John Mark is a missionary whose story, unlike most of those I write about each Sunday, is told in the pages of Scripture. In spite of the 2000 years separating him from us, the principles of cross-cultural mission reflected in his life are exactly the same as those that we face today.
John Mark first appears in Acts 12:12. “Peter came to the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark; where many were gathered together praying.” Mark’s family was relatively well off; they had a house big enough to host an early church prayer meeting. His mother obviously was a committed follower of Jesus Christ. We learn that John Mark grew up in a household that was both well off and where Jesus was loved.
In Acts 12:25 we then learn that Mark joined Barnabas and Saul’s missionary team. They “returned from Jerusalem, when they had fulfilled their ministry, and took with them John, whose surname was Mark.” More than that, in Acts 13:4-5 when Paul and Barnabas were sent out by the church in Antioch and set sail for Cyprus on the first missionary journey, John Mark sailed with them as a member of that first cross-cultural missionary team.
But then failure set in. Acts 13:13 tells us that “when Paul and his party set sail from Paphos, they came to Perga in Pamphylia; and John, departing from them, returned to Jerusalem.” John Mark was the cousin of Barnabas. Barnabas was from Cyprus. When Paul and Barnabas sailed to Cyprus, there were no doubt relatives and friends who could welcome John Mark and take care of him. However, when Paul set sail for Perga where there were no relatives, Mark could not take it and headed for home, a missionary failure.
Later in Act 15:35-40, it gets worse. Paul prepares to set out on the second missionary journey with Barnabas. We learn that “Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark.” Paul radically disagreed with that idea because John Mark’s leaving in Acts 13:13 was in Paul's eyes a missionary failure that was too serious to risk repeating. “But Paul thought it not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work.” The subject of John Mark was so divisive between Paul and Barnabas that “they parted from one another. And so Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus; but Paul chose Silas and departed, and he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches” (Acts 15:39-40). John Mark had caused the break up of one of history’s great missionary teams.
That is a lesson in terms of modern cross-cultural missionary practice. The fact that someone grows up in a family with a strong Christian foundation, and the fact that your cousin is a distinguished Christian leader, doesn't necessarily help when you get to your missionary ‘Perga’. Alan Redpath, writing of a more recent situation, said “Of those who had gone through seven months of intensive practical training for the various fields, (who incidentally were already accepted missionary candidates) between ten and fifteen percent dropped out in those few months. For one reason or another, they have proved themselves unsuitable and unfit for missionary work. What a tragedy. The mission field today seems to be the graveyard of one-term missionaries who put their hand upon the plough and look back.”
But that is not the end of the story, praise the Lord. Much later, Paul says “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry” (2 Tim 4:10). We don't know what happened in between, but clearly Barnabas taking John Mark in Acts 15 to Cyprus brought about a process whereby John Mark was restored and returned to useful missionary service, even in the eyes of Paul, who previously in Acts 15 had been so hostile to him.
Twice more Paul commends John Mark. In Colossians 4:10 Paul writes “Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, with Mark the cousin of Barnabas (about whom you received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him).” It is interesting that Paul here inserts the words “the cousin of Barnabas.” In Philemon verses 23-24 Paul says: “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow labourers.”
The second lesson that we learn from John Mark is that once restored by Barnabas Paul sees him as a “fellow labourer”, a brother to be welcomed. In Jesus there is always a place for restoration for a failed missionary. It's never over till it's over. There is always a way back in Jesus if there is a Barnabas who will reach out to the failed missionary. That is such an important lesson concerning cross-cultural mission today. I wonder if there are modern John Marks who with the right help could yet be a “fellow labourer”, a brother (or sister) to be welcomed.”