“And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, when they had fulfilled their ministration, taking with them John whose surname was Mark.” Acts 12:25 (Rev. Ver).
“Now Paul and his company set sail from Paphos, and came to Perga in Pamphyiia: and John departed from them and returned to Jerusalem.” Acts 13:13 (Rev. Ver.).
” And after some days Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us return now and visit the brethren in every city wherein we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they fare. And Barnabas was minded to take with them John also, who was called Mark. But Paul thought not good to take with them him who withdrew from them from Pamphyiia, and went not with them to the work. And there arose a sharp contention, so that they parted asunder one from the other, and Barnabas took Mark with him, and sailed away unto Cyprus; but Paul chose Silas, and went forth, being commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. Acts 15:36-40 (Rev. Ver.).
“Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is useful to me.” 2 Tim. 4:11 (Rev. Ver.)
These brief Scriptures do not make a very long biography, but when we pause to read between the lines they tell a wonderfully interesting and suggestive story concerning the experiences of John Mark. This young man was one of the earliest Christians. His mother’s house was a hotel on the underground railroad of early Christianity. In the old slavery days in this country there used to be what was known as “the underground railroad,” along which slaves escaping from the South made their way with great secrecy and many fears toward Canada and freedom. On these routes were certain farmhouses owned by great-hearted men and women who were willing to run the risk of loss by making their homes houses of welcome for these poor wretches who were flying from slavery to liberty.
The house of Mary, the mother of Mark, was such a home for the early Christians. There they were always sure of welcome and such comfort as her house afforded. It was in this house that the Christians gathered to pray for Peter on that terrible night when he had been sentenced by Herod to die on the morrow. All through the hours of the night they prayed until Peter, having been rescued by the angel, sought out the house of Mary and knocked at the gate. When the little damsel Rhoda came down to open it and saw that it was Peter, her heart was so glad that she forgot even to open the gate, but ran back shouting at the top of her voice that their prayers were answered and Peter himself stood at the gate. Poor souls! They could not believe it at first; it seemed too good to be true, and they feared he was already dead and that this was his ghost. But it was Peter, sure enough, and that prayer-meeting broke up in great joy.
It was a precious privilege to be brought up in a home like that, where the greatest men and women among the early Christians were coming and going. To breathe such an atmosphere in one’s youth is a glorious boon, and one who has had such an opportunity can never thank God enough for it. How many there are who owe a priceless debt of thanksgiving on account of the Christian homes in which they were born and reared.
It seems very natural that John Mark, brought up in such a home, listening to the conversations of such men as Peter and Barnabas and Paul and Silas, should desire to give his own life to the ministry of Christ and become a bearer of this good news of salvation to those in distant lands. And so when Barnabas and Paul were about to set out on a great preaching tour he gladly joined them and entered hopefully on his career as a messenger of Jesus Christ. No doubt his mother Mary was both rejoiced and saddened to see him go, and rejoiced that her son was to go forth in such noble company to be a witness for the Master, and saddened that she was left behind and should miss his dear presence in her daily life. O young man! Think tenderly and deal generously concerning the mother who has remained at home watching and waiting while you with exulting heart have gone out on your life career. You have had your lonely and homesick hours, too, but the heaviest burden is carried by the hearts that stay at home. When tempted to forsake the path of righteousness and walk in the way of sin, remember again that anxious, loving heart who sent you out with her prayer and benediction, and resolve to die sooner than say or do that which would bring a blush of shame to her pure face.
Surely, any one prophesying of the future would have said that no one could have a better chance of winning an honorable and glorious place among the early Christian heroes than John Mark. But the prospect was soon sadly darkened. Only a brief period had passed, and they had just got well under way on their journey, when Mark abruptly terminated his association with his friends and teachers and returned home, greatly to the sorrow of Paul and Barnabas. We do not know why he took this course, but we know that his reasons were not satisfactory to Paul, and his conduct was such that this great missionary lost all faith in him and refused to have him in his company five years later when he had changed his mind and wished for the second time to enter on his vocation as a worker for Christ.
It was doubtless a combination of reasons working together which brought about the desertion of Mark and caused him to make shipwreck of the greatest opportunity of his life. He was very young, and was perhaps at first attracted by the novelty of the journey and the strange habits and customs of the people they met; but this soon wore away and the hardship and danger remained. It could not have been for the lack of interesting experiences, for during the short term of his service he had witnessed the awful judgment on Elymas the sorcerer, and the glorious conversion of Sergius Paulus. Yet in spite of these manifestations of the presence of God with them, and the mighty possibilities within the reach of their ministry, Mark threw it all up and went home. What motive can have turned him back? Matthew Henry says, “Either he did not like the work, or he wanted to go see his mother.” Quaint old John Trapp says that Mark left them because they were then to take a tedious and dangerous journey over the high mountains of Taurus, and, his ardor having evaporated a little, he sought his own ease by returning home.
Whatever was the cause, we may be sure that John Mark repented it many a long day thereafter.
A mother like his would rather have heard of his death in honorable service than to have seen his face as a coward and a deserter. It was five years before he saw Paul and Barnabas again. Think how much he lost in missing that opportunity- for association with Paul through his most vigorous and fruitful years. There never was a college or theological school on the earth that would have been equal to the training, the inspiration, the soul-culture of five years of shoulder-to-shoulder, heart-to-heart fellowship with Paul in those glowing, blazing days of his missionary conquest!
Not only did he lose all this, but when the five years were passed, and God in his infinite mercy had roused him from his lethargy and defeat, and encouraged him to try again, he suffered the shame and humiliation of being refused association and fellowship by the greatest man of his age. And so that one foolish and wicked act, that one cowardly backsliding and desertion, cost him all possibility of associating with Paul throughout the years of his greatest power as a minister. It was not until the great preacher was an old man that Mark was to know again his sympathy and love.
I pray that the Holy Spirit may impress this lesson very deeply on the hearts that need it! We can never in cowardice desert our post and refuse to do our duty without submitting ourselves to fearful loss and heavy penalty. Some of you have been reading your own autobiography in the story of John Mark. You, too, were called in your youth into the church of Jesus Christ. You rejoiced in the glad consciousness that your sins were forgiven and that you were chosen to bear witness for the Savior. Like young Mark you rejoiced in the associations of the church. You delighted in the talk of those who had long known Christ and whose ardent testimony roused your ambition to do valiant service for the Lord. You looked ahead for ten or twenty years or more and pictured yourself as a middle-aged man or woman, devoted to Christ, and as pure and holy in your fidelity to the service of the church as were those noble saints who had won your admiration and your confidence.
Alas, that any shadow should ever have come over a life that had so bright a morning of Christian hopefulness and promise! But there came a time when you stood before your mountains and trembled for fear. The day came when you were called upon to endure hardness for the Master’s sake, and your treacherous heart, like the foolish Israelites in the wilderness, longed for the leeks and onions and flesh-pots of Egypt, even with its bondage. And so you fell away. Not all at once, perhaps ; but step by step, little by little, you were drawn back into the world, until now it may be that jour heart is harder and you are farther away from God than before you first pledged him your service.
Now if I am speaking to any such backslidden soul, I know if you are honest with yourself you will bear me witness that the saddest mistake of your life was when you deserted Jesus Christ. In your best hours, when you are your highest and noblest self, you would give anything within your power to buy back your peace with God, your joyous fellowship with Jesus Christ; to regain the hope of usefulness and the promise of spiritual conquest and heavenly triumph the vision of which once animated your soul and made glorious your daily life.
Let no man think it is a light thing to fall away from God’s fellowship and love. Alas! many who do so never return. Many a young man has fallen away like John Mark, but, like Samson, who was also reared in a godly home, whose young manhood was animated with noble ambitions and whose early career was glorified with the presence of God, has fallen away to come back no more, and has died, in blindness and bondage and shame, the death of a suicide.
This sad truth was illustrated recently in a Western city. The poor victim was one of the most successful merchants in that great city; he associated with men of prominence, was a member of the leading clubs, and had an open door to all that society has to give. He lived in a splendid mansion on the favorite street of millionaires and merchant princes, and around him were his family and admiring friends. But neither his beautiful home nor his business prosperity could satisfy a heart that had wrenched itself away from God. All the treasures he had gathered became as ashes in his grasp. Who can tell the torture and agony that must have driven his soul when on one of the most beautiful days of autumn he turned his back upon all that for which he had labored, went down to the lake over whose blue waters he had often looked with delight, and, as the light was dawning, by one mad plunge in the cold waters sought to end in their dark depths a life which he could no longer bear. Ah, it is an awful thing, having once tasted of the good word of life, to desert one’s post and go back into worldliness and sin!
But in the story of Mark there is a message of hope. Five years had passed away after his desertion, and Paul and Barnabas had returned from their journey ings in great joy and triumph. After a while they decided to go again and visit the churches which they had formed in their long missionary tour, and build them up in the faith.
John Mark had now come to his senses and earnestly desired that he might accompany these great preachers again. But Paul, remembering his former desertion, would not consent to have him of the party. Barnabas, however, who was Mark’s cousin, believed in the young man and plead that he should be given another trial. Paul refusing to permit this, they separated, and Paul, choosing Silas as his companion, departed in one direction, while Barnabas took Mark and went in another. The result shows that Barnabas was right and Paul was wrong. We have every reason to believe that Mark fully appreciated the second opportunity and was ever afterward a most faithful and efficient witness for Christ. One of the surest evidences of this is that Paul in his old age, in his letter to Timothy, asks him to bring Mark with him to be his associate, and declares concerning him, “He is useful to me.” What a victory that was for Mark! It must have been a proud day for him when Timothy showed him Paul’s letter and assured him that the great veteran missionary, who had once been so disgusted with him, now believed in him thoroughly and desired to have him as a fellow worker in the Gospel.
Let any of you to whom this message comes with special personal application take it with comfort to your hearts and seize at once the new chance which God is now offering to you in Jesus Christ. We can not bring back the past. You have made loss and must abide by it unto eternity; but, thank God! there is a new chance, and there is hope and salvation in it, if you will accept it. Because you have failed once is no reason why, with added wisdom and experience and the failure of the past to warn you, you shall not now enter upon a Christian experience that shall be crowned with glorious victory. Come back to Christ now! Today is the day of salvation. If ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Do not dally with this opportunity, for another like it may never come. A convict in prison, under sentence of death, was very anxious to get access to the governor that he might plead with him for a pardon. One day a gentleman of unpretending appearance visited his cell and spoke to him very kindly, but without producing any special impression upon him.
After the gentleman had gone some one said to the prisoner, ” Did you know that that was the governor?”
“Oh,” he said, “why didn’t I know it, that I might have asked him to pardon me?”
Opportunities of salvation thus come unheralded and unrecognized and pass away forever. Oh that I had the ability to arrest your attention, arouse your conscience, and summon your will, so that every power of your nature might be concentrated on the offer of salvation which Jesus your Savior makes you now.
Do not wait to make yourself any better. Do not try in your own strength to get back some of the ground you have lost. Christ came to save sinners, and if you will come just as you are, a poor sinner, crying out, with the publican mentioned in the Gospel record, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” you may be sure of a loving welcome.
There is a story of a great monarch who was accustomed on certain set occasions to entertain all the beggars of the city. Around him were placed his courtiers, all clothed in rich apparel; the beggars sat at the same table in their rags of poverty. Now it came to pass that on a certain day one of the courtiers had spoiled his silken apparel, so that he dared not put it on, and he felt, “I can not go to the king’s feast today, for my robe is foul.” He sat weeping till the thought struck him: “Tomorrow, when the king holds his feast, some will come as courtiers happily decked in their beautiful array, but others will come and be made quite as welcome who will be dressed in rags. Well, well,” said he, “so long as I may see the king’s face and sit at the royal table, I will enter among the beggars.” So he put on the rags of a beggar and was welcomed to the king’s table.
My friend, this is just your case. You have spoiled the silken robe of your purity, you can only come as a poor sinner. But as such he will welcome you and you shall sit at his table, though not in rags, for he will clothe you anew in his own righteousness. Only yield your heart to the Gospel message and you shall be able to sing with the poet-saint:
“Jesus, thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress ;
‘Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.”