From Hapless to Helpful… Who was Mark?

(Acts 12:25; 13:13; 15:37-39; 2 Timothy 4:11)

In an article entitled, “The Usefulness of Useless Things” author Greg Satell tells the story of the inventor of the television.  He wrote: “During the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Vladimir Zworykin escaped down the River Ob, through Siberia, where he knew that the peasants, lacking wireless communication, were completely unaware of the political situation.  He eventually escaped to the United States, where, being an experimental physicist, he found work in Westinghouse labs.

His misadventures continued there.  Once, while stopping at a red light, one of his experimental vacuum tubes fell off the back seat and exploded.  Hearing a sound much like a gun shot, a policeman rushed to investigate and began to question the hapless immigrant with the heavy Russian accent.  Zworykin tried to explain that it was a special kind of tube that exploded, one that could transform radio waves into pictures.  “So now you see pictures on the radio do ya,” the police officer cracked, before hauling him off to the station to straighten things out. Zworykin’s employer felt very much the same way and refused to invest in his idea.

It wasn’t until over a decade later, after he had received the backing of fellow Russian emigre David Sarnoff, that Zworykin’s impractical idea of television came to fruition where, fittingly, police dramas remain among the most popular fare.”

Sometimes things that seem at first to be useless can be incredibly useful.

Hey, God knew what he was doing when He made us.  Just because we can’t imagine the usefulness of something that He has made, doesn’t mean that it isn’t essential.  God doesn’t make junk… and that goes for you and me too.  I may think of myself to have little value, but that’s not how God sees me.  That’s not how God made me.  He can use me, and He intends to.

There are times too when others around us mess up… or make a mess of their lives.  When that happens there is a strong tendency in us (even in us Christians) to start to reevaluate the value of that person.  “He’s a mess.” We say.  “She’s never going to amount to much.” We think.  Unfortunately, we have seen many who could not turn their lives around.

But no one is irredeemable!  God can take seemingly useless people and make them incredibly useful in His service.  God doesn’t save us on the basis of our potential as the world judges it.  God routinely uses those who do not fit the profile of potential greatness.

Look at the 12 disciples Jesus chose… not exactly the type of men we might hope to build a great movement of God upon.  Look at Gideon.  He was from the weakest clan in the whole tribe of Manasseh and as he said it, he was the “least in my entire family.”  Yet God appointed him to be Israel’s judge and to defeat the Midianites.  Look at David.  He was the last of eight sons of Jesse… the youngest, weakest and most unlikely of them all.  Yet, it was he whom God chose to be the greatest King of Israel… and the one from whom Jesus was descended.  

God routinely takes mess-ups and misfits and uses them in amazing ways.  Paul wrote about this when he said, “… God deliberately chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise.  And he chose those who are powerless to shame those who are powerful.  

God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important…” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28 – NLT)

John Mark, the author of the gospel of Mark, was a mess-up.  But God got a hold of him and changed him and made him helpful, so much so that he was used to pen the first of four biographies of the life of Jesus Christ.

In the New Testament he is often referred to as John Mark.  John was his Hebrew name, while “Mark” was his Roman surname.  Scripture seems to indicate (and it is supported by Church tradition) that Mark had a long association with Christianity… perhaps even dating to the time of Jesus’ ministry.  Some have even suggested that the young man who fled naked from the garden of Gethsemane at the time of Jesus’ arrest was John Mark.

The first actual mention of Mark comes from the early days of the church in Jerusalem.  It actually is more a reference to his mother, Mary than it is to him.  In Acts 12, the Apostle Peter has been imprisoned.  Herod, after beheading James, wanted to continue his good relationship with the Jewish religious elite, so he arrested Peter with the intention of executing him in the same way.  

So, Peter was kept in prison under constant guard.  Four squads of four guards each, taking 6-hour shifts made sure that no escape was humanly possible.  But with God all things are possible.

Even though Peter was chained to two guards (one on either side of him), with the other two guards standing outside his cell, God arranged an angelic jail break, leaving his captures scratching their heads as to what had happened.  Unfortunately, all four lost their lives because of the “impossible” escape.

Peter thought it was all a dream until he found himself alone in the city streets outside the jailhouse.  We he came to himself he immediately went to “the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and who were praying.” (Acts 12:12)

This is where Rhoda, Mary’s maid went to the door to answer Peter’s knock.  No one believed her at first when she went back to report that Peter was there.  Peter was then let in and his ministry continued from then on for another 20 years or so.

But it is evident that Mary, Mark’s mother, was a fairly wealthy woman with a long association with Jesus.  She may have been one of his original patrons who supported his ministry.  She had at least one servant and had a home with a large enough room to accommodate a large gathering of believers.

Whether Mark was present in Jerusalem at that time is not stated, but I think it can be assumed that he was.  And if so, this even had to have made a strong impression on him.  At the very least, we know that Mark had close associations with the early witnesses of the ministry of Jesus.

Meanwhile, the recent persecutions began scattering believers out of Jerusalem into other regions of the Roman empire.  The church in Jerusalem sent a man by the name of Barnabas to Antioch to check on the work that God was doing there.  Barnabas enlisted the help of a man from Tarsus, named Saul (Paul).  Together they taught “great numbers of people,” and the “… disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.”  (Acts 11:26)

Evidently after about a year, Barnabas and Paul returned to Jerusalem.  Some have said that it was some kind of relief mission, but when they returned to Antioch, they took Mark with them. (13:25)

It was out of this thriving ministry in Antioch that Paul and Barnabas were set aside and commissioned with the task of carrying the gospel of Jesus to the Gentile world.  It tells us in Acts 13:2-3 that the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets and teachers there and said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.”

It tells us then that John Mark, a cousin of Barnabas, went with them as their helper. (v.5) What his responsibilities were, we aren’t specifically told, but some have suggested that he became sort of a “business manager” who arranged the details of their travels… lodging, food, and various other logistical matters.  Others think he became their scribe.  Still others imagine that he was a student or mentee, who learned from these two and then passed their teaching on to others.

It is assumed that Mark, like Barnabas had moved from the island of Cyprus to Jerusalem after which they encountered Jesus and trusted in Him.  So, it can also be assumed that he was multi-lingual, a huge asset as these three made their way into Gentile territories.  For that reason alone, he would have been a tremendous help to Paul and Barnabas.

How long they ministered together, we don’t know, but something happened… and Mark left them and returned to Jerusalem.  Was it because Mark was displeased that leadership of the band of missionaries had shifted from Barnabas to Paul, or was it homesickness or some family crisis that drew him back home?  Or, perhaps the work was just too hard… and the strangeness of new lands was too much for Mark to take.

At any rate, Paul considered his actions a desertion.