There are several sources to draw on in putting together a picture of Mark’s life. Primarily of course there is the New Testament itself but there is also history and tradition.
First the New Testament which has a good deal to say about him. He was the son of a well-to-do lady in Jerusalem whose name was Mary (Greek) or Miriam (Hebrew). Acts 12:12 tells us that her house was an important meeting place in the early church. Luke records, in the story of Peter’s miraculous escape from prison, that when it had “dawned on Peter (that an angel had led him to safety out of prison) he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying.” (Acts 12:11-12)
So from the beginning Mark was brought up in an environment of prayer and Christian fellowship.
It is also thought – interestingly – that this same house was the very house whose upper room was the very same one in which Jesus and his disciples gathered for the Last Supper and also where the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples on the Day of Pentecost. So it ws the holiest house in the world! What a wonderful place to be brought up in.
Mark was also the nehpew of St. Barnabas and when Paul and Barnabas set out on their first missionary journey they took Mark along with them as their secretary and attendant.
In acts 12:25 after Peter’s miraculous release from prison we are told by Luke:
“When Barnabas and Saul (Paul) had finished their mission, they returned home from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.”
Incidentally Mark has three names:
1. Mark, which comes from the Latin name Marcus – which tells us that although he was Jewish he must have had a Roman connection.
2. Johann or John, which means ‘God has shown grace’ – so often he was called John Mark.
3. His third name which historical tradition refers to as ‘Colobadactolus’ which is a Greek nickname for him meaning ’stubby fingered’ referring to the fact that his fingers were disproportionate to the rest of his body. So the gospel of Mark was written by someone with stubby fingers!
To return, this first missionary journey with Barnabas and Paul turned out to be a disastrous one for Mark for when they reached Perga instead of taking the safe route to the next stage of their journey Paul decided to turn inland causing Mark to decide to leave the exhibition. We don’t know the reason why but there have been a few educated guesses.
Some have speculated that Mark was still too young and experienced for the rigors of the journey and the challenges it threw up. Others conjecture that there was a personality clash with Paul – not totally unsurprising as he comes across as a strong personality. It may have been that Mark had taken exception to Paul’s assumption of the leadership role instead of the quieter and humbler Barnabas, his uncle (cousin?), and he did not like it?
It may have been that he was afraid because the road chosen by Paul was renowned for being one of the most dangerous roads in that part of the world inhabited by robbers and murderers? Or it may have been much more simple and St. John Chrysostom writing in the fourth century suggests that it may have simply been that Mark was missing his mother (awwww).
Either way he left them and when Paul and Barnabas eventually completed their journey and it was decided to start another one Paul refused Barnabas’ suggestion that they give Mark another chance and take him with them. This time Barnabas disagreed and he and Paul, Luke tells us, had a “sharp disagreement” (Acts 15:39), parting company with Paul taking Silas to Syria and Cilicia and Barnabas taking Mark to Cyprus.
Then the New Testament is silent for a time regarding Mark until his name pops up three times in Paul’s letters:
1. In a letter Paul wrote to the Church in Colossae. In Chapter 4 verse 10 he writes:
“My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark the cousin of Barnabas, (you have received instructions from him (i.e. Mark); if he comes to you welcome him).”
So whatever differences there had been between the two there has been a reconciliation and they were back on very good terms again.
2. In another prison letter, written this time to Philemon, in verses 23-24, Paul writes:
“Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow-workers.”
So here again Mark is mentioned, only this time as a “fellow-worker”, surely a sign that not only was all forgiven but that Mark was considered integral to the work of the Church.
Lastly, and perhaps more poignantly, Paul is awaiting his execution at the hands of the Roman authorities and he writes to his right-hand man Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:9-11:
“Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia and Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you because he is helpful to me in my ministry.”
And so in the end, whatever differences there may have been in the past between Paul and Mark, these have been resolved and Christ’s love has triumphed.
Turning to history and tradition some of the gaps in our knowledge are filled in a little, although it is difficult to conclusively verify the information.
For example Mark tells us possibly something of himself in Mark 14:51-52 which is not included in the other gospels. Jesus is being arrested in the garden of Gethsemane:
“A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.”
What an odd thing to include. Why? Mark’s gospel is renounced for being very sparse and compact and does not include anything that does not need to be include. What then , if anything, does this contribute, unless it is an autobiographical detail referring to him. And that would make sense too of what we know about Jesus’ words in the garden as he wrestled with the fate that awaited him. Having told Peter and the others to stay behind, who else would have heard Jesus’ pleas to the Father to have this ‘cup’ taken from him, unless someone had eaves-dropped in on what was happening and later written it down for us to understand what Jesus went through for us.
Other stories tell us that Mark acted as personal assistant to Peter and when some members of the early church, worried about impending persecution, asked for a record of Peter’s sermons lest they be lost should he be arrested, Mark wrote them down. Again this makes sense of the theory that Matthew and Luke (and Mark’s own gospel) made use of Mark’s material as the basis of their own ‘lives’ of Jesus.
Tradition also tells us that Mark went on to become one of the early bishops of the Church at Alexandria and when a crowd took exception to his preaching to them to turn away from their false Egyptian gods in AD 68, they tied him to several horses which dragged him around the streets until he died. Today his head is preserved in the Coptic Cathedral of St. Mark in Alexandria.
Finally, what lessons can we learn as we look at St.Mark’s life and witness?
1. No church is perefct and the greatest of saints fall out with one another from time to time, as Mark and Paul did. I know many people who have left their respective churches because they have become disillusioned with the bickering and quarrels that sometimes take place amongst the family of God. But we should all remember two things in this respect:
(i) It is inevitable. WHen we are baptized and confirmed or come to faith at some stage in our lives, we do not immediately become the finished product. In fact the challenge of the Christian life is to so co-operate with the Spirit of God within, that we will, with his help and God’s grace, change and become more and more like Jesus. But we are ALL a work in progress and there will be peaks and dips, twists and turns along the way as we wrestle with our sinful- selves.
You only have to glance through the pages of the New Testament and you will soon find splits in Corinth, naked ambition in James and John, personality flaws in Peter and others and flashes of anger in Paul. These are real people, who, just like us, need much grace from God in order to move forward.
(ii) When you do decide to leave one church because it is imperfect, where are you going to go? Scratch the surface of any if them and you will find the same kind of flaws and imperfections. Why do you think the greatest passage ever written about love was aimed at a church in 1 Corinthians 13? Every church I know has more than its fair share of selfish, moody, inconsistent and imperfect Christians.
2. Mark is a powerful illustration of the need to give people a second chance. I like Barnabas because he was someone who understood this one crucial important truth. WE ALL MAKE MISTAKES. None of us has the right to expect perfection of others because none of us is perfect. And the one who is perfect – Jesus – is actually the one who shows the most grace and forgiveness. I love that verse from Romans 5:8 in this respect: “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us WHILE WE WERE STILL SINNERS.” While we were in a state of rebellion and opposition to God (and how many times have we rebelled against God?). That’s the very time Jesus died for us. This applies AFTER we met Christ as well as before.
3. Finally Mark show us what potential there is in our young people if only we learn to show the patience and encouragement needed to tease it out and bring it to fruition. Barnabas was able to see that in Mark, making plenty of allowances for his youthful exuberance and impetuous promises which sometimes did not lead anywhere. And because of that Mark was able to have the space and time to mature and grow, learn from his mistakes, and take his place as one of the important early leaders of the growing church, recording for us important information about Jesus to be handed down to us today. He also became a bishop in Alexandria, dying the life of a martyr for Christ and leaving a wonderful legacy which still lives in the Coptic Church in Egypt today. Not bad then for a stubby-fingered flasher from Jerusalem?