The value of un-success

Life in the first years of the Jesus Community was far from easy-peasy, rosy oras a learned theologian once put it to me: “Not all beer and skittles.” If you read through Acts and the closing bits of Paul’s letters you can see about thirty years of ups and downs. People, problems.

But Paul was a very dogged kind of guy and you can see the care that he put into developing young leaders.

In Colossians 4, for example, Jesus “named Justus” (v11) would appear to characterize a loyal transparency or integrity in leadership. Epaphras seems to characterize an emphasis on intercession in leadership (v12-13): (“Epaphras, who is one of you… always labouring fervently for you in prayers”). Luke shows the importance of friendship and loyalty in leadership (v14) “Luke, the beloved physician, …” as is indicated by the sad moment in 2 Tim 4:11: “Only Luke is with me.”

But the Biblical account is not limited to success stories, and these negative elements do their own work of instruction into our understanding of the spiritual formation of young leaders. Demas was involved in the ministry as a companion of Paul. He was with Paul during his first imprisonment in Rome, but later when Paul wrote 2 Tim (4:10) he noted that Demas had deserted him “in love with this present world.”

The three references to Demas in the New Testament tell his story with a poignant brevity. In Philemon 24 he is referred to as a “fellow worker”. In Col 4:14 he seems to stand somewhat in the background ( in the phrase “and Demas”) of those who send greetings. By the writing of 2 Timothy he has already left: “he has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica.”  It is not possible to fill in the blanks in the story of Demas, but he reminds me that things go wrong. People change. Stuff happens. It’s all very believable.

By contrast, John Mark is a case of failure and restoration. The same word that is translated “deserted” in 2 Tim 4:10 is used of John Mark in Acts 15:36-40. The passage tells the story: “Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John 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 brothers to the grace of the Lord.”

This is another indicator of the value of un-success. There is simply no doubt that if we drop the ball at a certain point in our lives we can easily become guilt-ridden and demoralized. But even real failure (I’m not sure about John Mark: it could have been a real issue, but is more likely to have been a personality thing. We just don’t have the facts)…even real failure does not have to be the point of no return. Failure can never be justified or condoned, but it can provide an opportunity for the love and grace of God to be magnified. The Lord knows that we are weak and prone to failure, and he graciously provides a way back. Phew!

John Mark was not an apostle, but clearly he was associated with the apostles from the earliest days of Christianity. It is quite possible that the young man who ran away on the night of Jesus’ arrest was Mark himself (Mark 14:51-52). The early believers met in the house owned by Mary, Mark’s mother. Peter came to this home when he was miraculously released from prison (Acts 12). In 1 Peter 5:13, Peter refers to Mark as his son in the faith. When or where or whether Peter led Mark to faith in Christ is not known, but there was certainly a spiritual father/son relationship between Peter and Mark.

The apostle Barnabas was Mark’s cousin (Col4:10), and it was through Barnabas that Mark was introduced to the apostle Paul. Barnabas and Paul had come to Jerusalem from Antioch to bring a gift of relief to the church in Judea because of widespread famine (Acts 11:27-30). When Barnabas and Paul returned to Antioch, Mark went with them. Thus, he was in the right place at the right time when Paul and Barnabas started on their first missionary journey. Mark joined them and shared in their ministry on the island of Cyprus. But when the missionary team was ready to set out for the interior of Asia Minor, Mark left them and went home to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13).

The Bible doesn’t tell us about the results of the ministry of Barnabas and Mark on the island of Cyprus, but Mark’s subsequent activities prove that his failure was not final. The Lord did not set Mark aside from Christian service. About ten years later Paul was under house arrest in Rome. From that situation Paul wrote letters of instruction and encouragement to individuals and local churches, and we see that Mark was not only back in Paul’s good graces, but was a valued member of Paul’s team once again. Mark joined in with the other team members in Paul’s personal greetings to Philemon (v24). Greetings from Mark are also included in Colossians 4:10, and Paul urged the church at Colossae to welcome Mark if he came to visit. Apparently Mark continued serving the Lord under Paul’s direction when Paul was released from his house arrest in Rome. When Paul wrote his last letter during his second Roman imprisonment, Mark was commended once again. Paul wrote to Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11). Mark’s former failure was only a temporary setback in his walk of faith.

So often we are guilty of “shooting the wounded.” Those who have fallen, or moved to one side, are shrugged off. We shake our heads at the memory of them when they come into the conversation. But the Bible takes a more Marines type of ideology: we go together and no one gets left behind. The fact that the apostle Paul did not irrevocably eliminate Mark from future Christian service with him is a valuable lesson for us. Some Christians continue to hold past failures against repentant fellow-believers, causing them to become extremely discouraged and demoralized. Other Christians subconsciously regard those who have failed as permanent “second class Christians” because of the past faults. But the failure of a brother or sister in Christ is not necessarily a sign of a permanent character flaw. Let’s be careful not to blaspheme the character of God by refusing to forgive fellow-believers who are truly repentant–whom God is willing to forgive! (See Ephesians 4:32 and 1 John 1:9.) We need to be ready to forgive them and restore them to fellowship and useful service.

While certain kinds of failure will permanently affect a Christian’s area and arena of service, God never writes off a believer–not in salvation and not for future service. Let’s not be harder on our fellow-believers than God is! Restoration of a failed believer to useful service is an important function of spiritual fellow-believers. Paul writes, “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently…” (Galatians 6:1). The Greek word for “restore” is the same word used elsewhere for “setting bones” or “mending nets”–a clear indication that the restored believer will be useful for service for Christ in the future.

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3 Responses to The value of un-success

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