And no minor ministry

About thirty miles northwest of Jerusalem, in the southernmost part of Tel Aviv, lies the port city known as Jaffa, on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. In the New Testament, it was known as Joppa, the site of a series of stories in the book of Acts involving Peter.

As we’ll see in later posts, it was in Joppa that Peter received a vision from God that set the stage for the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles. But for now, Luke gives us the story of another healing miracle, in which Peter raises a woman from the dead.

The woman’s name, in Aramaic, was Tabitha. For Theophilus’ sake, Luke adds Tabitha’s Greek name: Dorcas. In either language, the name means “gazelle.” One wonders what hopes her parents had when they named her. 

In contrast to the previous story of Peter healing a man named Aeneas, the story of Dorcas is far richer in detail and emotion. Some scholars note that Luke had a habit of pairing stories of men with stories of women — and giving more literary attention to the women. It’s as if Luke wanted Theophilus to know that in the kingdom inaugurated by Jesus, it would no longer be business as usual with respect to the unheralded role of women. They would have their own important part to play in the ongoing story of the church.

All we know of Dorcas is what we have in Acts 9. She was a follower of Jesus who had given herself to a ministry of compassion — apparently, making clothing for the widows in her community, women who in that society often found themselves needing the charity of others. Not surprisingly, they loved her.

But Dorcas became gravely ill and died. Someone prepared her for burial by washing her body in a rite of purification and then laying her in an upstairs room. Assuming that this took place in Dorcas’ home, the very presence of an upstairs room suggests that she may have been a woman of means, doing what she could for the poor. Luke doesn’t tell us who performed the purification rite for her, but I have to imagine that it was the widows she so lovingly served.

Peter was still in Lydda, just a few miles away, where he had healed Aeneas. So the believers in Joppa sent two men to Lydda with an urgent request for him to come right away. To do what? Luke doesn’t say. But Peter didn’t hesitate; as soon as he got the message, he headed straight for Joppa.

Peter arrived at Dorcas’ home and was taken upstairs. It’s a poignant scene: the widows wept and showed him some of the clothing Dorcas had made (the verb Luke uses suggests that they may have been wearing the clothing). But then it was time to act:

Peter sent everyone out of the room, then knelt and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up!” She opened her eyes, saw Peter, and sat up. He gave her his hand and raised her up. Then he called God’s holy people, including the widows, and presented her alive to them. (Acts 9:40-41, CEB)

It’s quite a dramatic moment. Imagine the grieving widows waiting outside the room, suddenly receiving their friend and benefactor back from the dead. Small wonder that Luke tells us that news of the miracle “spread throughout Joppa, and many put their faith in the Lord” (Acts 9:42), as had happened shortly before with the healing of Aeneas.

The story is reminiscent of Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter from the dead (cf. Luke 8:51-55), a miracle which Peter saw with his own eyes. Indeed, in Mark’s version of the tale, Jesus takes the dead girl by the hand and says “Talitha koum,” which Mark helpfully translates as “Little girl, get up” (Mark 5:41).

Talitha. Tabitha. What’s one Greek letter between friends?

One needn’t make too much out of such coincidences. Whether the name “Tabitha” is meant to echo the word “Talitha” or not, it’s clear that Jesus meant business when he commissioned his disciples as apostles, sending them out to continue the work he had begun.

And part of that work involves acts of compassion that may seem ordinary compared to miracles of healing and raising the dead. Dorcas’ role in the story is a small one overall, but the value of her ministry as an expression of her discipleship can’t be measured by the amount of press she gets in Acts.

After all, Luke could have given her the same brief, journalistic treatment he gave to Aeneas: Peter went to Joppa, where a woman named Tabitha had died. When he had put everyone out of the room, he prayed, then turned to her and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Immediately, she opened her eyes. Because of her, many throughout Joppa believed.

But Luke’s interest in her is more than just the fact that she died and was raised back to life. He wants to tell us how she lived before she died, and presumably, how she continued to live after the miracle.

Ministry-wise, sewing for others may seem like a small thing. But when it proceeds from a heart of compassion and a desire to serve others, there is no such thing as a minor ministry.