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John Mark: A Character Study

Mark is a somewhat unique character in the New Testament. There is not a lot said about him, but what little we have shows a young man growing up in the new church. His home and family are at the center of the new movement formed around the resurrected Jesus. The little details Scripture gives us document some of the failures in Mark’s life. But we also see him rising above that failure. And we see the confidence those like Paul eventually come to have in him. You might think of Mark as being a kid growing up in the youth group who eventually comes to be a leader with the church or denomination.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Mark’s Family

The first mention of Mark is in Acts 12:12. After Peter’s deliverance from prison by an angel, he went to the home of Mary, who was the mother of John, also called Mark. Many people had gathered in this home to pray for Peter’s deliverance. No mention is made of Mark’s father. It could be that he had died. Or that he was not a believer but allowed his wife to use the home as a place for the early church to gather.

Was this the same house that was used by Jesus and his disciples to celebrate the Passover just before his arrest and crucifixion? There is no way to know that with any certainty. But it is certainly within the realm of possibility. At the very least, it was a home that was large enough for many people to gather in, indicating that Mary and her family were likely well off.

A second reference to Mark’s family is found in Colossians 4:10, where he is identified as a cousin of Barnabas. Some translations identify him as a nephew of Barnabas rather than a cousin. But regardless, he was a close relative of Barnabas. And that helps to explain the interest that Barnabas had in Mark.

One other family reference to Mark is made in 1 Peter 5:13. In this passage, Peter identifies Mark as his son. But I believe it is most likely that Peter was referring to Mark as a spiritual son rather than a biological son. This would be like 1 Corinthians 4:17, where Paul calls Timothy his son, although he is clearly not his biological son.

Early Life

Mark is never mentioned by name prior to identifying Mary, whose house Peter went to after his prison break, as his mother. But there is a curious reference in Mark 14:51-52 that may point to him. When Jesus was arrested in the garden there was a young man there who had been following Jesus, wrapped only in a sheet. When Jesus was arrested, all his disciples fled, but this young man hung around too long, and he was seized by the arresting crowd. But he managed to escape, leaving his sheet behind, and fleeing naked.

I understand this to likely be a reference by the author of the gospel of Mark to himself. A way of saying, I was there. While it is speculation, I can see Jesus and his disciples celebrating the Passover at Mary’s home. After they left for the garden, it is possible that Judas first led the authorities to Mary’s home looking for Jesus before going out to the garden. Mark saw the crowd looking for Jesus, threw a sheet around himself, and ran for the garden to warn Jesus. But he arrived too late to provide the warning.

Whether the above was true or not, it is clear that Mark’s family is a part of the early church. Mark, as a young man, grew up in the early days of the church. There is no way to know what kind of role he might have played. But he would have been familiar with all that was going on there. And, speculation again, it could have been Mary’s home the believers were gathered in at Pentecost. That would have been an exciting time for a young man and follower of Jesus.

A Missionary

Shortly after Peter’s deliverance from prison, Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch. And when they did, Mark went with them (Acts 12:25). Barnabas apparently saw some potential in the young man and took him under his wing. In Antioch, Mark would have been exposed to Gentile believers for the first time. And that may have been as challenging for him as it was for many other Jewish believers.

Some time after their return to Antioch, Paul and Barnabas were commissioned by the church there to take the gospel out to the surrounding country. As they went, they took Mark with them as a helper (Acts 13:5). Mark traveled with them through the island of Cyprus. But when they left the island to continue their journey, Mark left them and went home to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). No explanation is given as to why he left. It could be he was homesick. It could be that he was not happy that Paul seemed to have risen to prominence over his cousin during the trip. Or maybe the experience was more than he was prepared for. But, for whatever reason, he left them.

Mark’s next appearance came when Paul and Barnabas were preparing to go out on their second missionary journey. Barnabas wanted to take Mark, but Paul refused. This led to such a sharp disagreement that they separated into two teams. Barnabas took Mark and returned to Cyprus, while Paul took a new companion and headed north and then west (Acts 15:36-41). And that’s the last we hear of Mark in the book of Acts.

Reconciliation

But while Mark may have disappeared from the story in the book of Acts, it wasn’t the end of his story. In two of Paul’s prison epistles, he sends greetings from Mark (Col. 4:10, Philem. 1:24). And in 2 Timothy 4:11, he instructed Timothy to get Mark and bring him along on a visit to Paul. And, to Timothy, Paul said that Mark had become useful to him in his ministry.

We do not know what Mark’s reason was for leaving Paul and Barnabas on their first trip. But clearly, it did not set well with Paul. And, for a time, Paul clearly felt that Mark was not a trustworthy companion to take on a trip. But over the years, things changed. We do not know when, or how, the reconciliation occurred, but clearly it did. And, in the latter years of Paul’s ministry, Mark became a coworker. Especially during some of Paul’s time in prison.

An Author

The gospel of Mark is anonymous. But early tradition connects it with the Mark of this story. Papias of Hierapolis (A.D. 60-130) and Irenaeus (A.D. 130-200) both identified this gospel as having been written by Mark, a disciple of Peter. According to both sources, Mark essentially took what he learned from Peter and used it to compose what many consider to be the earliest of the gospels. Many modern scholars dispute that this gospel was written by the Mark we find in the pages of the New Testament. But I have seen no compelling arguments to counter the witness of these early church fathers. This work of Mark is also widely believed to be a source that was used by the authors of both Matthew and Luke.

Peter’s reference to Mark (1 Pet. 5:13), while not affirming that Mark wrote this gospel, does add support for the view. Peter says that Mark was with him in Babylon. This reference to Babylon is widely considered to be a cryptic reference to Rome. What is significant here is that Peter affirms that he spent time with Mark, making it reasonable that he could have passed on to Mark the accounts that he later recorded in his gospel.

What We Can Learn from the Life of Mark

While Mark likely never traveled with Jesus, he clearly was familiar with him. It is likely that Jesus visited his home while in Jerusalem. And it is certain that the early church used his home as a meeting place. In addition to his early involvement with the church in Jerusalem, he was able to experience the early days of the church in Antioch as well as spend time with Paul, Barnabas, and Peter. That was a privilege that few, even in the early church, could claim.

But Mark’s life had a dark chapter. His abandonment of Paul and Barnabas on their first trip, whatever the reason was, led to a falling out between Paul and Barnabas. And it expressed a lack of maturity in his own life. But he did not let that experience define him. He later traveled with Barnabas and was reconciled to Paul. And he went on to write the first gospel account that we have record of.

Eusebius, in his Church History, places Mark, also identified as Mark the Evangelist, as the founder of the church in Alexandria. Tradition says that Mark was martyred in Alexandria in A.D. 68. Many modern scholars dispute much of the early tradition surrounding Mark as well as the witness of the early Fathers. But even based on what little we know in the Scripture, we find a man who did not let his failures define him. One who shook off those early failures and found himself used greatly by God in the early church.

Disclaimer

The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

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