MESSAGE FOR SEPETEMBER 19, 2010 FROM ACTS 9:32 - 43
This morning in our series from the book of Acts we come a text that falls between two of the most important events recorded in Luke’s letter—the conversion and early ministry of Saul in chapter nine and in chapter ten, the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles. This morning’s text acts as a bridge connecting these two mammoth events in salvation history. We know from the text last week that after Saul’s conversion Luke records in verse 31, “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.” So, this is a time of relative calm after the persecution that began with the stoning of Stephen in chapter seven. I think Luke concludes his section on the conversion and early ministry of Saul with that footnote to communicate the impact of Saul’s conversion. If you think about it, Saul’s miraculous transformation from a zealous persecutor of Christ, to a zealous messenger for Christ surely would have a chilling effect on the Jewish leadership. This must have left them stymied.
They must have reasoned something like this, “If our most zealous Christ-hater goes into Damascus to persecute followers of Jesus and comes out a devout follower of Jesus Christ, do we dare send any of our other zealous leaders into the enemy camp? If they can turn Saul against us, they can turn anyone!” This is at least the second time they had witnessed the fact that the harder they hit Jesus, the worse it became for them. They crucify him, but he won’t stay dead and the claims of his resurrection only pour gasoline on the fire Jesus started. Now, they send in their “top gun” Saul to jail and kill Christ’s followers and he comes out powerfully and persuasively preaching Christ. The reason for this dynamic is of course because, as Gamaliel warned them in chapter four—they were fighting God, not man and nobody has arms that long.
With that as context, let’s read Acts 9:32-43. Luke writes, “32 Now as Peter went here and there among them all, he came down also to the saints who lived at Lydda. 33 There he found a man named Aeneas, bedridden for eight years, who was paralyzed. 34 And Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed.” And immediately he rose. 35 And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord. 36 Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity. 37 In those days she became ill and died, and when they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men to him, urging him, “Please come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter rose and went with them. And when he arrived, they took him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping and showing tunics and other garments that Dorcas made while she was with them. 40 But Peter put them all outside, and knelt down and prayed; and turning to the body he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. 41 And he gave her his hand and raised her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive. 42 And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 And he stayed in Joppa for many days with one Simon, a tanner.”
When you read stories in Acts that record healing miracles, in light of the fact that healings were so commonplace during this time in the church--we should always ask the question, “Why does Luke record this particular healing when so many were clearly left out?” If we ask that question, we will have a much better chance of understanding the meaning Luke intended in this account. In this case, there are perhaps four reasons why, of all the apostolic miracles in the early church, Luke chose to include these two. First, Luke tells us that Peter is in Lydda and then Joppa. Both those cities are in Samaria and that tells us that the apostles—Peter at least, have ended their sequestration in Jerusalem. You’ll recall that Luke tells us in chapter eight that when the persecution broke out, the church scattered from Jerusalem, except the apostles. Peter’s presence here is Samaria tells us that they too were part of the expansion of the church into Samaria.
Second, the previous three chapters have focused on the activity of those other than the 12 apostles--Stephen’s preaching and martyrdom, Philip’s ministry in Samaria and Saul’s conversion. By returning to an account about Peter, Luke is reminding us that during this time when he has been focusing in other areas, the apostles continued in active ministry. Just because Luke, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, has placed his focus on the ministry of others in Samaria, doesn’t mean that the apostles were not busy preaching Christ. Third, the second miracle of Tabitha’s resuscitation recorded is extraordinary. There are only a handful of times in sacred scripture when someone is brought back from the death and when it happens, it is noteworthy. Finally, and probably the most important reason Luke includes these healings is because--these events place Peter near Joppa, where the next major event in salvation history occurs—the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles. In that sense, these healings set the table for the critical event in chapter ten. Even though these stories are in that sense transitional, they are still inspired by God and have many lessons to teach us. I find three lessons that have encouraged me.
The first lesson I see is: God’s grace is given in very different ways to very different types of people. I get that from the two very different miraculous accounts Luke records here. Frequently, when two events are paired together in Scripture, the author is inviting us to notice the similarities and differences and draw truth from those. As we do that in the case of Aeneas and Tabitha—her Greek name was “Dorcas,” we see some interesting differences and some important things they have in common. The first difference is seen in what we’ll call—for lack of a better term, the spiritual dynamism of each person. Aeneas isn’t even specifically mentioned as a believer. He is described only as “a man named Aeneas.” This is not to say he wasn’t a believer, but the fact that Luke doesn’t even mention it is probably important and is surely a strong contrast with what he records about Tabitha. Tabitha receives one of the more glowing reports of any believer in the book of Acts. In verse 36 Luke records, “…she was full of good works and acts of charity.” This woman probably had some wealth and she poured her wealth and her life out for others in need. We get a better taste of that in verse 39, “39… And when he [Peter] arrived, they took him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping and showing tunics and other garments that Dorcas made while she was with them.”
This woman labored for others making them clothes and because we know she did “acts of charity,” that almost certainly means she gave away the clothes she had made. This is long before sewing machines or electric looms and making garments was hard work and took a long time. The fact that these widows—, who were dependent upon the support of others, were showing them off to Peter probably indicates that they were of high quality as well. The portrait we get of Tabitha is that she was a pillar of devotion—a saint of the first order—full of God’s grace. As a side note, Luke probably has another reason for including this story about this woman. That is—so much of his account in Acts records the activities of those in the church with very public and overtly impressive roles. These are things like powerful apostolic preaching where multitudes are saved, amazing miracles and heroic boldness in the face of persecution—outwardly impressive accounts. In that context, we see a very different kind of ministry.
I think the Holy Spirit wants to use Tabitha’s example to remind us that the church of Christ is far more than those who preach or teach or minister publicly. The apostles obviously play a central role, but a church without the Tabitha’s—those who labor in the shadows helping and serving and giving sacrificially of themselves--there is no church. Many in the church are not called to public ministry and the story of Tabitha reminds us that deeds done in secret with loving hands are as precious to God as anointed sermons and miracles. If you are a Tabitha—(and the church needs far more Tabithas than it does preachers and teachers)—don’t waste any time coveting someone else’s perhaps more public gifts—When God was on earth in Christ, he not only healed and taught, he also washed feet. We should never forget that.
In contrast to the highly esteemed, Tabitha, we know that Aeneas did very little service for God because he had been bedridden from paralysis for eight years. A bedridden, paralyzed person certainly can have a profound ministry through prayer, but Luke would have almost certainly mentioned that if that if it were the case. Mostly, Aeneas laid around and had other people serving him. This does not mean Aeneas is evil or even selfish but, it is very different from the sacrificial and energetic ministry of Tabitha. Another contrast is in how Peter initially encounters each person. In verse 32 Luke says, “Now as Peter went here and there among them all, he came down also to the saints who lived at Lydda. There he found a man named Aeneas…” Peter found Aeneas. In context, it probably means—“he happened upon” him. His contact with him was certainly orchestrated by God, but on a human level it was incidental—he happened across him. Contrast that with the urgent summons Peter receives regarding Tabitha in verse 38. “Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men urging him, “Please come to us without delay. So Peter rose and went with them…”
Special curriers are sent on the ten mile trek from Lydda to Joppa and Peter shows the grace of his servant heart by walking ten miles to minister to someone he knows is already dead. The set-up for these two encounters with Peter could hardly be more different. He stumbles upon Aeneas in the providence of God, while in the case of Tabitha, he is urgently summoned by her devoted friends. One point of application in all this is simply—the amazingly differing expressions of God’s grace. Think about it. Whether you are some obscure figure who hasn’t been out of his house for eight years—lying in a bed; or you are a self-sacrificing, highly regarded servant of God, God’s grace is there for you. And from God’s perspective, Tabitha is as much of a sinner as Aeneas and just as undeserving of his grace. Aeneas is portrayed as a singularly unremarkable figure, while Tabitha is portrayed as a woman of storied devotion to Christ—both received grace and neither one of them deserved it.
I want us to think about the grace God gave Aeneas through Peter in this healing. We see in verse 34 where Peter says to this man, bedridden for eight years, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed. And immediately he rose.” First, as we have seen before in Acts, Luke wants us to see this is Christ’s healing, not Peter’s. Second, he not only commands him to get up, he also tells him to make his bed, something that wasn’t all that urgent of a need. Why does he command him to make his bed? It was certainly not because Peter is a neat freak who can’t stand to see an empty bed go unmade. The force behind Peter’s words is probably, “Aeneas, get up and get to work.” And he gets up. Think about this miracle for a moment. It’s so easy to become de-sensitized to the wonder of these healings because there are so many recorded in the gospels and Acts in particular. We so easily forget what an astonishing act of God this is. Even with all the wonderful advances in medicine, there is NO ONE else who does this kind of thing. I am no physician, but I’ve seen the legs of people who have been paralyzed for years. The damage done to the nerves and muscles and tendons and ligaments through atrophy must be catastrophic. Legs like this look like bones that have been shrink-wrapped with skin. That is why people who have been bedridden for years and who are somehow cured of the illness that put them in that condition require months and months of gut-wrenching physical therapy to even begin to function with some normality.
Think about what was involved physiologically when Christ heals Aeneas through Peter. He first has to heal the cause of the paralysis—instantly repair and rejuvenate his damaged spinal cord or whatever. That, in and of itself is a miracle that cannot be matched today. But in addition to that miracle, think about the multiple other miracles required for this healing. In order for Aeneas to instantly get up out of bed and perform a task like making his bed, God has to instantly create new muscle tissue, tendons and ligaments. He has to loosen up and lubricate joints that haven’t worked for eight years. He has to instantly bring to life dead nerves and he has to enable skin that has been molded to bone to instantly stretch and expand. Oh, how much blessing we miss out on when we read of these healings and gloss over them because they are so common place in the New Testament! This is the power of the sovereign Lord of the Universe on display—no one else can do this. It should cause us to say to God with the David. “You do great and wondrous works, there is none like you.”
What these two miracles do have in common is God’s ultimate purpose in doing them. That is—they both resulted in many other people coming to Christ. In response to Aeneas’ healing Luke writes in verse 35, “And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him (Aeneas), and they turned to the Lord.” That is, seeing this man healed, who they knew had been paralyzed and bedridden for eight years was so compelling to them that they turned from their life of sin to the Lord. The power of God they witnessed in this healing convinced them that Jesus was the Messiah and they must follow him. Likewise, in verse 42 in response to Tabitha’s raising we read, “And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.” The news of someone dying and coming back to life is pretty compelling evidence that Jesus has power over life and death and that knowledge brings many to faith in Joppa.
So we see in these two miracles, not only the initial infusion of grace to these two people, but from that initial outpouring of grace comes an even greater outpouring of grace to these Samaritans whom God had targeted for salvation through these miracles. We mustn’t miss this because from God’s perspective-each person who was converted to Christ in response to these initial miracles--received an even greater miracle than Aeneas and Tabitha. These people who were saved were, on a spiritual level, living lives even more empty than Aeneas and the resurrection God did in them was far more impressive than the resuscitation he performed on Tabitha. Tabitha physically died again, but these spiritually dead people who were saved were spiritually resurrected never to die again. We should never process these kinds of harvest-producing miracles as if the initial miracle were the big thing God does that enables him to do the smaller thing of saving lost people. It’s just the opposite. The initial miracles were actually the smaller scale works of God that opened the door for the larger miracle of spiritual rebirth from the dead.
That brings us to the second lesson I see here in Luke’s account. That is: The prayers of the saints can raise the dead. When Peter comes to the upper room, he sends everyone out—probably to not draw attention to him. And then Luke tells us, “he knelt down and prayed; and turning to the body [notice Luke the Physician is quite precise--it’s a body—not a living person] he said, “Tabitha, arise.” The point for us isn’t that we should be going around to the area funeral homes and praying for those in the caskets. But it does remind us that God uses the prayers of the saints to make spiritually dead people alive. Do we believe that? Do we believe that God will use our prayers to make spiritually dead people alive? That’s surely an implication we should be taking from this and other such stories. Sometimes lost people we love appear so far from Christ that our prayers seem to be as impactful as shooting paper wads at an oncoming freight train. We must allow this story of Peter’s prayers bringing life to a very dead person to build faith in us that when we kneel down and pray, God can use those prayers to mediate eternal life to dead people. Before you pray for the lost, read stories like this and use the faith it builds in you to embolden you to pray for God’s miraculous, life-giving power to those who are now spiritually dead.
After Peter’s prayer, Christ says through him, “Tabitha, arise.” That should bring to mind a related truth. That is--sometime in the future when Christ returns, the trumpet will sound and it will be like spiritual reveille to the dead bodies of the saints, “John, arise, Mary, arise, Frank arise, Stephen, arise, Abdul, arise, Moishe, arise, Rositta, arise” and they…will arise. It will be just as impossible for them NOT to rise as it would have been for Tabitha not stay dead. This trumpet call of Christ will be inviolable. At each location where the physical body of a believer was put to rest, there will be a resurrection. Ultimately, we know that because Jesus was raised from the dead and Paul promises us in First Corinthians 15 that he was only the first fruits of the resurrection. That is, he was only the first of a much greater harvest of resurrected bodies to come. But texts like this one remind us that death is not insurmountable for the Lord of life who defeated death, hell and the grave and swallowed up death in his victory—for the One who drew the sting of death into himself on the cross. Any account like this one about Tabitha should fuel our hope that for those in Christ, these bodies will not stay dead, but will be raised imperishable, resurrected in power and will live forever as spiritual bodies.
A third lesson we can draw from this text is: Personally witnessing the power of Christ is often a crucial part of God’s process in bringing people to himself. This is being reported with increasing frequency in the Middle East and other lands where Islam has ruled for centuries. There are increasingly more reports of Muslims who come to Christ as a result of dreams and visions, signs and wonders. Adjith Fernando reports he has heard no less than seven stories from one tribal area in India where it is reported that seven people have been raised from the dead. I just heard a story this week from a missionary and it is similar to many others I have heard from missionaries. A missionary had just entered an Islamic country. He had been in country about two days—hadn’t had a chance to do anything by way of establishing a ministry there. He found himself in a public restaurant when he noticed one of the patrons staring at him. He chose to ignore it and turned away, but in a few minutes he turned back to see the Muslim staring at him even more intently. When their eyes met this time, the Muslim got up from his chair, walks over to the missionary and told him, “I know you.” The man, who had never even been in the country before told him, “I don’t think so.” The Muslim replied to him. “Yes I have. You were in a dream I had the other night and God told me that when I saw you I was to ask you to tell me about your King.”
That is not atypical of the stories you hear increasingly coming out of Muslim lands. Signs and wonders are also reported and these Muslims—who had been completely closed and even hostile to Jesus Christ, when they see the power of Christ, often come to faith in him. People often need to personally witness the power of God in order to come to Christ and the primary way in which God intends to show his power is not through the miracle of healing, but through the miracle of the transformed lives of believers. It has always been God’s plan to manifest his power through his people. This was certainly his intention in the garden with Adam and Eve as they reflected his image—with all the glory that entailed. When he called Israel, his call to them was that they would display his power and glory to the surrounding nations. God told Moses, “ 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…” God’s intention was that Israel, as a nation of priests would mediate, that is stand in between their God and the surrounding nations through the manifestation of his presence and power and covenant blessings to his people. As the nations witnessed God’s blessing and Israel’s obedience to him through holy lives, the nations would glorify God. Israel was to be God’s vineyard and as the surrounding nations saw the fruit of his love and their covenant relationship with him, they would know that God is the Lord.
Israel for the most part dismally failed in this charge to be a nation of priests, but when Jesus comes to earth to establish his kingdom, he picks up this same theme of his people manifesting the power of God through holy lives to the nations. Peter picks this theme up and applies to God’s new people, the church in First Peter 2:9. He says, “9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter five Jesus says in verse 14, “14 “You are the light of the world. city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.” Followers of Christ are to show the light of Christ in them through their holy lives and in so doing illumine a dark world with the glory of God. Likewise, we are called to be the salt of the earth as we, acting as God’s preservative, work our way into this rotting, dark world. We have seen this repeatedly in Acts. Luke records in Acts 5:12, “12 Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. 13 None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. 14 And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women,”
Luke there indicates that people were being added to the Lord, not only because of the signs and wonders, but also because as the saints publicly gathered and interacted with one another in Solomon’s Portico, the people saw their holy lives and held them in high esteem. There was something about these people—the fragrance of Christ that was compelling to them. Many of us here can testify that the primary witness that compelled us to come to Christ was the transformed life of someone who we knew that, because of their relationship with Jesus, had become a different person. As we close this morning, are we putting on display the power of God through our transformed lives? If we aren’t, God’s grace can heal us of our spiritual paralysis, get us off our lounges and get to work for Jesus. But in order to do that, we must admit there is a problem—we must by God’s grace view our sin the way God does and it grieves him greatly. We must stop playing games.
Go to the cross, confess to God that you have been lukewarm, cry out for his grace—ask him to do a new thing in you. Don’t believe the lies of the enemy that you can never be a dynamic believer. Christ purchased you so that you could live sacrificially for others—to be someone that amazes others with the grace of God in your life. Go back to the cross and claim what Jesus did for you there. Live in the truth of the cross—of forgiveness of sins, of a righteousness that is purchased for you. Thank God for it and by his grace live a life that will compel others to follow Jesus. Pray for lost people with the faith that God will hear and answer—that he will raise the dead as he raised you. May God give all of us the grace to live in the shadow of the cross—believing what God has done for us in Christ.
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