Have you ever stopped to consider that the Bible is a narrative, and not every action depicted therein is exemplary? Perhaps this is common sense to you; Adam and Eve disobeyed God and brought the curse of death and suffering on the entirety of humanity. No, we should not follow that example. King David, the “man after God’s own heart” had an affair with Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, and then he had Uriah killed when he was incapable of covering up his sin, only to take her as his own wife. Yep, not a good example to follow either.
Sometimes, however, when we get into the New Testament, moral observations are not offered in the stories, and we forget that books like Acts are historical narrative and not instruction or exemplary of how we should act, function as a Church, or build our doctrine. But it is also a historical narrative that, while it does offer specific moral and ethical instruction, it also tells us a history and there are often little nuggets of truth and encouragement that we can see through the characters. One of my favorite examples of this is the relationship between Paul and John Mark.
Paul and Barnabas were serving at the Church at Antioch, and the leaders of the Church were compelled by the Holy Spirit to send the two men out “for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13.2). They took off on their first missionary journey and hit many cities, planting many churches and getting kicked out of most every city where they worked. After a season of ministry, planting many churches, being stoned and persecuted, they made their way home for a time of encouragement and refreshment. While they were there a debate arose over whether or not the non-Jews needed to be circumcised so Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to discuss the debate with the apostles and Pharisees who had believed in Jesus. After concluding that they did not need to be circumcised, the apostles sent Silas and Judas along to help out with the work.
After everything settled down, Paul and Barnabas decided to retrace their first missionary journey to go visit on all of the churches they had planted.
Barnabas wanted to take John, called Mark, along with them also. But Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there occurred such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and left, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. And he was traveling through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
– Acts 15.37-41
While they were out on their first missionary journey, John Mark deserted Paul and Barnabas. We do not know what happened in Pamphylia, chapter 14 simply says that they went there and preached the word. But for whatever reason John Mark deserted them, and Paul was so angry about it that he was unwilling to work with him again – at the expense of his partner Barnabas.
Dealing with deserters has been a struggle for the persecuted church since the beginning, and we see exemplified here in Acts 15 that Paul wanted nothing to do with John Mark. Barnabas, however, saw his repentance as genuine and wanted to work with him to the point that he was willing to take him out and part ways with Paul. I guess his name, “Son of Encouragement” was fitting (Acts 4.36)!
Perhaps Barnabas was quick to restore the fallen as he himself had fallen into the hypocrisy of refusing to eat with the Gentiles (non Jews) along with Peter, James and John even though they had been given the calling of taking the Gospel to the Gentiles (Gal 2.9-14)!
But we finally see, in Paul’s second letter to Timothy, that Paul not only had made peace with John Mark who deserted them in Pamphylia, but asked Timothy to bring him:
“Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service.”
– 2 Tim 4.11
In the book of Colossians, Paul commends Mark to them but calls him Barnabas’s cousin (Col 4.10), in the book of Philemon Paul refers to him as a fellow worker (Philemon 1.24), and by the time Paul wrote 1 Peter, he called Mark “my son” (1 Peter 5.13).
I guess Paul got over it. Just like Jesus forgave Peter.
But if we quit reading at the Acts account, we would not know the full story! We would think that Paul set an example to despise and not associate with those who fall in a moment or season of weakness – deeming them un-restorable. But when we look deeper we see that not only was the deserter restorable, but that he became to Paul a partner and ultimately like a son.
Aside from Jesus, no one in scripture is perfect. And unless the passage clearly denotes instruction, we should not assume that the actions of the characters are examples that we should follow. We know that all of Scripture is breathed by God, and if it is instruction then it is instruction from God that we should obey. If it is narrative, then we need to contrast it against the instructions and see if it lines up. Because even Paul made mistakes.