Mark, the Blessed Deserter

Who was Mark? The first thought that comes to our minds when we hear this question is the Gospel that he wrote. But did you know that the Gospel of Mark never explicitly reveals the writer to us? The only part that possibly gives us a glimpse of Mark is in 2 verses late into the Gospel: “And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.” (Mark 14:51-52, ESV). This is a part of the Bible that we typically might pass over without much thought. But it is surely not placed there without any reason. All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for equipping the man of God for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16). All Scripture, not just certain passages. By the least, this part should have significance for the original readers. Several commentators conclude Several commentators conclude that this young man was Mark himself. This is a way for Mark to say, “back then I followed them too, quietly. But when the situation got heated, I ran away because I didn’t want to suffer.”

If we want to know more about Mark, we have to look at other passages in the Bible and tradition. In the Bible, we meet Mark in a clearer fashion in Acts 12:12. Before that, Luke (the writer of Acts) wrote about how an angel freed Peter from imprisonment. After that, Peter went to the house of Mary, the mother of John who was also called Mark. John was a Jewish name, and Mark was a Gentile name. This indicates that Mark was of Jewish and Gentile descent. This verse also shows the closeness between Peter (and the community of believers of the time) with Mark’s household. There is even a possibility that the upper room of this house was used for the Last Supper. That might be the reason that Mark could sneakily follow Jesus to Gethsemane.

Mark appears again after 13 verses, where he was brought by Barnabas and Paul in their ministry. Acts 13:5 says that he followed them as their assistant. If we had stopped in this verse, we could get the impression that Mark was growing so well, having a bright future as a servant of God. However, just several verses after that, Luke wrote that “John left them to return to Jerusalem.” (Acts 13:13).  We do not know the reason why, but Mark left the work of the Lord. If we receive the view that he was the young man who ran from Gethsemane, we can see how frustrating it is to see this person running away again and again. When Barnabas wanted to bring Mark with them again, Paul sternly refused. He thought that it was not wise for them to bring Mark who left them in Pamphylia and had not continue in the work with them. This is the last time Mark appears in Acts. He appeared as a cause of separation between to great servants of God.

But years after Acts was written (possibly around 10), Mark’s name appears in a letter by Paul. In Colossians 4:10, Paul mentions “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)”. In a more trivial manner, this verse tells us that Mark was the cousin (or nephew, the Greek could mean either) of Barnabas, which might explain why Barnabas really trusted him. But more than that, here we see that Mark became Paul’s fellow worker again. This fact is emphasised with Paul’s mention of Mark in Philemon 24 (the letter is chronologically written before 2 Timothy). There, he mentions his name in the letter’s closing. In 2 Timothy, his final letter before he was executed, Paul tells Timothy to bring Mark to him, as he was very useful to Paul’s ministry (2 Timothy 4:11). Such a great change happened in the time between the writing of Acts and these letters.

The final part of the Bible in which we find Mark is in 1 Peter 5:13 (ESV): “She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son.” The ‘she’ referred to in here is the church. ‘Babylon’ is a way to talk about Rome. In the Bible, Babylon has become a metaphor of humanity in the fullness of their sin, opposing God. Back then, Rome was the source of this opposition. This is supported externally by the tradition of the early church fathers who mentioned that Peter went to Rome. But that is not all that we learn here, we see Mark being mentioned so closely to Peter, as his spiritual son.

The early fathers also mentioned that Mark became Peter’s interpreter in Rome and wrote his Gospel according to Peter’s accounts and authority. The external evidences of Peter’s influence are supported by internal evidences in the Gospel of Mark. For one there is the inclusio, a literary device where the person of authority appears at the start and at the end of the writing. In this context, Peter is the first and final apostle that appears at the Gospel. This makes it is clear that Mark was invoking on Peter’s authority. The Gospel also follows the outline of Peter’s sermons in the Book of Acts. There he doesn’t mention Jesus’ pre-baptism experiences, goes through Jesus’ public ministry, death, and resurrection. It also seems that out of all the apostles, Peter shows the most individuality, indicating that this was written as a first-person account by Peter. There are other things that could be mentioned, but these should suffice.

How great is the grace that God gives to this deserter called Mark! God still grants him mercy, although he left the work of the Lord. John MacArthur in his sermon on Mark emphasises on the great privilege that Mark received. He was not an apostle, not a pastor, not a teacher, not an evangelist, not a leader, just an assistant. However, he was given the chance to serve with Barnabas, Paul, and Peter. Not just that, even though he defected, he was given the opportunity to serve yet again and to be so trusted by these great men of God. Above all, he was given the unspeakable privilege to write one of the gospels that was God-breathed, inspired by the Holy Spirit.

We see of God’s long-suffering in Mark’s story. In the final analysis, this is not the story of ‘Mark, the great assistant’. It is the story of the God who had mercy on an undeserving deserter. The God who lived, died, and was resurrected for the sake of this deserter. Mark is very similar to his spiritual father, Peter, in this sense, who deserted Jesus but was restored. In the same way, let us not run away from God’s calling to repent and serve Him. If we have ran away and fallen, let us not lay in that mud. You might have left the work of the Lord and maybe even the church for a variety of reasons. But as you are still breathing right now, reading this article, God’s grace stands still for you to repent. Just as the song written by Reverend Stephen Tong (a Chinese-Indonesian preacher), if translated, says:

If you have ever loved Jesus,

Why not love Him now?

Even though you have kept your distance from Him,

His love never changed.

Oh, take heed to His call,

May you come home quickly!

If you have ever loved Jesus,

You must love Him even more!

This stands not just for us, but also those people that used to be our fellow-workers in the Lord. Imagine what Paul thought and felt when Mark left them. It must have left a really deep impression on him, because he refused to accept Mark back when Barnabas suggested it. Learning from this, let us be patient with our ex-comrades. Let us continue to pray for them and be there for them to restore them in the Lord.

With all these in mind, let us lay aside all weight that are keeping us from repentance and serving Him. Not that He needs us. God didn’t need Mark either. The Lord who created heaven and earth ultimately does not need human beings to further His work. Thus, the fact that He gives us opportunities to work for Him is sheer grace. Do not take His grace for granted. And our hope is not in our own strength, but in the strength of the God who created us and died for us. How about you, then? Will you repent and work for the Lord? (JFA)

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