Then Jesus lifted up His eyes, and seeing a great multitude coming toward Him, He said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?”
When Philip shows up in the Gospel, something usually profound is revealed about the Person of Christ. He’s the one who introduced Nathanael to Jesus saying, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote.” That of course is the Messiah.
He’s the one who says to Jesus, “Show us the Father,” to which Jesus gave one of His most important teachings on the Holy Trinity: “He who has seen me has seen the Father.”
To Philip the Greeks went when they wanted to see Jesus – “Sir, we want to see Jesus.” – a pivotal point in John’s Gospel signaling an opening of Christ’s mission beyond the Jews.
So Philip plays a role in the revelation that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, who’s of one substance with the Father, who’s for (all) us men and for our salvation. That’s a bit of creedal heft!
And in this week’s Gospel, Jesus tests Philip whether He understood the implications of the doctrine He was using Philip to reveal. Yes, Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed prophet-king written about by Moses and the prophets. Yes, Jesus is the revealer of the Father, so that if you see Him you see the Father. Yes, Jesus is the universal Savior of all humanity.
But can He take care of a mass of hungry people in a wilderness? Philip fails this test even as he failed to see that to see Jesus is to see the Father. Philip seems to represent that sort of disciple who has a good confession of who Christ is, but fails to understand the implications of that confession.
At this point in the Gospel (John 6), Philip at least understood Jesus was the “one of whom Moses wrote.” Well, who was that? That was “the prophet” of Deuteronomy 18. These are the exact words of Moses, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear, according to all you desired of the LORD your God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God, nor let me see this great fire anymore, lest I die.’”
We will learn more about “the prophet” and the circumstances of God raising him up. At a minimum, note Moses’ words lay the foundation for Philip’s later catechesis from Jesus that he who has seen Jesus has seen the Father. That’s the prophet’s role, to be the face of God so we don’t have to confront God in His naked presence. But again, this is for a later day.
For now, we focus on Moses’ words “like me.” The prophet God raises up will be like Moses. What did Moses do? Of course, he did a lot of things, but one of the big things he did – so big it was one of the three items put into the Ark of the Covenant – was provide manna for Israel, their daily bread.
So, Jesus’ test of Philip was whether he believed Jesus could do something based on what Philip recognized Him to be. At a deeper level, Jesus was testing whether Philip understood the profound moment he was encountering, the fulfillment of one of Israel’s most consequential events, their wandering in the wilderness being tested and fed by manna. In a sense Philip stands for all of us in our own testing in the wilderness, will we trust God to provide us with daily bread?
Philip falls back to the realities of economics and the law of scarcity. 200 denarii wouldn’t be enough to buy bread for all those people. It would seem Philip failed the test, as we do all the time as well, as we too rely on what we think is the assurance of economic reality. Yes, we believe Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God, and so on. But against the cold, hard facts of economics, do we believe He’ll have compassion on us to provide us with daily bread?
Just as Philip was failing to connect the dots between his confession and the realities of his day, Andrew comes in and tells Jesus about the five loaves and two fishes. It’s a little more than what Philip offers Jesus, but still insufficient – “What are they among so many?” says Andrew.
And then Jesus takes over. He doesn’t “live down” do their lack of faith. The little faith of a mustard seed receives the full Jesus. And that little faith of Philip was that Jesus was the one Moses talked about, the one “like me.” Jesus nudges Philip along to see that if He is the one like Moses, well, He’ll provide manna from heaven as well, a bread from heaven, indeed a greater bread from heaven.
So also with us. One of our “wilderness tests” is trusting that if we believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the face of God, the one of whom Moses wrote, will He take care of us so we need not worry? Will we “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” trusting that all those other things will be “added unto us”?
Or will we fall back to cold, hard economic realities?
Here’s the beautiful thing. Philip shows us in the end the Lord will do what the Lord will do without regard to the quality of our faith, and that is have compassion and provide our daily bread. However, what joy (Laetare means “rejoice”) to pass that test and have the confidence we could have in Christ.