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

The story of John Mark, the deserter who made good, could be written as a drama in four acts. But first, by way of prologue to the drama, a question arises. How came Mark to be accompanying Paul and Barnabas on their hazardous adventures?

This is easily enough explained. Barnabas was Mark’s own cousin and was no doubt eager to give the younger man a share in the great work of carrying Christ’s commission across the world.

John Mark came from a home that had played an outstanding part in the life of the Church from the first. His mother, Mary, had put her house at the disposal of the Jerusalem Christians. It was there, in an upper room of her house, that they met for weekly worship. It was there that Peter had gone after his dramatic escape from prison. Indeed, the probability is that it was this same upper room that had seen the Last Supper on the night of Calvary, and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, and the birth of the Christian Church. Mark was the son of that home. Happy the young man who begins life in a home where God has an altar and Jesus is a familiar friend!

So we pass on from the prologue to Act 1 of the drama. This act bears the title “Recantation.” To begin with, all went well. Mark felt he had found his vocation. There was all the glamour of novelty about it—new places to visit, new friendships to make, new claims to stake out for Christ. But as the days went on, one thought began to trouble him. Were they not wandering too far from their base? Paul, with his far horizons and beckoning visions, seemed determined to carry the campaign into the unfamiliar and dangerous hinterland of Asia. Now Mark had not bargained for this. “The risk is far too great,” he told himself. “It is not worth it! I must remonstrate with Paul.” But when he endeavored to raise his objections, he found that he could scarcely say a word, for there was something in Paul’s face—a burning, passionate eagerness and a glowing, resolute determination—that silenced his stammered protests. There seemed to be no alternative—he had to go on. But all the time his nerve was beginning to fail him, and he knew it. What a wild, savage, God-forsaken land this was, and up among those mountain fastnesses what nameless perils might be lurking! And Jerusalem was so far away, and his heart so terribly homesick! Many a night he would have given anything just to have heard the temple bells again, or to have stood on Olivet and seen the sun flaming down the western sky. So the struggle went on in Mark’s soul, till at last there came a crisis.

Article continues below

It was in the dead of night, and Paul and Barnabas were asleep; but Mark was wakeful and was striding up and down by himself in the dark. Take a long look at him, I beg you—for there is a man at the crossroads with Christ, a soul facing one of those decisive hours that come to all of us sooner or later. “I can’t go on,” he is saying. “I ought never to have come. O home, home—I’m weary for my home!”

And then another voice speaks, very quietly and tenderly. It is the voice of Jesus. “You are not going to leave me, my friend? You surely can’t be leaving me now? Do you not love me any more?”

The man blurts out, “Yes, Lord, I do, you know I do! With all my heart I love you. How can you say such a thing? But, Lord, I don’t think I was built for this. I’m not a Paul or a Barnabas. I’m not like them with their iron nerves and their lion hearts. I’m just one of your ordinary people, Jesus, and it is asking too much of me!”

Then again the quiet voice speaks, but sadly now. “I do not compel you, friend. You are free to return if you must. But I died for you, my son, and this is hard, hard for me!”

“But don’t you see, Lord, I can’t go on? You must see that. I have tried my best, I have indeed. But I am not made for this kind of life, and it is not fair to ask me. Can’t you understand?”

At that a new voice, a third voice, comes breaking in—that of the Tempter. “Let Christ go, then. Let him go! Sell him and be done with it. Recant, man, recant!”

And then a great silence. But in the morning, when Paul and Barnabas rose to continue their journey, there was no John Mark there. And they went on their way alone. The tragedy of a soul’s recantation!

Now I know what some of us are thinking. All this was long, long ago. Conditions have changed completely. Christian discipleship is far simpler today: no danger of our deserting Christ through fear!

But are we sure? Suppose we single out one particular kind of fear. What about the fear of unpopularity, of being left on the shelf (as we say), of being passed over or made to suffer for our convictions? Does that never breed deserters?

Have you never stood at this particular crossroads with Christ, finding yourself suddenly confronted with the choice either to stand up for Jesus and let the world’s good graces go, or else to muffle your Christianity and keep the favor of some social set? Once when Wilberforce rose to speak in the House of Commons, “Ah,” said a sneering member, “the honorable and religious gentleman!” That sort of thing stings; and there is a bit of us—“the natural man,” Paul called it—that hates being stung, and would rather do anything, even blunder into open disloyalty and sin against God’s Christ, than stand out against the conventions of the world or the opinion of our fellow men. Unpopularity—that is one fear at least that still has the power to make souls desert Christ.

Article continues below

There are others: the fear of sacrifice, for example; the fear of losing ambitions on which our hearts are set; the fear of having to give up something in thought, desire, or habit that we know ought to be given up (this is one of the sternest struggles of life, and until a man has fought through it he is not right with Christ); the fear of God’s daily discipline; the fear of the cross. Are we not all in this together? Yes, in some degree we have all played our part in this first tragic act—the act of recantation.

We go on now to Act 2, which bears the title “Remorse.” Here we see Mark back in Jerusalem. The homesick man has come home. Away yonder among the mountains of Asia he had thought, “If only I could see Jerusalem, how happy I should be!” Well, here he is in Jerusalem. Is he happy now? Look at him.

Everything was the same—the streets, his home, the temple bells, the sun flaming down behind Olivet, everything the same; yet somehow there was a subtle difference. All the dear familiar things had lost their savor. Happy in Jerusalem? Call him rather the most wretched man on earth. After recantation, remorse.

Words cannot measure the remorse that gripped John Mark in Jerusalem, but the grip of it was agony. “Would God I might live those days through again!” he thought. “If only the thing had never happened! O God of mercy, turn time back, I beg, set me where I was before this dreadful thing occurred. I can’t have been myself then! For I do love Jesus. I swear I love him still. Lord, give me that bad hour back!”

I think I can see him at night, unable to sleep, rising from his bed, pacing to and fro in that upper room of many memories. “Where are Paul and Barnabas tonight?” he is wondering. “And where is Jesus?” I see him going down a Jerusalem street at noonday, and now and again people—his own Christian brethren—look strangely at him as he passes, then turn and point: “See, there is the man who deserted! Would you believe it?”

I see him at last one day sitting at the Communion table. He is listening dully to the familiar words. “This is my body, broken for you. This is my blood, shed for you.” The bread comes round, and then the cup. But just as he lifts it, something happens. He pauses and looks at that cup in his hand, for within him a voice has begun to speak—a voice unheard by any of the others there, heard only in Mark’s own soul. “This is Christ’s blood,” says the voice. “And if this is blood in the cup, and if it is the blood of Jesus, and if it was given for you, then what—in the name of all that is honorable—are you doing here? Jesus is out on the lonely, dangerous ways, seeking the lost and the perishing, and this is the blood of that agony. Will you dare to drink it—you? Look well into that cup, Mark, for you are crucifying Christ afresh, and there are drops of the blood of that second crucifixion in it. Look well into the cup!” And the man sits with the cup in his hand, staring at it. (Have we ever sat like that, confronted with the agony of Jesus, and knowing that some unclean thought of ours, some selfish slackness, some wretched little self-indulgence, was the cause of it?) And then I see him suddenly setting the cup down untasted, rising from the table, and leaving the room—and that very night, do you know where he is? Out from Jerusalem, out on the great north road, with his face set towards Paul and Barnabas and Christ again!

Article continues below

So we come to Act 3, and the title of this is “Restoration.” You know the story—how Mark returned to Paul and Barnabas; how Barnabas welcomed him eagerly but Paul refused to have anything to do with him (surely if Jesus had been there, it would have been Barnabas’s way, not Paul’s, he would have taken); how that unhappy dispute led to a quarrel, and the quarrel to a parting, Barnabas going off with Mark, and Paul with Silas; how this splendid coward redeemed his reputation and proved himself a true hero of Christ, so that even Paul relented in the end and took him to his heart again; and how when the great Apostle lay waiting his death in Rome, it was of Mark that he kept thinking. “Take Mark,” he wrote to Timothy, “and bring him with thee; for he is profitable to me for the ministry.”

It would be a great thing, the Gospel of Jesus, even if it applied only to those who had fought the good fight and run the straight race all their lives. But blessed be God, it is more than that, far more; and if the Christian preacher and evangelist has the gladdest and most thrilling task in all the world, it is because he has been authorized by God to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, the removing of their guilt and the shattering of their power. What is the Gospel? Hope for the hopeless, love for the unlovable, heroism for the most arrant coward, white shining robes for the most ragged, clean-hearted purity for the muddiest, inward peace and a great serenity for spirits torn and frantic with regret. There is a most moving scrap of conversation in George Macdonald’s Robert Falconer. “If I only knew that God was as good as that woman, I should be content.” “Then you don’t believe that God is good?” “I didn’t say that, my boy. But to know that God was good and kind and fair—heartily, I mean, and not half-ways with ifs and buts. My boy, there would be nothing left to be miserable about.”

Article continues below

If you have once seen Jesus, as the men and women of the New Testament saw him, there is nothing left to be miserable about. And there is everything in the world to set you singing! If I were to stand here and preach to you a limited gospel; if I were to tell you of a Christ who is the Lover of some elect, sky-blue souls who have never known the bitterness of self-despising and remorse, but not the Lover of all the world; if I were to suggest that there are depths of shame and humiliation and defeat from which the heights of heaven cannot be stormed—I should be preaching a lie.

“Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.” Was Jesus shocked when he saw them coming? Did Jesus ever turn round and say, “Ah, I did not mean you! I can go down deep to rescue the perishing, but not quite to such depths as that”? No, he saw them coming, lame and lost and lonely and sin-scarred and disillusioned and miserable, and he lifted up his eyes to heaven: “I thank thee. Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that the Gospel of grace works even here! I thank thee that thou hast sent me to restore to these thy broken children the years that the locust hath eaten.” And he took them to his arms, God’s bairns who had got hurt, and let them sob the whole sad story out. Then—“That is finished,” he said. “Behold, I make all things new.” Do we today believe it? Take your own life, take the saddest recantation there has ever been, take the most locust-eaten year you can remember, take the thing that may be hiding God for you at this very moment. Lay that at Christ’s feet. Say, “Lord, if Thou wilt …!” And see if, for you, the ancient miracle is not renewed, and the whole world filled with glory.

Article continues below

And so we end with Act 4 of Mark’s story. We have watched his recantation and his remorse, and then his restoration. The title that this final act bears is “Reparation.” How did Mark atone? How did he repair the damage he had done? He became an evangelist. He wrote a book. He gave the world a Life of Jesus, the first Gospel to be written. We can be sure of this, that multitudes of people in those old, far-off days who had never seen Jesus in the flesh met him in the pages of Mark’s book, and entered—under the evangelist’s guidance—upon the high road leading to salvation. Still today, after all these years, Mark is introducing men and women of every race and religion to Jesus and setting them face to face with the redeeming Son of God. That was his reparation—was it not a glorious one?

What, then, of ourselves? We who have wounded Christ so often—is there any reparation we can offer? We cannot be evangelists like Mark, we say. It is not given to us to write Gospels for the world to read. But think again! Is it not? The fact is, there is not one of us who cannot compose a Life of Jesus. You can write an evangel, not in books and documents, but in deeds and character. You can make men see Jesus. You can live in such a way that, even when you are not speaking about religion at all, you will be confronting souls with Christ—his ways, his spirit, his character—and making them feel the power and the beauty of the Son of God. It may be that, all unknown to you, one soul here or another there will owe his very salvation to that Gospel of yours; it may be that someone will rise from among the throngs around the judgment seat on the last day and pointing at you will cry: “There is the man to whom, under God, I owe everything! It was reading the Gospel of Christ in that man’s life that redeemed me.” And Jesus will turn to you with glad and grateful eyes. “Come, ye blessed of my Father—inherit the kingdom!”—Condensation of Chapter XXIII, “A Drama in Four Acts,” from The Gates of New Life, by James S. Stewart. © 1940, Charles Scribner’s Sons. Reprinted with the permission of Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.