Philip, the Pragmatic Apostle

As with many of the other apostle, the New Testament provides little information about Philip. He was called to follow Jesus on the day following the call of Andrew and Simon Peter. After being called, he was responsible for bringing Nathanael to Jesus (John 1.43-46). He was from Bethsaida (John 1.44), also the hometown of Andrew and Peter, a fishing village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Aside from the listing of the apostles, he’s only mentioned four times in the Gospels, all in John. The first is his calling. The next time we see him is at the feeding of the five thousand (John 6.5). In John 12.21, when some Greeks requested an audience with Jesus, it’s Philip who took their request to the Lord. And finally, in John 14.8 he asked Jesus to “show us the Father.”

He doesn’t appear to have been impressed with the preaching of either John the Baptist or Jesus. While they both were attracting disciples, Philip followed neither. It was Jesus who sought him out and called him to be a disciple. Only after Philip had met Jesus face to face and established for himself that He was the Messiah, did he go to his friend Nathanael, saying, “We have found Him of whom the Law and the Prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

Philip’s decision to follow Jesus was based upon knowledge of the Scriptures, evaluating Jesus to see if He was indeed the anointed one of God. Practical Philip shows us our faith must have a factual, Scriptural foundation.

But “practicality” is not always the best way to look at things. When confronted by a crowd of hungry people, Jesus turned to Philip and asked, “Where are we to buy bread, that these may eat?” All Philip could do was to produce some mathematical calculations: it would take eight months’ wages to provide just a meager snack.

Pragmatic Philip thought only in terms of cash – and there wasn’t enough. Sure of what couldn’t be done, he had no vision of what might be done.

Andrew, on the other hand, was an ingenious optimist. He brought a boy to Jesus, saying, “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are these for so many people?” He knew it wasn’t much, but he also knew the Lord didn’t need much – if anyone could do anything with five barley loaves and two fish, it was Jesus.

Jesus’ teaching in John 14 regarding His relationship with the Father was too subtle for Philip: “Lord, show us the Father, and it sufficeth us.” Philip wanted to see the Father as plainly as he could see Jesus. This “practical” man was at a loss when Jesus stepped from the material world into the spiritual realm. Yet to say that he was baffled by spiritual truth is not the same as saying he was indifferent to it. His request revealed an earnestness that was more than a curiosity. He wanted God to be made visible to him, to be brought down to the level where he could see and understand.

Philip represents a lot of people – pragmatic, methodical, cautious, even skeptical (but earnest) seekers who desire to know God yet who find no concept of Him adequately fulfills their desire. Philip represents the age-old problem of wanting to comprehend the infinite God with a finite mind – we’ll always struggle with that. But when Jesus called Philip to be His disciple, He made known that even those who struggle to know God can be His disciples, too!

– Bill