Christ and the Apostle Philip

Philip the Apostle is named in various lists of the apostles of Christ usually next to Bartholomew; compare Malt. 10. 3; Mark 3. 18; Luke 6. 14; Acts 1. 13. He should be carefully distinguished from both Philip the evangelist of Acts 6 and 8, and Philip the tetrarch of Luke 3. 1. ‘Philip’ was a common Greek name meaning ‘lover of horses’, and so probably indicates his Greek family connections. Before his call to discipleship by Christ he lived in Bethsaida of Galilee, a fishing town on the shores of the lake. Only the aposlle John (in four separate passages of his Gospel) writes about him at any length. These indicate a developing relationship between Philip and his Lord, namely, John 1. 43-51; 6. 5-14; 12. 20-26; 14. 6-11. Philip is portrayed as a seeker after spiritual satisfaction, who keenly felt his own inadequacy but was rather slow to find the fulfilment of his need in the Lord. There were four stages in the Lord’s dealings with him, developed through John’s Gospel, which can be summarized thus: John 1, The Seeker Sought; John 6, The Seeker Proved; John 12, The Seeker Taught; and John 14, The Seeker Satisfied.

First, therefore, in John 1. 43-51 we will consider The Seeker Sought and found by the Lord Himself. Philip had been looking for the Jewish Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament scriptures, but his experience was that the Lord went out of His way into the despised district of Galilee to find Philip. Philip’s seeking thus found its answer in the Lord’s coming to seek him unasked. The words of the gospel hymn, ‘I was lost, but Jesus found me’, are the experience of all Christ’s disciples. But, we may well ask, ‘Why did the Lord choose to call Philip, one who was so diffident and slow to learn’? The answer must surely be so that He could the better reveal His own grace and glory in dealing patiently with one who was such apparently unpromising material.

The Lord’s approach to Philip was both firm and uncompromising. It was a simple call to discipleship, ‘Follow me’. We all need to learn that our search for God can only be satisfied as a by-product of a lifelong relationship of wholehearted discipleship to the Lord Jesus Christ. In actual fact Philip’s prompt response to Christ is the one encouraging feature of John’s mentions of him. For Philip’s immediate reaction to his call was to go to find one of his closest friends and introduce him to Christ. Nathaniel may be the same person as the Bartholomew of the other Gospel writers. He was one of the twelve apostles and specially linked in his ministry with Philip, although this is not capable of certain proof. In finding Nathaniel and declaring in no uncertain manner, ‘We have found him’, that is, the Messiah of Old Testament scriptures, Philip became at once one of the many witnesses to Christ recorded in John 1. To begin with, Nathaniel was not totally convinced, because Jesus came from the despised town of Nazareth whence, he thought, no good thing could come. But he needed to learn that Christ was morally far superior to His environment, yet truly, as foretold in the prophecy of Isaiah 53, ‘a root out of a dry ground’. Philip, to his credit, did not argue the matter, but simply said, ‘Come and see’. Only first hand, personal experience of Christ can prove to us His essential goodness. Are not all invited to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’? However, Nathaniel became completely convinced about Christ by the evidence of His omniscience, and then declared both His Deity as the Son of God and His Messiahship as the King of Israel.

Thus we find in John 1 that Philip’s search for God had begun to be satisfied. But full satisfaction came only slowly as the by-product of a continuing and growing relationship with Christ, as His disciple. There were three later incidents recorded by John in which the Lord took time with Philip to deepen the work He had begun in Philip’s life. We need to learn thoroughly the lesson that our conversion is only a beginning to our Christian life.

So it is that in John’s Gospel chapter 6. 5-14, we find Philip as The Seeker Proved, or tested, by the Lord and found completely wanting. The occasion was the incident of the feeding of the five thousand. We read in 6. 5 that, when the Lord saw the large number of people who gathered to Him, He turned to Philip and asked him, ‘Whence shall we buy bread that these may eat?’ This is perhaps surprising, because we nowhere else read in scripture that the Lord asked anyone for advice, although we must realize that the Lord knew what He Himself would do. The Lord asked Philip this question only because He wanted to prove him, inviting him to reveal the true spiritual state of his heart. The measure would thus be disclosed in which Philip either did, or did not, yet appreciate the Lord’s Person and divine sufficiency in all circumstances as the one true Bread of Life given by the Father to the world. Poor Philip at once fell short of the mark. ‘Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them’, he lamely replied. Presumably, he knew where bread could be procured, because he was in his home district of Galilee. But all he could think of was that there was not sufficient money to buy bread for such a large crowd. A penny, or rather a Roman denarius, was an average day’s wage, according to the parable of the labourers in the vineyard. Two hundred pence would therefore represent well over six months’ wages for most men, and Philip knew that none of the disciples, nor the Lord Himself, had as much money as that with them. Was he not thinking on a very low, human and mundane level, at which the situation was clearly impossible? The phrase ‘not sufficient” here, and the identical word in chapter 14. 8 ‘it sufficeth us’, is the key to Philip’s character. He had a keen sense of his own inadequacy, perhaps an inferiority complex. This was probably why he was a seeker for the Christ. But now, when put to the test by the Lord, he completely failed to reckon on Christ’s divine power as the Son of God incarnate, the Bread of Life sufficient for all man’s needs in this world and the next. He still remained blind to the full understanding of the Lord’s Person and power. He did not see in the Lord Himself the only, all sufficient, answer to this and every other physical and spiritual problem. The Lord had proved Philip to be spiritually bankrupt, but proceeded to demonstrate to Him that He had resources more than adequate for the situation.

We too, as Christ’s disciples, will be tested by our Lord. Left to ourselves, we shall be found completely wanting and inadequate too, just like Philip. But we should learn from our experiences to find all our needs, fully met in our Lord Himself. He who devised the test for Philip also provided its answer. May this encourage us to go on with our Lord despite our failures under trial. He who did not give Philip up because of his slowness to learn to trust Hirn, will not give us up either, but through our manifested weaknesses will lead us on to depend on Him more fully than ever before.


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