The Exemplary Mission of Philip the Evangelist
From Acts, chapters 6-8 & 21
by Robert W. Christman
St. Luke calls him Philip the evangelist. He means that he absorbed the good news (evangel) of Jesus Christ, recognized it as the conveyance of God’s comprehensive salvation, and committed himself to it. This makes him a good subject for a mission festival sermon, even though no one will ever be granted a mission just like his. The mission God gives each Christian, each congregation, each conference, each synod, and each denomination is unique in every instance. Yet the core of all missions is the same. Therefore we can find both guidance and encouragement in the pathways of each other.
Our investigation of Philip’s mission will proceed in this manner. First, we shall visit him in Caesarea, where he spent most of his adult life. Then, turning back the calendar, we shall follow him about in Jerusalem, where we are introduced to him for the first time. From Jerusalem we shall accompany him to Samaria, then out into the desert, and finally back to Caesarea. All of this is presented in Acts, chapters 6-8 and 21.
St. Paul visited Philip in Caesarea on his way to Jerusalem after his third missionary journey. With him were Luke, the author of Acts, and about a half dozen others.
When we had come in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, for there the ship was to unload its cargo.
They stayed in Tyre for a week, the time, no doubt, it took for the ship to be unloaded. (Unloading a cargo ship in those days was hard and took time.) But the missionaries made good use of the wait in fellowship with the church that was there. Luke continues:
When our days there were ended,we departed and went on our journey; and they all, with wives and children, accompanied us until we were outside the city. And kneeling down on the beach, we prayed and said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home.
In contrast to this involuntary layover in Tyre, the travelers had been pressing forward with all speed. Paul “was hastening to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost.” Their stay in the next port-of-call, Ptolemais, illustrates this.
When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais, and we greeted the brothers and stayed with them for one day. On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist.
But notice how they put on the brakes in Caesarea.
He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied. While we were staying for many days. . . . a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea.
They stayed long enough to attract other visitors from a distance.
While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.”
While Luke goes on to tell about the discussion that revolved around Agabus’s prophecy, about the other conversations that occupied the days before and the days after, he says nothing. Particularly, we hear nothing about the words exchanged between Paul and Philip. Nor does Luke explain why Paul stayed so long. It is reasonable to suppose that he wanted his readers to figure these things out for themselves from what he discloses.
It has been 12 chapters and 24 years since we heard anything about Philip. He had been brought to our attention initially in the story of the early church in Jerusalem. People were laying sums of money, some very large, at the feet of the apostles so that they could take care of the widows of the congregation, many of whom were destitute. Their efforts at first pleased everyone, but eventually complaints were lodged. The Grecian widows, the ones who had moved to Jerusalem late in life from the surrounding Greek world, were not being served as well as those who had lived in the area all their lives and, incidentally, spoke the local Aramaic. (It does not take long for troubles to rise in the church, like everywhere else.) The apostles responded with the suggestion that the task of supporting the widows should be passed off to others, who with less distraction could concentrate on the job and do better. It was not right, they said, for them, as apostles, to cut back on the preaching of the word of God, because they were too busy “serving tables.” No one opposed their suggestion, because all agreed that as important as the charitable work was, it was more important that souls be nourished by the Gospel. When the apostles urged, “Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute,” the people did just that, and the problem was solved.
They should be of good repute. Would we have included that stipulation? I suppose, especially if the requisite was not pressed to an unreasonable degree. But the food carriers were also to be “full of the Spirit and wisdom.” Would we have thought of this? Would we advertise for workers in a lunch program: “Wanted, men of good repute, full of the Spirit and wisdom, to work in our Wednesday Lunch for the Homeless program.”? Or would we consider seven men who met these criteria, if we could find them, quite over qualified? We hardly dare ask for such qualifications in our search for pastors and teachers. But back then the idea pleased everyone, and these are the godly men they came up with, as Luke lists them: “Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmanas, and Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch.” These were set before the apostles, who prayed over them and laid their hands on them.
If only we were all thus overqualified! If only we were filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whatever our job. God knows what to do with this kind of over qualification. We typically do not, and so, with those around us, can easily count our spiritual qualifications superfluous. But our God in heaven knows how to open doors before his prepared servants, even doors they had never thought of. This is where the fine and excellent story of Philip begins.
But before we trace it any farther, we must look in on deacon Stephen, the man listed first, of whom it was said initially that he was “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit,” and who, later, is said to be “full of grace and power.” His gifts got him, the first Christian martyr, into deep trouble. For he found time, in spite of the press of his assigned duties, to go to church, that is, to attend synagogue. But synagogue worship those days was unlike a traditional Lutheran church service. It was a free exchange between speaker and listener; various men preached, and the rest asked questions and gave their views.
The discussions would touch on many things: Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms, and in connection with these what was going on at the time. So Stephen found himself mentioning the recently ascended Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God. He spoke of how he died, and how he rose from the dead, how he ascended, and how he is poised to return in glory when the Father looks at him and says, “Now!” These claims were challenged. But no matter how many disagreed and how vociferously they voiced their objections, no one was able to disprove or convincingly denigrate what he said, for his position was true, and he was full of the Holy Spirit, by whose aid he expressed his deep conviction powerfully and fluently. This left his opponents to draw but one conclusion (as happened before and has happened since), that the only thing that would close the witness’s mouth was his death. So they plotted just that; they put him on trial before a jury of likeminded unbelievers, and gathered a corps of false witnesses. At last they put Stephen on the stand, and he delivered a huge and magnificent sermon—not a defense of his life, but a living sermon—which someone managed to get down on paper. Copies were made, and Philip the evangelist managed to get one.
But they stoned Stephen, and thus reduced the seven deacons to six. Saul of Tarsus (who we know as Paul of Tarsus) approved heartily of the execution. This is the man who twenty-four years later would sit in Phillip’s living room and converse with him for days on end, while Luke, his companion, took notes.
“And there arose on that day a persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered,” Luke went on to tell Theophilus and the rest of us. The dispersed included most, if not all, of the widows, ending much of the need for deacons to tend to them. The church scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except for the apostles, Luke says. He does not tell us why the apostles did not take part in the dispersion, but we will find out shortly, at least in part.
But the saints did not flee in a panic, and neither should we panic when we are forced to pull up stakes and move on because of the Gospel. We are told that before they left, devout men buried Stephen with the courage of a Joseph of Arimathea. Unconcerned about who might be watching, they buried him with lamentation great enough to be heard down the road, because they were not afraid. Saul, meanwhile, was finding what he thought to be his mission, the ravaging of the church of Jesus. He began to burst into homes and drag off to prison all who attached themselves to Jesus of Nazareth as the Way.
The mission that fell into the laps of the saints was different; they “went about preaching the word of God.” Philip, one of them, fled to the city of Samaria, where “he proclaimed Christ to them.” No doubt he, too, went to synagogue services and joined the conversations. “Is the Messiah coming?” someone would ask. “No,” Philip would reply, “for he has come. He recently spent two days with some of you at Sychar, where many believed. When he comes again it will be his second coming.” And on he would go, revealing the truth of the New Testament with reference after reference to the Old Testament. And as with Stephen, miracles of healing and exorcisms would flow from his touch. So, writes Luke (having learned from Philip, it is easy to imagine), “there was much joy in the city.”
But you know how it goes on a perfect, sunny day. Before long clouds begin to pile up on the horizon and soon they position themselves directly overhead. Satan can be outwitted, but he soon recovers. In this regard, we must not expect that God Almighty, the ultimate ruler of history, will necessarily agree with our subliminal self-esteem and see to it that an exception is made in our case. As losses are followed by gain in the kingdom of God, gains, for the present, are followed by new trials.
But there was a man named Simon, who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ [a beautiful double sermon-theme] they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed.
The people of Scripture, especially those who are presented with as much detail as Philip, were not flat and lifeless like a piece of paper. Philip was deeply moved by the success he was having. But he was moved almost as much, in a different way, by the constant, unsettling presence of his new best friend. “Simon—was he truly converted? He seems to be; I should accept him wholly and harbor no doubts; one should put the best construction on everything; all new believers are not the same; it is to be expected that a person will carry a little baggage from his past; must everyone fit the same mold?” Every night when he was laying him down to sleep, he reviewed the day in God’s ears. He told him he was sorry for his insipid reactions and responses, which testified to the dullness of his mind and the shallowness of his heart. He asked God to forgive him yet again, give him a good night’s sleep, and, refreshed, a better performance on the morrow. He told the heavenly Father of his joys of the day, too, and offered his thanksgiving; but none of this was without a certain entanglement in his fears, beginning and ending with the person of Simon the old miracle man.
One day, word came to him that Peter and John were on their way down from Jerusalem. While he was pleased, he was also displeased with himself for the wave of apprehension he felt. He should not have been afraid. Their visit showed the wisdom of the apostles’ decision to stay in Jerusalem, where they could be quickly located,
and could serve as the hub of the ecclesiastical wheel. How easily the Samaritan believers could have been relegated by the early Jewish believers to a lower tier, given their mixed race and their reputation for religious vagaries. But the grace of heaven and the wisdom and willingness of the apostles forestalled such a fracturing of Christ’s body.
So now, when the apostles heard in Jerusalem that “Samaria had received the word of God,” they sent no less than Peter and John. Directly upon their arrival, the two men prayed for the people “that they might receive the Holy Spirit.” Why this? “For he had not yet fallen on any of them.”
Had Philip noticed this? Perhaps. But if he did, he did not address it; as if, in his mind, it was no great deficiency. They believed and were saved. Was that not an accomplishment of the Holy Spirit? Were they not all baptized in the name of Jesus, but also in the name of the Father and in the name of the Holy Spirit? Surely they were not strangers to the Holy Spirit.
But “he had not fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus,” Luke tells us. Indeed, by the grace of God they had been cleansed and endowed with a right spirit. But the Holy Ghost had not fallen on them, not in the way he had fallen on the apostles and other believers on Pentecost, with signs, ecstatic paeans, and observable new powers. The purpose of that brilliant display back then was to verify the reality of the immeasurable gift of the Holy Ghost, and so remove doubts before they might take form.
The same thing was needed now, if the Samaritan saints were not to bear a debilitating burden. So the apostles “laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.” It was also important that the manifest outpouring come through the agency of Peter and John, leading apostles. This, too, was a defense against the layering of the church. As the Samaritans were regarded as full members of the one true church, they were to be seen as full members of the apostolic church. Among those who welcomed such cords of unity was Philip.
Simon, however, taking it all in from his front row seat, saw things from another perspective. He fixed on the great powers of the apostles in the realm of God and their mastery over the mechanics of God’s earthly endeavors. A rush of desire came over him, and thrust him back into the pagan mindset he had never quite forsaken. In a flash he was back in the business of manipulating and maneuvering divine commodities, and milking every opportunity for the swelling of his greatness. “How much do you have to get for a share in that power?” he asked Peter the first chance he got, self-blinded to the inner makeup of Peter and John, Christ’s true servants.
Peter answered with no hesitation, sounding like Paul would a few years later, when he called Bar-Jesus, the magician of western Cyprus, a son of the devil. He told Simon, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money.” Simon thought that the person of God and the mind of his practitioners were no different from his mind. He did not firmly believe that the carnal mind is, in very fact, enmity against God. And Peter realized immediately that if Simon was blind to this about the Gospel of Jesus Christ and about the saving faith, he was on the wrong side of the fixed gulf. Indeed, he had no part or lot in this matter, because his heart was not right before God. It was a great kindness when Peter told him,
Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.
Philip heard this exchange and was glad in the Lord. What he had feared and struggled to cope with had been exposed through Peter and John’s ministry. He would have liked to think he could have spoken the way Peter did, given such a direct provocation, but he was not at all certain that he would have. Even a hint of hesitation, confusion, or conciliatory inclination, and the moment would have slipped away. “Thank God Peter was there!”
In his reply, Simon avoided the question of repentance. “Pray for me to the Lord,” he said, “that nothing of which you have said may come upon me.” A person is reminded of King Saul in steep decline, when he talked to David across the gully (whom he realized was in steep ascent), and could only blubber about his own woes. Or we may think of Cain, whose only response to the Lord’s stern rebuke was to complain about his punishment being greater than he could bear. The substance of repentance is “God, be merciful to me a sinner,” said with downcast vision.
This incident completed the apostolic mission, and Peter and John set out for home. Along the way they took the opportunity to “preach the Gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.”
But where did it leave Philip? His powers and perhaps his position had fallen under the shadow of the two great and capable apostles, though no one had intended this to happen. Yet, they had now left, and work remained to be done in Samaria, that was obvious. He could continue to conduct services. He could start a new Bible class. He could walk the streets, where he was certain to be engaged in meaningful conversations. Or, perhaps, he could travel to the Samaritan villages in the north, as Peter and John had worked their way through the villages of the south.
But he was not used to making this kind of decision, and to be quite honest about it, had a mild aversion to the task. He had always been thankful to know that he was where the Lord put him, not where he decided to go. Faced with the possibility of having to proceed quite independently, he wondered if the prominence of his own strategizing would not take the edge off his Gospel efforts. If only the Lord God would set his plan in front of him, presenting an irrefutable call or issuing a clear command. Many of us have struggled with such thoughts.
Then the call came. A messenger (angel) told him to “rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. This is a desert place.” It was not something he would ever have chosen. From metropolitan Jerusalem to metropolitan Samaria, and now to a desert road: was it not a big step backwards? But here again Philip showed his Christian character. “He arose and went,” Luke reports in his simplest prose. He set out in good spirits, we can be sure, but must also have had lapses. He had had redeemed souls all around him; now he could walk for hours without seeing a soul. Was God rebuking him? Had he been weighed and found wanting? He did not even know where he was going. The road went to Gaza, but then what? Perhaps his work was in Gaza, but careful consideration of his orders did not make it seem that way.
Unbeknown to Philip, another man was traveling the lonely highway. Strangely enough, he was not only an Ethiopian, but a eunuch, in the service of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. He had the bearing of a court official, for he was indeed her treasurer, in charge of her considerable purse. Thus he was a man of manners and intellect, used to working well with people, that is, reading their personalities and meeting them on their ground.
By unseen divine guidance in support of his personal gifts and bents, he had gone to Jerusalem. He knew that he would stand out there; he knew that he would not be allowed to participate in any activities inside the Temple. Yet, he hoped to find something that his soul would find satisfying. And sure enough he did. In all the buying and selling in and around the Temple, he found one man selling Old Testament scrolls; and he bought some, including a large Isaiah scroll, which the seller had insisted he buy.
Now he was heading down to Gaza to pick up the highway to Ethiopia. He rode in a chariot, better off than most. Though the road was not always smooth (but it was a bit boring), he was able to wade right into the enthralling testimony of the prophet Isaiah.
So there the two men were, nearly in each other’s company, the eunuch with the prophecies on his lap and the Evangelist with the gospel in his heart.
It was an angel who had put Philip on the road; it was the Spirit who took over at this point, and told Philip to “join” the chariot. Both the angel and the Spirit were from heaven, but the angel is a creature and the Spirit is the creator—“by whose aid the world’s foundations first were laid.” In Acts we see a great deal of both, but in different roles. The angels take care of logistics; when it comes to the saving word of God, its explanations, instructions, and all other matters of the heart, the Holy Spirit takes charge. He is the one who told Philip to go over and join the chariot that had broken into his solitude. In an instant he knew why he had been ordered to travel this lonely road. He was right then and there on a mission, and the joy of the Spirit stirred within him.
He ran to the chariot and saw without undue intrusion that its occupant was reading from a scroll. Certain that all of this was coming from God, he did not have to bother wondering if the scroll might be useful to his purpose. “Do you understand what you are reading,” he asked? His words were just right, and now it was the treasurer-eunuch’s turn. He understood it to be a polite offer. Full of Isaiah’s prophecy, he, too, was open to the idea that this meeting was a godsend. Without delay, he accepted the offer with a polite and gentlemanly humility: “How can I, unless someone guides me?” followed perfectly by a straightforward invitation. He then slid over, and Philip took his place.
It was God’s gift, too, that he was open to the right passage. Of all the words of Isaiah he might have been struggling with, it was this from chapter 53 that had been puzzling him for the last several miles:
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb before his shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation, justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.
This is Jesus, so recently led to the slaughter in the city he had been visiting, who had gone to his death without fear or complaint, when every shred of justice was denied him. And yet, he is generating a countless multitude of people holy to the Lord, different from anything the world had ever seen. His life was no longer earthbound, and neither was his offspring.
To the best possible place in Isaiah the eunuch then added the best possible question: “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip, sure and unselfconscious in the Holy Spirit, opened his mouth. He was pleased to begin at this passage, but went on to other passages in Isaiah as well, passages in the other prophetic books, passages in the Pentateuch, and passages in the Psalms. All the books testified clearly, through Philip’s inspired interpretation, to Jesus Christ of Nazareth. On and on they went, lost in their spiritual labors, unconscious of time or terrain.
Then the eunuch looked up and allowed himself a sweeping gaze. And what did he find? “See, here is water! What prevent me from being baptized?” Nothing prevented it, Philip concluded. “He commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.” One, two, three, and it was taken care of!
[You may have noticed the absence of a very fine verse, the last part of which has a place in our Faith-Life Christmas Eve service. There, among dozens of other passages chosen for their pointed witness to the Savior (all of them being the material of the Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed in the Catechism) is this: “And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest.” This is followed by the eunuch’s reply: “And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” Of course, the eunuch may have said this, and it is possible that Luke quoted it in his record, but the array of manuscripts upon which modern bibles are based, much broader and in many cases older than those that were available to the King James translators, suggests strongly that the exchange was added by a later hand, by mistake or, if not, with good intent. If we go along with the nearly universal judgment of today, then we lose that confession of Jesus’ divinity; but we also gain, for without it, as seen in the English Standard Version, the narrative flows in such a way as to draw the reader strongly into the rhythm of the event and its deep emotions.]
For Philip could hardly believe what had happened. Twenty four years later when he told the story to Luke and Paul in his living room, his ecstasy was still palpable. This is not just loose interpretation. We get hints of it throughout the story. For example, when we read slowly and with feeling this statement: “And they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.” The addition of “Philip and the eunuch” is wholly unnecessary for the furtherance of the story, but not for the power of the story’s emotion. “We both got out of the chariot, he and I, each on our side, and without a word of chatter walked side by side straight into the water. When the stream had risen to our thighs, he bent over and I baptized him. The deed was done!”
The eunuch was in awe. Philip was in awe. Again, without any words passing between them, “they came up out of the water,” together, no hurrahs. No, no breath was left in either of them. They came up out of the water, “the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more.”
The sparseness of the narrative has allowed readers to imagine a supernatural aspect to Philip’s departure. But the supernatural was in the grace of baptism, then as now. They came up out of the water dripping, and Philip simply kept on walking. He did not hurry off, and he did not turn to wave. Both realized that whatever they might think to say or do at this point would only have detracted, only have spoiled things; and they let the saving grace own the moment.
So Philip started up the road on foot. The road followed the brook, so that in a short time the eunuch “saw him no more,” for the shrubs and leaning trees blocked his view. As astute as he was, as elated and thankful, he did not take offense and was only a little surprised.
Deep in Gospel thoughts and unceasing in his prayers and spiritual songs, Philip eventually found himself in Azotus, where, as in the other towns he passed through, he preached the Gospel passionately. One wonders about the mention only of “Azotus.” But Azotus is the old Philistine city of Ashdod. What would Samuel think of the city now? David, too, would be very pleased.
He kept going until he reached Caesarea and stood looking out over the sea. This is where Paul, Luke, and the others found him years later, and where we chose to begin the story.
Perhaps Philip had grown up in Caesarea. If so, we can imagine him running into an old high-school girl friend. Neither had married. They decided to meet for coffee (or something else). She said, “Philip, tell me what you’ve been up to?” Of course, he obliged her and gave her a riveting account, wonderful facts that shouted the praises of God’s grace. Soon he baptized her, and not long after that he married her. (If it was not just like this, it was essentially no different.) She bore him four children, all daughters. Of course, Philip kept hoping for a son, who might turn out to be a preacher. But every time it was a girl! But again, Philip was given to rejoice in God’s surprises—over and above the greatest surprise of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How should things turn out? Luke tells us. “He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied.” They spoke the truth of God by the Holy Spirit!
We can imagine one of them answering the knock at the door and ushering in Paul and his entire troop. Was the Apostle nervous? Did the young lady introduce him to her father as Paul or Saul of Tarsus? But Philip held no grudge. His life story sided with the Scripture and prompted him to forgive. By faith they both realized that all things had worked for their good, making each of them the servant of the Lord he had been meant him to be.
Luke, inspired historian that he was, filled the pages of his notebook on both sides. He even recorded how Paul called him Philip the evangelist. He is the only one in the book of Acts to be afforded that title. Indeed, it is used very sparsely in the rest of the New Testament as well. Once Paul tells the Ephesians (4:11) that the Lord gave to his church apostles and prophets and evangelists and shepherds and teachers. Once he tells Timothy that he should do the work of an evangelist. (2 Timothy 4:5) That’s it.
Philip was a man of the Gospel, to be sure. He was ready with it, for it owned his heart. It was in the Gospel that he hosted Paul, the confessed chief of sinners. In the power of the Gospel he heartily forgave him for Stephen’s murder, the many imprisonments of men, women, and children, and the general mayhem that had sent the People of the Way—and the Gospel—off in all directions. When it came time to send Paul on his way, he sent him to Jerusalem refreshed, and ready this time, not to afflict the Jerusalem saints, but to strengthen them in body and soul by the collected gift from the many saints abroad. One in spirit with Philip, Paul would be the one to occupy a prison cell. But this, too, would work for good.
(Scripture quotations in the above article are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)