My intention originally was to try to understand how or why young John Mark abandoned Barnabas and Paul in mid-mission. The first evangelistic “crusades” were critical to the early growth and success of the newly born Christian Church. So, for someone to just clock out with no notice, no reason, on a crucial initial mission would certainly raise a question about their being well suited for a return engagement. It probably left the group a bit short-handed.
Perhaps Paul was right in objecting to taking another chance on such a risky, unproven beginner. We’ll get to that later.
Before proceeding with that study, I did a little bit of “reverse engineering,” and attempted to find out how Paul and Mark’s paths intersected in the first place. It was clear to me after the fact that some things which occurred would be difficult to understand or explain unless you backed off and viewed the situation with some objectivity.
Try to imagine that you’ve been thrust back in time, and you come upon an angry scene with men shouting and screaming obscenities, and hurling stones at a crumpled, helpless, defenseless figure they’ve surrounded. Look over at the edge of the crowd. You won’t recognized him immediately, but you and the rest of the world will hear from him shortly.
Acts 8 “1 And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.”
The stoning of Stephen. The sheer brutality of such an incident causes any civilized, sensitive human to wince in pain. It’s difficult to make any sense of this kind of thing, but let’s try to follow this trail.
Keep in mind that Stephen’s death was the outrageous, unwarranted, public, cruel murder of a man who simply spoke truth as he saw it.
He thus became the first Christian martyr. That word which has evolved in our language to mean someone who dies for their belief was not first used in that way. A “marturia” (the Greek word) was simply a witness, i.e. someone who saw something and reported truthfully what they observed. In many cases in the early history of the Christian Church (such as this incident) when someone spoke truth, it cost them their lives. The mortality rate if you confessed faith in Christ in those early days was as bad as second lieutenants in combat in a hot war zone! Over a period of time, with death frequently being the result of bearing a faithful witness, the word became more closely identified with dying than it did with “witnessing.” So, when Stephen spoke unpopular truth to powerful people, they simply killed him.
Such a thing seems as preposterous today as it is outrageous. And to think “religious, god-fearing, otherwise law-abiding” folks were the ones who mashed life out of a young Stephen is almost unthinkable. How can anyone make any sense of such enraged insanity and brutality? How could anything good ever possibly come out of something which was so bad? By any standard, it was a tragedy. From our standpoint, an absurdly sensless tragedy.
On the fringe of the maddened crowd that day, perhaps in the shadows, we encounter Saul of Tarsus. Aiding and abetting. Acting as a “second” for the brutes and savages who were ranting, raving, screaming irrationally, and spitting obscene epithets. Over here on the sidelines is a young man with a massive mind.
There are several ways to examine facts and evidence. Logicians will tell you there is both inductive and deductive reasoning. In exploring, if you stumble upon a stream you can follow it as it curves and carves and winds its way to an outlet. Or, if you work backwards, you can go from an outlet back up to see where the stream originated.
In attempting to figure out how Mark botched his first real assignment, I worked backward to see what happened earlier. Seemingly unrelated incidents happened and began to fall into place. What appeared to be a senseless tragedy triggers some things which result in the conversion of one of the most brilliant Christian theologian/evangelists of all time.
While he became by all accounts, one of the most influential leaders of all time for the Church and was a man of God, Saul was also a man of flesh, and blood and bone, an apparently short temper and impatience with those who failed to measure up to his standards.
Saul was not an innocent bystander at the brutal stoning of Stephen. And there was something about the way Stephen lived, spoke, and then died which really psyched Paul out. He wasn’t content just to watch the man die. He went on a tear! He got an official license to hunt, track down and kill the members of this new “sect.” He did it with a venom and a rage. He was official. He was effective.
But how could that possibly figure in what happened later in Saul’s life? How could such a trial of faith cut a trail to the doorsteps of an idealistic, eager, impatient, undisciplined young man named Mark? How could the dots be connected? Can they be connected?