Then after some days, Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us now go back and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they are doing.” Now Barnabas was determined to take with them John called Mark. But Paul insisted that they should not take with them the one who had departed from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. Then the contention became so sharp that they parted from one another. And so Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus; but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of God. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. (Acts 15:36-41)
Paul And John Mark
The work of preaching the gospel in the Roman time was an exhausting exercise fraught with uncertainty, danger and difficulty. It was a perfect era for the gospel to spread quickly as the system of roads, common coinage and language, afforded the early church great opportunities to travel throughout the area of the Mediterranean Sea. Compared to modern comforts, it was a tedious task. Traveling with the apostle Paul would be an adventure at best and not for the faint of heart. On his first missionary journey, the church at Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas to preach and establish churches wherever they could. When they two men left for their work they also took with them the cousin of Barnabas by the name of John Mark. Their first stop was the island of Cyprus which happened to be the home of Barnabas. Arriving in Salamis, the group preached the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews with John Mark helping them in the work. The work took them throughout the island with many souls believing the word of the gospel. Setting sail from Paphos (western side of the island) they made their way to the region of Asia Minor with plans to go throughout the area preaching. Arriving in Perga in Pamphylia the company of Paul and Barnabas prepared to do the work of carrying out the commission of the Lord but something troubled John Mark. It is not revealed what his reasons were but somewhere on the short trip, the disciple had great reservations about his part in the work. He approached Barnabas and Paul telling them he did not desire to continue and would be returning to Jerusalem. No doubt there was no small dissension among the group about John Mark’s leaving but undeterred, the young man took his leave and returned to Jerusalem. This did not sit well with Paul. The group continued their journey going to the cities of Antioch in Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe and to the surrounding region. It was in the city of Lystra the crowd stoned Paul and left him for dead. He survived and continued his journey strengthening the converts. Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch of Syria where the gathered the disciples together and told them the marvelous works of the Lord among the people. Where John Mark is at this time is unknown but obviously, he was not sharing in the good report of the apostles.
After some time, Paul told Barnabas he wanted to go back to visit the brethren in all the cities where they had preached to see how they were doing. Barnabas was excited about the trip and plans began to formulate among the disciples. As the list of people to accompany Paul in his return trip was put together, the name of John Mark was brought up by Barnabas to use him. Paul refused. John Mark had left them early on their first trip and the apostle Paul had no confidence in him. Barnabas insisted that John Mark be a part of the group but Paul continued to resist his participation. The contention became so strong among the two men; neither one backing away from the position; Barnabas took John Mark and sailed for Cyprus. This would have clearly upset Paul but he was determined not to take a man on his trip that had not had the courage to finish the first trip. There was a lot of work to do and John Mark shrank for his duties in the eyes of Paul. Silas, a prophet among the brethren in Antioch, was chosen by Paul to go with him and the company left for Tarsus and the region of Asia Minor. For unknown reasons John Mark had failed to finish the work on the first trip and Paul’s confidence in him was lacking. Paul and Silas would do great work as recorded by Luke in the second and third missionary journeys of the apostle. Nothing is known of the work of Barnabas as he is not mentioned again by Luke in the Acts of the apostles but there can be no doubt the kingdom of God increased mightily through the efforts of Barnabas and John Mark.
There are many reasons given for why John Mark left the group. Was he afraid of going into the Gentile world of heathen idolatry and being persecuted? Paul was stoned and left for dead and this would take a strong spirit to think of the dangers of preaching in a hostile world. It is not known what made him decide to return to Jerusalem. His actions greatly disappointed the apostle Paul and for good reasons. Could Paul have been too hard on John Mark? The meeting between the two men would have been an awkward conversation as John Mark returned to Antioch joining Barnabas in the work in Cyprus. Was Paul again too hard on the young man and being more stubborn about the early failings of a disciple? The Holy Spirit does not reveal the words and thoughts of the group as they contended about John Mark. What we do know is that over the years John Mark redeems himself in the eyes of Paul. In the second epistle of Paul to Timothy, as the apostle lingers in prison awaiting certain death, he implores the young preacher to get Mark and bring him to Rome because John Mark has been a useful minister for the aged apostle. John Mark failed the apostle on his first trip but as Paul made his final journey to eternal life, John Mark was a bold encourager. Paul may have been wrong about John Mark in the beginning but he was not missing the mark in his letter to Timothy. John Mark may have had serious doubts about his courage in the early years but over time developed a strong faith to stand with the apostle Paul. There is a lot of Paul in all of us that sometimes make harsh judgments of weak brethren and there is a lot of John Mark in most of us that need time to grow to maturity. One thing is certain in the character of Paul: he did not hold a grudge and honored a faithful disciple who grew to maturity in his faith and service of the kingdom.