“From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia where John left them to return to Jerusalem.” Acts 13:13 (NIV)
|Perga: Where things went south|
The way this verse is translated in the NIV, the event seems so trivial that it begs the question why even mention it: “John left them to return to Jerusalem.” What's the big deal? Maybe that had been his plan all along? Maybe he could only accompany Paul and Barnabus for a certain length of time before he found it necessary to return home? But some time later when Paul suggests a follow-up trip to southern Galatia and Barnabus wants to bring John Mark along, Paul has a cow.
“Barnabas wanted to take John along, the John nicknamed Mark. But Paul wouldn’t have him; he wasn’t about to take along a quitter who, as soon as the going got tough, had jumped ship on them in Pamphylia. Tempers flared, and they ended up going their separate ways...” (Acts 15:37-39 Msg)
Clearly, there is much more to that story than what Luke tells us. When I read it again, I become even more perplexed. At the time of John Mark's departure things really hadn't been going tough – things actually had been, for the most part, going their way. So why leave at all?
|Once a thriving center of mission|
Acts 13 is something of a embarkation point in Luke's second chronicle. For the first time in the history of the Church, a local fellowship is intentionally seeking to carry the gospel to “the ends of the earth.” That it had been God's plan all along for disciples of Christ to do just this thing seems clear to me. But as I have re-read the first twelve chapters of Acts this year I get the idea that when Jesus uttered those words we now refer to as “The Great Commission”, most of those he spoke to that day on the hill outside Jerusalem had only their fellow Jews in mind. It's easy to forget that the Church of Jesus which is primarily Gentile today began as a Jewish movement. Over the passage of time from the outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (33 AD) to the persecution that broke out briefly under Herod Agrippa I (circa 44 AD), however, a paradigm shift was occurring: the idea that “the good news” was for everyone, whatever their lineage may be. The Jerusalem elders' response to Peter's story about the conversion of Cornelius and his household pretty much sums up the light-bulb moment that was transpiring among some Christians of that time, “So, then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). I read that and snort,“Duh.” But for these first Christians, this was indeed news.
In any time, change is hard and the strongly conservative Church of Jerusalem had perhaps a harder time than most digesting this remarkable shift in plan. For a Jew's Jew all the world revolved around Jerusalem. In the Holy City God would set up his new, holy kingdom with Jesus as Messiah. The only time the first disciples seem to leave the city is when persecution broke out and they were afraid for their lives. But at Antioch, some 300 miles north of Jerusalem, there was something new in play. The make-up of the church there was much like the city, cosmopolitan and diverse. And the way Luke tells it, they were the first fellowship to get a hold of this new insight about the gospel being for everyone and became intent on doing something about it. Having discerned God's call and timing (see Acts 13:1-3), the leadership of the Church in Antioch commission Barnabus and Saul and in verse 4 they “step off the map”, as it were, and begin what commonly is referred to as “Paul's First Missionary Journey.” With them is Barnabus' younger cousin from Jerusalem, John Mark (v. 5), and perhaps some other unnamed guys simply because it was Paul's habit to take younger men along with him to assist him in the work.
|Making history: Paul and Barnabus' journey to Galatia|
Their first stop was the large island of Cyprus out in the Mediterranean Sea. Why start there? Luke doesn't clue us in to their reasoning but maybe it was the simple fact that Barnabus was from there (Acts 4:36) and since it was his home he would already have a network of contacts for them to access. While the island was mostly Greek there were enough Jews living on Cyprus that Luke mentions they visited several synagogues while there. Just how long it took for their party to traverse the 90 miles between the port city of Salamis and the provincial capital in Paphos on the other side of the island Luke doesn't specify. But in every city where they stopped, their pattern was to attend the local synagogue on Sabbath day with the hope they would be given an opportunity to share (see 13:14, 46; 14:1; 16:13; 17:1, 10; 18:4, 19; 19:8; 28:17). During the weeks that followed, nothing happened to write home about – or if it did, Luke doesn't mention it. So I assume they had plenty of opportunity to share both formally and informally with many of their Jewish brethren. What effect the gospel had on those communities is not clear other than by the time they reach Paphos, the governor is eager to meet them. And then the first great “missionary” tale occurs.
|Okay, not like this...but still|
Acts 13:7-12 is a story that would play well to flannel-graphs. There sits Sergius Paulus, proconsul of Cyprus sitting on his throne, in my mind like some wizened old King Theoden in Meduseld. Before him is Saul (who will go by Paul from herein out), Barnabus and their companions giving the teaching they had been sharing all over the island. Next to Sergius Paulus, however, is Elymas, the Grima Wormtongue character of this tale seeking to dissuade the proconsul from listening to these travelers. And then it happens. Paul rises up like Gandalf the White in the Golden Hall and spares no words for the sorcerer seeking to keep this governor in darkness: “You bag of wind, you parody of a devil—why, you stay up nights inventing schemes to cheat people out of God. But now you’ve come up against God himself, and your game is up. You’re about to go blind—no sunlight for you for a good long stretch” (v. 10, Msg). (Tolkien-file that I am, if Paul had a staff it would just add to the drama and the coolness of the moment). Just like that, Elymas' power is broken, the governor believes and soon after they sail for southern Turkey to preach there. Upon landing, however, John Mark jumps ship on the expedition and returns home. Why? I would think after witnessing that power-encounter in Paphos, he would feel emboldened for the mission not lose heart with it? What gives?
|Talk about a hat|
Was he, as John Stott suggests, simply homesick, “...missing his mother, her spacious Jerusalem home, and the servants”? (The Message of Acts by John Stott, p. 221) Or did he not like the group dynamics that were happening within their traveling band? In Acts 13:1, Luke lists the prophets and teachers in the Church in Antioch and the name at the top of the list is Barnabus. The name at the bottom is Saul. Barnabus was not only physically older than Paul but spiritually older as well. In fact, Saul owed a lot to Barnabus. When he was new to the Jerusalem fellowship and no one would touch him because of his reputation, who was it that vouched for him? Barnabus (see Acts 9:27). After discerning that what the church of Antioch needed was a first-class teacher, who went down to Tarsus to persuade him to join him in the ministry there (see Acts 11:25-26)? Barnabus. When the Holy Spirit spoke to commission the two for the ministry journey they were presently on whose name was mentioned first (Acts 13:2)? Barnabus. Always is the man from Cyprus mentioned first...until after the events at Paphos. From therein out for the rest of the journey it will always be “Paul and Barnabus” or, even more telling, “Paul and his companions” (Acts 13:13). Again Stott raises the question, “...Did he resent the fact that the partnership of 'Barnabus and Saul' (2, 7) had become 'Paul and Barnabus' (13, 46, etc.), since Paul was now taking the lead and eclipsing his cousin?” (p. 221)
There's another factor to consider. John Mark comes from the Jerusalem church, a very conservative group in their own right – maybe one of the last churches to “get with the program.” What their traveling ministry team was doing had never been done before. They were, in a very real sense, making it up as they went. Was John Mark becoming increasingly uncomfortable with what he perceived were Paul's reckless preaching to Gentile audiences, sullying, as it were, the very message they were trying to articulate? “Did he, as a loyal member of Jerusalem's conservative Jewish church, disagree with Paul's bold policy of Gentile evangelism? Was it even he who, on his return to Jerusalem, provoked the Judaizers into opposing Paul (15:1ff)?” (p. 222)
|Apparently how Mark wrote his gospel|
Having landed at Perga the purpose had been to evangelize there but they don't instead moving quickly on to Pisidian Antioch a hundred miles north. Why? In Paul's letter to the Galatians he references this time that Luke glosses over: “You were well aware that the reason I ended up preaching to you was that I was physically broken, and so, prevented from continuing my journey, I was forced to stop with you. That is how I came to preach to you” (Galatians 4:13, Msg). So, if by the time the company had landed at Perga Paul had come down with a form of malaria as most commentators suggest, did John Mark think it was time to pull the plug on the mission and return to Antioch and regroup? Meanwhile, sick though he was, Paul was adamant on continuing the journey. Were there heated words shared? Did Barnabus try to settle his younger cousin down? Did Paul insult John Mark's manhood?
Sir William Ramsay has this to say about 0this incident:
“Paul and his companions came to Perga with the view of evangelizing the next country on their route, a country similar in character to and closely connected in commerce and racial type with Cyrpus, Syria, and Cilicia. For some reason the plan was altered, and they passed rapidly over the Pamphylian lowlands and the Pisidian mountain lands to Antioch, postponing the evangelization of these districts till a later stage of their journey. They went to Antioch for some reason which concerned only that city, and did not contemplate as their object the evangelization of the province to which it belonged. John, however, refused to participate in the changed program, presumably because he disapproved of it. His refusal seems to have been felt as a personal slight by Paul, which suggests that the change of plan was in some way caused by Paul...It is plain that Paul at the moment felt deeply wounded. The journey which he felt to be absolutely necessary in the interests of future work, was treated by Mark as an abandonment of the work; and his sensitive nature would consider Mark's arguments, plausible as they were in some respects, as equivalent to a declaration of a lack of confidence” (St. Paul: The Traveler and Roman Citizen, pp. 86, 90).
Of course, all of this is conjecture – arguments from silence and except Luke's comment in Acts 15:38-39 he is positively mum on what exactly happened in Perga. In time, it all worked out. Paul went on doing what God had called him to do as did John Mark, even getting a shout-out by the apostle himself years later when in his final letter to Timothy he requests that he send John Mark so that he could be his “right-hand man” (2 Tim 4:11, Msg). Usually as I read the account of Paul and the rest of his contemporaries as Luke tells it, in my mind they stand head and shoulders above the rest of us poor schmucks who are in gospel work today. But somehow re-reading this story of the break-up of this ministry group reminds me that they were real guys living in real time and just like the rest of us trying to discern God's leading in their particular setting. Things happen. Communication breaks down. Feelings are wounded. Disagreements occur. And, at times, friendships are broken, in some cases irreparably. That these things shouldn't happen among “Spirit-filled” Christians is beside the point. That they do reminds me once again (as if I needed reminding) that “we carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us” (2 Corinthians 4:7, Msg).
Twenty-five years after the release of Elisabeth Elliot's Through Gates of Splendor, which tells the story of the her husband Jim and his friends' attempt to make contact with the fierce Waodani tribe of Ecuador and their subsequent martyrdom in 1956, her book was re-released with an additional chapter that, among other things, included her reflections on the criticisms that had arisen during the passing years since their death.
“The [Waodani] story, at the time of the death of the men, later when I lived with the Indians themselves, and during all the years since as I have recounted it and reflected on it in the light of my own subsequent experience, has pointed to one thing: God is God. If He is God, He is worthy of my worship and my service. I will find rest nowhere but in His will, and that will is infinitely, immeasurably, unspeakably beyond my largest notions of what He is up to.”
“This is the context in which the story must be understood – as one incident in human history, an incident in certain ways and to certain people important, but only an incident. God is the God of human history, and He is at work continuously, mysteriously, accomplishing His eternal purpose in us, through us, for us, and in spite of us...we are sinners. And we are buffoons…It is not the level of our spirituality that we can depend on. It is God and nothing less than God, for the work is God’s and the call is God’s and everything is summoned by Him and to His purposes, the whole scene, the whole mess, the whole package – our bravery and our cowardice, our love and our selfishness, our strengths and our weaknesses. The God who could take a murderer like Moses and an adulterer like David and a traitor like Peter and make of them strong servants of His is a God who can also redeem savage Indians, using as the instruments of His peace a conglomeration of sinners who sometimes look like heroes and sometimes like villains, for ‘we are no better than pots of earthenware to contain this treasure [the revelation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ], and this proves that such transcendent power does not come from us, but is God’s alone.’ (2 Cor 4:7, NEB)” (p. 268, 273)
Whether John Mark left because he was mad, afraid, disheartened or dismayed, ultimately, is neither here nor there. The work went on. The Word went forth. Disciples were made and the Church's influence increased in spite of the human beings who were responsible for making that happen.