All of us make mistakes in our lives. Sometimes your mistakes come to define you. You can’t stop thinking about them. Others won’t stop reminding you of them. And the consequences are long and painful. They lead you down paths where you get lost and can’t find your way back. They cripple you from ever becoming the person God would have you to be.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Your mistakes don’t have to trap you for a lifetime.
Last Sunday morning at Quaker Gap, we looked at the letter Paul wrote to Philemon. Paul sends a slave named Onesimus, whom he has led to faith in Jesus, back to the slave-owner he ran away from – Philemon. The letter is a commendation of Onesimus and a plea to Philemon to welcome, forgive and ultimately free Onesimus from slavery. The letter fits neatly into Paul’s teaching from Galatians that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus". Faith in Jesus changes everything – and Philemon needs to wrestle with what this means for his relationship to Onesimus. A beautiful letter that opens our eyes to the fact that faith in Jesus cuts deeply across every area of our lives.
At the end of the letter, Paul sends greetings to Philemon, his family and the church that meets at Philemon’s home, from some of the fellow believers ministering to Paul in Rome. The list is eye opening…
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers. -Philemon 1:23
Without identifying each of these fellow workers, the one I’d like to highlight as eye-opening is Mark. Mark is now a fellow worker alongside Paul in Rome. The word for fellow worker in the Greek is sunergos, from which we get our English word synergy. Mark has come a long way. His story is one of how someone can go from expendable to essential.
In Acts 12, we meet him for the first time. Peter is miraculously set free from Herod’s jail. The first place he goes is to the home of a woman named Mary, where many believers are gathered praying for him,
When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. – Acts 12:12
Luke draws our attention to the son of Mary: John, also called Mark. In those days, many Jews went by two names; a Jewish name and a Roman name. John was his Jewish name. Mark was his Roman name. He was raised in a Jewish household, and his mother is one of the influential women of the church. She believes that Jesus is the Messiah, and is willing to risk a gathering of Jesus-followers in her home for a prayer meeting. In one of his letters, Peter calls Mark, “my son,”
She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark. 1 Peter 5:13
We can only guess that Peter led John Mark to the Lord.
As it turns out, Mark finds himself in the company of not only Peter, but also Paul. Paul and Barnabas are headed from Jerusalem to the church at Antioch, and they take John Mark with them.
When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark. – Acts 12:25
Nicknamed, “the son of encouragement,” Barnabas was commissioned by the Holy Spirit to help resurrect Paul’s reputation. Now, as they head to Antioch, he includes Mark, who is his cousin. Eventually, he departs on the journey of a lifetime. Paul and Barnabas are chosen by the Holy Spirit and the church at Antioch to go and plant churches in Asia Minor. They take John Mark with them.
John Mark sails to the isle of Cyprus with his cousin Barnabas and the Apostle Paul. What an exciting voyage, and a great opportunity for him to experience. Their first port at Cyprus is Salamis. Things are going well.
When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. John was with them as their helper. – Acts 13:5
Travelling the whole island of Cyprus and experiencing many things along with Paul and Barnabas, the missionary group next sails from Cyprus to Asia Minor. Upon arriving at the port of Perga, John Mark returns to Jerusalem. No explanation is given for his departure. Luke simply gives us the facts.
From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John left them to return to Jerusalem. – Acts 13:13
Three years later, after their journey is over and plans are underway for the next, the details of John Mark’s departure are discussed. Unfortunately, it’s a heated discussion that ends in division.
Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. -Acts 15:36-40
Mark’s mistake resulted in a split-up between Paul and Barnabas. He was the reason for a sharp disagreement between these godly men. Paul viewed Mark as a liability due to his desertion at Perga. Barnabas stood up for his cousin, wanting to give him a second chance. Their conflict separated them. Paul teamed up with Cyrus instead of Barnabas. Barnabas sailed back to Cyprus with his spurned cousin, Mark. The rest of the book of Acts follows the story of Paul, leaving us with very little news of the ministry of Barnabas and Mark.
Let’s not run too far ahead, though. This is a good place to pause and consider Mark. As he stands on the deck of a boat sailing across the Mediterranean toward Cyprus, he experiences many emotions. He feels the sting of shame from his last encounter on a missionary journey. His role as a wedge between Paul and Barnabas is awkward. There’s the growing hope that comes with a second chance. The strongest emotion, to my way of thinking, is the relief that comes from grace. Barnabas joins Mark on deck and slaps him on the back with a broad, encouraging smile. Mark’s eyes fill with tears as he ponders all his cousin has forfeited for him. The glow of grace warms his heart, even on a windy sea. I wonder if it was there, with a spark of encouragement, that Mark begins his dream of telling the story of Jesus? A story that would become the first written of four included at the beginning of the New Testament. Yes, John Mark is that Mark.
The gamble Barnabas takes on his cousin, Mark, pays off in the end. Mark’s story is a story of redemption. Later in life, even Paul comes around, as we see in Philemon where he calls him a fellow worker, and in 2 Timothy 4:11 where he writes, “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.” It’s not his mistake early in life that defines him, but God’s grace.
Whatever mistakes you’ve made, don’t let them define you. In Christ, there is forgiveness. Let His grace define you. Surround yourself with encouragers, like Barnabas, and push forward. Redemption is a common theme among the people of God. There’s a little bit of John Mark in all of us.
When the Apostle Paul sends a letter, he isn’t just writing to say, “Hello.” Paul writes epistles to churches because of real world issues. He has his feelers out in all the churches. When he receives a report, he is delighted with progress, and is dismayed by problems. From a troubled heart, he sits down with an assistant and dictates a letter. Prayerfully, he puts the letter into the hands of a trusted leader who delivers his words in person. As the letter is read, those who are guilty of the division Paul addresses squirm in their seats. Others nod their heads in approval. The letter is a truth bomb. The church must respond in a wise and timely way.
Two-thousand years later we open Paul’s letters looking for a personal word from the Lord. Without an understanding of the original audience and the struggle they were facing, our grasp of the content is weakened. Studying the Bible requires studying the culture.
Last Sunday at Quaker Gap we referred to a verse found in Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches. It’s a beautiful verse emphasizing the unity of the body of Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28)
This is one of those instances where we need to pay attention to the occasion of Paul’s letter. If we read our cultural baggage into this passage of Scripture, we can come up with all sorts of interpretations foreign to Paul and Galatia. For instance, our view of the word slave and the first century view are different. While not defending the institution of slavery in any way, it needs to be understood that the chattel slavery of American history differs from what was happening in the Roman Empire. One of the most important distinctions is that Roman slaves had the opportunity to earn money on the side so that they could eventually buy their freedom from their master. This option was unavailable to slaves in the Americas. Another distinction is that Roman slaves were diverse in cultural background, while American slaves were largely of African descent. A third distinction is that many slaves in the Roman world performed higher status duties, managing businesses, and even serving as doctors. American slaves mostly performed hard labor. Slavery in the Roman Empire was established practice with much less of the stigma of American slavery. Scholars have approximated that most Roman cities were populated by as much as 40% slaves, 40% freedmen (former slaves) and 20% Roman citizens. Perhaps this was the case in Galatia. Paul’s declaration concerning the gospel would have impacted many hearers of the letter.
Another distinction to which we need to pay attention is the difference between women’s rights in Rome vs. today. Women were considered property of their husbands in the Roman Empire. They couldn’t vote or hold political office. A woman’s education in Rome largely consisted of preparation for household duties. While we know from the Bible that some women ran businesses and acquired wealth, the opportunities afforded to them were much smaller than that of men. This makes Paul’s teaching with regard to the gospel, that there is neither male nor female, even more revolutionary.
Perhaps the most important distinction is between the Jew and Gentile. As we read this in our day, we attend churches largely made up of Gentile believers. So much so that we don’t even refer to ourselves as Gentile anymore. But in Paul’s day, the church was made up of two distinct groups. There were Jewish people who had come to faith in Jesus as the Messiah, and Gentile people who had come to faith in Jesus as their Savior. Jewish believers continued to practice their cultural and religious lifestyles which the Gentiles did not. This is where the problem arose in the Galatian churches. It was a problem the early church faced all the way up to its leadership. Do Gentiles need to become Jews in order to become Christians? How much of Jewish religious practice should Gentiles be responsible to adapt in order to fit into the church? Can Gentiles who don’t follow Jewish law be true followers of the Messiah? These questions erupted into full divisions between Jewish and Gentile believers over areas like dietary choices, ceremonial practices, and circumcision. What a mess.
Paul writes his letter to the churches of Galatia with the Jew and Gentile controversy in mind. The growing threat is that the church will fall apart along racial lines. He handles the conflict by emphasizing the gospel of Jesus Christ. From the beginning of the letter, he highlights the gospel message that he taught them when the churches were planted…
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel-- which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God's curse! (Gal. 1:6-8)
This is serious business. Paul teaches that those who are adding Jewish religious practice to the gospel message are violating the grace of God. In so doing, they are usurping the authority of the Lord, and there is hell to pay. Incorporating law into the gospel is a mistake. Later, he writes…
I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! (Gal. 2:21)
Paul stresses that salvation is by faith in the crucified Jesus and not through works of the law. He rebukes those who place the burden of law-keeping to believers in Christ who have received grace. He even reaches back into the Jewish law to prove that Gentiles are on the same level as Jews when it comes to faith in Christ…
So also Abraham "believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. (Gal. 3:6-7)
Gentiles, in Paul’s understanding of the gospel truth, are just as much children of Abraham as Jews. Together in Christ, they become brothers and sisters. Within the church, the distinction between Jew and Gentile no longer matters. Paul understands that his Jewish countrymen will likely continue their Jewish practices. His concern is that they won’t attempt to enforce these practices within the church. Gentile believers should not be considered second-rate citizens of God’s kingdom.
So, what is the point? Paul delivers his piercing words into the Galatian churches to change their attitudes regarding the family of God. These are groundbreaking truths. While the world is known for dividing people into classes, levels of importance, and castes, in Christ these manmade partitions dissolve. While outside the church it is business as usual, inside the church family Christ demands unity. There are no second-rate Christians. In Christ, the Roman citizen worships alongside the slave with no expectation of special treatment. We are commanded to humbly wash one another’s feet. In the church family, men and women worship together (Philemon 1:2), serve together (Romans 16:1), prophesy together (Acts 21:9), and work together (Romans 16:12) for God’s glory. And in the body of Christ, tribal distinctions dissolve, looking forward to the day when we all stand together around God’s throne as one great, integrated kingdom.
Though this sounds beautiful, we confess it is the aim and not the experience of the church. Paul’s letter didn’t solve the problem of prejudice within the early church. To this day equality and unity suffer in the body of Christ. It is the responsibility of each individual believer to strive for Paul’s unifying vision. Let’s do our best, church, to set aside manmade categories that suppress in favor of celebrating unity in Christ. The gospel demands it.
Dr. Jack Darida