Now Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem. Acts 13:13
Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. Acts 15:37-38
I have often wondered about the curious case of John called Mark. Tradition has it that this is the same guy who fled naked from the garden of Gethsemane during Jesus’ arrest. It was quite possible that his family owned the home with the upper room that Jesus and his disciples borrowed. Later tradition has him spending time with Peter from whom he got most of his material for writing what would be his Gospel. But in Acts 13, he is accompanying Paul and Barnabas on their first foray in “pure” gentile territory.
It is not clear why Paul and Barnabas brought him along, 13:5 says he was there “to assist” them. Exactly what the nature of that assistance was we don’t know. Some have suggested he was brought along to add credibility to the message that they were preaching, as Mark was an actual eyewitness of the events. In any case he is there … and in any case he leaves them.
Yes, you heard me correct, he left; right in the middle of the journey, just as things were starting to get interesting. No one knows exactly why he left. The text doesn’t say specifically, though we are told in Acts 15 that Paul wasn’t happy about it. Some have suggested he was unhappy with Paul seemingly taking the lead in the mission as language here shifts from Barnabas and Saul (v. 2) to Paul and his companions (v.13). Others have suggested that he wasn’t too keen on crossing the Taurus mountain range that needed to be crossed to get from Perga to Antioch and was reputedly infested with brigands. Still others have suggested he, as a member of the conservative Jewish church at Jerusalem, wasn’t wild about the Roman Proconsul, Sergius Paulus, being welcomed into the family of God on their last stop. Some have even suggested that perhaps it was Mark who stirred things up for Paul on his return to Jerusalem (ch. 15). It could be one of these; it could be something completely other. We simply don’t know. Whatever it was though, it was so overwhelming that continuing on the mission of God did not seem possible to Mark.
I highlight this because I suspect that most of us, at some point or another, are much like Mark. Specifically in that going forward does not always seem possible, especially as we come to challenges. And the truth is we do face challenges, both in our everyday lives, as well as in the church. This past Wednesday we prayed about church planting and the challenges that we face there. It can be work to keep pushing through, both for those planting and for those praying. We also prayed about the changes that come with growth. We have been welcoming new and different people into our family. This takes work. Old familiar patterns need to be adapted to incorporate new people. There are challenges before us as we look to establish new outposts of ministry. Can we cross the mountains necessary to get established in North GR? Sometimes I feel a little bit like Mark, ready to step off the boat and head back to Jerusalem.
So where do we go from here? First, if you are feeling this way, relax, you are in good company. When I talk to folks it can seem like these “want to quit” feelings have surprised them in such a way that the only thing they can do is submit to them. Let me say again, relax, it is normal to feel this way. The worst thing that you could do is to do something rash that you may regret later. Remember, later on Mark asked to be reinstated as a member of the team (ch. 15). It didn’t go exactly smoothly. There were consequences to his actions.
Second, if you do take yourself out of the game for a time, get back in! Again, we are not told exactly all that transpired, but Mark did ask to be reinstated. It seems that whatever changes or challenges caused him to pull out originally receded as he thought about the overall adventure that God invited him to be a part of. And so he was ready to go back to Cyprus, go to Antioch, Lystra, and Derbe.
Third, in the end Mark enjoys full restoration. As I said earlier, this is the same guy who witnessed Jesus’ death and resurrection and wrote the Gospel. Now he reconciles with Paul, who at the end of his life in 2 Timothy 4 says, “bring Mark because he is useful to me”. Friends this is the gospel at work; restoring broken things. God’s Spirit reinvigorating people who step back because the work is hard. This is good news for people with damaged relationships. And for all of us a great reminder that God meets us in our weakness and uses us for his glory. In the end this is why I love the Scriptures, because even as they expose my own faltering weaknesses, they show God’s restoring grace even more clearly.