Dear Radio Friends,
The account we consider in today’s broadcast involves the apostle Peter. Peter’s life had been threatened in Jerusalem a couple of times. For that reason, he had moved away from Jerusalem to stay for a short time in a small city near the Mediterranean coast. It was during his stay there that the account of which we read in Acts 9:36-42 took place. We read those verses: “Now there was at Joppa a certain disciple named Tabitha, which by interpretation is called Dorcas: this woman was full of good works and alms deeds which she did. And it came to pass in those days, that she was sick, and died: whom when they had washed, they laid her in an upper chamber. And forasmuch as Lydda was nigh to Joppa, and the disciples had heard that Peter was there, they sent unto him two men, desiring him that he would not delay to come to them. Then Peter arose and went with them. When he was come, they brought him into the upper chamber: and all the widows stood by him weeping, and showing the coats and garments which Dorcas made, while she was with them. But Peter put them all forth, and kneeled down, and prayed; and turning him to the body said, Tabitha, arise. And she opened her eyes: and when she saw Peter, she sat up. And he gave her his hand, and lifted her up, and when he had called the saints and widows, presented her alive. And it was known throughout all Joppa; and many believed in the Lord.”
As we mentioned, Peter is now residing with a few saints for a short time in a village named Lydda. A man named Aeneas lived there who had been sick of the palsy eight years. Peter healed him, and many who lived in Lydda and the neighboring city of Sharon saw this miracle and turned to the Lord. So, Christ was confirming the preaching of Peter by means of miracles. In this way the gospel was spread among the Jews. The saints in Joppa heard of this miracle too. This is why they quickly called Peter to come there. A woman named Tabitha had died and they wanted Peter to come and perform a miracle, if possible. This miracle we study today.
I. Tabitha’s Death
Tabitha was not a woman of great renown. She was a woman of simple means living in a small Jewish city and a member of the small Christian church that had been established there. It is evident from the circumstances surrounding her death that she was single. Because of the many widows that attended her death it may be possible that she was herself a widow who was also childless. Of this, we cannot be certain however. Tabitha was her Jewish name, but for the sake of the Gentile believers, Luke includes her Greek name, Dorcas. The names mean the same: a female gazelle. Jewish mothers often named their daughters Tabitha, since it refers to the grace and beauty of this animal. Tabitha was known for her alms deeds—her deeds of mercy toward those in need, in the main the poor widows of the church and the city.
This paints a beautiful picture of this woman. She was a single member of the church who was selfless, giving herself over to the needs of others. She had her place, she found her niche, so to speak, in the congregation there in Joppa. She was a woman of kindness and gentleness who did not sit back wondering what the church there could do for her. She was proactive in the church by keeping herself busy making coats and garments that she gifted to widows in need. As a result, she was well loved by the saints in the church of Joppa.
Neither were these alms deeds done merely out of a natural sense of kindness and concern for others. In verse 36 we learn that she “was full of good works.” In other words, these acts of mercy toward others were good works in the sight of God. We must understand what good works are according to Scripture and in the eyes of God. Good works are not done out of a sense of self-satisfaction, that is, because by doing them we are able to feel good about ourselves. We have this sense of pride in what we have done. Neither are good works performed because by them we feel we have merited something in God’s sight. I have done my Christian duty and therefore God is pleased with me on account of my good works. Positively, good works flow out of a true and living faith. Tabitha was characterized therefore by faith. There it is once again, the one chief characteristic of every God-fearing woman that we have before considered: faith.
By God’s grace Tabitha had been delivered out of the darkness of sin and unbelief. Being a Jew she had been delivered from the work-righteousness that was so much a part of the Jewish faith. The alms deeds she performed were not done by her because she believed these alms deeds would save her. She had been drawn to Jesus Christ. She had found that her sins were forgiven her only for the sake of His death. The gospel had worked in her in such a way that she had joined herself to the church in Joppa. She had cast her all upon Christ alone and on the salvation that He had earned for her and God’s saints on the cross. She had come to know Christ. Such knowledge is faith! Likewise, she had come to trust in Him in life and death. For that reason, too, she had cast her lot with the saints in Joppa. She belonged to the body of Christ, and in joy she worshiped God in the church there.
Out of that faith flowed forth her good works. She did them not for her own glory but for the glory of God. That too constitutes a good work. A good work that is pleasing to God flows out of faith and is done to the glory of God’s name alone. We must not fail to see the relationship of faith and good works. Good works are not an aspect or part of faith. We cannot describe faith as a working faith. Faith is nothing more than a bond that unites us to Jesus Christ both in reality and in our consciousness. One characterized by faith never looks at self but always looks to Christ. Good works are the fruit of such faith. They flow out of faith. They are the result of faith. The alms deeds performed by Tabitha therefore were an expression of her faith in Jesus Christ. By her fruits those about her were able to know that she was a believer! Because of the nature of a true faith, works always follow. As James says: faith without works is dead. Those who knew Dorcas knew she was a believer.
But Dorcas had become ill. This happened, we are told, “in those days,” that is, in the days Peter was near to Joppa. We cannot help but understand this in light of God’s providence. God caused Tabitha to become very sick and to die at the particular time Peter had been led by Him to be near to the city of Joppa. We are not told what her illness was, but it must have been sudden and took her life very soon after she became sick. We learn that they—no doubt, the women of the church—had washed her body and laid her in an upper chamber or room of a house. We must remember that in those days there was no embalming of a body to keep it from decaying for a number of days, perhaps a week. In that day the body was washed, viewed quickly on the same day or next, and then brought immediately to the grave.
In the case of Tabitha, they removed her body and placed it in an upstairs room instead of in the main parlor of the house where people would come to pay their respects. This was probably done in Tabitha’s case because of the hope of the church that Peter might be able yet to perform a miracle. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the church sent two men immediately to Lydda seeking Peter. They asked him to come to Joppa without delay. In other words, do not tarry until tomorrow but come now. Peter acceded to this request and immediately accompanied them to Joppa. He arrived either that same day or the morning of the day after. When he came to the house, we learn in verse 39, “…they brought him into the upper chamber: and all the widows stood by him weeping, and showing the coats and garments which Dorcas made, while she was with them.” There Peter now viewed Tabitha’s dead body with all the mourners around her—mainly the widows who owed to this dear woman so much. It was then that Peter performed a rare miracle—one not many men in the past performed and one that only the apostle Paul in the future would perform.
II. Peter’s Miracle
We read in verse 40, “But Peter put them all forth, and kneeled down, and prayed; and turning him to the body said, Tabitha, arise. And she opened her eyes: and when she saw Peter, she sat up.” Peter put everyone out of the room. The word in the Greek that is interpreted “put them all forth” is literally, he “thrust them out.” He forced everyone to leave. The question is: why would he have to do this? First of all, because these saints were curious as to what he was going to do. They probably all wanted to stay in the room while Peter did his work. In the second place, Peter was not of a mind to put any miracle he could perform on display. In contrast to the many faith healers of today who wish to show off their so-called “gift” to others, Peter was not interested in such tactics. If he were to perform a miracle it was not in order to enhance his own name and popularity. He was not interested in becoming known to everyone as this great evangelist who was of such great faith. Peter did not even know yet what God’s will was regarding Tabitha. He needed to ask that of God in prayer.
After thrusting everyone from the room, Peter knelt down beside the bed and prayed. Peter knew it was not in him to perform any miracle. The ability to raise a person from the dead did not rest in his great power of faith. The ability to raise a person from the dead rested alone in God, who holds life and death in His hand. From this we know what the content of Peter’s prayer must also have been. He desired of God to reveal to him what must be done regarding Tabitha. Peter did not want people standing around murmuring about what was taking place while he needed to concentrate on prayer.
Evidently God revealed to Peter what he was to do now with this dead saint. Peter then turned to the body of Tabitha and said to her: “Tabitha, arise!” She opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up in her bed. It was as if she had just been awakened from a deep sleep. It was not as if her body leaped or she suddenly gasped air into her lungs. It was as if Peter was merely waking her up. Just like mothers will do with their children in the morning to get them up. Wake up! Get up! They open their eyes from sleep and sit up in bed. “Tabitha, arise.” She peacefully opened her eyes. When she saw the one waking her up, she sat up. Peter then took her by the hand and, lifted her from the bed, and then called the saints and widows and presented her to them alive. It is not as if the entire city had appeared to see what had happened. We are told that Peter presented her to the saints and widows. The word ‘saints’ here means ‘believers.’ Peter presented her to the members of the church, and in particular to the believing widows. Tabitha was no longer ill. She did not come staggering out of the room weak and feverish. She was whole, looking fresh from a good sleep.
Now, we may not simply tell the story of this miracle without understanding the significance of it. You see, nothing that has to do with Jesus Christ is explicitly mentioned in our text. Peter did not say, “Tabitha, in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, arise.” It may seem therefore that it was Peter who was able to raise her from the dead. But no man is able to give life where there is death. We know that life is only God’s to give. Peter could not himself therefore bring Tabitha to life again. But then, to what can we ascribe this miracle? Peter prayed, remember. The words of his prayer were spoken in himself to God. In that prayer Peter had to have called on the name of Jesus Christ to raise this believing woman from the grave. There is no other way Peter could have done this miracle. We make this claim on this basis: Jesus is the resurrection and the life. These are the very words Jesus had spoken to Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, before raising Lazarus from the dead. In Christ alone is the power to raise someone from the dead. In Christ is found life. He has merited life by means of His own death and resurrection. By means of Christ’s resurrection, He has conquered sin and the grave. The bars of the prison of the grave have been broken away. Death no longer has sway over the believer because Christ has overcome death.
This is true because Christ conquered the cause of death, namely sin. At the cross Christ in perfect obedience to God fulfilled all righteousness. He paid the price of sin and removed the guilt of every one of God’s elect people. The penalty of death no longer lies upon them, because they have been justified in His blood. For that reason, death has been destroyed, and in the place of it Christ imparts to His people His resurrection life. Christ lives in us by His Spirit and grace. Such is the cause behind the miracle Peter performed. By means of Christ’s exaltation, He now lives and reigns at the right hand of God in heaven. When Peter prayed to God at the deathbed of Dorcas, he prayed to Him in the name of that powerful resurrected Lord. When Peter spoke the words, “Tabitha, arise,” it was Christ from heaven who took her by the hand and raised her from the dead. The miracle Peter performed therefore was not by his own power, or even by the greatness of his own faith. It was by means of the powerful work of Jesus Christ who is the resurrection and the life.
Neither ought we to overlook the significance of this miracle for us. No, we do not expect to be brought back to this life as Tabitha was. But we who believe in this all-powerful Lord do expect to live eternally. Death for God’s people is nothing more than a passageway into eternal life. Death is nothing we need to fear. In the snap of a finger, in the twinkling of an eye, we will pass from this life into the next. Death has no sting. The grave has no victory. Christ is the resurrection! Just as surely as He was able to raise Dorcas from her deathbed, so also will you and I be raised in the last day. The grave cannot keep hold of our bodies. In the last day the trumpet will sound and Christ will call forth, “My people, arise!” Our bodies, long laid to rest in the grave, will then come forth to be led by our Savior into the portals of heaven. This miracle is a sign of that final resurrection of the dead. Such is the significance of this miracle.
But God used this miracle of Peter in one other way. It revealed that the gospel, that is, salvation from sin in Jesus Christ, was true! Concerning the apostles, we learn in Hebrews 2:4, “God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will.” The miracles performed by the apostles were used by God as a witness, as a confirmation, that the gospel they preached was true. The Jews needed this confirmation. They needed to learn how Christ had come as fulfillment of the OT laws and ceremonies. Yes, Peter was a powerful figure of God’s might and the gospel. But such a miracle only lent power to the preaching of the gospel. And again, the particular aspect of the gospel to which it lent power was the blessed truth that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
III. Many Believed
This miracle was used of God in two ways. First of all, the faith of God’s saints in Joppa was confirmed. The saints and widows had witnessed the miracle of Peter. These were already believers. Their faith was merely confirmed. Not faith in Peter, mind you. Not faith in miracles. Their faith in Jesus Christ and their salvation was confirmed and strengthened. Just as ours is today when we learn of this miracle, so also was it true then. This miracle was a sign and seal to God’s saints of their own blessed resurrection.
But there was one other way God used this miracle. Notice: this miracle was known, we are told, throughout all Joppa. What had taken place was noised abroad throughout the entire city of Joppa. Unbelievers heard of it too. And though God did not use the miracle and the gospel that accompanied it to bring everyone in the city to faith and repentance, nevertheless we are told that many believed! As many as were ordained to eternal life in that city believed. God used this miracle as a means to attract others to the gospel. Then God worked in their hearts by His Spirit and grace.
And what of Tabitha? In gratitude she continued, no doubt, in her alms deeds. She continued to be a blessing to the church in Joppa. We who also receive the resurrection and the life now follow her example. What gifts do we offer to the church and our fellow saints?