Paul typically worked as part of what today might be called a “ministry team”. Aside from an excursion to Athens (Acts 17:16-34), Paul is never seen working alone. On his first “missionary journey”, he is accompanied by Barnabas (Acts 13:2). A man named John, also called Mark, accompanies the duo on the first leg of their travels (Acts 12:12, 25, 13:13, 15:37, 39). Tradition equates John with the Mark referenced in the New Testament epistles (Colossians 4:10; II Timothy 4:11; Philemon 1:24; I Peter 5:13), a relative of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10). He is commonly referred to as John Mark.
John Mark is described as a huperetes (Acts 13:5), a word with a broad definition most commonly translated as “assistant” (ESV, HCSB, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) or “helper” (CEV, MSG, NASB, NIV). Just what role John Mark plays is unclear.
Ajith Fernando (b. 1948) examines:
Some have suggested that the word “helper” here (hyperetes) has a restricted meaning similar to synagogue attendant (cf. Luke 4:20), so that Mark’s responsibility was to care for the scrolls of the Scriptures along with a “sayings of Jesus” collection. But Luke uses this word in the broader sense elsewhere (Luke 1:2; Acts 5:22, 25, 26:16), which seems to be the meaning here. As a resident of Jerusalem Mark may have had an eyewitness knowledge of events in the gospel story, especially relating to the Passion narrative, of which Paul would have availed himself. (Fernando, Acts (The NIV Application Commentary), 375)Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) speculates that John Mark was more than a mere gofer:
John Mark...served as a υπηρετης. This term can have a variety of senses but its general sense is of a servant or helper, any subordinate assistant. Probably, in view of the use of the term in Luke 1:2 and Acts 26:16, it means more than just someone who helped with material aid or practical arrangements (though cf. Acts 5:22, 26, 20:34, 24:23). Presumably Mark helped in preaching and teaching in some way, but Luke does not care to be more specific. He is in any case not portrayed as a major figure in this venture. (Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 395)While in Perga in Pamphylia, something unusual occurs. Though no missional activity is recorded, the text informs that John Mark leaves the team.
Now Paul and his companions put out to sea from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia; but John left them and returned to Jerusalem. (Acts 13:13 NASB)John Mark’s desertion is evidence that Christians were free to leave the mission field at any time. Though Paul writes of deserters (I Timothy 1:20), this abandonment is an anomaly in Acts.
John Mark returns home to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13), presumably to the home of his pious mother, Mary (Acts 12:12). Though Acts offers no rationale for John Mark’s exit many have hazarded guesses. Some have examined the verbs for clues.
C. Clifton Black (b. 1955) analyzes:
In both classical and Hellenistic Greek, the verb ἀποχωρειν means generally “to go away from” or “to depart,” though it can carry the connotation of retirement or withdrawal after a defeat (such as an army might do in battle: Thucydides [460-395 BCE}, Peloponnesian War 2.89). Beyond Acts 13:13 this verb appears only twice in the New Testament. At Luke 9:39, with reference to a demonic spirit, it may, though need not, carry this nuance of capitulation (and probably does not do so in Matthew 7:23). The other verb in Acts 13:13b, ὑποστρέφειν, may simply be translated as “to return,” its most common connotation in Luke-Acts (see, e.g., Luke 1:56; Acts 1:12), or it can convey the more negative nuance of retreat under fire. (Richard P. Thompson [b. 1958] and Thomas E. Phillips, “John Mark in the Acts of the Apostles”, Literary Studies in Luke-Acts: Essays in Honor of Joseph B. Tyson [b. 1928], 108-109)Luke Timothy Johnson (b. 1943) adds:
The two verbs used by Luke suggest something more than a simple return home: apochōreō can be used in the sense of “removing oneself from” someone’s opinions (Epictetus [55-135], Discourse 4, 1, 53); the use in LXX Jeremiah 46:5 implies a turning back in fear or cowardice, and in III Maccabees 2:33, it means something like apostasy. It is striking that Luke will use another form of the verb (apochōrizomai) for the later separation of Barnabas and Paul. (Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (Sacra Pagina), 229)Many reasons have been suggested for John Mark’s departure. I. Howard Marshall (b. 1934) recounts the usual suspects:
Did he resent the fact that Paul was now the leader, while his cousin Barnabas was relegated to second place? Or did he not want to go further than Cyrprus? Or did he lose courage? Or was there some other reason? We simply are not told, but it is clear from Acts 15:38 that Paul regarded his defection as a serious matter, while Barnabas was prepared to make allowances for him. (Marshall, Acts (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 222)Kenneth O. Gangel (1935-2009) narrows the list, writing, “Acts 15:37-39 makes it clear that a genuine falling out occurred on the team. This would seem to eliminate speculation that illness or fear of danger alone created the problem (Gangel, Acts (Holman New Testament Commentary ), 214).”
The timing of the incident fits a dissatisfaction with a shift in leadership. The verse that recounts John Mark’s withdrawal also marks the first time the text describes Paul as the leader of the operation - “Paul and his companions” (Acts 13:13).
F.F. Bruce: (1910-1990) notes:
When the expedition sets out from Syria, Luke speaks of “Barnabas and Saul”; by the time they leave Cyrpus, it is “Paul and his company.” It is unlikely that this change of expression is due purely to a change of source. (Bruce, The Book of Acts (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 251)Most think the issue runs deeper than petty jealousy. William H. Willimon (b. 1946) suggests that the personal row masks a deeper issue:
The reason that Luke gives for the breakup of the Paul and Barnabas team does not square with Paul’s version in Galatians 2:11-13. Paul’s own assertion that he had doctrinal differences with Barnabas does not fit into Luke’s purposes, so he transformed a theological dispute between Barnabas and Paul into a personal quarrel concerning the quitter, John Mark, who had withdrawn during the first missionary journey (Acts 13:13). (Willimon, Acts: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 133)Richard N. Longenecker (b. 1930) theorizes that the theological issue at stake is Paul’s mission to the Gentiles:
Mark may have been concerned about the effect news of a direct Christian mission to Gentiles would have in Jerusalem and on the church there and may have wanted no part in it. It was his return to the Christian community in Jerusalem that may originally have stirred the “Judaizers” in the church to action. (Longenecker, Acts (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 217)R. Alan Culpepper (b. 1946) dissects:
The hypothesis that he was not willing to participate in Paul’s mission to the Gentiles has much to commend it: (1) Mark made his decision soon after their encounter with the gentile proconsul. (2) Luke uses Mark’s Hebrew name, John in Acts 13:13. (3) John Mark returned not to Antioch, but to Jerusalem...(4) In Acts 15:38 Paul refuses to take Mark along because he had not “...gone with them to the work.” The occurrence of to ergon in Acts 13:2...and in Acts 14:26...clearly indicate that “the work” in which Mark refused to participate was the mission to the Gentiles. (5) That the gentile question was the issue is further suggested by the observation that Paul reports in Galatians 2:13 that even Barnabas was carried into hypocrisy over the question of the table-fellowship with Gentiles...The convergence of these considerations strongly suggests that John Mark withdrew from the mission because he could not in good conscience participate in the offering of the Gospel to the Gentiles. After the Jerusalem conference he apparently changed his mind (Acts 15:37-38). (Culpepper, “Paul’s mission to the Gentile World: Acts 13-19,” Review and Expositor 71 (1974): 488)Furthermore, John Mark was not only associated with Jerusalem in general but with Peter in particular as Peter stays at his home (Acts 12:12) and John Mark is even called his “son” in the Petrine epistles (I Peter 5:13). John Mark might have been the first person to feel he was robbing Peter to pay Paul.
The early missionaries certainly did not have an easy task and any or all of these reasons could have contributed to John Mark’s early exit. Though the reason for John Mark’s departure must remain conjecture, it is certain that Paul is extremely displeased with the young man’s lack of commitment. In Paul’s view, he is fighting a war and John Mark is a deserter. Paul might have even perceived the slight as inexcusable as he refuses to allow John Mark to rejoin the team and even splits with Barnabas over the issue (Acts 15:37-38).
Have you ever quit anything? Why did you? Why do you think John Mark returns home? Do you think that any rationale would have been justifiable in Paul’s eyes? Was John Mark not supposed to be on this journey?
Paul may not be merely holding a grudge against his former ministry partner. John C. Maxwell (b. 1947) rationalizes:
Everywhere he [Paul] went, he took companions. He considered the time he spent with them an investment. And if he didn’t see a return, for example, in the case of John Mark who didn’t accompany him to Antioch (Acts 13:13), Paul was reluctant to keep investing in him (Acts 15:37-40). (Maxwell, The 21 Most Powerful Minutes in a Leader’s Day: Revitalize Your Spirit and Empower Your Leadership, 348)Though we do not know the specifics, John Mark is redeemed. Tradition asserts that he is the author of the Gospel of Mark. Given his presence in later Pauline epistles, it can also be assumed that John Mark and Paul eventually patch up their relationship. C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) affirms, “Colossians 4:10; Philemon 1:24; II Timothy 4:11...give a good hint of later reconciliation (Barrett, Acts of the Apostles: A Shorter Commentary, 200).”
Guy Greenfield (1931-2007) relates Paul’s reaction to parental disappointment, including (in these terms) a predictable reconciliation:
Paul...expressed his sense of disappointment, even resentment, over Mark’s cowardly behavior (Acts 15:36-41), so much so that Paul and Barnabas chose to go their separate ways on the next journey. Years later, Paul and Mark reconciled their differences, and Paul, in his last letter, instructed Timothy to “get Mark and bring him with you; for he is very useful in serving me” (II Timothy 4:11; cf. Colossians 4:10). (Greenfeld, The Wounded Parent: Hope for Discouraged Parents, 102)Has anyone ever lost confidence in you? With whom do you need to be reconciled? Who has given you a second chance? To whom do you need to extend an opportunity for redemption?
“You mustn’t confuse single failure with a final defeat.” - F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), Tender is the Night, p. 157