Philip the Evangelist must be carefully distinguished from Philip the Apostle. And though it is little that we are told regarding him in Scripture, that little is very significant. He first comes before us as one of the seven chosen by the early Church at Jerusalem to take charge of the daily ministration of charity to the poor widows (Acts vi. I ff.). And when this work is hindered by the outbreak of persecution following on the death of Stephen, we find him at once departing to enter on active missionary work elsewhere (Acts viii.4 ff.). The fact that he should have selected Samaria as the scene of these new labours, is in itself a proof that he was able to rise above the ordinary Jewish prejudices of his time. And this same liberal spirit is further exemplified by the incident in connection with which he will always be principally remembered.
In obedience to a Divine summons, Philip had betaken himself to the way that goeth down from Jerusalem to Gaza. And if at first he may have wondered why he should have been called upon to leave his rapidly progressing work in Samaria for a desert road, he was not for long left in doubt as to what was required of him. For as he walked along he was overtaken by an Ethiopian stranger returning in his chariot from Jerusalem. This man, who was the chamberlain or treasurer of Candace, Queen of the Ethiopians, had heard somehow in his distant home, of the Jewish religion, and had undertaken this long journey to make further inquiries regarding it. We are not told how he had been impressed; very possibly the actual fruits that he witnessed were very different from what he had expected. But one treasure at least he had found, a Greek copy of the prophecies of Isaiah, and this he was eagerly searching on his return journey, to see if he could find further light there. One passage specially arrested his attention, the touching passage in which the prophet draws out his great portraiture of the Man of Sorrows. But, then, how reconcile the thought of this Messiah, suffering, wounded, dying, with the great King and Conqueror whom the Jews at Jerusalem had been expecting! Could it be that he had anything to do with our Jesus of Nazareth, of whom he had also heard, and whom, because of the Messianic claims He had put forward, the Jewish leaders had crucified on a cross? Oh, for some one to help him! Help was nearer than he thought. Prompted by the Spirit, Philip ran forward to the chariot; and no sooner had he learned the royal chamberlain's difficulties than he "opened his mouth, and beginning from this scripture, preached unto him Jesus" (Acts viii.35).
We are not told on what particulars Philip dwelt; but, doubtless, starting from the prophetic description of the Man of Sorrows, "despised and rejected of men," he would show how that description held true of the earthly life of Jesus. And then he would go on to show the meaning and bearing of these sufferings. They arose from no fault on the part of Jesus; but, "He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities." And yet that was not the end. The life which had thus ended in shame had begun again in glory: the cross had led on to the crown. And as thus he unfolded the first great principles of the Christian faith, Philip would press home on the eunuch's awakened conscience that they had a vital meaning for him. "Repent," can we not imagine him pleading as Peter had pleaded before, "and be baptised . . . in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of your sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost" (Acts ii.38). The eunuch's heart was touched, and he asked that he might be baptized. Satisfied that he was in earnest, Philip agreed to his request. And when they came to a certain water, "they both went down into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him." Thus "the Ethiopian changed his skin," and "went on his way rejoicing" to his distant home, to declare in his turn to his countrymen the tidings of great joy.
There are many points of view from which we might regard this beautiful incident, but it is with it in its bearing on the person and character of Philip that we are alone at present concerned. And in considering it further in this light, it may be well to confine ourselves to noticing in what way it gained for Philip his distinctive title of "the Evangelist," and consequently what it has to teach us still regarding all evangelistic and missionary work.
With regard to the evangelist himself, one truth stands out clearly from the whole narrative, his work is given to him to do. He is first and foremost a missionary, one sent.
It is a pity, perhaps, that in our ordinary speech, we have come to limit the name "missionary" so much to the man who carries the gospel abroad. No doubt he is a missionary in the highest sense of the word; but still the fundamental idea in every minister or evangelist's position is the idea of one sent -- sent for a particular purpose, with a particular message to proclaim wherever God may place him. He has no power, no authority of his own. All that he has comes from Him whose servant he is, and whose truth he has to announce.
You remember -- to appeal at once to the highest example -- how ever-present this thought of His mission was to the mind of our Lord and Master. His meat, so He told His disciples, was to do the will of Him that sent Him (John iv.34). The word which He spake was not His own, but the Father's who sent Him (John xiv.24). And so when the time came for His sending forth His disciples to carry on His work, it was as "Apostles," those sent, that the work was entrusted to them; and in the same spirit He prayed for them in His great intercessory prayer: "As Thou didst send Me into the world, even so sent I them into the world" (John xvii.18).
If we keep this view of the evangelist as the missionary, ever before us, there is one fact regarding his position we can never lose sight of. He has no new truth of his own to declare, no new theories of his own to frame. The message which he has to deliver is not his own, but God's; and it must be his constant endeavour to learn that message for himself, and then, as God's servant, to announce it to others. Men may receive his message. If they do not, he dare not substitute any other.
In what does the evangelist's message consist? "Philip," we are told, "preached unto him JESUS." And what that included we have already seen. It was the story of the life, and the death, and the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, a new story then, an old story now, but still "the old, old story" for us.
The duty of the Christian teacher must be first of all to proclaim Christ and His salvation, to announce the glad tidings of mercy and of love to sinful men.
This is not, of course, to say that every address or sermon is to be occupied with the objective facts of Christ's life and death. Such teaching would soon become monotonous and wearisome, and fail in the very purpose it set before it. Nor have men only to be awakened to the truth, they must be built up in it. And the practical question for us all is to learn how to apply and carry out in our daily lives, the truths we have received, how to make our conduct correspond to our creed. That opens up an endless field for the evangelist's work: that introduces us to lectures on Home Missions and Foreign Missions, to the story of noble lives; to all, in fact, that is likely to deepen and to quicken our moral nature. But still this remains as the fundamental object of the whole evangel, to preach Jesus, to bring those to Him who know Him not, to strengthen and to comfort those who do.
When, then, men call upon the Christian teacher to leave the objective facts of the gospel alone, and to occupy himself with the philosophic and social questions of the day, they are calling upon him to surrender his special function and duty. He must indeed endeavour so to present the truth so as to meet the peculiar wants of his own time. The form in which the gospel was presented in one age may not be the best form of presenting it in another. At one time it may be necessary to emphasise one aspect of the truth, at another, another. But underneath all its changing forms and aspects, the truth remains unchanged; and it is that which must be taught.
And after all, has not the simple gospel message ever proved itself the one message that can touch the hearts and meet the wants of men? What was it, for example, in the preaching of Savonarola that so mightily moved Florence, the elegant, refined, wicked, pagan Florence of the fifteenth century? He himself tells us that it was the preaching of Scripture truth. When he discoursed in a philosophical manner, the ignorant and the learned were alike inattentive: but "the word" mightily delighted the minds of men, and showed its divine power in the reformation of their lives. Or, to take another instance from nearer home. Archdeacon Wilson describes somewhere the experience of the promoters of a certain evening-class, which they had instituted for the benefit of some of the more ignorant and degraded inhabitants of Bristol. All that they could think of they did for the benefit of the men who gathered to it. They read to them; they sang to them: they taught them to read and write. Yet, in course of time, interest flagged. Every expedient failed, and they were on the point of abandoning the work in despair, when it occurred to them to apply to the men themselves. "What would you like us to tell you about next?" they asked. "Could you tell us something about Jesus Christ?" answered one of the men. That was the one thing needful, the one abiding satisfaction for their deepest needs.
And so ever. It may be strange, but it is true, that it is "the Man of Sorrows" who has won the love of men; it is the Saviour who has been lifted up on high out of the earth, who has drawn all men to Himself. Christ: Christ crucified: Christ risen: that is the message which every Christian evangelist has to declare.
His Message of Glad Tidings.
And is not that good news? "Beginning from that same scripture, Philip preached the GLAD TIDINGS of Jesus."
Philip made the eunuch's previous knowledge the starting-point of all that he had to say, and, as he went on, showed how there was in his message the answer to all his doubts and the solution of all his difficulties.
And the gospel has still the same meaning for us. It has a message for the man struggling with the battle of life, in the example of One who has fought that fight before, who knows its every trial and sorrow, and who has come gloriously through them all. It has a message for the sinner, brooding anxiously over his guilty past, conscious only of his own defilement and unworthiness in the sight of an all-holy God, as it assures him of mercy and free forgiveness, of sin blotted out in the blood of Christ. It has a message for the trembling believer, compassed about with temptations and doubts, as it tells of One who can still be "touched with the feeling of our infirmities," and who, because "He Himself hath suffered being tempted," is "able to succour them that are tempted." And it has a message for the mourner sorrowing over the loss of near and dear ones, for it points to Him who is "the Resurrection and the Life" of His people, and gives promise of the "Father's house" with its many mansions, where He is preparing a place for His children.
And yet great and glorious though that message is, where there are not a hearing ear, an understanding heart, and a willing mind, even a St Philip or a St Paul may preach in vain. But where, on the other hand, these are present, then God may use even the humblest and feeblest of His servants to speak some word, to utter some warning, which may be worth to us more than all we have in the world besides. God grant that it may be so with us, and that by the power of the Holy Ghost the word preached may be welcomed, "not as the word of men, but, as it is in truth, the word of God, which also worketh in you that believe" (1 Thess. ii.13).