April 1, 2014

Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles

By: Tom Lowe

 

Lesson III.D.2: Peter in Joppa: A woman healed (9:36-43)           


Scripture

36 Now there was at Joppa a certain disciple named Tabitha, which by interpretation is called Dorcas: this woman was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did.

37 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.

38 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.

39 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 shewing the coats and garments which Dorcas made, while she was with them.

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.

41 And he gave her his hand, and lifted her up, and when he had called the saints and widows, presented her alive.

42 And it was known throughout all Joppa; and many believed in the Lord.

43 And it came to pass, that he tarried many days in Joppa with one Simon a tanner.

 

Introduction

While Peter was at Lydda, a well-beloved Christian woman, (“a disciple,” v. 36) in Joppa, by the name of Dorcas . . . died. The story of Dorcas is reminiscent of earlier raisings from the dead, such as Elijah’s raising of the son of the widow of Zarephath (1 Ki. 17:17-24) and the raising of the Shunammite woman’s son by Elisha (2 Ki. 4:32-37), both of which are in turn echoed in the story of the widow’s son, who was raised by Jesus (Lk. 7:11-17). The raising which most closely corresponds the Dorcas’ story, however, is to be found in Jesus’ raising of Jarius’ daughter (Lk. 8:49-56; Mk. 5:35-43).


Commentary

36 Now there was at Joppa a certain disciple named Tabitha, which by interpretation is called Dorcas: this woman was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did.

Now there was at Joppa a certain disciple named Tabitha.  Joppa was a town (a very ancient city of the Philistines) on the southwest coast of Palestine which served as the Mediterranean harbor for Jerusalem, but it is now called Jaffa. We are told that it was to this harbor that Jonah came to find a ship on which he could flee from the presence of the Lord (Jonah 1:1-3{4]). Because Jonah disobeyed the Lord, the Lord sent a storm that caused the Gentile sailors to fear. Because Peter obeyed the Lord, God sent “the wind of the Spirit” to the Gentiles and they experienced great joy and peace. What a contrast! In the New Testament, Joppa was the location for the miracle recorded in in this passage—the raising of Dorcas to life. It is also where Peter learned through a vision that the Gospel message was not to be withheld from the Gentiles (Acts 9:43-10:16, 34; 11:1-10).

There were Christians in Joppa and one of them was a wonderful woman by the name of Tabitha, who was a friend and helper of the poor

Which by interpretation is called Dorcas. Tabatha is Aramaic for “gazelle,” for which the Greek word is Dorcas.

This woman was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did. Dorcas ministered to the city’s poor out of a loving heart guided by the Holy Spirit; a heart full of love for people and for the Lord Jesus. I think, however, that here are the results of Philip’s ministry. When the dispute arose in Jerusalem in the early days concerning the distribution of alms, the Hellenistic widows complained that they were being neglected, and seven deacons were elected, men full of the Holy Spirit, and full of wisdom who set about to make things right, Philip was the second man chosen. When he visited the cities, I believe he not only preached the Gospel, so that men might be saved, but he gave instruction concerning how the new Christians ought to live by making their lives a blessing to others, especially to the family of God. I think we gave ample evidence in the previous lesson that Philip ministered to the saints in Lydda. I think the testimony of Dorcas and the activity of the Christian community in Joppa indicates that Philip ministered there too.

At Joppa we have this wonderful picture of Dorcas. Luke says that she “was full of good works and almsdeeds {1].” That is a lot to say about anyone, so one might think that the story ended there. But I think there may be a divine purpose in the addition of the three small words at the end of the sentence, “which she did.” So many people think of good works and almsdeeds, and dream of them; but she did them. She not only pitied the poor when the sharp winds blew; she ministered with skillful fingers to their need. She had the gift of sewing. Do you mean to tell me that sewing is a gift of the Holy Spirit? Yes, it was for this woman. I doubt that she ever spoke at a church meeting or taught a women’s Bible class. I don’t think she ever had such an opportunity because she was one of the early saints. But she did a lot of wonderful things for people. Here again is a picture of the communion of saints. There are two phases suggested here in the communion of the saints in the ministries of the church, that of the evangelist and that of the apostle. That one who proclaims the first things of salvation, and that one who instructs and edifies; that is the communion of ministry.

We need to get rid of these false divisions such as between great and small service, important and minor work. The member of the great Church of Christ who out of the growing love in her heart for the poor and needy makes garments for the poor, as Dorcas did, is rendering a service as sacred as that of the man who ministers to her with the Word of God. Let’s no longer imagine that the man who is prominent is also great. The Christian women who collect the can goods and used clothing for the poor contribute much to evangelizing the lost; visible expressions of love may be more effective than the words of the preacher.

37 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 it came to pass in those days, that she was sick, and died. It seemed so tragic that a beloved and useful saint like Dorcas should die when she was so greatly needed by the church. This often happens in local churches and it is a hard blow to take. When it happens, all we can really say is, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised" (Job 1:21).

Whom when they had washed, they laid her in an upper chamber. It may seem strange to us that a corpse was washed, but this was the custom among the Jews.

38 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.

And forasmuch as Lydda was nigh to Joppa, a distance of about 12 miles.

And the disciples had heard that Peter was there. There are evidences of the Spirit’s operation in His guidance of Peter as he went “throughout all parts;” to the saints at Lydda, and then to Joppa by the invitation of two men who represented the Christian assembly there, who appear to be in trouble because Dorcas is dead.

They sent unto him two men, desiring him that he would not delay to come to them. Peter went to Joppa because he was led by the Holy Spirit to respond favorably to the two men who begged him to come with them without delay. No one had been raised from the dead in the early church so far as the records of Acts declare, but the faith of the believers was so great they expected the Lord to use Peter to resurrect Dorcas.

39 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 shewing the coats and garments which Dorcas made, while she was with them.

Then Peter arose and went with them. This is not the story of haphazard journeying. The Spirit was guiding this man throughout all parts supplying the liberty, the freedom and the ability to travel from place to place. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17). All the bondage that results from separation, division, as between Christian people is due to the absence of, or the disobedience to, the guidance of the Spirit of God. The operation of the Spirit is clearly in view here, and it becomes even more beautiful when it is seen that the Spirit was guiding the apostle through the simplest human methods. Two men came from Joppa and asked him to go with them, which he did, believing it was God’s will and the Spirit’s work. Peter was a leader who served the people and was ready to respond to their call. Peter had the power to heal, and he used the power to glorify God and help people, not to promote himself.

When he was come, they brought him into the upper chamber. The body was placed there for the washing of the body required by the Jewish ceremonial laws of purification and for adding spices which would mask the odor of death.

And all the widows stood by him weeping, and shewing the coats and garments which Dorcas made. When Peter entered the chamber, he saw the women grieving over the loss of their beloved friend. Some of the women were possibly there as professional mourners, a profession that was certainly prevalent at a later date—but it is more likely they were simply recipients of her gifts.  They showed him the garments she had made for them, which the Greek text implies they were wearing. Why did the widows do it? Because they were among the most needy persons in the ancient world. They wouldn’t have had any clothes if it wasn’t for Dorcas. She had sewed their clothes for them. This was her ministry. Sewing was her gift of the Holy Spirit.  What a beautiful revelation we have of this woman! She labored to make garments for the poor. It is true, of course, that her love grew out of the Christ-love she had mastered, for that love is always anxious to clothe the naked.

We can see that little unpretentious group of women gathered around the one who is known for evermore as the one who made coats and garments for the poor. The communion in each case is the same. The master-principle underlying the comradeship between evangelist and apostle is the same as that which underlies the companionship that exists between the woman of heart and leisure and ability, who makes garments, and the women, who in poverty and need, wear them.

While she was with them. She was no longer with them because she was dead.

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.

But Peter put them all forth, and kneeled down, and prayed. When Peter arrived, he sent (put forth) the weeping widows and other believers out of the upstairs . . . room, prayed on his knees for Dorcas, and commanded her to arise (cf. Mark 5:41{2]). This is reminiscent of Jesus’ raising of Jarius’ daughter (Mk. 5:40){7], except he allowed the girl’s parents and three of His most trusted disciples to remain in the room. Peter kneeled to show his lowly position before God; but not the Lord Himself, of whom it is never once mentioned that he knelt in the performance of a miracle.

And turning him to the body said, Tabitha, arise. We hear again the very echo of the voice of Jesus. The appeal was to the will: Arise. Once again, the picture is so much like what Jesus did that some of the ancient commentators have suggested that Peter did actually make use of the very words of Christ, for there is only one letter different. Jesus said, “Talitha cumi.” Peter said, “Tabitha cumi.” It is interesting that Peter addressed her by the Aramaic form of her name, and Luke was careful to preserve the distinction. He had used the Greek form “Dorcas” in his narrative (39). But perhaps Luke had more in mind than linguistic nicety. In the Aramaic churches who cherished the story of Tabitha, the similarity between the words of Jesus and Peter would not be missed.

And she opened her eyes: and when she saw Peter, she sat up. It was the power of God that raised her from the dead, for the dead person could certainly not exercise faith. It was not a matter of resurrection but of resuscitation.

We hear again the very echo of the voice of Jesus, of temporary restoration to life. She would die again. But all the miracles of raising from the dead are in a real sense “signs,” pointing to the one who has power even over death and is Himself the resurrection and the life for all who believe and trust in Him.

41 And he gave her his hand, and lifted her up, and when he had called the saints and widows, presented her alive.

And he gave her his hand, and lifted her up. Peter did not touch her until after God restored her to life. Jesus had done the same when he healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Mk. 1:31){6].

And when he had called the saints and widows, presented her alive. The word “saints” is the all-inclusive word for “Christians,” therefore, we may safely assume that they were Christians. The working of the Spirit is manifested in the exercise of Gifts such as the raising of Dorcas. But the gift of miracles is not the only gift of the Spirit to be found there. In the Corinthian epistles one of the gifts Paul deals with is the gift of “helps.” That gift is illustrated in the case of Dorcas. That is the meaning of “helps;” to be quite simple and literal it means gifts of relief. When Dorcas was using her deft fingers to make garments, she was doing it in the power of that gift, which the Holy Spirit had bestowed; just as surely as Peter had raised Dorcas, by the power of the gift bestowed on him by the Spirit.

The question may be asked, “Why don’t we still hear of men raising the dead?” Think about how seldom Christ raised the dead. The Bible records that He did so on three other occasions only. What was the immediate purpose in His raising the dead: In every case—the raising of the little damsel, the young man of Nain, and Lazarus, there is one answer. He raised them for the comfort of those that mourned. But every one he brought back came back to suffering. The little damsel came back from peace into turmoil; the young man came back from eternal youth to grow old; Lazarus came back out of infinite peace to conflict. Thank God He did not raise more; and I hope my family never wishes I come back.

Notice what Peter did with Dorcas. He gave her back to the saints and the widows as a gift. It is the same Lord of life on this side of Pentecost as on the other side; not Peter, not an apostle, but the same Christ. Why doesn’t He raise the dead now? Jesus is the only One who can answer that question. I hesitate placing the blame for withholding this gift on the Church. I recognize He is doing His work in other ways, and my heart is satisfied with that.

42 And it was known throughout all Joppa; and many believed in the Lord.

And many believed in the Lord. The greatest wonder that can be found in this passage is not the raising of a woman from the dead; but the salvation of those who believed because she was raised.

43 And it came to pass, that he tarried many days in Joppa with one Simon a tanner.

While in Joppa, Peter resided with one Simon a tanner. This was something that just didn’t happen, because of the abhorrence a Jew felt for a tanner. In fact, a tanner was not allowed to ply his trade within a legally defined distance from the city’s limits. Just in case you may not know what a tanner does, I’ll give you a brief description. He dresses hides by removing the hair by means of lime or some other agent, steeps the skins in a brew of bark (usually oak bark), in order to saturate them with the acid juice of the bark which renders them firm, pliable, and durable and thus the hide is converted to leather. Simon lived on the seashore (10:6){5], perhaps because he required sea water for the tanning process; and Peter was a fisherman, so it would be natural for him to choose a lodging in this part of town. But Peter lodged with one Simon a tanner, which showed he was no longer bound by this particular Jewish Scruple. That is the victory of Jesus over prejudice. Now think back with me to an event on the other side of Pentecost. Jesus is seen entering the house of the very kind of man that the Jews hated, the publican, Zacchaeus; the Pharisees saw it and they said, “. . . That he was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner” (Lk. 19:7). Peter lodged with one Simon a tanner, who was probably shunned by the local citizenry. It was a giant step toward the larger vision, which was immediately to follow.

This passage shows the excellent preparation given Peter for his ensuing experience with Cornelius; the most significant being these three:

1.       Two outstanding miracles confirmed his ministry; God was with him in a special way.

2.      He was ministering in an area that was partially Gentile.

3.      His living in the house of Simon the tanner was significant. Tanners were considered to be ceremonially unclean because they were constantly in contact with the skins of dead animals (Lev. 11:40{3]).


During the “many days” he spent in Joppa, Peter took the opportunity to ground these new believers in the Word, for faith built on miracles is not substantial. Someone may ask why Peter didn’t heal more people than he did. Yes, there were plenty of sick people he could have visited and healed, but God had other plans. He deliberately kept Peter in Joppa to prepare him for another great event in the history of the church.


scripture reference and special note

{1] almsgiving—the giving of necessities and especially money to the needy; good works such as almsgiving, tending the sick and visiting the imprisoned

{2] (Mark 5:41) And he took the damsel by the hand, and said unto her, Talitha cumi; which is, being interpreted, Damsel, I say unto thee, arise.

{3] (Lev. 11:40) Anyone who eats some of the carcass must wash his clothes, and he will be unclean till evening. Anyone who picks up the carcass must wash his clothes, and he will be unclean till evening.

{4] (Jonah 1:1-3) The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 "Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me." 3 But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD.

{5] (Acts 10:6) He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.

{6] (Mk. 1:31) So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.

{7] (Mk. 5:40) But they laughed at him. After he put them all out, he took the child's father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was.

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