s voice through the door and ran back through the house to tell the worshipping Christians that Peter had been freed – while leaving Peter standing at the gate! Of course, Mary’s house was so well-known to authorities as a Christian haven that Peter wisely relocated that very night, but his relationship to that household was obviously close. Christianity’s earliest church historians confirm John Mark’s closeness to Peter. One of the first Christian historians, Papias of Hieropolis, says that John Mark became Peter’s “interpreter” in Rome. Papias said that John Mark became Peter’s confidant and recorded Peter’s testimony concerning “the things said or done by our Lord.”
It is here that we begin to understand how extraordinarily influential was the ordinary life of John Mark. He was a man who had a gift for building bridges to people. He was comfortable living on the boundary of things. Take his name for instance: he was known as John Mark — John was his Jewish name, Mark his Gentile name. He could practice his faith in such a way as to relate to both Jewish and Gentile audiences. And while it is undeniable that Paul’s and Peter’s visions of Christianity occasionally clashed, both came to find themselves in Rome during that horrific time when Nero was persecuting the Christians, and John Mark ministered to both men during this harrowing period, serving as a bridge between them. Even more importantly John Mark built a bridge to the generation of Christians who had not personally known Jesus or even any of the disciples. By the time Nero’s persecution had ended, Peter was dead, Paul was dead, and Christian believers had scattered from Rome seeking safety. Jews in Jerusalem had declared their independence of Rome, and their unequal armies were about to clash in a war that would result in the destruction of the Temple and the annihilation of Jerusalem, probably including the dissolution of the Jerusalem Christian church. Against that ominous backdrop, John Mark created another bridge: he chose to connect the next generation of believers to the stories of the disciples’ experiences with Jesus by utilizing Peter’s remembrances and other sources to create a record of Jesus’ ministry that invited the reader to enter into a redemptive relationship with Him and enjoy fellowship within the Kingdom of God. To put it bluntly, John Mark created an entirely new form of literature, what we call a “Gospel,” publishing news of the importance of the personality and mission of the Christ. Christians have been making use of John Mark’s innovative literary creation from the first century to the present day. This ordinary man used his capacity for building bridges to build bridges between Jew and Gentile, between Peter and Paul, between Gospel eyewitnesses and subsequent believers, between the ministry of Jesus and every generation of Christian that has followed in his footsteps. I would add in passing that his influence upon the other Gospels was profound.
In that great movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the angel Clarence shows George Bailey, a very ordinary man, what the world would have been like had he never been born. The climactic moment of the film comes when Clarence takes George Bailey to the cemetery to show him his brother’s tombstone, revealing that his brother died as a youngster when he fell through an icy pond. George Bailey snaps back at Clarence, “That’s a lie! Harry Bailey grew up to be a great pilot. He shot down suicide bombers and saved the lives of every man on that ship!” Clarence replied, “Every man on that ship died. Harry wasn’t there to save them because you weren’t there to save him.” Then Clarence added, “You see, George, you’ve lived a wonderful life.”
God makes use of all different kinds of people to accomplish the work of God’s Kingdom and advance the life of God’s family. Sure, God made use of fiery believers like Peter. God made use of brilliant theologians like Paul. God made use of gifted encouragers like John Mark’s cousin Barnabas and generous givers like John Mark’s mother Mary. But God also made use of an ordinary man who exhibited the extraordinary ability to learn from his mistakes and to glean positive lessons from those around him. God used the ordinary John Mark to do extraordinary things. John Mark was not a great man, but he had a talent for giving solace and support to great people. He had a talent for being a great use to great people. Maybe he learned from his cousin Barnabas that the Christian church needed glue as well as greatness in order to function. John Mark might not have been a great man, but he could be glue. He had the talent to build bridges and connect people and keep causes hanging together. Scholars say John Mark probably scored a B minus in his Greek composition classes. Yet God used this ordinary man to create an extraordinary piece of literature, a Gospel that has helped change the direction of history, articulating the power of redemption to the lives of millions. The world would look very different today if John Mark had never lived! The Kingdom of God would look very different today if John Mark had not learned from his mistakes and matured in faith.
You and I may consider ourselves to be very ordinary believers, blessed with very ordinary gifts, prone to flaws and fallacies. Maybe none of us has the passion of Peter or the brilliance of Paul. But God can use us and our ordinary gifts to make a lasting contribution to God’s Kingdom! God might use our capacity for compassion to build a bridge to someone lost in loneliness. God might use our capacity for encouragement to give strength to someone imprisoned by despair. God might use our capacity for mercy to build a bridge to someone lost in alienation. We may not be spiritual giants. We may be very ordinary believers. But the God who made extraordinary use of John Mark might also make extraordinary use of us to advance the Kingdom of God. May we take inspiration and education from John Mark’s example!