Philip the Evangelist

He first appears in those early days of the first Christian community when the believers had "all things common" but were beginning to find that sincerity of purpose in their sharing was not enough; a certain amount of system and order was necessary if anomalies were to be avoided and all who were in need to have their needs equitably met. So a working party of seven was appointed to oversee and administer this aspect of the community’s activities. Men of honest report, full of the Holy Spirit, is the definition in Acts 6 relating to these men. Philip was one of them, probably a young man in his twenties, zealous and energetic, highly esteemed by the brethren, and with considerable potential evangelistic ability. Whether or not he had been a follower during the lifetime of Jesus is not known, but the balance of probability is against. There had been a massive gathering of converts to the original little band of Resurrection days, and although that momentous event was still not more than a year or so in the past, by far the majority of the believers had joined since then, and it is a virtual certainty that there were men of ability among such who would speedily be marked out for special service. Thus did Philip enter upon his life of service for Christ. An active member of a virile and rapidly growing Church, he found plenty to do. "And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith" (Acts 6.7) is how Luke’s record describes the situation. The Sanhedrin, following the advice of Gamaliel (Acts 5.34‑40) had abandoned their endeavours to stifle the new movement; for a little while the gospel of Jesus the Risen One could be proclaimed without let or hindrance, and converts were being gathered in by the thousand. It must have seemed to those ardent young workers that they were going to progress unmolested from triumph to triumph until they had fulfilled the commission the Lord had given them, and carried the message of his Kingdom to the ends of the earth.

Then the tide turned. Christianity was getting altogether too popular and the more orthodox of the Jews became restive. The while it could be considered merely a sect of Judaism it could perhaps be tolerated, but it was becoming obvious now that it was not going to be a sect, it was taking on the form of a new faith, one that would challenge Judaism and perhaps destroy it. So Philip’s colleague Stephen, the leader of the seven, was apprehended on a trumped‑up charge, arraigned (indicted) before the Sanhedrin, and put to death—the first Christian in history to die for his faith. That aroused the persecuting ardour of Saul the Pharisee, afterwards himself to espouse the faith and in his turn meet the death of a martyr; at the moment, however, his intervention sparked off the first wave of organised persecution of the Christian church and the halcyon days of care‑free fellowship in the faith were gone, never to return.

The believers in Jerusalem did one of two things; they either went underground, or they scattered away from the city. It is evident that one of Philip’s temperament would not long endure a passive role "underground"; he elected instead to go away, to a place where his evangelistic fervour might find an outlet. What better choice than Samaria, only a few miles north of Jerusalem, still in the Roman province of Judea but free from the power of the priests and the Sanhedrin, for "the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans" (John 4.9). "Therefore they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word. Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them" (Acts 8.4‑5). His ministry met with instant success, and something of the enthusiastic scenes which for the past year or so had been seen in Jerusalem now began to be re‑enacted in Samaria. In fact, there was much that was reminiscent of the ministry of Jesus, for at the instance of Philip the lame and the paralysed were healed and demons cast out. It would seem that what Peter and John had done immediately after Pentecost in Jerusalem Philip was now doing in Samaria; the people wholeheartedly "believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ" (v.12) and demonstrated the sincerity and fulness of their conversion by undergoing baptism. There was even a false Messiah, a man named Simon—known in later tradition as Simon Magus around whom many legends have gathered—who himself abandoned the claims by which he had long deceived the Samaritans, became a convert and was baptised. How long this revival led by Philip lasted there is no means of knowing, but that it was a most effective one and constituted the second significant development in the history of the Church there is no doubt.

There was one important missing element; despite their sincerity of conversion and their baptism, the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon them, and in this they were in the same position as the Apostles and the rest of the hundred and twenty original believers had been prior to the Day of Pentecost. It seems as if some outwardly perceptible demonstration had to be the portion of these Samaritans as it had been with their predecessors. The account in Acts 8 relates that when the Apostles at Jerusalem were apprised of the results accruing from Philip’s work they despatched Peter and John, who, having arrived and seen the position for themselves, engaged in prayer for the conferment of the Holy Spirit upon the converts, laid their hands upon them in the traditional manner, "and they received the Holy Spirit" (ch.8.17). It looks as if there was a visible manifestation of much the same nature as that which characterised the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) and for the same reason, to convince these very immature converts of the reality of the experience. There is no indication when this took place and in fact the visit of Peter and John might have been a considerable time afterwards and perhaps even after Philip had left Samaria to execute his next commission.

That commission had to do with the Ethiopian eunuch. An angel of the Lord (not "the" angel as in the A.V. v.26) appeared to the evangelist and told him to take a journey towards Gaza along the high road which ran south from Judea into Egypt. It is evident that by now he had returned to Jerusalem from Samaria since this was his starting point. No indication of the purpose of his journey was given; he was merely to set out along the road and head southwards. It was thus that he met the Ethiopian eunuch, somewhere on the desert road near Gaza. An important man in his own country, steward of the palace of his queen, a man of "great authority" (v.27) as Luke puts it, he had come to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple and now was on his way home in his chariot—incidentally this is the only mention of a wheeled vehicle in the New Testament. He was evidently a Jew of the Dispersion; probably his family had lived in Ethiopia for several generations, and like Jews everywhere had come to occupy positions of influence and trust.

Map showing Aswan in Egypt,
modern Ethiopia and the Red Sea

River Nile mapThe Ethiopia here referred to was not the present country of that name but a land on the upper Nile more or less in the vicinity of the present Assouan (Aswan) Dam, adjoining the southern frontier of Egypt and often involved politically with Egypt. Ancient historians say that for a period it was ruled by a line of woman monarchs known as the Kandaka, a title like Pharaoh or Caesar, the "Candace" of Acts 8. This eunuch was an educated as well as God‑fearing man, and now as he reclined at ease in his probably sumptuous chariot with servants to attend to the driving and to his needs, he was spending the hours of a certainly wearisome journey by reading from a scroll of the prophecy of Isaiah.
This gave Philip his opportunity. Trudging along by the wayside, he either heard the eunuch’s voice as the chariot overtook him or else perceived the nature of the parchment he was reading. At once his evangelistic instinct came to the top and in a flash he knew why he had been sent on this mission. "Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot" (v.29). With the freedom of approach so customary in the East he called out to the eunuch asking if he understood what he was reading. "How can I, except some man should guide me?" (v.31) was the response. High official though he was, he manifested true humility in being prepared thus to accept guidance from an unknown wayside traveller; he invited Philip to join him in the chariot and showed him what he had been reading.

No better passage for the evangelist’s purpose could have presented itself. The eunuch had been perusing Isaiah’s 53rd chapter and pondering within himself as to its meaning. "Of whom speaketh the prophet this" he queried, "of himself, or of some other man"? Beginning at the same Scripture, Philip "preached unto him Jesus". (Acts 8.35) It takes little imagination to visualise the nature of that discourse, the fervour in the evangelist’s voice, the rapt attention of the other man. In that day the eunuch became conscious of a new revelation, an understanding of the Scriptures he had never known before, a meaning in life he had not dreamed existed. In that moment he found Christ, and became Christ’s man. That he was a man of positive convictions and accustomed to quick decisions is shown by the immediate sequel; as they progressed on their journey the charioteer encountered one of the many rapid streams which cross the road on their way to the sea, and immediately the Ethiopian saw the possibility. "See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?" Verse 37 of this chapter in which Philip is quoted as responding "If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God" is missing in the oldest manuscripts, including Sinaitic, Vatican and Alexandrian, appearing only in 8th century MSS, from which it is surmised that this verse was inserted by some zealous sectaries anxious to regularise the eunuch’s baptism on the basis of good Church doctrine, but it is quoted in the writings of Irenaeus (A.D.178) and Cyprian (A.D.250) so that it may well have appeared in the earliest versions and later lost. In any case, Philip must have said something like this in response to the plea; the eunuch was duly baptised, "and he went on his way rejoicing." (v.39) Nothing more is known of him but there can be no doubt that he returned to his own country a missionary for Christ and must have had much to do with the establishment and growth of the Church in his land.

The instrument of his salvation was already away on the next assignment. A rather strange word; "And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more… But Philip was found at Azotus: and passing through he preached in all the cities, till he came to Caesarea". (Acts 8.39‑40) The words "caught away" are from harpazo, which in the N.T. generally has the meaning of being suddenly and violently snatched away (as in 1 Thess.4.17 "we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds") although the basic principle is that of being taken by force. Agreeably to normal N.T. usage, the expression here could mean that Philip was miraculously and instantaneously translated by Divine power to Azotus (Ashdod) which could have been ten or fifteen miles distant, and there would be nothing incredible in this at a time when "miracles" of all kinds were commonplace. It would however be quite consistent with the phrase to take it to mean that under the influence of the Holy Spirit Philip was seized with an overpowering impulse to make his way at once to Azotus and so found himself there with no clear idea of how he came to be there or why he had come. In either case, he was now in Azotus and immediately began to preach Christ, continuing thus from town to town along the sea‑coast until eventually he came to Caesarea, fifty miles north of Azotus, and the political capital from which the Roman governors ruled Judea. Here he seems to have settled. Nothing more is known of him until twenty‑five years later when Paul and his party, en route to Jerusalem for the last time, stayed in his house for a period. There seems little doubt though that during those years he must have travelled up and down the coastal towns of Judea, always an active evangelist, preaching the faith and establishing converts, with Caesarea his permanent headquarters.

The last glimpse we have of Philip is on the occasion of Paul’s visit. Luke was one of the party and he must have acquired a great deal of his material for the early part of "Acts" from the evangelist; it is Luke too who gives him this title, here in Acts 21.8. Luke also tells us that Philip now had four daughters "which did prophesy" (v.9); this must mean that they also, though still in their twenties, were preachers of the word and evidently associated with their father in his ministry. Something of the evangelist’s fiery zeal and inexhaustible capacity for hard work must have reappeared in his family.

There the Scriptures leave Philip the evangelist, still in active service. Greek tradition has it that he eventually became Bishop of Tralles, not far from Ephesus in Roman Asia, but Latin tradition insists that he died at Caesarea. The latter is more likely to be correct. Philip was not possessed of the urge, like Paul, to scour seas and mountains in far distant lands to preach Christ to the nations; he found abundant scope for his missionary zeal in the highlands and the valleys and the coastlands of Judea, perhaps never in all his life going more than fifty miles from the city where first he had accepted Christ and entered the fellowship of the Church and served awhile as one of the first seven deacons. The importance of his life’s work is indicated by the title awarded him by Paul and Luke; the work of an evangelist in Paul’s list of the Divine helps in Eph.4.11 comes next in order after apostles and prophets but before pastors and teachers. He is one of the only two—Timothy being the other—to whom the title is given in the New Testament. Perhaps that is a measure of the effectiveness of the life’s ministry of this zealous and warm‑hearted young soldier of Jesus Christ.