Rocky Road—Ministry We All Understand

The temptation to quit is never more fierce than when you’re finally, at long last, learning something.

What the Bible Almost Says

It’s the holiday season, and kids are bringing home crafts from school.  For those of you with 3 or 4 year-olds, try this experiment at home:  give them construction paper, paste, glue, markers, finger paint, glitter, and stickers.  Tell them to make something, and then leave them alone for an hour, unsupervised.  My guess is that when you come back, they’ll have more on themselves and on the wall than on the paper.

Popular consensus holds that this is the way ministry works.  God gives us the raw material of the Holy Spirit and then tells us to do something for Him, anything.  Many of us do this, getting an “A” in blind entrepreneurialism.

Such positivity is almost the charge of Scripture, but not quite.  There’s something else to spiritual service.  The Bible makes the assumption that yes, through the Spirit, we are gifted, but it also makes the assumption that we don’t know what to do with that gift.

Many disagree that they are clueless, thinking religious television, or Ministry Inc., supplies all the examples they need.  And so they copy what they see.  Those who actually survive the experience and succeed, can end up growing in a distorted way, thinking ministry is a way of getting rich or achieving power, or becoming famous.

God wants to develop the gift you’ve received, but His way of doing it is not locked within the corridors of individual experience, nor does it mimic every slick program or persona that calls itself “ministry.”  Ephesians 4 provides the template:  After God gives you a gift, He gives people to you as gifts to assist you in developing your gift.

Let’s Follow a Little Guy

We’ll follow one example of a person in this process—someone little known:  John Mark.  We’re first introduced to him in Acts 12:12.  Peter had just been miraculously released from prison, “And went to the house of Mary, the mother of John, whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying.”

This verse implies a few things about John Mark’s mother, which in turn might tell us a few things about John himself.  First, Mary must have been a devout woman who was known for her faith.  Even the Apostle Peter knew who she was and that she hosted a prayer meeting in her home.  Second, it may be that Mary was a widow because her house is referred to as “the house of Mary,” with no mention of a husband.  Third, not only did Mary have a house, she had one spacious enough to accommodate a large prayer meeting of the church in Jerusalem.

The emerging picture suggests that John Mark could have been the devoted son of a widow, and he had perhaps been raised in some measure of luxury.  Let’s track his development through three distinct stages of his personal ministry development.

Phase One—a Good Heart and Friendly Encouragement

Beyond the point of salvation, all ministry starts with your heart and the encouragement of others.  In Acts 12:25, Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem after performing a service there, “and when they had completed their service, [brought] with them John whose other name was Mark.”  The two apostles were in Jerusalem, when they ran into John Mark.  It was very likely Barnabas who encouraged him to join their ministry efforts.  After all, Barnabas literally means “Son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36), and he seems to have had a positive effect on people.  At any rate, John Mark responded with a heartfelt “yes.”  All spiritual service begins with a willing heart and someone who believes in you enough to encourage you.

Phase Two—The Rocky Road of Obstacles and Issues

No matter how positive we are, eventually everyone (as exemplified by Mark), runs into obstacles and issues of the heart.  Acts 13:13 says, “Now Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga of Pamphylia, and John left them and returned to Jerusalem.”

John left them.

This might sound like an insignificant detail.  But when a second trip was proposed in Acts 15:37, “Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought it best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work.  There was such sharp disagreement so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus.”

We don’t know the exact details occasioning John Mark’s withdrawal during that first trip, but whatever the reason, Paul apparently thought it highly inappropriate. Without maligning Mark, I’m going to venture a few possibilities that might be profitable for us to consider.

The first possibility for Mark’s withdrawal is that he became uncomfortable with the whole service experience.  Remember that he had been raised in Jerusalem where it was wall-to-wall kosher Jewish people.  What if he got into the middle of the Gentile world and saw folks eating things and behaving in ways that shocked him, like a Greek eating a boiled hog leg and washing it down with blood soup?  What if he had had to sleep in a tent on the ground for a whole week?  Often our first concerns about service are comfort-related.  Many potential ministries never make it off the ground due to the simplest sort of anxieties about rest, relaxation, hobbies, and standard of living.  If Mark really did fall victim to easy-chair living, we can certainly relate.

The second possibility might have involved attitude.  If Mark was young and had indeed been raised in a well-to-do home, it was a combination that could have proven difficult.  Youth plus wealth often equals arrogance.  He was also from the church in Jerusalem, the largest congregation in the world at that time.  He could well have looked at his companions and said, “Hey I know how ministry works.  I’ve watched it happen.  I’ve seen what the big boys do.”  Every professional field of endeavor warns us that when we stop learning, we stop growing.  In fact, when we don’t know what we don’t know, the result is an unteachable spirit.  I’m not sure if Mark left Perga with a know-it-all attitude, but if he did, it resonates with us.

A third possibility is that Mark’s departure was due to some spiritual defect.  He might have been a person who didn’t tend toward depth.  This would have been a problem, because the Holy Spirit literally fueled the acts of the apostles.  If you want to continue in ministry, but lean on talent or raw personal chutzpah more than the Spirit, before long something will happen that jars your very soul.  Sometimes it shows up in things like disqualifying sins, or an inability to get along with others.  During moments of crisis, we who love the shallows would rather go home than go deep.  If Mark did so, it’s a response we’re familiar with.

A final possibility is that Mark felt ill-fitted to this type of ministry.  There is a way to withdraw from an activity that isn’t right for you.  Most likely, Paul encouraged the lad to finish the trip and then call it quits, but apparently Mark wouldn’t listen.  He had to stop immediately, to drop out.  Perhaps he argued that he hadn’t been called to this role, and wasn’t gifted for it.  But if this was what he was thinking, he was wrong (which we’ll see in a second).  The Lord did want him in this capacity of service.  We all must be careful not to be small and dogmatic about ourselves.  Difficulty in a service area sometimes only proves that learning is hard.  It might not speak at all about your suitability to that thing.

We don’t know if any of these possibilities were the reason why Mark left like he did, but whatever it was, his rocky road wouldn’t be something  altogether unrecognizable to us.  We’ve all been there.

No doubt Paul tried to help Mark, but Mark didn’t want it. Nor did Barnabas help the young man by siding with him.  Barnabas, ever the encourager, may have run into the wall that all optimistic people encounter when they are forced to deal with a negative issue.  They err on the side of positivity.  Complicating matters even more, Colossians 4:10 says that Mark was the cousin of Barnabas.  When someone is your special friend or you really like them, or when you’re related to them, you’ll find it difficult to say what needs to be said to them.  In some cases, you won’t see anything wrong at all, having an immense blind spot related to their shortcomings.

And so these two—Barnabas and Mark—disappear from the biblical record and aren’t heard from for a while until sometime much later, when Mark bobs back to the surface.

The Third Phase—Equipped and Perfected

When Mark reappears, it is under a different set of circumstances.  In I Peter 5:13, Peter sends typical greetings at the end of his letter: “she who is at Babylon who is likewise chosen sends you greetings”—a reference to his wife—“and so does Mark my son.”  It may have been that Peter had a son named Mark, but many commentators are in agreement that this more likely refers to John Mark.  Peter, it seems, speaks of Mark as “son” in a figurative way, illustrating the closeness of their service together and Peter’s role as mentor in the relationship.  It would have been similar to Paul calling Timothy “My son.” Nor is it far-fetched to imagine John Mark linking up with Peter, because they already knew one another from Jerusalem.

But even more surprising than all of this is what happens when Paul finishes his letter to Philemon and sends his own greetings in verse 24, adding, “So does Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.”  Here in this verse, Paul calls Mark “my fellow worker.”  And at the end of Paul’s life, in 2 Timothy 4:11, he writes, “Luke alone is with me.  Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for Ministry.”

How does this young man go from zero to very useful for Ministry, even to the extent that he writes our second gospel—the Gospel of Mark—which is counted as the very word of God? How does this happen? It is the application of Ephesians chapter 4.  God arranges the circumstances of this young man’s life to discipline him and make him receptive, the Spirit fills him, and last but not least, people around him collaborate with God to perfect his gifts.

Hello there, Mark 

You probably have an insurmountable situation.  For one, you have a particular gift in a configuration of people who don’t match you.  If only you could swap them out for folks who could directly help you.  If only you could fix your church environment, and tweak it into something good for you, then you could truly develop.  If only you could drop out, run away, and search for greener pastures.

But take it from Mark, the lessons you won’t learn from Paul will be the very ones you will have to learn from Peter. There is no escape.  Jesus is the head of the church, and He is smarter than you.  And He values the development of your gift more than you do.

Thank God for the lessons he is trying to teach you, including those you don’t want or understand. Thank God for the people around you who seem mismatched.

Thank God that the end of His process is going to be good.


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