Chapter 3 of John Mark’s Remarkable Career—His Interesting and Abortive Travels with Barnabas and Saul

by | May 4, 2020 | New Testament, Practical Theology

Chapter 3 of John Mark’s Remarkable Career—His Interesting and Abortive Travels with Barnabas and Saul

When I speak of Mark’s “interesting” and “abortive” travels with Barnabas and Saul, I have three texts in mind.  In this blog I want to look at them in order of their occurrence in the Book of Acts. The first is …

Acts 12:25 And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, taking along with them John, who was also called Mark.

Remember that Barnabas and Saul had been in Jerusalem on a relief mission from Antioch because of the famine in Jerusalem. While Barnabas had renewed his acquaintance with Mark, his cousin. Perhaps the emissaries from Antioch had even stayed at the home of Mary, the aunt of Barnabas.  It would at least have been natural for them to do so. Somehow during their stay in Jerusalem, the idea had been birthed that it would be good for John Mark to accompany Barnabas and Saul back to Antioch.  If we are right about the young man in Mark’s gospel being John Mark himself, then a dozen years later Mark had to be in his mid-20’s at least.

Acts 13:5 When they reached Salamis, they began to proclaim the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews; and they also had John as their helper.

We are informed in this text that John accompanied Barnabas and Saul on the first missionary journey.  Nothing is said of this in the account in verses 1-3. In verse 4 it is Barnabas and Saul who are sent out by the Holy Spirit. They were the missionaries—not John Mark.

But, we are told, they had John as their “helper.” A great deal of discussion has taken place with regard to the exact role John occupied in the missionary band and what it meant for him to be their “helper.”  Let me say a number of things about this that may help to clear up this question.

  • First, let me tell you about the word, helper. Its literal meaning originally was under-rower. It referred to a very subordinate seaman—a rower of the lowest rank. But this meaning had probably receded into the background by Luke’s day.  By then it simply emphasized that someone was an underling or subordinate.  John is thus identified somewhat emphatically as the subordinate of Barnabas and Saul—one who supported them in their role as missionaries.
  • Second, consider what his subordinate-servant-helper role might have involved more specifically. Well, actually I think it is wrong to be very specific.  It involved many things and might have developed in important respects. It certainly involved taking care of all the menial and mundane tasks that would have distracted Barnabas and Saul from their main ministerial and missionary responsibilities. What such tasks might have involved in that day and age I do not know exactly. But without telephones and laptops and internet there were no doubt many errands to be run, many messages to be carried, and many things to be purchased in the local marketplace. 

But did John Mark assist in more spiritual and ministerial ways?  I think it is possible that he did.  Certainly, if someone began to ask questions about the gospel, John Mark was, on the basis of his personal experience, in a position to answer many such questions.  Though it is clear that he would not have been one of the main speakers and preachers, he likely would have occasionally assisted in such roles as well. 

Furthermore, I think it is likely that in connection with such occasional, spiritual assistance that Barnabas and Saul intended John Mark’s traveling with them to be a maturing experience. They probably hoped that he would develop as a Christian minister and missionary.  We do not need to assume that John Mark’s role was static.  The goal might have been for him to assist at first mainly with the menial and mundane tasks of life that would distract Barnabas and Saul, but also under their mentoring gradually to develop as a minister of the gospel. 

Now there is a word for this that we use in the church today.  We call a person who fulfills a similar role an intern.  We have a pastoral intern at GRBC. What does he do? The old joke is Anything your pastors do not want to do! More accurately I should say, anything that your pastors do not have time to do without distraction. He puts together the notes for the semi-annual meeting. He runs errands for us that we do not have time to take care of. He assists with and upgrades the website—a task that none of us can get to.  He is a kind of diaconal assistant.  But we also hope to see him develop as a minister of the gospel.  Thus, he speaks at the nursing home for us.  Thus also, he may teach an adult SS class or two for us in the near future.  This is what our intern does.  He is our own John Mark.  Of course, we hope that he turns out better in his role than John Mark did in his. But that thought brings us to the third and last text of this third chapter of John Mark’s life.  We will consider that text and the conclusion of this chapter of John Mark’s life in our next blog.

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