Something occurred on Cyprus that left Mark disenchanted with being a part of the missionary efforts that Paul seemed to embrace. What was it? Moreover, why would Paul later be so adamantly against receiving Mark back as a team-member that both he and Barnabas had to separate in order to resolve the issue (Acts 15:37-39). Was this simply a petty matter that Paul just wouldn’t forgive, or is there something here beneath the surface that Luke doesn’t explicitly expose, but, nevertheless, reveals through his choice of words and placement of certain events in Acts?
Some have said that Mark became afraid of the spiritual warfare conducted on the island and really didn’t count the cost (Luke 14:28). Believing he could face such things, he found out too late that he didn’t have the stomach for it. What he experienced was as simply too much and ran home to mommy in Jerusalem (Acts 13:13; cp. 12:12). I know—the commentaries phrase it differently, but, in essence, this is what they tell us. Do stories like this seem true to you, or does it seem like people are merely groping for what seems to be the most reasonable of two or three otherwise illogical suppositions of the text?
In any event, most translations I have (over 50 on my computer) render the Greek at Acts 13:13 “Paul and company” or “those with Paul” or “Paul and his companions” and then refer to Mark’s leaving the group. The literal rendering is more like how the Jonathan Mitchell translation puts it:
Now having been led back up [upon the sea] away from Paphos, they – around Paul – came into Perga of Pamphylia. Yet John, withdrawing from them and departing, returned unto Jerusalem. (Acts 13:13 JM-NT) – emphasis mine
Those around Paul are set over against John’s withdrawing from them and departing. John Mark is not afraid, nor is he a mama’s boy who misses home so much he has to leave the group. He departed ways with Paul, because he apparently took issue with what occurred at New Paphos. Notice how Luke has Paul phrase it in Acts 15, again, using the Jonathan Mitchell translation:
Yet Paul kept on thinking it not fitting (of appropriate worth) to continue taking along with them this one – the person having withdrawn from them, away from Pamphylia, and not going together with them into the work [D adds: into which they were sent]. (Acts 15:38 JM-NT)
Did John Mark leave the team, because the plans they made in Antioch had changed once Sergius Paulus received the truth? Archeologists have discovered a stone that concerns the family of Sergius Paulus who resided in Antioch of Pisidia to which Barnabas and Paul went next. The governor may have given them letters of introduction, asking the team, particularly Paul, to go to the synagogue of his chosen hometown and preach the Gospel there. The team’s original plans may have been to merely evangelize Cyprus, beginning with its two major cities (see my blog HERE) and then return to Antioch, but, if the governor gave them a letter of introduction addressed to the rulers of the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch, this could be understood as the Spirit directing them to go much deeper into gentile territory.
Mark may not have seen it that way, so those around Paul left for Pisidia Antioch, but Mark returned to Jerusalem. If this is true, then Paul’s point in Acts 15 is—what if plans change again… will Mark desert the team once more, because it’s not going his way?
On the other hand, Mark’s reason for leaving the group could have been a combination of the above and John Mark siding with Luke’s Elymas-Bar Jesus, if indeed this wise man was a well respected Jew known in Jerusalem and who was, at least as far as conservative Messianic believers were concerned, a true disciple of Jesus. It could be John Mark knew him and didn’t approve of how Paul treated him. Luke records only Paul debating with him; Barnabas is strangely silent. Why? Was the man well known in Jerusalem as a believer? A problem with the idea that Mark sided with the false prophet is that the man’s blindness was of the Lord. Why wouldn’t Mark see that? Nevertheless, I find it surprising that anyone would challenge Jesus’ teaching or labor after they witnessed the miracles he did among the Jews. Yet, many opposed him!
The point I wish to make is, the false prophet, Elymas—Bar Jesus, if he was a well respected Jew among those at Jerusalem, may have been preaching Jesus **plus** circumcision and simply would not allow Barnabas and Saul to contradict him, citing scripture to back up his position. Mark may have been at this time more conservatively inclined than in later life and didn’t approve of simply receiving a God-fearer, like Sergius Paulus, into the Jesus Movement without his being circumcised. Moreover, Paul now intends to go to the governor’s chosen home town and to his family there, hoping to receive them into the fold without the rite of circumcision.
Remember, not long after the team’s return from this evangelistic outreach, the men from James (Galatians 2:12) came to Antioch, probably to alert the gentile churches of the needs of the poor in Judea due to the prophesied famine (Acts 11:28-29). The men from James came from Jerusalem and Mark went to Jerusalem—did he speak to the wrong people concerning what occurred on the team’s missionary outreach? Upon arriving in Antioch (and other gentile churches), the men from James overstepped their authority (Acts 15:24) and said the gentile believers ought to be circumcised. These men who went to Antioch seem to have been very important Jews and well respected among the believers in the Jerusalem church; otherwise, how could such men as Peter and Barnabas be drawn away from correct behavior in Christ? So, Mark’s departing from the team may have had much more impact upon the Church, especially the believing gentiles, than what might at first be seen with a cursory read.
Of course, eventually, the breach between John Mark and Paul was healed (see Colossians 4:10 and 2Timothy 4:11), but I don’t see what occurred here was a petty matter. Mark seriously objected to something Paul was doing, so much so that he returned to Jerusalem. As for Paul’s not wanting to receive Mark back, I believe Paul’s heart was very serious. He was not being petty in that he couldn’t bring himself to forgive the immaturity of a young believer. These problems were very serious, and the New Testament shows how the nascent Church addressed it all and includes the victories with the sins, and the joy with the pain. Nothing that we need to know is held back.