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One man in Scripture was labeled a deserter–John Mark. His story is one we can take great comfort in.
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Have you ever felt someone deserted you? Maybe it was a close friend you were depending on who wasn’t there for you when needed. Perhaps you were working with someone on an important project, but they failed to execute their commitment. Or someone who didn’t have the courage to stand with you when you were being tested.

Being a deserter is a pretty strong label. Being a deserter can bring harsh court martialing and punishment in military matters. In times of war, it could result in execution. Storybooks are filled with men and women who stand strong in courage, but they castigate those who run away in fear.

One man in Scripture was labeled a deserter–John Mark. His story is one we can take great comfort in. In it, we see rejection and separation, but eventually reconciliation and harmony. In Acts 15, when we read this, Paul and Barnabas were about to revisit the cities they had initially been preaching in.

Being a deserter is a pretty strong label.

Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus. (Acts 15:37-39 NIV).

Looking at this event historically, with 20/20 hindsight, the separation of Paul and Barnabas’s daily partnership may have been necessary. In other words, this all worked for good. The benefit of Barnabas’s wisdom and counsel for Paul may have been fully realized in God’s plan. But this event certainly wasn’t one of the best moments of the first century.

Earlier, Barnabas had been “carried away” by those of the circumcision party in fear of eating with new Gentile believers (Gal 2:12-13). Yet, after Paul rebuked Peter for his hypocrisy (and, by implication, Barnabas), there was a willingness to examine their motives and reach accord. But in this case, they could find no agreement.

Barnabas was a man who believed in others. He was one of the first to believe in Paul after his conversion, staking his reputation that Paul’s faith was genuine. Barnabas was the “son of consolation,” always looking for the best in others, counting that the Lord would lead good men and women to righteous acts. 

Acts 13 briefly comments on the departure of John Mark. He had been taken with Paul and Barnabas from Jerusalem to Antioch, Seleucia, Cyprus (Barnabas’s native land), Salamis, and the Isle of Paphos. When they were leaving Paphos, John departed and returned to Jerusalem. 

But why did he leave? F. F. Bruce suggests one of the possible reasons involved the rigors of missionary work. But Bruce further suggests that it may have been possible that John Mark had resented how his cousin Barnabas had slipped to “second place” behind Paul. When the team set out to work, it was “Barnabas and Saul.” (Acts 12:25). But when John Mark departed, the Bible referred to the team as “Paul and his company.” (Acts 13:13).1

John Mark was far from a coward in his return to Jerusalem

Richard Rackham concluded that John Mark was far from a coward in his return to Jerusalem but was instead “unable to keep pace with the rapid expansion of S. Paul’s views of work in the Gentile world.”2 Further, one wonders if there was a personal reason for returning to Jerusalem, as we know that his mother, Mary, owned a house there. Did temporary family obligations bring him back home?

We don’t have a specific reason for why John Mark left. Luke likely didn’t know either, which is why he left the reason out of the Acts narrative. But Paul felt that the departure of John Mark was significant. It wasn’t just a difference of opinion; more modern versions translate the disagreement as “sharp.” There had been previous issues where Barnabas and Paul had had disagreements. But now, their difference in view about John Mark was so severe they determined to stop working together because of it.

However, in the end, John Mark didn’t desert the gospel or neglect to serve the ecclesia. Only a few months later, he was again ready to rejoin the missionary work. When Paul and Barnabas split, John Mark journeyed with his cousin Barnabas to Cyprus to labor for the gospel there. We are left to wonder what role John Mark played while paired with his cousin and what counsel he may have received from the wise Levite.

While the Scriptural trail goes cold about Barnabas from this point forward, we do hear about John Mark. In Colossians 4, we read:

Aristarchus, who is in prison with me, sends you his greetings, and so does Mark, Barnabas’s cousin. As you were instructed before, make Mark welcome if he comes your way. (Col 4:10 NLT).

It appears John Mark was in Rome during Paul’s first imprisonment, working with Paul once again. Paul instructed the Colossians to receive John Mark and welcome him. That’s quite a transformation from the last time we saw these two men together. Whatever conflict had once existed between them appears to have been extinguished. These men embraced the Lord’s teachings to work out their differences in love for the gospel’s sake. 

Writing to Timothy, in what is probably Paul’s last epistle, he says, 

Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry. (2 Tim 4:11).

He may also be the “Marcus” mentioned in Philemon as one of four “fellowlabourers” with Paul. The supposition is that the Gospel of Mark was written by John Mark, sourcing his information from the Apostle Peter in Jerusalem.

Lessons for Modern Times

There will inevitably be disagreements, broken commitments, and disappointments in ecclesial life. We are but flesh, and we make mistakes. We mistakenly and unwisely judge motives and actions through an imperfect lens. When we predict future behavior based on what we have seen in the past, we fail to acknowledge the Lord is working in the other person’s life. What is natural to the flesh is to walk away, divide, and label. “I won’t work with them again!” “I can’t trust them.”

We should not assume intentions or motives with observed behavior. There are often hidden reasons for why we were let down. Sometimes, the reason may have been us! Maybe we were too hard to work with or too demanding. Often, we may later learn that the reasons for the misfire were completely unknown to us. 

We should not assume intentions or motives with observed behavior.

It would also have been extremely easy for John Mark to hold a deep grudge about Paul’s rejection. It might have been understandable if he had chosen only to serve with his cousin and avoided dealings with Paul. To his credit, we find him in Rome when Paul is in greatest need.

I wonder what it was that brought Paul and John Mark back together. Who was it that encouraged them to unite in Rome? I suspect it may have been Barnabas. Barnabas, the apostle known for encouragement (Acts 4:36), possibly brokered the restoration. We need more brothers and sisters like Barnabas. Believers committed to breaking down barriers, encouraging conflict resolution, and mending the broken nets of ecclesial work.

There is immense value in people like Barnabas who choose to see the best in others and encourage peace. As James wrote, “Those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness.” (Jas 3:18 NLT). 

Our own community’s history teaches us that separation due to conflict solves nothing. It results in isolation and robs us of access to a critical part of the body. Conflict can sometimes pass down over generations and sour relations among believers. There are some we’ve avoided for decades. Groups that we have labeled as unreliable. People we feel we are better off without. It is hard, really hard, to attempt to reconcile when someone has hurt or condemned you. It seems much easier just to stop interacting or to interact in a way that superficially shows everything is okay when everyone knows it is not.

I suppose many of us need a trip with John Mark to Rome! 

This concept was one of the Lord’s first teachings. 

So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God. “When you are on the way to court with your adversary, settle your differences quickly.” (Matt 5:23-25 NLT). 

Notice the urgency of Jesus’ teaching. Do it right now! Reconciliation is more important than the offering you are about to make at the altar. In matters of conflict, time is almost always an enemy. Those we distrust will not become more trustable by avoidance. When we reconcile, it opens new doors for the work of our Lord, just as it did for Paul and John Mark. 

The challenge of the gospel was never intended to be easy or to appeal to our natural impulses of the flesh. It is hard to subdue one’s pride and seek restoration. It is unnatural to seek out someone who has hurt or disappointed you. But this is exactly what the Lord commands.

Because these men demonstrated the spirit of our Lord, Paul was able to rely on John Mark at a time when he was chained and imprisoned. The one who once left the ministry was now one of a handful essential to Paul’s ongoing ministry. He was able to touch and serve those who Paul could not. We are also blessed with Mark’s beautiful gospel that elegantly describes the compassion and service of our Lord. 

How will your story change if you reconcile with those who have “something against you?” Are you willing to leave your comfortable religious observance (your gift at the altar) to go and attempt to reunite? If you are, we are all the beneficiaries. 

Dave Jennings 


  1. Bruce, F. F., Commentary on the Book of Acts, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 1956.

  2. Rackham, Richard Belward, The Acts of the Apostles, Methuen & Company, London, 1904.

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