Philip’s ministry begins in Acts 6 with a passage we mentioned briefly in our recent examination of leadership development among the early believers through the book of Acts. There, we noted that despite the majority report of those who use this passage as a proof text for the establishment for the office of deacon, instead there is a refinement on the broad concept of deacon, Gr. diakonos, diakonia, diakoneo, which generically means servant or minister (noun) or to serve or minister (verb). In Acts 6, the related words for deacon are used three times, I’ve highlighted them in the passage below
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.Acts 6:1-6; vs. 1 diakonia; vs. 2 diakoneo; vs. 4 diakoniaIn the passage above we do not see the noun that is translated as deacon in passages such as 1 Timothy 3:8 (diakonos), but we still find the related root in both verbal form and noun form, translated as daily distribution (of food or alms), serving tables, and ministry of the word – a rather broad concept of deaconing ranging from distributing food or alms to the poor, serving the needy with food, and the rarely discussed, (ad)ministering the Word of God. It is out of this context that the need arose for the apostles in Jerusalem to ask the Hellenists, those who believed they were being neglected, to set aside seven men to deacon alms and tables, while they deaconed the Word.
In chapter 7 of Acts we find that one of the seven, Stephen, was certainly not confined to table waiting as he boldly proclaims the gospel resulting in his untimely death, stoned while Saul/Paul looked on. When we arrive at chapter 8 of Acts, we find the ensuing persecution of believers, primarily at the hands of Saul, leading to the scattering of believers who proclaimed the gospel as they went. This brings us once again to the Word ministry of one of the original seven, this time with Philip as we see him ministering in the city of Samaria
5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. 6 And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. 8 So there was much joy in that city. Acts 8:5-8Philip’s gospel ministry, which included preaching the good news about the Kingdom of Christ, baptizing, casting out demons, and healing the sick, resulted in the occasion of Simon the Magician’s false profession and the visit of Peter and John to verify the spread of the gospel among the Samaritans. The baptism by the apostles and the giving of the Holy Spirit wouldn’t seem to undermine Philip’s ministry, rather it served to validate it going forward as God continued to use signs and wonders. In the second half of this chapter, we find Philip on the move again, this time at the command of an angel of the Lord
“Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. 27 And he rose and went. Acts 8:26b-27aBy way of direction, Philip had first gone north from Jerusalem to Samaria and now doubles back as it were through Jerusalem and on the road that leads to Gaza (towards the southwest). As we learn, the specifics of the command by the angel to be on the road that leads to Gaza was providentially orchestrated by God for Philip to encounter the Ethiopian eunuch who served in the court of their queen. Here we find the familiar account of their interaction, him reading Isaiah 53, Philip’s explanation that it was about Christ and not Isaiah, his further proclamation of Christ resulting in the Ethiopian’s salvation and immediate baptism. God orchestrated the timing and events of both Philip and the Ethiopian, as well as the presence of water in a deserted place, and evidence of His manifest grace among those whom He has called. At the conclusion of this we find a rather curious passage
39 And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea. Acts 8:39-40Again, by way of direction, Philip heads north from Gaza, through Azotus (Ashdod), preaching as he went until he arrived at Caesarea. After the mysterious way in which the Spirit of the Lord carried him, the account of Philip’s ministry ends abruptly here. We find nothing more said of him until Acts 21, as I referenced above, when Paul traveled through Caesarea and stayed in Philip’s house (Acts 21:7-16). Perhaps it’s reasonable to conclude that Philip began a church in his Caesarean house, alongside the prophetic ministry of his four daughters.
The life and ministry of Philip recorded for us in these passages are what Alexander McClaren comments on in his discussion of Acts 21. As he worked through the ministry of Philip, McClaren sets forth several principles from which we can glean application for our day. Most notably for me was that Philip’s second ministry, after being set apart to serve tables, was not by means of the apostles, nor the Jerusalem church, nor had he been especially ordained or directed to do so by any higher authority (apart from God Himself). McClaren writes
…In these brief years of brilliant service I note the spontaneous impulse which sets a Christian man to do Christian work. 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, on the day when 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 when he went to Samaria. He had no commission from the Apostles to do so. He did not hold any office in the Church, except that which, according to the Apostles’ intention in establishing it, ought to have stopped his mouth from preaching. For they said, when they appointed these seven, ‘Let them serve tables, and we will give ourselves to the ministry of the word.’ But Jesus Christ has a way of upsetting men’s restrictions as to the functions of His servants. And so Philip, without a commission, and with many prejudices to stop his mouth, was the first to break through the limitations which confined the message of salvation to the Jews. Because he found himself in Samaria, and they needed Christ there, he did not wait for Peter and James and John to lay their hands upon his head, and say, ‘Now you are entitled to speak about Him’; he did not wait for any appointment, but yielded to his own heart, a heart that was full of Jesus Christ, and must speak about Him; find he proclaimed the Gospel in that city. Alexander McClaren Expositions of Holy ScripturePhilip’s ministry serves as a remarkable interlude in the Book of Acts and a transition of the gospel from Jerusalem to Samaria and the surrounding nations. What is perhaps most remarkable is that this deacon, if we are to believe those interpretations, was neither confined nor resigned to table-waiting. Rather, he knew he had received a higher commission, one which all believer’s have been given by their Lord.
18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20Turning again to McClaren, we find him concluding this same point of application that he began above
So he has the noble distinction of being the very first Christian man who put a bold foot across the boundary of Judaism, and showed a light to men that were in darkness beyond. Remember 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 preach in Samaria. So it would be to us, if we were Christians with the depth of faith and of personal experience which this man had. Alexander McClaren Expositions of Holy ScriptureWith Philip, the gospel did not wait for an official movement from the apostles, nor the church. He had no sponsorship, no program, nor were there any fundraising events to send Philip out. By all accounts, Philip was a simple, private Christian, with no seminary education or office. Instead, he was a man with a good reputation, was full of the Spirit and wisdom, and preached the Word of God with boldness. Would to God that He would raise up more Philip’s in our day and age. Perhaps in His sovereignty it will once again coincide with the rise of Christian persecution, should the breakdown of our institutions happen more regularly and more forcefully.
Soli Deo Gloria