A Successful Failure
The Psalmist said: “Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright: for the end of that man is peace” (Ps. 37:37). The adjective in this verse, “perfect,” is the same word used in 1 Kings 8:61, and its real meaning implies whole-heartedness, sincerity, single-mindedness for God. John Mark, in spite of failure, was one who manifested these characteristics, and it is well worth our time to mark John and take note of his biography recorded for us in Scripture. Much has been written of Paul, Peter, John the Apostle, and other outstanding saints and servants of the New Testament, but often the lessons to be learned from a study of the lives of such men as John Mark are easily overlooked simply because little is said of them in comparison with others. However, much in Scripture is recorded of him, more than might be expected.
The life of Mark may easily be divided into three distinct chapters: his promising future; his personal failure; and his perfect finish. In this order, then, we shall proceed to take up the study of his interesting and spiritually instructive biography.
His Promising Future
The first mention of Mark is in Acts 12:12. From this verse, we have an insight into his background and upbringing. Through the context of the chapter it is seen that Peter was miraculously delivered from prison, but, while Peter had been in chains, a prayer meeting had been going on in the house of Mary, the mother of Mark. Prayer had continually gone up to God on behalf of Peter (Acts 12:5), and God marvelously answered the prayers of His people.
Mary was undoubtedly a very godly woman and, since a prayer meeting was held in her home, there is good reason to believe that her house was typical of the local assembly or church in those days. The home of Philemon is another example of this same thing, for Paul writes “to the church in thy house” (Philm. 2). Because she was a godly woman, Mary was faithful in bringing up her son “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” and the fruit of her faithfulness was manifest in the life of her son Mark. This same thing is clearly illustrated in the case of Timothy also. Paul wrote of the “unfeigned faith” of Lois and Eunice, Timothy’s grandmother and mother respectively and, because of their faithfulness, Timothy was brought up in the way he should go, with the result that Paul was able to write to Timothy as one who saw in him this same “unfeigned faith” that was found in his grandmother and mother (2 Tim. 1:5).
Acts 12:25 refers to the return of Paul and Barnabas from Jerusalem to Antioch, and they “took with them John, whose surname was Mark. Mark had proven himself in the ministry as a young man, and Paul and Barnabas believed that he would be an asset to them as they set sail on the first missionary journey to take the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to other shores.
In Acts 13:5 we find the missionary trio at Salamis, and here Mark is seen as one assisting in the work. The word for “minister” literally means “under-rower,” and might better be translated “attendant.” However, as the trio proceeded on their journey and arrived at Perga in Pamphylia, something happened which in turn disrupted the missionary career of Mark, and we are brought to the second chapter of his biography.
His Personal Failure
In Acts 13:13, it is recorded: “And John departing from them returned to Jerusalem.” Just what caused Mark to turn back is not revealed, but something came along to discourage him sufficiently to turn his hand from the plow and go back to Jerusalem. Perhaps this was the first time he had been away from home and, like many a young man, he became discouraged in his work for the Lord, and turned back. How many have been like Mark! Perhaps the longing for home and loved ones, plus the rigours of his circumstances, were sufficient to cause him to depart from the work and become, for a season of time, “unprofitable” (2 Tim. 4:11). Whatever the nature of his personal failure, Mark returned to Jerusalem not being able to face up to the work set before him.
Acts 15:36-41 continues further his biography. The first missionary journey was now Church history, and on the outset of the second missionary journey Barnabas was determined to take Mark along with them and give him a second chance in the work. Colossians 4:10 reveals that Mark was the cousin of Barnabas, and the truth of the saying, “blood is thicker than water,” is brought out.
The issue is debatable as to who was right, Paul in his harshness or Barnabas in his favouritism. Perhaps it may be said that both were correct in their stand, the Holy Spirit using the personal disagreement between them to foster and further the spiritual growth of Mark. The uncompromising position of Paul no doubt awakened Mark to the seriousness of his failure, while the genuine love of Barnabas served to encourage him not to give up because of his past “weakness. Whether both were right or one in particular was wrong is difficult to determine, but a rift resulted among the trio and Paul and Barnabas had a falling out. Barnabas as a result went to Cyprus, taking Mark with him, while Paul chose Silas and departed for Syria and Cilicia. It is quite apparent that the church at Antioch sided with Paul, for it is recorded that he was “recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God” (Acts 15:40).
It is always unfortunate when differences arise between or among servants of the Lord, but the Word of God reveals the failures as well as the successes of men, and in this respect the Bible is unique in its biographical records of men both great and small. God, however, blessed the labours of both parties, and the day came when Mark proved himself “profitable.” Even though the Lord brought, and often does bring, blessing out of bitterness, it is wise to remember that ‘“a brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city: and their contentions are like the bars of a castle” (Prov. 18:19).
1 Peter 5:13 indicates that the Apostle Peter deeply loved Mark, since he refers to him as “my son.” Their relationship would remind us of the relationship between Paul and Timothy. Timothy was Paul’s “own son in the faith” (1 Tim. 1:2), and he referred elsewhere to him as his “dearly beloved son” (2 Tim. 1:2). The Gospel of Mark is written in a style similar to that of Peter’s letters, and the influence of Peter on Mark is evidenced. In fact, some have gone so far as to suggest that Peter wrote the Gospel record attributed to Mark. Such a notion, however, has no real evidential basis and is entirely unwarranted.
We now come to the third and final chapter in Mark’s biography.
His Perfect Finish
Mark had failed, but the beloved Apostle Paul, writing to Philemon some years later, refers to him as one of his “fellowlabourers” (v. 24). Sometime during the intervening year the rift in the fellowship between Paul and Mark had been restored, nor is it to be presumed that the contention between Paul and Barnabas was of long duration, as indicated by 1 Corinthians 9:6 and Galatians 2:1, 9. What a blessed relationship Mark now had with the chief of saints, called and classed by him as a fellowlabourer! The picture has happily changed, the blot on Mark’s biographical record has been blotted out, and he has become one of Paul’s noteworthy “fellowlabourers.”
The last reference to Mark is found in 2 Timothy 4:11: “Only Luke is with me. Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry.” Here, in his last letter, Paul openly pays tribute to John Mark. Not only does he declare him “profitable to me for the ministry,” but he desires his presence that he might enjoy face to face fellowship with the one who was once a failure in the work of the Lord. Mark could be classed with Onesimus as one who ran away but later became “profitable.” The same Greek work for “profitable” in 2 Timothy 4:11 is used in 2:21: “If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work.” The phrase, “meet for … use,” is the way in which the translators of the Authorized Version alternately rendered this same root word. Mark had become a “useful,” a “profitable” vessel for the ministry, and by the Spirit of God had been brought from failure to fruitfulness.
A verse that appropriately sums up his life is Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this very thing, that He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.” This grand verse can most certainly be applied to the life of every true believer in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The crowning culmination of Mark’s life and his perfect finish is that the Holy Spirit used him to write the Gospel of Mark. The Gospel of Mark is the Gospel of action, and it is significant that the Lord Jesus Christ in that Spirit-inspired account is presented as the Perfect Servant. The imperfect servant, the servant who failed, was divinely chosen to write of the Perfect Servant!
Perhaps the chief lesson to be learned from Mark’s life is that a failure such as he had does not mean the sure finish of the effective service and witness of a believer. Even though we fail the Lord, and fail Him miserably as Peter did, never let anyone place himself on the shelf of uselessness because some past deficiency or delinquency had muddied the clear water of what was formerly a bright testimony and a promising future. True, a child of God cannot go back and undo what has been done but, whatever the nature of a personal failure, the promise of 1 John 1:9 is the way back to fellowship with the Lord if a black cloud of sin has come into the life of a Christian to break that sweet communion. How blessed and assuring are the indelible and eternal words of our faithful God given to us through John, the “Apostle of Love”: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteouness.”
Mark did not allow his failure to discourage him to the point of giving up completely, but he picked up where he left off and became a “useful” and “profitable” vessel in the service of his Lord.
Here, then, was a young man with a promising future. He started out well but soon met with a personal failure. Nevertheless, by God’s grace he was able to resume his ministry, which culminated in a perfect finish. John Mark was a successful failure, and to one degree or another all of Christ’s ambassadors at best are successful failures. Therefore, with the Apostle Paul we must ever remind ourselves, as Mark could well testify: “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10).
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A gentleman, walking over a beautifully kept farm one day with the owner, in admiring the magnificent sheep asked how he had succeeded in rearing such flocks. The simple answer was, “I take care of my lambs, sir.”
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Christ will be a sure Friend, and even if we begin to sink in the water He will stretch out His hand and lift us up. It is sweet to have His hand in any case, even if by our failing foot He has been led to stretch it out.