The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Have you ever wondered how many Christians there are in the world today? According to recent statistics, the number is 2.3 billion. That is nearly one third of the world’s entire population. That is an awful lot of people who are willing to be called a follower of Jesus, even if it is in name only. It is amazing to think that every follower of Jesus can be traced back to the very first 12 followers of Jesus, who founded the early Church. To start with 12 and end up with 2.3 billion. That is an impressive growth rate!
It makes our reading this morning very special – for this takes us all the way back to where it first began – at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when He has just begun choosing his disciples. He has already chosen Andrew and Simon Peter, and now it is Philip and Nathanael’s turn. Philip and Nathanael are among the lesser well-known of the disciples. Philip, like Andrew and Simon Peter, was from the village of Bethsaida, and we are not told where Nathanael came from. But they had this in common – they were devout Jews who truly wanted to honour God.
And so we read that Jesus, before he left for Galilee, found Philip, and said: ‘Follow me.’ If someone said that to us today, we would be puzzled. Follow you where? But the concept of ‘follow me’ would have been familiar to Philip – in Jewish circles many rabbis had young men who wanted to learn from them. They were called learners, or disciples, and so they followed their teacher – literally as well as mentally. What was unusual here was that normally the poor disciple had to try and guess which was the best rabbi to follow. But here Jesus was seeking Philip out – calling him by name.
Jesus was calling those whom the father had given to him. Jesus has since called each one of us by name – for like Philip, we did not find God, he found us. We love him, because He first loved us. And Philip responded with great gladness. He even brought his friend Nathanael to Jesus, as Jesus knew he would. Philip tells Nathanael that he has found ‘the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ But – Nathanael is not impressed. What good can come out of Nazareth? His scorn was not that of disinterest, but disappointment – he knew that the prophecies did not include a messiah from Nazareth. But it was exactly Nathanael’s high regard for the Scriptures which Jesus immediately picked up on. He praised Nathanael for having full integrity as an Israelite. Then Jesus added that Nathanael would see “heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
This reference may sound odd to you and me, but it would not have done so to them. It harks back to Genesis, and the night that Jacob dreamed of the ladder between earth and heaven, the thin place where angels came and went. Jesus is telling them that with his arrival, that ladder, that intersection between earth and heaven is truly established – forever – in the person of the Son of Man. And sadly, that is all we learn of Nathanael. But John and Acts have more to tell us about Philip. And the stories of his discipleship hold great encouragement for us.
For although Philip never doubted that Jesus had chosen him, he still really struggled at times, as we often do. He got anxious when faced by big challenges, and also totally confused at other times. For example, in John chapter 6, there is the story of Jesus about to feed the 5,000 before sending them away. As a test of faith, He asks Philip, ‘Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?’ And Philip fails the test completely. His reaction is only that : ‘It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread!’ It never occurred to him that Jesus could easily do it.
The next time we see Philip is on Palm Sunday, in Jerusalem among the joyful crowds. Some strangers from Greece arrive, and ask him to take them to Jesus. But Philip lacks confidence to do this, and asks Andrew for help. Together they show the men the way to Jesus.
We’ve all been like that. When people have asked us to show them Jesus, we can so easily falter. That is why having Christian friends alongside us is so important, we are stronger together in our witness.
The next story of Philip is yet another story of failure. But I find it very comforting, because if you ever fear that you have really let the Lord down, you could not do worse than poor Philip did. It was the night of the Last Supper, when Jesus tells the disciples: ‘if you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.’ And Philip’s response to this is cringe-making; he says ‘Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.’ Jesus’s reply is so sad: ‘Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”?’
What a sad reproach from Jesus. And on their last-ever evening together! For Jesus is crucified next morning. Imagine how Philip must have felt – it would have broken his heart to think that Jesus had been so disappointed in his discipleship. Don’t you know me, Philip?
And yet – Jesus did not give up on Philip. For Philip was witness to the resurrection, the ascension, Pentecost, and the hectically busy life of the early church. Then persecution struck – and the Christians had to flee Jerusalem or die. And so we come to our final two glimpses of Philip. Acts records that when the Christians scattered, Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. He cast out demons, and healed the sick. So there was great joy in that city.
What has happened to Philip? He has grown strong and confident. The power of God is now very obviously on his life.
Our last story of Philip is most moving. It comes in Acts chapter 8. Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Go south to the road – the desert road – that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ So Philip goes, – and meets the Ethiopian eunuch, an important treasury official, in his chariot. The eunuch is reading Isaiah and asks for help to understand it. And Philip, beginning with that very passage of Scripture, tells him the good news about Jesus.
The Ethiopian responds with great joy, and asks Philip to baptise him. And then we are told that when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and travelled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.
And with that, Philip passes out of history. But what a lovely final picture of him, this lesser known disciple. He was not timid or confused now, but full of the Holy Spirit and a passion to share Jesus with everyone he met.
With Christians like that down the centuries, no wonder the Church continued to grow. Jesus stills calls each one of us by name today, and gives his grace to us as freely as He gave it to those first disciples.