Episode 42: Philip
Who is the disciple of Jesus known as Philip from Bethsaida? What does his interaction with Jesus teach a modern reader of John’s Gospel?
Elsewhere in the New Testament
Philip the Disciple is mentioned in the list of disciples in Matthew, Mark and Luke, each time as the fifth in the list following Peter, Andrew, James, and John and preceding Bartholomew (Matthew 10:2–4; Mark 3:16–19; and Luke 6:13–16. He precedes Thomas in Acts 1:13). In John’s Gospel, Philip is named as the fourth person to follow Jesus. First, Andrew and an unnamed disciple leave John the Baptizer and follow Jesus, then Peter comes. Jesus calls Philip to follow him after going to Galilee. This disciple is not to be confused with the son of Herod the Great, also named Philip, who ruled in the region to the east and north of Galilee. He should also not be confused with the deacon Philip, who becomes an evangelist to the Samarians, to the Ethiopian Eunuch, and hosted Paul on his return to Caesarea (Acts 6, 8 and 21).
In the Gospel of John
Philip plays an important role in bringing people to Jesus in the Gospel of John. First, he searches out Nathanael and informs him that, in an ironic twist of the verb, “We have found” the one Moses said would come (See Episode 17: The Prophet). The verb “to find” shows up three times surrounding Philip in John 1:43–45: Jesus found Philip, Philip found Nathanael, and the words of Philip. We know from this brief interlude that Philip was from a city bordering the Northeast side of the Sea of Galilee, a place of fishermen as well as a favored city of Herod’s son, Herod Philip, who enlarged the area and built his mausoleum in the city. Thus, there was considerable interaction in the city with the various powers of the time, which would include many non-Jewish religions.
When Jesus is in Jerusalem celebrating Passover for the final time, some Greeks approach Philip, asking to “see Jesus.” Philip teams up with Andrew, who had earlier brought the lad with the loaves and fish to Jesus, to tell Jesus about this request. This moment serves as a catalyst for Jesus, who suddenly declares his hour has come (See Episode 32), and then calls out to God and is answered by God from heaven (John 12:20–28).
Yet, Philip seems to be preoccupied with the literalness of this person Moses noted would be coming. His questionable interactions with Jesus focus on his ability to see only what this world might offer, or what the physical senses can detect. In the John 6 account of feeding a multitude, after which the disciples got into a boat, Jesus addresses Philip to respond to his question concerning where they might buy bread for the people. Philip reports the financial accounting needed to satisfy such a request from physical resources alone (John 6:5–7).
Then, during the last night as Jesus seeks to impart his final words of insight to his disciples, Philip is the one who speaks out in a manner which reflects his limited viewpoint once again. After Jesus tells Thomas, that “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life,” he tells the disciples they have known and seen Jesus’ Father already. Here, Philip pleads with Jesus that they might be shown the Father, probably still with the hope that there might be a physical manifestation as during the Exodus (John 14:5–8).
What to do with Philip?
How might we better understand Philip in the Gospel of John? First, we should help Philip come out from under the shadow of Peter. When reading in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Peter is the only disciple who has any type of contribution to the gospels as an individual—apart from Judas Iscariot. After all, there were a total of 12 named disciples and many others who also followed Jesus. Rather than seeing Peter as the Disciple par excellence, it would be helpful to realize that Jesus chose others as followers who were nothing like Peter.
Second, Philip’s background was critical for his contribution to the ministry of Jesus. Philip was familiar with Bethsaida and may even have lived there longer than Simon and Andrew who are often associated with Capernaum. Philip possesses a name quite popular in Greek, with the most famous namesake being the father of Alexander the Great. This multi-cultural element made him more accessible, indeed he may even have spoken Greek more fluently than many of the Aramaic speaking disciples.
Finally, no follower of Jesus is perfect. We may be asked by Jesus to expand our vision from what we think we know in order to encompass a vision which takes God’s character and provision into account. We may be asked by Jesus to consider resources beyond our own capacity to meet the need of the community around us. The issue is not whether we get asked to do these things, but how we respond when we are asked. Sometimes, we can lose our bearings in how we follow Jesus. The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus found Philip, and that Philip found Nathanael. However, when Philip seeks to bring Nathanael into the picture he tells him, “we have found” this man. It may seem to us that this divine-human relationship is somehow our prerogative, however, that is simply not accurate. God seeks us, God finds us, and we do well to remind one another of this spiritual reality. Once this happens, we become part of God’s divine conspiracy to find others and tell them about how we have experienced God at work in our lives since he found us!