In a previous essay—Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler—it was shown that early in the Rich Young Ruler’s meeting with Jesus, the Ruler had become born again. Also, it was posited that the Rich Young Ruler was, in fact, John Mark. This essay will identify the significant spiritual issue that developed between John Mark and the apostle Paul, report the resolution of the issue, and present implications for contemporary believers.
THE JERUSALEM CHURCH
A helpful way to understand the spiritual issue that developed between Paul and John Mark is to become acquainted with the first local church that formed in Jerusalem. Logically, church membership in Jerusalem was comprised mostly of believing Jews.
Some of those born-again Jews in Jerusalem came from the Pharisaical sect of Judaism (Acts 15:5). In Judaism, the Pharisees maintained strict adherence to the Law of Moses. Upon learning forgiveness of their sins came as God’s gift through Jesus’ death and resurrection, those Pharisees who believed were likely baptized in Jesus’ name (cf. Acts 2:38). However, their ethnicity, culture, training, and zealous practice of the Law were understandably transported with them directly into the embryonic experiences of the Jerusalem church (cf. Acts 21:20).
When it appeared that God intended gentiles to be included in the Church universal, the born-again Jewish believers of Pharisaical persuasion and practices objected.
Historically, gentiles who sought participation in Judaism were required to become God-fearers, or even proselytes to Judaism. Gentile men were encouraged to be circumcised (cf. Acts 16:3). Now however, gentiles could become members of the Church universal without entering through the door of Judaism; this profoundly distressed some believing Jews.
Some of the born-again Pharisees in Jerusalem took issue with other Jewish believers via indignant protests with this apparent cavalier abandonment of their treasured practices under Judaism (Acts 11:2-3). In the church, this distinct group of Jewish protestors would not be called Pharisees because that name had become reserved specifically for those in Judaism. So this distinct group became known to those in the church as “the circumcision” (Acts 11:2; Gal. 2:12; Col. 4:11), probably reflecting their dedication to the Mosaic circumcision requirement for all males in the religious community.
In Paul’s letters to churches beyond Jerusalem, he sometimes referred to “the circumcision” as “Israel according to the flesh” (cf. Rom. 9:3; 1 Cor. 10:18). This epithet conveyed the unfortunate spiritual reality that sin controlled the behavior of Jewish believers in Jesus who invested their lives in keeping the Law.
To summarize: the local church in Jerusalem referred to in the book of Acts had a Jewish sect within it known as “the circumcision,” or “Israel according to the flesh.” This born-again sect was comprised mostly of former Pharisees who likely displayed many of the characteristics of the spiritually dead Pharisees described in the gospels. Probably the premier characteristic was boasting in their strict adherence to the Law of Moses.
THE RICH YOUNG RULER
As the church in Jerusalem went through its start-up experience, John Mark—the Rich Young Ruler—was no longer materially rich. He had sold all his assets and given the proceeds to the poor. Also, he was probably no longer a ruler of the Jews because he had become a follower of Jesus from Nazareth who sorely lacked any standing with the unbelieving Jewish leadership.
In no particular order, here are some other interesting things about John Mark:
- He was present in Gethsemane and witnessed Jesus’ arrest (Mark 14:51-52).
- He may have been among those present when Judas’ vacated place among the twelve disciples was filled by Matthias (Acts 1:13-26).
- His cousin was a Cyprian Levite named Joseph (nicknamed, Barnabas) who was recognized by the apostles as an integral and active member of both the Jerusalem church and the Antioch church (Col. 4:10; Acts 4:36; 9:27; 11:22; 13:2).
- He had a relatively wealthy mother—who most probably had become a key church member—living in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12-17).
- He likely resided in Jerusalem since that is where he left from when headed to Antioch with Barnabas and Saul (Acts 12:25), and that is where he returned to when prematurely leaving Paul and Barnabas in Pamphylia (Acts 13:13).
From the two passages just cited, it seems the roles of Barnabas and Paul became reversed early in the pair’s travelling ministry to unbelieving gentiles. The reversal is indicated by Paul’s newly assigned ‘top billing’ in the team’s biblical designation.
- He became the apostle Peter’s “son” (1 Pet. 5:13). The sobriquet “son” was likely used to designate someone who had been instructed by another who was ‘older’ in the faith—much like Paul had done with Timothy (cf. 1 Tim. 1:2).
Recall, that when the Rich Young Ruler was instructed by Jesus to go, sell, give, and follow, it was Peter who immediately questioned the implications of applying Jesus’ instructions to the disciples (Matt. 19:29; Mk. 10:28; Luke 18:28). The Rich Young Ruler had indeed caught Peter’s eye, and perhaps Peter’s sympathies for the burden imposed by Jesus’ instructions.
Years later, when Peter escaped from a Jerusalem jail, he headed straight for refuge to the house of John Mark’s mother (Acts 12:3-17). Perhaps this is when Peter began to function as John Mark’s ‘father’ in the faith.
Finally, tradition has it that Mark became Peter’s ‘secretary,’ recording the apostle’s teachings in Rome that were later assembled into the Gospel of Mark.
- He was a former Pharisee (as was the apostle Paul). Note: this religious reality becomes critical in solving the spiritual issue behind his behavior on the first so-called missionary journey.
Remember in his interview with Jesus, he explained that he had kept the Law’s commandments from his youth—something a Pharisee-to-be would likely do and proudly proclaim (Luke 18:21).
He was a ruler of the Jews, and several of the Jewish rulers during John Mark’s time were, in fact, Pharisees (cf. John 3:1-2; 11:57; Acts 5:34; 23:7-8).
Finally, Paul identified John Mark as his fellow worker from “the circumcision”—that born-again sect of former Pharisees within the fledgling Jerusalem church (Col. 4:11).
- He was a temporary helper, subservient to Barnabas and Saul on the first missionary journey (Acts 13:5).
- He deserted Paul and Barnabas in Pamphylia (Acts 13:13; 15:38).
- He became the source of a sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:39).
- He accompanied Barnabas on a second journey to Cyprus (Acts 15:39).
- He visited Paul when the apostle was imprisoned in Rome (Col. 4:10; Philem. 1:24).
- He ultimately became useful to the apostle Paul in the apostle’s own service to the Lord (Col. 4:11; 2 Tim. 4:11). Note: it was Mark who became useful to Paul, and not the other-way- ‘round—indicating Mark was the source of the spiritual issue and not Paul.
THE ISSUE’S POSSIBLE CAUSE AND ITS EFFECT
The specifics of the issue that caused John to desert Paul and Barnabas have not been revealed. Perhaps John—a former ruler—was amenable to taking orders from his own cousin, the Levite Barnabas. But John may have bristled at orders from Paul after team leadership switched to Paul.
After all, Paul was not a blood relative, was not a Levite like Barnabas, was from Tarsus rather than Jerusalem, had never been a Jewish ruler as had John, was likely John’s contemporary thereby enjoying no superiority from wisdom that accrues with age, had been of the same religious status in Judaism as John, and was about six years John’s junior with respect to spiritual birth dates.
Or, the cause of the issue may have been that ‘Pharisaical’ John strongly objected to Paul’s public proclamation that, in addition to forgiveness of sins, one could be justified through Jesus—something the Law of Moses could not accomplish (cf. Acts 13:38-39). Distortion of Paul’s teachings may even have been initiated by John himself back in the Jerusalem church (cf. Acts 21:21).
Finally, John may simply have become jealous because born-again gentiles were by nature living God-honoring, God-pleasing lives without having the Law (cf. Rom. 11:14 and Deut. 32:21 for jealousy; cf. Rom. 2:14-16 for life without the Law).
However, two things are dead certain about the issue. One, well over a year after his desertion from the team in Pamphylia, Paul recognized the problem with John Mark still persisted; and two, the issue caused sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:37-39).
The problem’s persistence suggests it could have been a spiritual problem that John Mark had developed. And the sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas was likely because Paul recognized that a John Mark, who was out of fellowship with the Lord, would be a definite liability when ministering the word to unbelievers.
On the other hand, Barnabas was perhaps moved by family loyalty for John Mark, and had proven himself more susceptible to hypocrisy than Paul when dealing with the uncircumcised sect’s behavior within the church (cf. Gal. 2:13). Thus, the disagreement caused a tragic disunity, not only between John Mark and Paul, but also between Paul and Barnabas—two brothers in Christ who had spent several years ministering together.
DEFINING THE ISSUE AND ITS RESOLUTION
Based on the issue’s effect of disunity between Jewish believers (John Mark and Paul), one may infer the issue originated from absence of love on John Mark’s part because love is the perfect bond of unity (Col. 3:14). So, the issue is defined on the basis of love’s absence between John Mark and Paul.
The scriptures also teach that the whole Law is fulfilled by the one statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:14). Consider the irony! The committed believer, John Mark ‘the Law- keeper’ had been living for over a year breaking God’s second greatest commandment (Mark 12:31). So much for the spiritual efficacy of the Law in controlling sin!
Now, here is Paul’s astounding resolution of this issue for Jewish believers: stop trying to live by the Law of Moses (cf. Rom. 7:1-6). The theological reason is that God intended the Law to bring a believer to a personal knowledge of sin that cohabits every human body (Rom. 3:20). Indeed, the very agent that unleashes the all-controlling power of sin in the Jewish believer’s life is his/her decision to please God by keeping the Law (Rom. 7:7-8; 1 Cor. 15:56). Because those believers of the circumcision sect were determined to keep the Law of Moses, they all—to a man—became slaves to sin rather than bond servants of Jesus.
God’s resolution to the issue: “. . . confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead (thereby, releasing Him from sin’s power forever) [and] you shall be saved (from the controlling power of sin) . . .” (Rom. 10:9).
Sometime between his spiritual birth and his becoming useful to Paul, the Law had become John Mark’s child-conductor to Christ (cf. Gal. 3:24) and he confessed Jesus as Lord, believing God’s promise that the resurrected Christ would live in his heart by faith.
CONSISTENCY AND FAILURE
The believer’s life lived under Jesus’ Lordship means God’s commandments are perfectly performed by Jesus living in the believer and controlling the believer’s members by the Spirit’s power (cf. Ezek. 36:27 for God’s promise of the obedience of faith; Rom. 7:4; 7:25-8:4 for an example of God’s promise working in Paul after he believed God’s promise).
Is life under Jesus’ Lordship rather than under the Law consistently free from sin’s control? Absolutely not! Paul himself recognized he was capable of an inconsistent lifestyle and wrestled with this problem through prayer (Phil. 3:8-14).
How serious is failure? It can be significant. Paul warned those considering life under the Law that they would be severed from Christ and fall from grace (Gal. 5:4). Further, the believer living a lifestyle controlled by sin runs the very real risk of forfeiting rewards at the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10).
The biblical remedy for sins committed because of sin’s control through living under the Law was sacrifices. However, among Church members living apart from the Law, the theological problem of estrangement from God and loss of His fellowship from sins committed under the control of sin is resolved simply by confession of those sins to God (1 John 1:9).
The rift between John Mark and the apostle Paul grew out of John’s determination—as a born again believer—to obey the Law of Moses. But that very determination resulted in a lifestyle of sinning because the power of the sin residing within John Mark was activated by his very determination to obey God’s Law. But the Law ultimately became John Mark’s tutor to Christ’s Lordship and a subsequent life of service perfectly suitable to God.
What about today’s Jewish and gentile believers? A warning: any believer that resolves to obey rules and regulations to please God runs the risk of being controlled by the sin that dwells within each of us.
One possible exception to this warning might be the “weaker brother” mentioned by Paul (Rom. 14:1-23; 1 Cor. 8:1-13). However, notice that Paul does not endorse the lifestyle of the weaker brother and works sacrificially to see such a lifestyle change to one of faith in Christ’s indwelling and the Spirit’s power to produce a life pleasing to God.
Since probably all cultures teach the religious life pleasing to God means that one must obey God, the danger is both prevalent and pervasive. In contrast, the biblical story of John Mark teaches that it is Jesus Christ living His life within the believer, controlling the believer’s members as Lord by the power of the Spirit through the believer’s faith in God’s promise to implement this mechanism, which makes the believer’s life useful to God.
Remember Jesus’ promise to John Mark, “and you will have treasure in heaven,” holds as well for the believer who has Jesus as Lord of his life, giving salvation from slavery to sin, and producing good deeds each eligible for a heavenly reward from Jesus.