In the first chapter of John’s gospel the disciples of Jesus, with one exception, come to him via another person. Andrew comes via John the Baptist, Peter comes via Andrew and Nathanael comes via Philip. We know from the other gospels about Jesus’ call to James and John (Matthew 4:21ff), and Matthew (Luke 5:27ff). We don’t know anything of the calling of the other six – Bartholomew, Thomas, James, son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Cananaean and Judas Iscariot. That leaves Philip, unique in John’s gospel as the only disciple who does not come via another.
‘Jesus found Philip and said to him, “Follow me” ( John 1:43). Philip was from the same city as Andrew and Peter, but they don’t bring him to Jesus. Philip goes on to find Nathanael and points him to Jesus. What is so special about Philip that Jesus should approach him and call him directly?
We meet Philip three times in John’s gospel. Here in Chapter 1, his invitation to Nathanael is clear –‘we have found the one of whom Moses wrote, Jesus of Nazareth’. Nathanael’s response was to question how Nazareth could be the home of the expected one. Philip doesn’t enter into debate; he simply says, ‘Come and see’.
We meet him again in Chapter 6, in front of a large crowd, Jesus asks Philip, ‘Where can we buy bread to feed the people?’ (6:5) This was a test which Philip presumably failed: ‘we don’t have nearly enough money for each of them to get a little’. This is just plain, down to earth, obvious common sense, yet presumably Philip had seen the signs at Cana and at the pool, yet there was no sense of expectation on his part.
Then finally, we meet Philip in the upper room in Chapter 14, as he cuts through the cross examination of Jesus by Peter and Thomas and rather impatiently says: ‘Lord show us the Father and it is enough for us’ (14:8). Jesus, with some exasperation, responds, Philip, don’t you get it, whoever has seen me has seen the Father, ‘Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?’
What then was special about Philip that Jesus calls him directly? Absolutely nothing!
Philip is the Patron Saint of the average person, nothing about him seems outstanding. He doesn’t enter into apologetic debate with Nathanael; shows no great expectation of Jesus in the face of a hungry crowd; and doesn’t seem to understand that Jesus is the one of whom Moses and the prophets speak, the one who uniquely makes the Father known (John 1:18).
In our search for trainees and apprentices we may look for people who have potential or some outstanding characteristic. We can easily overlook average people who don’t seem to have any potential about them; they might fail every personality assessment or be average or below in every test we apply.
Philip was like that and yet when Jesus chooses just 12, Philip is included in the number. Jesus approached him directly perhaps because no one else thought of him as a disciple with potential. Surely, some might think, it would be better for growth, to keep a spot in the 12 vacant for the better credentialed Nicodemus or the wealthier Joseph of Arimathea or Jesus’ good friend, with a unique death experience, Lazarus.
But no, it is ordinary old, average Philip – I am so glad he is there!
I once preached a series on John, so confronting was the sermon on Philip to the culture of the church, which encouraged the pursuit of excellence, that the sermon on Philip was misplaced and never reached the church’s website. What became of Philip? He is not to be confused, as the Church Historian Eusebius confuses him, with the evangelist Philip in Acts 6-8. By tradition, he was martyred in Asia, in his old age in 80 AD. His patronage is listed, because of his association with loaves, as the Patron of all pastry chefs.
All round, he is my kind of man.