Those who would be evangelists for Christ soon find that their efforts do not always result in 100% success. Like the sower in our Lord’s parable, sometimes their words fall by the wayside, or upon rocky soil or among thorns, and the seeds of the Gospel they preached do not grow and bear fruit. At other times, by the grace of God, the seed does take root and produce a wonderful harvest. One of the first evangelists to learn this truth was St. Philip the deacon.
We can read the basic facts of St. Philip’s life in the pages of the book of the Acts of the Apostles. When it became apparent to the Twelve Apostles (Matthias having been appointed in the betrayer Judas’ place) that the needs of the Church required more laborers, the office of Deacon was instituted. Seven men were selected from among the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, men who were “of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom.” Their task was to help meet the needs of the widows and the poor, thus allowing the Apostles the time needed for prayer, teaching, and the administration of the Sacraments. [Acts 7:3, 4]. These seven men were Stephen (who soon became the first Christian martyr), Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, Nicolas (described as a “proselyte from Antioch”), and Philip. The Apostles ordained them to this new office by the laying on of hands.
Philip was from Caesaria in Palestine, according to the writings of some of the patristic fathers. He was married and had four daughters who were known for their virtue and their ability to prophesy; Deacon Philip had a great gift for preaching and healing. As the leaders of the Church scattered following the death of St. Stephen, Philip was sent to the city of Samaria to tell the people there the good news of Christ.
There was already someone in Samaria who was famous for his amazing demonstrations of power – Simon the Magician. The citizens of Samaria were impressed with his abilities and attributed his sorceries to God. They were also impressed with the deacon and were amazed at his ability to heal the lame and palsied. Many people committed themselves to Christ and were baptized. The magician also listened to Philip, asked for baptism, and continued to follow and watch him as he preached and healed.
St. Peter and St. John came to Samaria to confirm the people after their baptisms, something which only the Apostles as the first bishops, could do. (Eventually priests were given permission to complete baptisms by using the oil of Chrism which had been blessed by the bishop.) When Simon saw that, by the laying on of hands, the Holy Spirit was conferred on the people, he offered the Apostles money if they would give him the same power. Peter severely rebuked the magician, telling him that the gift of God could not be purchased with money and that his heart was not right with God. He urged him to repent of his evil intentions. From that time on, the word “simony” has been used for those who would purchase a position in the Church. Simon did not consider repentance to be palatable and he went on to form his own religion, calling himself the Messiah and the Holy Ghost. The shallow “conversion” of Simon the magician must have been a great disappointment (and perhaps embarrassment) to St. Philip.
Soon, however, the spirit of God spoke to Philip and told him to go south of Jerusalem to Gaza. There, he encountered a eunuch who was a high official in the service of the Ethiopian Queen Candace. This man was a Jew and had come to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple. As he returned home, he was reading holy Scripture, specifically the passage from Isaiah which prefigures Christ as one who was “as a sheep led to the slaughter.” When he and Deacon Philip struck up a conversation, the man expressed concern for how he could understand such a passage without someone to explain it to him. What a providential opportunity for St. Philip! He told the eunuch the wonderful stories of Christ, beginning with this prophecy from Isaiah. Here was fertile ground for the Gospel. The man invited Philip to continue traveling with him and before long, the man was so convinced of the truth of Philip’s news that, when they came to a body of water, he asked to be baptized. This man returned to Ethiopia and joyfully reported all that he had learned from St. Philip. He became an evangelist for Christ in his country.
St. Philip’s next “assignment” was in Azotus, where the spirit of the Lord carried him to preach the good news until he returned home to Caesarea. Later, St. Philip was made a Bishop of the Church in Tralles, where he served faithfully for many years until he fell asleep in the Lord at an advanced age.
Among many fathers of the Church, St. Ignatius, St. Cyprian, St. Laurence, St. Ambrose, and St. Jerome wrote about St. Philip and his ministry of evangelism. The courage and untiring efforts of those such as St. Philip, who experienced both disappointments and triumphs, helped to spread Christianity throughout the world in the first years following our Lord’s Resurrection. In our generation, may we also be evangelists and, through the intercession of St. Philip, help to continue the growth of the Church.