"We entered into the house of Philip the evangelist, which was one of the seven; and abode with him."
Acts xxi. 8.
The recorded life of Philip is divided into two unequal parts, one full of conspicuous service, and one passed in entire obscurity. Like the crescent moon, part of the disc is shining silver and the rest is invisible. His name suggests that he was not a Palestinian Jew, but one who had been born in Gentile lands and had contracted some Gentile habits of mind and associations. That probability is increased by his having been chosen as one of the seven, since the reason for their appointment was the complaint of the section of the Church, composed of that class of Jews, that their poor were not fairly dealt with. He fled from Jerusalem, like most of the disciples, after Stephen's martyrdom, and, finding himself in Samaria, began to speak of his faith there. His brethren had set him to work at first; his evangelising in Samaria had been laid on him by circumstances and Christian impulses, but his next step was in obedience to a specific command from Christ. He preached the Gospel to the Ethiopian statesman, and thereafter being carried by the Spirit to Ashdod, was again ieit to the guidance of his own judgment, and tramped all up the Maritime Plain till he reached Csesarea, where he settled down for twenty years, during which we hear nothing of him. But at last Paul and his companions, on their way to keep the feast at Jerusalem, found that they had a little time to spare at Caesarea, and took up their residence for "many days" in Philip's house. That is our last glimpse of him. The life, as thus outlined, suggests some useful thoughts. Its two strongly contrasted halves may be studied separately, the brief period of brilliant service first claiming attention.
The circumstances of the selection of the seven superintendents of the charities of the Church, which introduces Philip to the readers of the Acts, teach a valuable lesson as to the way in which the organisation of the early Church was evolved. These seven are never called "deacons " in the New Testament. They were appointed simply as the easiest way of getting over a difficulty, and restoring the confidence of a suspicious section of the Church. The Hellenists were muttering about partiality shown to Palestinian-born Jews, and the Apostles said to them in effect: "Let us have none of this division into classes; choose any seven that you please, and we will make them the almoners." The chosen brethren are apparently all members of the class that considered itself aggrieved, with the exception of one who was "a proselyte of Antioch," and they would therefore command confidence, and be likely to secure at least fair play for the discontented section. The incident plainly shows that the Church had at first no definite organisation, and that what organisation it attained grew up as circumstances required. The two laws which shaped its polity were, first: "One is your Master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren"; and second: "When the Spirit of the Lord is come upon thee, thou shalt do as occasion shall serve thee." Thus the seven were chosen to deal with a temporary difficulty, and their office died out, apparently, when the need had passed, as was probably the case when, soon after, that Church was scattered. The organisation was fluent and flexible, and not meant to be the type after which, in all details, other Churches in different circumstances should be constituted. Some of us are unchurched because we have not certain "orders"; but the primitive Church had not them either.
Philip's action in Samaria brings out very strongly the spontaneous impulse which constrains earnest Christians to speak for and of Christ. It was his brethren that picked out Philip, and said, "Now go and distribute alms." But his brethren had nothing to do with his next step. He was driven by circumstances out of Jerusalem, and he found himself in Samaria, and perhaps he remembered how Jesus Christ had said, as He went up into heaven, "Ye shall be witnesses unto me, both in Jerusalem and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth." But whether he remembered that or not, he was here in Samaria, amongst the ancestral enemies of his nation. Nobody told him to preach there. He had no commission from Apostles. He held no office except that one which, according to the Apostles' idea of it, almost excluded him from preaching. They had said, "Let these seven serve tables; we will give ourselves . ". . to the ministry of the word." But Christ has a way of making short work of men's restrictions as to His servants' functions. So Philip, without a commission, was the first to break through the restriction of the Gospel to the Jews, and, finding himself in Samaria, where Christ was needed, he did not wait for Apostolic sanction, but followed the dictates of his own heart, a heart that was full of Christ and therefore must speak of Him, and proclaimed the Gospel in that city. So, he has the noble distinction ©f being the very first Christian man who put a bold foot across the boundary of Judaism, and showed a light to the men that were in the darkness beyond. He did it as a simple private Christian; uncalled, uncommissioned, unordained by anybody; and he did it because he could not help it; and he never thought to himself, "I am doing a daring new thing." It seemed the most natural thing in the world that he should speak of His Lord. So it would be to us, if we were Christians with the depth of faith and of personal experience which this man had. It was because he had won his spurs in Samaria, and proved the stuff he was made of, that the angel of the Lord came and said to Philip, "Go down on the road to Gaza, which is desert. Never mind what you are going to do when you get there. Go." So he went with sealed orders. No doubt he thought to himself, "Strange that I should be taken from this prosperous work in Samaria, and sent to a desert road, where there is not a single human being!" But he went; and, when he struck the point of junction of the road from Samaria with that from Jerusalem, looked about to discover what he had been sent there for. The only thing in sight was one chariot, and he drew near to the chariot, and heard the occupant reading aloud Isaiah's great prophecy. The Ethiopian Chamberlain was probably not very familiar with the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which he seems to have been using, and, as poor readers often do, helped his comprehension by speaking the words he sees on the page. Philip knew at once that here was the object of his mission, and so "joined himself to the chariot," and set himself to his work. So Christ chooses his agents for further work from people who, out of their own spontaneous love of Him, have done what lay at their hands. "To him that hath shall be given." If we are ambitious of a wider sphere, let us be sure that we fill our narrow one. It will widen quite fast enough for our capacities. The reward for work is more work.
We have seen Philip in his brief period of brilliant service; we have now to think of him in his long years of obscure toil.
That so faithful and competent a preacher should drop out of the narrative, and be no more used in the impending transformation of the Church from a Jewish sect to a world-wide community, was the last thing to have been looked for; but so it was. He was left in Caesarea for twenty years, while the great expansion was going on, of which his ministry both in Samaria and to the Eunuch had been the beginning. We wonder why Cornelius was not told to send for Philip, who was in the same city as himself, and why it was needful to bring Peter all the way from Joppa. We wonder why Barnabas at Antioch never thought of going southwards to seek for him, instead of northwards to Tarsus, for a much younger and less tried disciple. It once looked as if Philip was going to be the leader in carrying the Gospel to the Gentiles; but his Lord passed him over, and he had no share in developing the movement which he had begun. It is a not uncommon experience; but it cannot be anything but a trying one, and it tasks a man's fortitude, humility, and unselfishness to accept it and not be soured.
In Philip we see the contented acceptance of a lot very much less conspicuous and brilliant than his beginnings had seemed to promise. Many of us can recall long-past moments, when we had opened before us prospects of distinction which have not been realised, or spheres of influence which have not been attained, and the remembrance of the brief dawning splendour is apt to make the rest of a life look grey and dull, and to make a man fret at the narrow bounds which have closed around him. Some of us are tempted to look back and think : " Ah, the gate did open for me then; but how soon it was shut in my face! It is hard for me to go on in this eclipsed condition. How different life might have been!" Well, let us remember that for Philip it was enough that Jesus did send him to the Eunuch, and did not send him to Cornelius, and let us be content.
But a further lesson may be drawn from Luke's designation of Philip, in the latest mention of him, as "the evangelist." His former office of almoner is not spoken of, for it had long ceased; but he is still a preacher of the good tidings, as he had been in Samaria and to the Eunuch twenty years before, and as he had apparently continued to be in all the unrecorded years between. His work was being done now in a very quiet way, and found no record, but it was done all the same. Time was when he had moved a whole city; time was when he had had a statesman "of great authority" to listen to his words; time was when it seemed as if he might have been set to do the work that Paul was doing. But all these visions were shattered, and for twenty years he was left in his obscure corner, "with none to praise and very few to love," except his four daughters, "prophetesses," whom he had, no doubt, helped to bring to Christ. It matters little who knows or does not know our work; the great thing is that Christ knows it. Most of us have to be satisfied to render unnoticed service. And in these advertising days, when publicity seems to be the great good that people seek after, and nobody is contented unless he gets reported in the newspapers, we may all take a lesson from Philip, and remember the man who began so brilliantly, and then was out of sight for twenty years, and was "the evangelist" all the time.
The last incident in the record of Philip's life reminds us of the ultimate recognition of a good man's work and the joyful meeting of the workers. Paul and his companions had been hurrying to be in time for the feast, but he slackened his pace at Caesarea, partly because he found that he had some days to spare, and partly because he felt the atmosphere of Philip's house congenial. The older man did not envy the younger brother who had outrun him. He was content to accept the fate of pioneers, and rejoiced with all his heart to hear of what God had done by Paul, though once it seemed as if it were to be done by him. How they would talk! How much there would be to tell! How glad the old man would be at the younger man's success!
And one of Paul's companions heard all the talk between the two, and his name was Luke. He, doubtless, gathered much of the material for the early chapters in the Acts from the old man. So Philip was, after all, not working in obscurity, though he never knew that "the beloved physician" who was sitting listening eagerly to all that he had to tell about the old days, was to draw back the curtain behind which he was working, and let all the world in all ages see him at his patient, unnoticed toil. When the curtain is rolled back from our lives, it will be well for us if we can show what this man showed, namely, toil for Jesus coming from a heart purged of envy and jealousy, and careless of notoriety. These days of quiet converse between the pioneer and the perfecter of the preaching to the Gentiles may stand as a prophetic symbol of the time when all who have had shares in the one great and then completed work of the Church will share in the reward, and he that soweth and he that reapeth shall rejoice together.