"Discipleship" by Elspeth Young. Image Source
Acts 9: 36-42
Background: 1 Century AD
Not long after Saul's (Paul) miraculous conversion to the Christian church, and his acceptance into the fold by the Apostles, the church experienced a period of great growth and prosperity (Acts 9: 1-31). Peter, the prophet of the church, "passed throughout all quarters" to visit the Saints spread out through Judea (Acts 9: 32). His travels took him to Lydda where he healed a man name Aeneas who had been sick in bed with palsy for eight years. Then "... all that dwelt at Lydda and Saron...turned to the Lord" (Acts 9:35).
Facts About Her:
- Her name, Tabitha, is Aramaic for "gazelle" and the Greek translation of her name is Dorcus. In the scriptures she is introduced as, " a certain disciple named Tabitha, which by interpretation is called Dorcus" (9:36);
- She lived in Joppa and was a "woman full of good works and almsdeeds which she did" (9:36);
- She was sick (we don't know how long for) and when she died the other disciples washed her body and laid her in an upper chamber (9: 37);
- The disciples had heard that Peter was in Lydda (which is about 12 miles from Joppa). After Tabitha's death they sent two men to him to ask him to come them without delay (9:38);
- When Peter arrived they took him to the upper chamber where her body was laid out and he found that "all the widows stood by him weeping, and shewing the coats and garments which Dorcas made, while she was with them" (9: 39);
- Peter sent them all away and then kneeled down and prayed, then "turning him to the body said, Tabitha, arise. And she opened her eyes; and when she saw Peter, she sat up" (9:40)
- Peter then gave her his hand, lifted her up, and presented her to all the saints and the widows who were gathered (9:41);
- The news spread throughout all of Joppa and "many believed in the Lord" (9:42).
- It seems strange that after Tabitha died that the other disciples would think it appropriate, and even urgent, that they notify Peter of her death and ask "that he would not delay to come to them. (9:38)" Such actions suggest that Peter must have been well acquainted with Tabitha and that she held some sort of position of respect in his life or in with in the Church.
- It is also valuable to note that the books of Acts was written by Luke and that the audience he was writing to were Gentile Christians. Understanding this fact may help explain why he refers to her by both her Aramaic name (Tabitha) and her Greek name (Dorcus). Furthermore, the fact that she is recognized by both names may indicate that she was well known to the Gentiles and to the Jews and that she may have been involved in missionary work among the Gentiles.
- In some ways she is also a symbol of Christ. Not only was she known for her good works, like Christ was, but she also was laid in an "upper chamber" when she died. Upper chambers were rooms in the house that were often reserved for special events like, births, blessings and deaths. Christ's last Passover supper with his apostles was held in an "upper chamber" and it is interesting that the account of Tabitha mentions twice that she was laid in an upper chamber. Also, she was probably dead for several days before Peter reached her (he had to walk the 12 miles from Lydda to Joppa) and so her being raised from the dead after having been dead for several days must have seemed very reminiscent to the Saints of Christ's resurrection.
Section of Healing of the Cripple and Raising of Tabitha by Masolino da Panicale, 1425.
I don't think it is any coincidence that Tabitha's story is sandwiched in between the story of Paul's conversion story (Acts 9: 1-31) and the story of Peter's revelation that the gospel should go forth to the Gentiles (Acts 10). In Joppa, and many other areas of Judea, there was great persecution of Christians and people had misconceptions about them and their practices, like assuming they were cannibals because they "ate and drank" the blood of Christ. Yet in Acts 9:42 we read that after Tabitha is raised from the dead, "many believed in the Lord". It is probably fair to assume that seeing a good, strong and kind woman be raise from the dead by one claiming authority from Christ did a lot to help the Christian image in Joppa and the surrounding areas. Furthermore, it wasn't long after Tabitha was raised from the dead that Peter received the direction from God that the gospel was to be preached not only to the Jews but also the Gentiles. The placement of Tabitha's story seems to indicate that she played an important part (not only by being raised from the dead but also for her good works and almsdeeds) in preparing the Jews and the Gentiles to receive the Gospel.
Her story also brings to mind the quote, which is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, "Preach the gospel at all times, when necessary, use words." For all we know Tabitha never preached the gospel or never formally shared her testimony of Christ. Yet through her good works and almsdeeds (which were gifts of money or food given to the needy) she softened the hearts of those around her and prepared them to accept the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It is interesting that today missionary works often follows that same sort of pattern evidenced in Tabitha's story. In parts of the world that are hostile or indifferent to Christianity missionaries often "preach" the gospel through humanitarian efforts, charities, and one-on-one service to individuals and families. Often times these missionaries are forbidden by law or cultural custom to formally proselyte or teach the gospel. Yet through their service efforts people come to taste of the love of Christ and their hearts are softened and prepared to receive the Gospel when they finally do hear it. When it comes right down to it Tabitha was really one of first humanitarian service missionaries in the Christian church; also making her one of the first female missionaries we hear mentioned in the New Testament!
Questions to Think About:
- Why would Peter, the prophet of the church, make the effort to come to Tabitha's deathbed? It is unlikely that the people asked him there with the intent for him to raise her from the dead. Why then did they ask him to come? Who do you think she was that Peter would take such interest in her?
- Is there a woman in your life who reminds you of Tabitha? A woman whose good works bear testimony of her testimony of Christ?
- In what ways are modern day missionaries still acting like Tabitha and preparing the way for the gospel to come forth to individuals, communities, or nations through their good works and service? Do you have any personal (or handed down) stories or examples of this?
- Remembering that the intentioned audience of the books of Acts was early Gentile Christians how do you think that the story of Tabitha may have impacted them? Why would Luke include her story specifically for a Gentile audience?