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John Mark in Acts: A New Testament Jonah?

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Acts 13:1-3 records the “commissioning account” of Barnabas and Saul (and John Mark; cf. Acts 13:5) and their send off on what has been called “Paul's first missionary journey” in Acts. Acts 13:1-3 describes the event:

13:1 Now there were these prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius the Cyrenian, Manaen (a close friend of Herod the tetrarch from childhood) and Saul. 13:2 While they were serving the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 13:3 Then, after they had fasted and prayed and placed their hands on them, they sent them off. —NET Bible.

The team sailed some sixty miles southwest to Cyprus and the port of Salamis. Then they traversed across the Island to Paphos. After having completed the work in Paphos the team of missionaries traveled northwest to the mainland and landed at Perga in the province of Pamphilia. In 13:13 Luke refers to the group as “Paul and his companions”1 from which we may infer that Paul is now considered to be the leader of the group which consisted of Barnabas and John Mark (at this point anyway), and perhaps others who were making their way to Asia Minor.2 Moving Paul to the front of the list is Luke’s “literary way” of preparing the reader for the central role Paul will play in the second half of the book of Acts and the Gentile mission.

It is at this point in the narrative that we are struck by an unusual comment from Luke. He says in 13:13:

Then Paul and his companions put out to sea from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphilia, but John left them and returned to Jerusalem.—NET Bible

As to why John Mark left the group and returned to Jerusalem we are not told, but it did lead to a severe and unfortunate break between Paul and Barnabas some time later (Acts 15:37-39). Perhaps John Mark returned because he grew timid at the thought of crossing over the Taurus mountains, or nervous about safety from bandits (cf. 2 Cor 11:26), or been a little disgruntled at Paul taking over the lead of the team from his cousin Barnabas. So goes the myriad of suggestions, but as ingenious as these suggestions may be, they are not at all in keeping with the context and the thrust of this section of Acts (i.e., Acts 13:1-14:28). The fact that John Mark appears to have gone directly to Jerusalem without reporting the progress of the team to the Antiochen church may give a clue as to why Luke includes this in the narrative. Simply put, it appears that he was uncomfortable with the Gentile mission and preaching the gospel to non-Jews.3 He was sent out by the Spirit, but once in the field began to doubt his “calling.”

Acts 13:1-14:26-28 is a literary unit: the missionaries were sent out on a “work” (e[rgon) in 13:1-3 which is then referred to in 14:26 (e[rgon) and summarized in 14:27. The passage reads as follows:

14:26 From there they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work (e[rgon) they had now completed. 14:27 When they arrived and gathered the church together, they reported all the things God had done with them, and that he had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles—NET Bible

First, once again, note that the same term found in the commissioning account in 13:2 is again used in 14:26, namely “work” (e[rgon). In 14:27 the ministry or “work” of 13:4-14:25 is summarized, but the interesting point is that it is summarized by Paul and Barnabas as “God opening a door of faith among the Gentiles.” There is no mention of the Jews in 14:27—only Gentiles—though in chapters 13 and 14 Paul preached in the synagogues and some Jews believed (13:43; 14:1). Thus Luke wants the implied reader to understand that the focus in the mission in chapters 13-14 was on Gentiles. Unfortunately, in 15:38 where the term occurs a third time, Paul says that John Mark abandoned (i.e., deserted) him and Barnabas in the “work” (e[rgon). Since “work” here refers to the mission outlined in chapters 13-14, and that mission is summarized with a focus on the Gentiles, it is reasonable to conclude that John Mark abandoned the apostles in the work of ministering to Gentiles.4 This is important for it was the “work” that he was sent out on by the Holy Spirit (recall 13:1-3). Thus John Mark, a resident of Jerusalem (12:12) struggling as Peter had with the offer of the gospel to Gentiles (cf. Acts 10:1-11:18), was running from his God-ordained calling (cf. 13:1-3).

The previous reconstruction fits the context of an increasingly Gentile mission and sheds light on the particular reason Paul was unwilling to take him on the second missionary journey (15:36-41). Further, it may well be that upon his return to Jerusalem John Mark discussed Paul's “work” among the Gentiles which incited several from among the Pharisaic wing of the Jerusalem church to descend on Antioch in hopes of “straightening out” the church as it were. They went down to require that Gentiles be circumcised and keep the law of Moses in order to be saved (Acts 15:1, 5).5

We realize that any reconstruction is tenuous at best, but this fits well with the literary development of the book of Acts and the beginning of the mission to the Gentiles. In the case of John Mark in Acts…we wonder if we don’t have a sort of New Testament Jonah who got on a boat and went the opposite direction, away from the will of God? If this is the case, then we need to ask ourselves how often we do that. Are we following through on the ministries God has assigned to us. Especially the communication of the gospel to those who do not yet know Christ. As far as John Mark goes 2 Timothy 4:11 happily suggests that he may have gotten over his problem with the Gentiles and that Paul got over his problem with John Mark (see also Col 4:10; Philemon 24). After all, Paul tells Timothy to bring him for he is useful to him [i.e., Paul] for ministry. It is my sincere prayer that Paul’s words be true of all of us who minister for the Lord as those sent out by his Spirit under his command. May God strengthen us to accept the ministry he, according to his eternal wisdom, has laid out for us (Ephesians 2:10)!


1 The Greek text reads oiJ periV Paulon. For Luke’s use of oiJ periV see also Luke 22:49. Conzelmann, Acts, 103, states that the phrase oiJ periV can be used if there be only one companion present, or if there be no companion present. He cites Xenophon Eph 2.2.1-2. Cf. also BAGD, s.v. peri 2ad.

2 See Hans Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles, Hermeneia, trans. James Limburg, A. Thomas Kraabel, and Donald H. Juel, ed. Eldon Jay Epp with Christopher R. Matthews (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 103.

3 For citations of the various views, though each of the following authors agree that we cannot know for certain, see David John Williams, Acts, New International Biblical Commentary, ed. W. Ward Gasque (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990), 230, who says, “This was for the most part a low, marshy, fever-ridden region, though at some points the Taurus Mountains, which made travel to the north so difficult, reach to the sea;” E. M. Blaiklock, The Acts of the Apostles, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. R. V. G. Tasker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), 104; Conzelmann, Acts, 103; Polhill, Acts, 296-97. We must remember that some in Antioch had already committed themselves to a ministry to the Greek speaking Gentiles living there (Acts 11:20).

4 See Richard N. Longenecker, “Acts,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 417. Longenecker argues that although Luke does not “tell us the nature of the special ministry the two [i.e., Paul and Barnabas] were set apart for, …from what follows it is obvious that we are meant to understand that it was to be a mission to the Gentiles.” Cf. Witherington, Acts, 390, who regards the passage as introducing a turning point in the narrative commensurate with the idea of the movement of the gospel to the Gentiles; Rackham, Acts, 194, who argues convincingly from the events of chapters 13-14 that the e[rgon is the mission to the Gentiles. So also Rius-Camps, El Camino de Pablo, 64, who states that “La misin, toV e[rgon, siempre determinada tanto en boca del Espritu Santo, al principio, como del redactor, al final, no es otra que la mison entre los paganos.”

5 If Mark was also concerned about the impact of Paul’s law-free gospel among Gentiles, he may not have been too far off in his fears for it seems that a perversion of Paul’s doctrine may well be the problem behind James 2:14-26 (though with Jewish believers), although James dealt with it much better than his Pharisaic brothers dealt with the church in Antioch.

Related Topics: Missions, Character Study