Of the four biblical lists of the 12 apostles, the fifth name on every list is Phillip. Which appears to signify that Philip was the leader of the second group of four (Phillip, Nathaniel, Thomas, Matthew).
Phillip is a Greek name, meaning “lover of horses.” He must also have had a Jewish name, because all 12 apostles were Jewish. But his Jewish name is never given. Greek civilization had spread through the Mediterranean after the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC and many people in the Middle East had adopted the Greek language, Greek culture, and Greek customs. They were known as “Hellenists.” Perhaps Phillip came from a family of Hellenistic Jews.
Don’t confuse him with Philip the deacon, the man we met in Acts 6 who became an evangelist and led the Ethiopian eunuch to Christ. Phillip the apostle was a completely different individual.
The apostle Phillip “was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter” (John 1: 44). Since they were all God-fearing Jews, Phillip probably grew up attending the same synagogue as Peter and Andrew. Because of the relationship that existed between them and the sons of Zebedee, Philip was probably acquainted with all four.
What do we know about Phillip? Matthew, Mark, and Luke give no details at all about him. All the vignettes of Philip appear in the gospel of John. Piecing together all the apostle John’s records about him, it seems Phillip was a classic “process person.” He was a facts and figures guy—a by-the-book, practical minded, non-forward-thinking type of individual. He was the kind who tends to be pessimistic, narrowly focused, sometimes missing the big picture, often obsessed with identifying reasons things can’t be done rather than finding ways to do them. He was predisposed to be a pragmatist and a cynic— and sometimes a defeatist—rather than a visionary.
We first meet Phillip in John 1, the day after Jesus had first called Andrew, John, and Peter. John writes, “the following day Jesus wanted to go to Galilee, and he found Phillip and said to him, “Follow me” (John 1: 43). He is the first one who Jesus physically sought out, and the first one to whom Jesus actually said, “Follow me.”
Phillip’s seeking heart is evident in how he responded to Jesus. “Phillip found Nathaniel and said to him, ‘we have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote; Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph’ ” (John 1: 45). Phillip not only had a seeking heart, but he also had the heart of a personal evangelist. His first response upon meeting Jesus was to find his friend Nathaniel and tell him about the Messiah.
Nathaniel said to him, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1: 46) But Philip was undaunted: “come and see” (1: 46). The ease with which Phillip believed is remarkable. In human terms, no one had brought Phillip to Jesus. He knew the Old Testament promises. He was ready. He was expectant. His heart was prepared. And he received Jesus gladly, unhesitatingly, as Messiah. No reluctance. No disbelief. It mattered not to him what kind of small town the Messiah had grown up in. He knew instantly that he had come to the end of his search.
This is frankly out of character for Phillip, and it reveals to what a great degree the Lord had prepared his heart. His natural tendency might have been to hold back, doubt, ask questions, and wait and see. As we are about to discover, he was not usually a very decisive person. But thankfully, in this case, he was already being drawn to Christ by the Father. And as Jesus said, “all that the Father gives me will come to me” (John 3: 37).
The Feeding of the 5000
Our next glimpse of Phillip occurs in John 6, at the feeding of the 5000. Here his personality begins to show through. John describes how a great multitude had sought out Jesus and found Him on a mountain side with His disciples. John 6:10 says there were 5000 men in the crowd. There must have been several more thousands of women and children. (10 or 20 thousand would not be impossible.) In any case, it was a huge throng, and according to Matthew 14:15, evening was approaching. The people needed to eat.
John 6:5 says, “then Jesus lifted up his eyes and seeing a great multitude coming toward him, he said to Philip, “where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?”
Why did he single Phillip out and ask him? Phillip was apparently the apostolic administrator—the numbers guy. It is likely that he was charged with arranging meals and logistics. John says, “this He said to test him, for He himself knew what He would do” (v .6).
Phillip lost the opportunity to see the reward of faith; and the action of Andrew (when he brought forth the boy with the fish and loaves) was honored.
Phillip needed to learn that lesson. Everything seemed impossible to him. He needed to set aside his materialistic, pragmatic, common sense concerns and learn to lay hold of the supernatural potential of faith.
The Visit of the Greeks
John 12 gives us another insight into Phillip’s character. Again, we see his over analytical temperament. And when he has another opportunity to step out in faith, he misses it again.
John 12: 20-21 says, “Now there were certain Greeks among those who came up to worship at the feast. Then they came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida of Galilee, and asked him, saying, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’” These men were either God-fearing Gentiles or full-fledged proselytes to Judaism who were coming to Jerusalem to worship God at the Passover. They sought out Phillip in particular. Perhaps because of his Greek name, they thought he was the best contact. Or maybe they had learned that he was more or less the administrator of the group, the one who made all the arrangements on behalf of the disciples.
The Greeks did not make a difficult or complex request. And yet Phillip seems to have been unsure what to do with them, possibly because they were Gentiles. Jesus had said on one occasion when He sent the disciples out, “do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10: 5-6). On another occasion, Jesus said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15;24).
Was that principle meant to prohibit Gentiles from ever being introduced to Jesus? Of course not, Jesus was simply identifying the normal priority of His ministry: “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 2: 10). He was, after all, the Savior of the world, not just Israel. “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name” (John 1: 11-12).
But people like Phillip don’t appreciate general rules; they want every rule to be rigid and inviolable. Nevertheless, Philip had a good heart. So, he took the Greeks to Andrew. Andrew would bring anyone to Jesus. So “Phillip came and told Andrew, and in turn Andrew and Phillip told Jesus” (John 12: 22). Obviously, Phillip was not a decisive man. There was no precedent for introducing Gentiles to Jesus, so he enlisted Andrew’s help before doing anything. This way no one could fault Phillip for not going by the book. After all, Andrew was always bringing people to Jesus.
We may safely assume that Jesus received the Greeks gladly. John 12 doesn’t record anything about Jesus’ meeting with the Greeks except the discourse Jesus gave on that occasion:
Jesus answered them, saying, “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified. Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, let him follow me, and where I am, there my servant will be also. If anyone serves me, him my Father will honor.” (12: 23-26)
In short, he preached the gospel to the Greeks and invited them to become his disciples.
The Upper Room
In the upper room, many of the most important lessons Jesus had taught them appeared to have gone unheeded. As Jesus said, they were “foolish… and slow of heart to believe” (Luke 24-25). This was true of Phillip in particular. Of all the foolish, impetuous, heartbreakingly ignorant statements that occasionally escape the lips of the disciples, none was more disappointing than Philip’s remark in the upper room.
Jesus urged them not to be troubled in their hearts about His departure and promised them He was going to prepare a place for them (John 14: 1-2). He further promised to return to receive them to Himself so that they could be where He was going (v. 3). Then He added this, “And where I go you know, and the way you know” (v. 4). Obviously, the where was heaven, and the way there was the way He had outlined in the gospel.
But they were slow to catch His meaning, and Thomas probably spoke for them all when he said, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, and how can we know the way?” (v. 5).
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14: 6). By now His meaning certainly ought to have been clear. He was going to the Father in heaven, and the only way there for them was through faith in Christ.
Then Jesus added an explicit claim about His own deity: “if you had known me, you would have known my Father also; And from now on you know Him and have seen Him” (John 14: 7). He was stating it in the clearest possible language that He is God. Christ and Father are one in the same essence.
It was at this point that Phillip spoke up: “Phillip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us’” (v. 8).
“Show us the father”? How could Phillip say such a thing, immediately after what Jesus had just told them? This is profoundly sad. You would think that by the time Phillip got to this point, so long a time after he had begun to follow Jesus, he would know better. All that time, he had heard Jesus teach. He had witnessed untold numbers of miracles. He had seen people healed of the worst kinds of diseases and infirmities. He had been there when Jesus cast out demons. He had spent time in intimate fellowship with Christ, day in and day out, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for many months. If he had truly known Christ, he would have known the Father also (v. 7).
How could Philip of all people, who had responded with such enthusiastic faith at the beginning, be making a request like this at the end?
Jesus asked him, “do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own authority; but the Father who dwells in me does the works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father in me, or else believe me for the sake of the works themselves” (v. 10-11). Phillip had already embraced Jesus as Messiah. Christ was urging him to take his faith to its logical conclusion.
If we were interviewing Phillip for the role to which Jesus called him, we might say, “he is out. You can’t make him one of the 12 most important people in the history of the world.”
But Jesus said, “he is exactly what I’m looking for. My strength is made perfect in weakness. I’ll make him into a preacher. He’ll be one of the founders of the church. I will make him a ruler in the Kingdom and give him an eternal reward in heaven. And I will write his name on one of the 12 gates of the new Jerusalem.” Thankfully the Lord uses people like Phillip—lots of them.
Tradition tells us that Phillip was greatly used in the spread of the early church and was among the first of the apostles to suffer martyrdom. By most accounts he was put to death by stoning at Heliopolis, in Phrygia (Asia Minor), eight years after the martyrdom of James. Before his death multitudes came to Christ under his preaching.
Phillip obviously overcame the human tendencies that so often hampered his faith, and he stands with the other apostles as proof that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (1 Corinthians 1: 27-29).
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Twelve Ordinary Men by John MacArthur