A God of Second Chances: The Story of John Mark

February 3, 2008

Sermon Manuscript – 13 January 2008

INTRODUCTION

When I was in basic training, there was a girl in my platoon who really struggled. She struggled with the tasks and skills they taught, but not nearly as much as she did with the physical work. The poor girl was very overweight, and every time there was a run or a forced march she struggled to keep up and eventually fell out. I remember walking beside her once on a five-kilometre march and she was so exhausted she had trouble controlling the rifle she was holding. Her muzzle kept smacking my own rifle, and once or twice she nailed my knuckles so hard she drew blood.

Because she had do much trouble physically, she didn’t do well on the tasks we were assigned. Since they were team tasks, and because the military is a very performance-oriented culture, the other people in the platoon were hard on her. One time, I had twisted my ankle and was at the clinic getting it wrapped, and I heard crying next door. It was this girl – I recognized the voice – and she was pouring out her frustration to one of the staff there. She said that she found it really hard, that she couldn’t do anything right, and that it especially bothered her that the others were starting to resent her. She felt like she was letting down the team.

It was just training, so there wasn’t anything vital on the line, but to be honest she was letting us down. The platoon needed everyone to contribute, or the performance of the whole would suffer. She was a really nice person – it was nothing personal, but there was a job that had to be done and she simply wasn’t up to it yet. I’ll never forget that day in the clinic, though. She knew she was disappointing others, and she was crushed.

I can identify with that. I’ve had people counting on me and let them down. I think we all have. We’re sinners – we’re not perfect. It seems sometimes that, in our Christian walk, we can’t do anything right. We sin. We neglect prayer and Bible reading. We hurt others intentionally or by accident. What then? How do we get back on our feet, be a faithful and productive member of the team again?

Today we’re going to do something different. This sermon is not off just one text. It is a biography, a sketch of a Biblical figure who let the team down. We can learn from him. His name is Mark.

MEET JOHN MARK

First, let’s read Acts 12, verses 11-13: When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer.

I want you to notice a few things. This is the first mention of John Mark by name in the Bible. His given name is John, which means “the grace of God.” Like a lot of early Christians, he has a second name, which is how we know him today: Mark. John Mark.

Second, Mary, Mark’s mother, is mentioned, but not her husband. He must have died and she must have been a widow. And she’s got a big house – big enough to hold “many gathered” there. At that time, most houses were tiny three or four-room structures of only a few hundred square feet. We see here that the family has a servant, as well. Big house, at least one servant – Mark must have grown up in a wealthy family.

Not just wealthy, either. Mark’s family is deeply involved in the church. Peter is miraculously released from prison, and where does he go? He must have known the Christians would be meeting at Mary’s, which suggests that this was a regular meeting place. There are some early church traditions that say Mary’s house was the place of the Last Supper. We can’t know that for sure, but it’s possible – it was certainly big enough.

Let’s review what we know about Mark so far, and we’ll move on down to verse 25. He’s Jewish, and he was born “John.” He’s picked up another name, a Latin name: Mark. His father is probably dead. His mother is a wealthy woman with a big house and at least one servant. And Mark’s family is Christian and involved in the Jerusalem church.

Let’s move on to Acts 12:25: And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had completed their service, bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark. This is interesting. Mary is not the only relative of Mark we know about. Colossians 4 tells us that Barnabas is actually Mark’s cousin. Barnabas and Saul – that’s Paul – had come down from Antioch to visit Jerusalem with money to help the church there deal with a famine. Their mission was finished, and they’re going home to Antioch. And they pick up Mark and bring them with him. This was probably Barnabas’ idea.

Next chapter: 1 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.4 So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. 5 When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them.

Mark comes with them back to Antioch, and there Paul and Barnabas are sent on a mission trip to Cyprus. They bring Mark with them as their “assistant.” The Greek word there is used elsewhere of a person who helps with writing or administration, so there’s a good chance that Mark was acting kind of like a secretary. He might have been taking notes of the preaching and using them to do follow-up instruction with new Christians after the preaching was finished. Regardless, here he is on the mission field, and he’s assisting Barnabas, his cousin, and Saul.

So we know these things: Mark left Jerusalem and went on a mission trip with Paul and Barnabas. We know he was their assistant, maybe in a writing or administrative role.

MARK LETS THEM DOWN

Now we come to a crisis in Mark’s life, and in Paul and Barnabas’ ministry. Look down to verse 13: Now Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem. They leave Cyprus and sail north, landing in what is now Turkey. For some reason, Mark leaves. He goes home. All the way back to Jerusalem.

Why did he leave? We don’t know for sure. Scholars have had a field day trying to speculate on reasons. Maybe Mark was discouraged by how hard the mission was getting. That part of Turkey – Asia Minor – is very mountainous. Maybe the idea of doing all that travel, by foot, in the mountains was a little too much to take – kind of like walking from Kananaskis to Canmore to Banff to Lake Louise. Not easy.

I have a professor who thinks differently. Galatians tells us that Barnabas fell under the influence of false teachers, just like Peter did, and that Paul had to correct the situation. Those false teachers taught that Gentiles had to obey the Jewish law to become Christians. Obviously, Barnabas was a good Jew, and struggled with the freedom and grace that came with Christ. Did Mark think the same way? Notice that when they left Antioch, verse two and seven, it says “Barnabas and Saul.” By this point, though, in verse 13, it says “Paul and his companions.” Had Paul assumed the leadership from Barnabas? Did Mark struggle with this? That’s one possible idea. But in the end, we can’t know for sure. We do know that Mark left them in the middle of the mission and went home.

This action had consequences later. Turn with me to Acts 15, verses 36 to 41. And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” 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. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

Paul felt so strongly that Mark should not come on the mission that he separated from Barnabas. Barnabas, for his part, just as stubbornly thought Mark should come, so he took Mark on his own back to Cyprus. There’s a few lessons we can learn from this, and we’ll get to those in a minute. For now, I want you to notice the tone here: Mark let them down. Mark wasn’t reliable. Mark failed them.

MARK RESTORED

But that’s not the end of the story. Turn with me to Colossians 4, verses 10 and 11: Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him), and Jesus who is called Justus. These are the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me.

Paul is writing Colossians from Rome, and he is in prison awaiting trial. Mark is with him. Now this is probably ten to twelve years after Mark’s departure in Perga. And look what Paul says about him. Two things. First, he specifically instructs the Colossians to welcome Mark if he visits. Now, Colossae is not all that far away from Perga, where Mark first left Paul and Barnabas. Did they know what happened? Did Mark have a black mark on his record among some Christians? The fact the Paul makes these explicit commands seems to suggest that. Second, Paul says about the three Jews he just mentioned, including Mark, that “they have been a comfort to me.”

What a change! Once Mark disappointed Paul. Now he comforts him. Once he failed Paul. Now he’s building him up. Once Mark caused division and grief in Paul’s life. Now he’s held up as a source of friendship and companionship. In Philemon verse 24, Paul calls him a “fellow-worker,” a fellow-slave of the Master.

One of the saddest comparisons in the Bible can be found between this passage and the end of 2 Timothy. In verse ten, Paul relays Mark’s greetings and talks about what a comfort he is – we’ve already seen that. Well, just a few verses later, verse 14, he sends greetings from another man, a guy named Demas. These men – Mark and Demas – were Paul’s coworkers and partners in Rome. Now turn to 2 Timothy. These are Paul’s last written words. He is in prison again, in Rome, and now he knows he is going to die. And Paul is almost alone, except for Luke. Where did all the others go? Read verses 10 and 11: For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.

Titus and Crescens are gone on missions. Luke’s there with him. And here is Demas again – but he’s gone. In love with the present world, he has deserted Paul and left. Paul has been abandoned again.

I think it’s one of the most poignant moments in the whole New Testament that, when deserted yet again, when grieved and disappointed yet again, Paul asks Timothy to bring none other than Mark back to Rome. Demas abandoned the mission, just like Mark had. Mark won’t. He won’t make that mistake twice. And Paul wants him by his side again. He is “very useful for ministry” – from Paul, that is high praise indeed.

And Paul’s not the only one to think so highly of Mark. Turn with me to 1 Peter 5, verse 13: She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son. Now, when Peter talks about “she who is at Babylon,” he’s writing in code, so to speak. Babylon is a symbol for the seat or headquarters of evil and oppression. In the early church, who oppressed and persecuted the church? The Roman government. “She who is at Babylon” is almost certainly code for “the church at Rome.” Mark not only served with Paul in Rome, he also served with Peter there. And Peter is very warm towards him: “my son,” he says. Peter loved him.

What a turnaround! Once he let down Paul and Barnabas – now he’s a comfort to Paul. Once he couldn’t wait to get back home to Jerusalem, leaving others in the lurch to do it. Now he’s even farther away, in Rome of all places, helping the apostles build that church. Mark’s grown up. He’s made things right.

What can we learn from this? Let’s find out.

A DISCIPLE NEEDS MENTORS

Remember that the last time I preached, I talked about the boy Jesus. I pointed out that he had good examples in his life. What about Mark? Who were the important influences for him? I count four.

First, we have his mother, Mary. She’s wealthy, but she freely shares what she has. At the risk of being condemned or arrested by the Jewish authorities, at the risk of losing all that wealth and comfort, she hosts Christian meetings in her home. Remember the servant Rhoda, how she wouldn’t let Peter in? They were afraid. They were threatened. Yet Mary put all her possessions, her own home on the line for the church. Mark had a courageous and faithful mother. Courage and faithfulness. We need people like that in our lives. And we need to be courageous and faithful, as an example to others.

Next, we have Barnabas. Like Mark, this name is actually a second name. His real name is Joseph. He’s from Cyprus – no wonder he took Mark there. This second name of his, Barnabas, means “Son of Encouragement.” Don’t you think that’s a fitting name? It was Barnabas who took Paul under his wing after his conversion, who introduced Paul to the early Christians and the apostles when everyone was still afraid of him. It was Barnabas who encouraged and mentored Paul. And it was probably Barnabas’ idea to bring Mark along on the first trip. Barnabas fought to give Mark a second chance after he screwed up. He was willing to separate from Paul in order to give Mark that chance. Barnabas didn’t give up on him. He encouraged Mark, gave him another opportunity.

Sometimes, we need that. We all screw up. We all let people down, we all fail the cause of Christ. We all fall short of the glory of God in many ways. Barnabas is a picture of grace. God is the God of second chances. He uses people like Barnabas to show that restoration is possible. Christians need examples and leaders and mentors like Barnabas, who stick with them when they screw up, who offer grace when it isn’t deserved.

Third, there’s Paul. A lot different from Barnabas. He’s a former Pharisee, and he’s a very precise, logical, exact, demanding person. Mark let them down? The mission is hard, and we can’t afford risks. He feared what would happen to the mission if Mark came along again. He had to choose between his call to missions and the chance to set Mark straight, and he chose the former. Paul set a high standard for those with him. He didn’t lower it. He didn’t bend it or adjust it to make it easier for Mark.

It may seem harsh, what Paul did. Yet Mark needed that. Mark needed to learn, the hard way, that Christian service and the Christian life is not for the faint of heart. Christ calls us to take up our cross and follow him – that is a picture of suffering and death. If you think the Christian life is meant to make you comfortable and safe in this life, you’ve misunderstood the Gospel. Christians have to be prepared to give everything – even their lives – for Christ. Mark didn’t understand that at first. But I think that, when he saw Paul’s reaction to his coming a second time, when he saw Paul so concerned that he separated from Barnabas over it – I think Mark got it. Paul’s refusal to bend his standards for Mark, Paul’s stress that Mark’s earlier behaviour betrayed a poor understanding of the cost of discipleship, made Mark re-examine his priorities. I think Mark worked extra hard after that to prove to Paul, to himself, and to God that he meant to be a good disciple. Mark needed a swift and painful kick in the pants from somebody, and so do we all. We need uncompromising, blunt people like Paul.

And finally, we have Peter. Mark probably came back home to Jerusalem after his mission trip to Cyprus. He probably walked in the door of his mom’s big and comfortable house, and found out it didn’t feel so comfortable anymore. He was probably haunted by memories of how Paul had reacted to him. Mark was probably down, feeling the magnitude of his failure, finally grasping the seriousness of his mistake. And somehow, coming home wasn’t making it feel any better.

But there in the home, with the other Christians meeting there, was Peter. The apostle Peter. Think about Peter for a second. Here is a guy who accompanied his mentor on a teaching mission. Here is a guy who, when the going got tough, when things started looking bad, bailed out. Sound familiar? Peter had gone so far as to deny he even knew Jesus that fateful night he was arrested. How must have Peter felt after the Resurrection, standing there before Jesus on the seashore, wondering if he would ever be trusted again? Wondering if he could ever do anything useful? Wondering if God would ever be pleased or happy with him again?

I think Peter saw Mark and knew what was going on. He saw a man who had made a serious mistake. He saw a man who had let other people down. He saw a man questioning his own place in the Kingdom. He saw Mark that day – and in that man, he saw himself, twenty years before. And Peter did the same thing with Mark that Jesus did with Peter that day on the seashore: he invited the young man over and asked him to help him feed the sheep.

The early church tells us that Mark became Peter’s interpreter, recording and arranging Peter’s teaching and sermons for others, making them understandable. Somewhere along the way, Peter and Mark wound up in Rome together, working to strengthen the church in the Empire’s capital. This was hard work. This was very dangerous work – it would eventually cost both Paul and Peter their lives. This time, Mark didn’t run.

If you want evidence of just how complete Mark’s turnaround was, go to the book of Mark. He wrote that. Mark took what he learned from Peter and others, and he wrote what was probably the first-ever Gospel of Jesus Christ. Mark’s was the first, and it was so well respected that Matthew and Luke used it as a reference when writing their own.

IF YOU THINK YOU SUCK

We’re all disciples. We’re all learning to follow Christ, every one of us. We’re all on a mission, to glorify God by making disciples for Christ. And we’re all sinful. We all make mistakes. Every one of us has, or will, drop the ball in a crisis. Every one of you can probably think of a time when someone trusted you, someone was counting on you to get something done or to be there. And you let them down.

Maybe it isn’t public, like this was. Maybe it’s just between you and God. Maybe you’ve sinned, and bigtime. Maybe you feel like you’re just a horrible person, and that there’s no way God will accept you now.

Where do we go from there? Where do we go from that point where we’ve failed? How can things be set right?

There’s two things we have to remember. First, if you feel like you suck and you’re not good enough, well, that’s because you aren’t. You do suck. Listen! We’re sinners. God’s standard is perfection – none of us has got there yet. It’s a journey. It’s growth in holiness, getting better and stronger over time. God doesn’t lower the bar. He expects and demands perfection. But Jesus is our perfection – God looks at us, who are saved, who believe in Jesus as our Saviour, and He sees the perfection of Jesus, not our sins. And in daily life, we have the Spirit who is constantly pushing us forward, ever closer to perfection. The reason you feel bad is because you are supposed to. When we sin, the Spirit convicts us – not to send us to hell, not to punish us, but so that we know what needs to change and so that we are motivated to deal with it. God wants us to move on, to stand up and try again. He’s not here just to make us feel better. He’s here to make us better. Sometimes that takes making us feel bad about our sins.

DON’T TRY THIS ON YOUR OWN

And He doesn’t want us to do it alone. That’s the second thing. That’s what God gave the church to do. God has given us a body of believers to walk beside us. And what a body of believers. Different people who can help in different ways.

There are Christians like Mary, who are generous and kind, who open up their homes and make you part of the family, whose faith is firm and a great example to others, whose courage inspires us to sacrifice for Christ.

There are Christians like Barnabas, sons and daughters of encouragement, who will lift you up in the midst of the pain, who will give you something to do so you can begin putting the pieces back together, who will work to strengthen those weaknesses.

There are Christians like Paul, seeing things as black and white, who will let you know what God’s expectations are, who love God and you too much to let you get away with thinking sin’s not that serious, who will give you the proverbial kick in the pants and ask you, “What were you thinking?”

There are Christians like Peter, who have been there, who have let others down, who can put an arm around you and say, “Yeah, me too,” and who will turn your eyes back to Jesus Christ and tell you, “Look at that cross. You know what that means? It means it doesn’t depend on you. It means God loves you so much that there’s grace no matter how far you’ve fallen. It means Jesus came to lift you up and make you better than that, and He will surely do it.”

So hear this message from the story of Mark. If you’ve screwed up, if you’ve sinned, if you feel bad for something you’ve done, don’t stop there. You don’t have to stay there. God has given you the opportunity to get back on your feet again. He’s given the opportunity to become better, to become more like Him. He’s given this community of believers, and in our midst are Marys and Barnabases and Peters and, yes, Pauls. You need them. He’s given His Holy Spirit. Call out and confess those sins, and ask for forgiveness, and ask for the strength to do better. Don’t try to restore yourself – self-help doesn’t work, because it depends on the same dummy who screwed it up the first time to make it better. God’s our Helper. If you need help, don’t leave here today without finding it. There’s a whole room of people here who can work with you, and on you. Don’t be afraid to come to Jesse or Gerry or myself after the service and talk.

God’s purpose is to restore us, to make us like Christ. If you want to be like Christ, He’ll make it happen. Let’s pray.

– Jeff Jones

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4 Responses to “A God of Second Chances: The Story of John Mark”

  1. Dear Jeff Jones,

    Your sermon on John Mark was a blessing to me. God is indeed the God of second chances. Thank you for being faithful to God and preaching his word.

    Richard Buell
    Aurora, Colorado

  2. Kudzie said

    Your sermon is so eye opening and enlightening at the same time, i can relate to Peter ,Mark and even Paul in my life .I have messed it up big time in my life ,but Jesus has His hand stretched out for me and i know its going to be a fight . He will get me there ,even tho it seems i will not make it tomorrow .

  3. Kelsonne Toussaint said

    Love the message. I want to learn and meditate more on it.

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