Focus on Philip

I was admittedly biased when it came to selecting this topic. Our only son was born two years ago and we named him Philip. Incidentally, we didn’t name him after either Philip cited in the first five books of the New Testament but after his maternal grandfather. Yet I have grown in my appreciation of the biblical Philips. I can learn a lot from the apostle Philip,1 because he reminds me of myself.

The Greek rendering of his name, Philippos, is “horse lover.” In addition to their strength, speed, and responsiveness, horses are known for their exceptional vision, seeing up to 350º. Although the equine eye is the largest of any land mammal, there is a notable blind spot directly in front of their noses and directly behind them. Similarly, Philip was swift to heed his Master’s call, strong in his aptitude for the Old Testament (Jn. 1:43-45), and sensed the multitude’s lack of natural resources (Jn. 6:7). Though visually inclined, Philip demonstrated a blind spot for spiritual matters. Each of the four encounters with Philip documented for us in John’s Gospel is a lesson in walking by faith, not by sight.

Come and see (John 1)

Philip is always listed fifth among the Twelve (Mt. 10:3; Mk. 3:18; Lk. 6:14; Acts 1:13), but John’s Gospel is the only insight we have regarding his interaction with others.

The closing paragraph of John 1 begins with the lovely phrase, “The following day Jesus wanted to go to Galilee” [emphasis added], where He found Philip (v. 43). It is a wonderful testament to our Savior that He meets us in our natural state, out of His desire (not just compulsion), so that He can change our lives!

Philip hailed from the same Galilean town of Bethsaida (Heb. house of fishing) as Simon and Andrew. The Lord initiated the conversation by telling Philip, “Follow Me” (v. 43). Philip immediately galloped into action, telling his friend Nathanael (a.k.a. Bartholomew) that “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law, and also the prophets wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Joseph” (v. 45).

Philip’s unbridled zeal for telling his friend about the Messiah is evident. Philip’s intellectual strengths are also on display as he correctly concludes that the Lord Jesus was the Messiah prophesied by the Old Testament prophets. He knew his Bible. Moreover, when challenged by Nathanael about whether anything good could come out of Nazareth, Philip eschews debate by replying, “Come and see” (v. 46). When we refer others to Christ, it is often enough to tell them to see Him for themselves: “Taste and see that the Lord is good, blessed is the man that trusts in Him” (Ps. 34:8). Nevertheless, Philip’s limited description of the Lord was an early indication of his blind spot.

Between the two friends, only Nathanael saw the Son of God (v. 49). By contrast, Philip only saw the Son of Joseph. He is both of course, and we commend Philip for his speedy acknowledgment of his Messiah. But only Nathanael acknowledged the Lord’s deity.

The hazard of limiting the Lord’s person is that it opens the door to the devil’s lies (Jn. 8:44). Society certainly loves to assign shortcomings to our blessed Lord. Recently, a book purporting to set the record straight about the historical Christ was published.2 Among other false claims, it denies the virgin birth and the resurrection. The book concludes that the Lord Jesus was simply a product of His time, crucified for sedition as if nothing more than a first-century predecessor to Che Guevara. Conversely, the evaluation that truly matters is that of the Father: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The lesson to all disciples is to “come and see” the Son of God!

Surveying the multitude (John 6)

The Lord’s next recorded conversation with Philip occurred while He ministered to the multitude above the shores of Galilee, with an audience of 5,000 men (in addition to their families).

The Lord tested Philip with the question, “Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?” (Jn. 6:5). Philip replied, “Two hundred denarii [seven month’s wages] worth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may have a little” (v. 7). Instead of focusing on the Savior, Philip was focused on the suffering of the people. Similarly, society asks, “Where was God on 9/11?” or “Where is God when my loved one lies dying?” Whenever we are confronted with dire circumstances, let’s remember that we wouldn’t seek the Physician without the pain! C.S. Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”3

The One asking Philip the question was the Bread of Life (Jn. 6:35, 51). Multiplying the bread for the masses was only the beginning. If they were willing, He could also grant them eternal life. Andrew saw the boy with five loaves and two fishes. The Lord was able to feed the multitude with that small lunch (“as much as they wanted,” v. 11), with twelve baskets of leftovers!

Heaven’s bread house is still open! He still uses our resources, gifts, and abilities for His glory. Thinking of our shortcomings rather than His riches, our prayer meetings dwindle because we wonder how our little prayers can affect such a large, needy world. Subsequently, we demonstrate a lack of faith when we offer God what’s left of our income while harboring the best for ourselves. The lesson to all disciples is to offer all we have—however little—to Him and watch what He can do.

We wish to see Jesus (John 12)

At the approach of the Lord’s final Passover, some Gentile proselytes approach Philip with the noble request, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (Jn. 12:21). The text reminds us that Philip was from the northern region of Bethsaida, where exchanges occurred between Jews and Gentiles.

No words of reply are recorded from Philip. Instead, he entreats his compatriot Andrew and together they approach the Lord (v. 22). His apprehension may have been because he was unsure whether the Lord would receive the Gentiles. Although their ministry was primarily to the lost sheep of Israel, the Lord did give several indications that there were no boundaries to His message: His declaration about God’s love for the world (Jn. 3:16), His promise that anybody who came to Him would not be cast out (Jn. 6:37), and His remarks regarding having other sheep which are not of this fold (Jn. 10:16). But at that moment, all these seem to have been lost on Philip. Philip’s delay in granting the Gentiles an audience with the Savior hindered rather than helped their access. In their natural state, they were, “without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:13). Or was Philip simply being like Jonah—afraid that the Lord would receive them (cf. Jon. 4:2)? May we never be guilty of discriminating among the lost sheep, all of whom the Shepherd is seeking!

The Lord’s response indicated that His time with them was coming to a close, as He anticipated His death at Calvary that very week (vv. 23-26). The privilege of having the Lord Jesus physically accessible would soon end. Since the Lord’s physical departure from our scene, the only means by which a lost society can see Jesus is through His church, composed of many “Philips” (Eph. 1:23). This begs the question: when they encounter us, do they see Jesus? The lesson to all disciples is to meet the world’s gaze by reflecting the Savior’s character.

Show us the Father (John 14)

The Upper Room discourse in John 13-17 is the Lord’s last disclosure to His disciples before His death. Within the discourse, the Lord responded to His disciples’ queries, including one from Philip.

Having introduced the notion that His approaching death and subsequent entry into heaven would grant them the same access to the Father that He had, the disciples were confused about a few things: why He had to depart, where He was going, and the promise of His return (Jn. 13:31-14:7). Philip appealed, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us” (Jn. 14:8). In his attempt at earnestness, Philip revealed his disbelief of the One he beheld. The promises of the Lord Jesus weren’t enough for him.

The Lord replied, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip?”, thereby listing the ways Philip was betraying his own senses (vv. 9-11). He had already seen the Father, because He had seen the Lord. He had already heard the Father, because He had heard the Lord. He had witnessed the Father’s works, because it was the Lord who performed them.

When I was a young boy, my father spent many months at a time working overseas. During his first term away, I would ask my mother daily when we would see him again. As weeks grew into months, I told my mother that I no longer believed that daddy was ever coming home. However, one day, my father came back just as he said he would! Because he kept his promise to me the first time, I never doubted his return after every subsequent departure. Because the Lord Jesus proved His claims through His death, resurrection, and ascension, we never have to doubt His claims about our future together with Him. The lesson to all disciples is to look no further than the Sufficient One to experience the fullness of God now!

“While we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18).

1 Not to be confused with the deacon-evangelist we are introduced to in Acts 6:5.

2 Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

3 C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain.