God Uses Ordinary People: Tabitha

Acts 9:36-42

July 13, 2008 | Brian Bill

Believe it or not, I just recently learned what the three letters AKA stand for – “Also Known As.”  Famous people often take on different names.  Here are a few I came across this week.

  • Chevy Chase is really Cornelius Crane Chase
  • David Copperfield’s real name is David Kotkin
  • Alice Cooper is Vincent Damon Furneir
  • Larry King is Lawrence Harvey Zeiger
  • Gloria Estefan is Gloria Fajardo
  • Whoopi Goldberg is really Caryn Johnson

Because I have three first names, people often don’t know what to call me.  Is it Brian?  Or is it John?  Or is it Bill?  Sometimes I’ve wished for a longer last name but it’s kind of grown on me.  I like to say that when you say my name three guys come running.

In our continuing emphasis on the ordinary people God uses, I want to introduce you today to a woman with three names.  She’s known as Tabitha, AKA Dorcas Gazelle.  Please turn to Acts 9:36: “In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which, when translated, is Dorcas), who was always doing good and helping the poor.”  

Actually Tabitha is her Aramaic name and Dorcas is her name in Greek.  Both of these names mean gazelle.  It was common practice back then to give an animal nickname to a beautiful woman.  A gazelle was a creature with stunning eyes and swift feet.  While I’ve never had the courage to call Beth a gazelle until this week, she did run away from me swiftly when we first met – I probably shouldn’t have commented on her stunning eyes even before I asked her name.  I’m glad she slowed down enough to let me catch her because today is our 23rd Wedding Anniversary!  Incidentally, when I asked Beth for permission to share this she smiled and wanted to know what animal name she could call me.  She tried out two on me – an antelope or a moose!  I hope she chooses the former.

Tabitha lived in Joppa, which is a town in Palestine about 35 miles northwest of Jerusalem.  Solomon used this seaport to receive the timber that was used for the building of the Temple and Joppa was the place to which Jonah ran to catch a boat headed to Tarshish.

Interestingly, we don’t know anything Tabitha said but we know a lot about what she did.  We have no record of her words but we do know about her work because her life of servanthood spoke loudly.  Most commentators think she was a widow or single because there is no mention of any man in her life.  By the way, women were accorded special status by Jesus.  They accompanied him on his journeys and were financial contributors.  Women stayed with him when he hung on the cross and they were the first witnesses of the resurrection.  As you read through the New Testament, women were very involved in the global expansion of the church.  Just in Romans 16 alone, we read of Phoebe, Priscilla, Mary, Tryphena,Tryphosa and Persia.  Of these last three, it says that “they worked hard in the Lord.”  

As we look at Tabitha, we can learn three things about her.

1. A devoted disciple. 

She was so devoted that only the disciple description is used to define her

She is known as a disciple, or follower of Jesus.  In fact, she’s the only woman in the New Testament explicitly identified as a disciple.  That’s pretty amazing when you think that this title was not given to Mary or Martha or Priscilla or any other woman.  She stood out as a very faithful follower of Christ.  She was so devoted that only the disciple description is used to define her.  

A disciple was a learner, a follower and one who was determined to be like his or her teacher.  Luke 6:40: “A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.” One of the highest compliments someone could pay you is to say, “You act just like Jesus.”  That could be said of Tabitha.  We know that she had a heart of compassion just like Christ did in Matthew 9:35-36: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” 

2. Doer of deeds. 

The needs of people not only moved her; she moved in response to the needs she saw.  She served and people knew it was because of her Savior.  That’s her identity.  She was saved to serve.  In fact, a devoted disciple is a doer of good deeds. She was not lazy by any means but was quick to respond when someone needed help.  When she saw a need she jumped to meet it!  Miss Gazelle was a devoted disciple who used her gifts and abilities to further the kingdom.  

The Bible says that she was always doing good deeds.  This phrase literally means that she was “full of good works.”   Wouldn’t you agree that there are more people filled with words than there are people filled with works?  It was her holy habit to always abound and overflow with good deeds.  Galatians 6:10 says, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” 

Tabitha reminds me of 1 Timothy 2:9-10: “I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.”  What she did is what made her beautiful; it wasn’t her fancy clothes, it was her fruit of compassion.  Incidentally, it is very important for women to dress modestly.  While our culture doesn’t think so, our Christianity must demand so.  Women, this is for your sake and for the sake of the men in this church who are striving to be pure.

In the Civil War there was a Union Nurse who labored among the wounded troops.  Her face had been disfigured in a fire when she was younger.  When asked why she volunteered to work among so much death and carnage, she replied, “The wounded soldiers don’t notice my scars as much as the others.  To them, I’m beautiful.”

Tabitha did not do anything heroic like Deborah or risky like Rahab.  She simply served her Savior by ministering to the marginalized.  Tabitha is the model of a devoted disciple who did good deeds in quiet, sacrificial and unassuming ways.  PBC is filled with people just like her.

3. Helped the hurting. 

She always did good and had a heart to help the hurting and the hopeless.  Widows did not have Social Security or pensions back then.  If they were to be cared for, it was her family or the church that did so.  Look at the last part of verse 36: “helping the poor.”   Verse 39 helps us see that she was a seamstress.  Since there were no OLD NAVY stores in Joppa, making clothing was a task assigned to women in that culture.  But she was doing more than just sewing on her Singer machine.  She’s a picture of the Proverbs 31 woman.  Look at Proverbs 31:19-20: “In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers.  She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.”

Apparently Tabitha’s unique compassion contribution was so important to Joppa Bible Church, that when she died, God raised her back to life!  Check out verses 37-39: “About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room.  Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, ‘Please come at once!’ Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room.  All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.”  

They were crying because her death meant their own death as well.  As they surrounded Peter they put Tabitha’s deeds on display by pointing to their own clothing.  The phrase “robes and other clothing” in the original language refers to both their undergarments and their outerwear – Tabitha had made everything they were wearing.  They were literally clothed in her compassion.  And their custom clothing shows how Tabitha saw each one of them as individuals.  

This is an amazing episode in the life of the early church.  Peter no doubt remembers an experience he had with Jesus in Mark 5:41 when a little girl had died.  Seeing all the commotion and crying, Jesus told them all to go outside, and then with Peter, James and John watching, “He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha koum!’ (which means, ‘Little girl, I say to you, get up!’)”  Now Peter changes just one letter and says, “Tabitha, koum!” and she gets up!  Let’s look at the rest of this passage: “Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed.  Turning toward the dead woman, he said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’  She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up.  He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called the believers and the widows and presented her to them alive.” 

Some of us are skeptical when we read about things like this.  Does God really do miracles today?  I watched a Nightline special this past Wednesday night about supposed healings taking place in Lakeland, Florida and after watching it, I wonder what the truth really is.  But I know no one is claiming to be able to bring a dead person back to life.  This type of miracle is totally amazing but it is not unheard of in Scripture.  I count at least ten “resurrections” in the Bible.  

  • Elijah raising the son of the widow (1 Kings 17:17-22).
  • Elisha raising the son of the Shunamite woman (2 Kings 4:32-35).
  • A man who was raised when his body touched Elisha’s bones (2 Kings 13:20-21).
  • Jesus raising the son of a widow (Luke 7:11-15).
  • Jesus raising a daughter (Luke 8:49-56).
  • Jesus raising Lazarus (John 11:1-44).
  • Jesus rising from the dead (Matthew 28:5-10).
  • Others rising from the dead at the resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 27:50-53).
  • And my favorite is when a man named Eutychus fell into a deep sleep during a sermon (imagine that) and fell out of a window and died.  Paul raised him from the dead and then kept on preaching until morning – this time the guy stayed awake (Acts 20:9-10).
  • And here Jesus through Peter raised Dorcas from the dead.

We don’t hear about what happens next but I don’t think she went out on a speaking circuit to give her testimony. I’m convinced that after she regained her strength, she went right back to her quiet and unassuming service.  Miracles always magnify God and work to spread the good  news of His glory. When you hear of someone claiming a miracle and all they’re doing is focusing on themselves, your guard should go up.  Look at verse 42: “This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord.”  This is actually the greater miracle.

Some of you really excel in expressions of servanthood because God has given you a special ability to serve.  Perhaps you’re a quiet practitioner of acts of kindness just like Tabitha was.  You notice needs that others don’t even see and you find joy in meeting them.  This is one of the most important evangelistic methods because service-style evangelists touch people nobody else can reach.  Serving breaks through cynicism and a helping hand can soften a hard heart.  Whether it’s making meals, sewing clothes, fixing cars, hanging drywall, or working in a Food Pantry, God can use you to point people to Christ.  It was Francis of Assisi who said, “At all times preach the gospel.  When necessary, use words.”

As I studied this passage, I began to wonder why Dorcas was raised from the dead while someone like Stephen was not.  He was publicly martyred for his faith in Jerusalem and it seems to me that it would have been incredibly powerful if he had been brought back to life in a very public way in the capital city.  But he wasn’t.  And yet here’s a quiet woman raised to life in a private upper room in a small town.  

God does not want compassion to die in the church

Why was she raised?  Was it because she was a great teacher that could never be replaced? Was she a huge financial contributor?  Was she a miracle worker?  No.  And then it hit me.  She was raised because God does not want compassion to die in the church!  Of all the things the church is to be known for it is that we compassionately care for people in their time of need.  When Tabitha died, there was a compassion crisis in the church.  

Peter called on Tabitha to get up and she did.  God is calling each of us to get up and be involved in acts of compassion.  The Bible says that we are dead in our trespasses and sins.  We’re raised to new life in order to serve like Tabitha, using what we have to do what we can.  To be devoted disciples who are doers of deeds and helpers to the hurting.  The true measure of our effectiveness as a church is not defined by what happens “in here” but by what happens “out there.”  James 1:27 says: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”  We’ve said this before but it’s so true: No one can do everything but everyone can do something.

In a New England village a home and barn burned down.  Some furniture was saved and four cows, but not much else. The victims needed almost everything. A neighbor drove up to look at the smoldering ruins and to poke around.  Shaking his head as though in disbelief and clearing his throat, he told his long-time neighbor, “If there’s anything I can do, just say the word.”   Other neighbors came too, but instead of asking what they could do, they went back home and returned with help: a motor home, beds, mattresses, potatoes, vegetables, cooking pots, clothes, hay for the cows, a heifer to start up the man’s herd again, and a back-hoe to clean up from the fire.  I love what I hear Pastor Jeff say on occasion: “Just do something.”

James 2:14-16 is a very penetrating passage of Scripture: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save him?  Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

I wonder if Tabitha was raised because there wasn’t anyone else who would get up and take her place.  Why was there no one else?  Is there a devoted disciple here who needs to get up and do good deeds on behalf of the hurting?   It’s time to get up!  We cannot let compassion die in this church!

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?