Philip as Missionary
World mission was the main concern of the risen Christ during the 40 days between His crucifixion and ascension. The New Testament preserves at least five of His great commission statements: Matthew 28:18–20, Mark 16:15, Luke 24:47–49, John 20:21, and Acts 1:5–8. Together, they constitute the greatest assignment ever given to Christians. Among the commands was a geographical strategy for mission outreach, from its Jerusalem base to Judea and Samaria, then ultimately to the ends of the earth. This was a command that they, indeed, took seriously and set out to fulfill.
This geographical strategy is prominent in the mission work of Philip the evangelist. According to Acts 8, his work extended outward from Jerusalem in expanding circles. That is, it kept spreading farther and farther as time progressed.
Who was this Philip the evangelist? What does the Word of God tell us about him and the work that he did during the earliest days of the church? Finally, what lessons can we take away for ourselves from the inspired record of this early missionary?
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, September 5.
Philip was a popular Greek name that means “horse lover.” In the New Testament, there are four persons called by that name. Two had the additional name “Herod” and were part of the Herodian ruling family, which exerted a generally harsh rule over Israel in New Testament times. The remaining Philips had outstanding roles in mission.
The first, Philip of Bethsaida, was a disciple who was instrumental in bringing Nathanael to Jesus (John 1:43–46). Later, he brought Greeks to Jesus (John 12:20, 21).
The second Philip was designated “the evangelist” in Acts 21:8, to distinguish him from Philip the disciple. He first appeared in the Jerusalem church as a “table waiter” (Acts 6:2–5) who turned evangelist and missionary (Acts 8:12). His missionary service, extending over twenty years and supplemented by his four prophesying daughters, is mentioned in Acts. We know little else of his background.
“It was Philip who preached the gospel to the Samaritans; it was Philip who had the courage to baptize the Ethiopian eunuch. For a time the history of these two workers [Philip and Paul] had been closely intertwined. It was the violent persecution of Saul the Pharisee that had scattered the church at Jerusalem and destroyed the effectiveness of the organization of the seven deacons. The flight from Jerusalem had led Philip to change his manner of labor, and resulted in his pursuing the same calling to which Paul gave his life. Precious hours were these that Paul and Philip spent in each other’s society; thrilling were the memories that they recalled of the days when the light which had shone upon the face of Stephen upturned to Heaven as he suffered martyrdom flashed in its glory upon Saul the persecutor, bringing him, a helpless suppliant, to the feet of Jesus.”—Ellen G. White, Sketches From the Life of Paul, p. 204.
No question, things were for a time going quite well among the early believers. Of course, everyone is fallen, and before long some tensions started to rise.
Rapid growth of the Jerusalem church brought with it social tension. Philip was appointed to a team to deal with it. Converts included underprivileged and economically challenged persons whose participation in the daily common meals placed increasing demands on church leaders. A murmuring about unfair distribution of food to Greek-speaking widows emerged. This was especially sensitive because of reminders by the Hebrew prophets not to neglect widows and orphans.
To resolve this serious issue, all twelve apostles gathered the believers and proposed the appointment of seven men, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, who would literally “deaconize [Greek for “serve”] tables” so the Twelve could “deaconize the Word” (see Acts 6:3, 4). All seven had Greek names, perhaps indicating a balancing of welfare service for the neglected Greek-speaking widows. Among them was Philip—the first time that this Philip is mentioned in the Bible.
The apostles argued that additional leadership was needed so that they should not be overworked by the administration of the resources necessary for communal life. They emphasized that their call was to devote themselves to the Word of God and to prayer.
Saul, a future apostle and missionary, makes his first appearance in the Bible at the stoning of the deacon Stephen, the first Christian martyr. This wave of persecution only helped to further spread the gospel.
Samaria was the first stop on the geographical spread of Christianity. Samaritans considered themselves descendants of Israelites left behind when Assyria exiled most of the Israelites in 722 b.c. The Jews, however, considered Samaritans to be descendants of foreigners that the Assyrians forcibly settled in Israel. Jewish-Samaritan relationships during the New Testament era were marked by tensions and outbreaks of violence. However, as we saw earlier, Jesus had already paved the way for mission work there when He dealt with the woman at the well, who, in turn, began to “evangelize” her own people.
Philip’s call to wait on tables now became that of a missionary evangelist to the Samaritans. As a refugee fleeing religious persecution in Jerusalem, he did not waste his time. He proclaimed that the Messiah, awaited by both Jews and Samaritans, had come (Acts 8:5, 12).
Philip was used mightily of the Lord in this early foreign mission field. The statement of the woman at the well, that “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9, NKJV), had now become a thing of the past.
According to Acts 8:26–39, Philip’s next contact was with the Ethiopian treasury administrator, bringing mission another step toward “ ‘the end of the earth’ ” (Acts 1:8, NKJV). Philip was the link between Samaria and the Gaza mission. From Samaria, north of Jerusalem, Philip was called to Gaza, which is south of the city. His work in the north focused on a group; here it focused on a single person. In Samaria, Philip could proclaim Christ only from the five books of Moses, for this was all the Samaritans accepted; here he could also use the book of Isaiah, probably in Greek translation.
The Spirit of the Lord called Philip away as soon as he had finished explaining the “good news about Jesus” and had baptized the Ethiopian. Philip had no opportunity to transmit his beliefs and teachings to his new convert. The Ethiopian was left to embrace the Christian faith in the context of his African culture, guided by the Old Testament and the Spirit of God, which had already been working in him, for he already was a worshiper of the Lord and a believer in His Word.
Philip, clearly, was anointed to do the Lord’s work. Commentators are divided on what “the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip” (Acts 8:39) means, whether he was simply told to go to Azotus (vs. 40) or was miraculously transported there. Either way, the crucial point for us is that Philip was a man surrendered to the Holy Spirit; and thus, God was able to use him to do a great work for Him.
At this stage of the story, we learn that Philip was a family man with four unmarried daughters. Philip’s call out of the deaconate into evangelism involved him in extensive travel. We know about the journey from Jerusalem to Samaria, then on to Gaza, followed by “all the towns” on the 50-mile (80-kilometer) coastline between Azotus and Caesarea. There were probably unrecorded journeys. Like all the pioneering missionaries, he would have been harassed, inconvenienced, and subjected to the “ups and downs” such commitments entail. Still, he managed his family to the extent that four daughters were deemed by the Holy Spirit suitable to receive the gift of prophecy. This testifies to good parenting and true godliness in this pioneering Christian missionary family.
The text reveals that the apostle Paul stayed with Philip “a number of days” (vs. 10, NIV). Twenty-five years earlier, Paul, then named Saul, had been an aggressive and fierce persecutor of the Christians (Acts 9:1, 2). His persecution of Jerusalem believers forced Philip to flee to Samaria (Acts 8:1–5). Now, years later, persecutor and persecuted meet in the home of Philip, who hosts Paul’s visit. What an interesting meeting of brothers and fellow workers with Christ in the great cause of bringing the gospel to the non-Jewish world!
Further Study: Ellen G. White, “The Gospel in Samaria,” The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 103–111.
“When they were scattered by persecution they went forth filled with missionary zeal. They realized the responsibility of their mission. They knew that they held in their hands the bread of life for a famishing world; and they were constrained by the love of Christ to break this bread to all who were in need.”—Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 106.
“And when His disciples were driven from Jerusalem, some found in Samaria a safe asylum. The Samaritans welcomed these messengers of the gospel, and the Jewish converts gathered a precious harvest from among those who had once been their bitterest enemies.” —The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 106, 107.