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Sermon Message

"Tabitha, Arise!"

Acts 9:36-42
Theme: In this passage, we see God's grace through a motherly woman.

(Delivered Mother's Day, Sunday, May 12, 2002 at Bethany Bible Church.  All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)  


It's been our Mother's Day tradition to look together at a story of a great mother from the Bible. This Mother's Day, however, I'd like to draw your attention to a woman in the Bible who was definitely a great mother-type - even though we don't read anything about her children or her family life. It would be hard, however, to think of someone who was more of a "mother" to those around her than the woman from Joppa named Tabitha, also known to us as Dorcas.

Dr. Luke gives us her story in the Book of Acts:

At Joppa there was a certain disciple named Tabitha, which is translated Dorcas. This woman was full of good works and charitable deeds which she did. But it happened in those days that she became sick and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. And since Lydda was near Joppa, and the disciples had heard that Peter was there, they sent two men to him, imploring him not to delay in coming to them. Then Peter arose and went with them. When he had come, they brought him to the upper room. And all the widows stood by him weeping, showing the tunics and garments which Dorcas had made while she was with them. But Peter put them all out, 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. Then he gave her his hand and lifted her up; and when he had called the saints and widows, he presented her alive. And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed on the Lord (Acts 9:36-42).

* * * * * * * * * *

Just about everyone, if they've had a relatively normal experience of growing up, can look back over the years and see that they had more than just one "mother". We certainly call the one who gave birth to us "mother"; and she should stand above all others as holding chief rights to that title. But most of us have had a "second" or even a "third" mom. It might have been the mother of our best friend who always seemed like a "mom" to us, because she always made us feel welcomed in the home and always treated us like part of the family. It might have been a relative or a family friend who was like a "mom" to us in that way. It might even have been a Sunday School teacher, or a saintly children's worker in the church, that made us - and all the other kids under her care - feel like we were one of "her kids".

You're never too old to need a "mother-type" in your life. My mother is in heaven now, and she'll always be considered "Mom #1"; but I feel very rich in that I have more than a few "moms" on earth who have taken over the job in her absence. Some of the mother-types in my life are members of this church. (The extra "moms" that a pastor gets is one of the perks of the job that they don't tell you about in seminary!)

I believe that, if you had asked people in this ancient church in Joppa who their "second mom" is, many of them - from a variety of age groups and walks of life - would have immediately and very proudly pointed to Dorcas. That's why I was drawn to her story this week, as I looked ahead to Mother's Day.

* * * * * * * * * *

Even though it's rarely heard about or preached from, Dorcas' story is an important part of the Book of Acts. Her story serves as an important "bridge" between the conversion of the apostle Paul (as described in the first half of the chapter), and Paul's ministry to the Gentiles (which takes up most of the rest of the Book of Acts). Because of Dorcas, Peter ended up in Joppa. And it was at Joppa that God's great mercy to the Gentiles was first revealed to Peter in a vision (Acts 10:9-16). It was from Joppa that Peter was first sent to bring the Gospel to the household of the Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10-11); and this missionary endeavor that eventually opened the door to Paul's great ministry to the Gentile world (Acts 11:19-30; 12:25-13:3). Dorcas' story is an important link in the chain of events in the spread of the Gospel, as it's described for us in the Book of Acts.

Another reason this story is important is because it helped establish the authority of the Gospel as it was being spread abroad. Before Jesus went to the cross, He told His disciples, "Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father" (John 14:12). And the context of our story this morning shows us that the Gospel was being spread "as Peter went through all parts of the country" and "also came down to the saints in Lydda" (Acts 9:32). Dorcas' story shows us that, even in being spread abroad, the authority of the Gospel did not diminish; and that the works that Jesus did were also being done through His disciples outside of Jerusalem.

But as important as these other reasons for this story are, I would like our main focus to be on Dorcas herself this morning. The Bible tells us many stories of miracles that were performed on many people; but rarely are we given as much of the background details as we're given concerning Dorcas. This suggests that God wants us to know about her a little better. I believe her story has much to teach us about the ways God uses a godly woman who has a motherly heart. Each one of us - whether we're blessed with a mother-type in our life, or are the motherly blessing to someone else - can find encouragement in the Bible's story of Dorcas.

* * * * * * * * * *

First, I'd like us to look at ...


The first things we learn about Dorcas is that she lived in Joppa. Joppa was the major port city of Israel - a city located on the Mediterranean coast about 30 miles west of Jerusalem. Goods from other parts of the world were shipped there regularly (2 Chron. 2:16; Ezra 3:7); and as a result, many people from many different parts of the world walked along its streets. Perhaps you'll remember that when God called Jonah to preach to the Ninevites, the reluctant prophet ran instead to Joppa in order to catch the first boat out of town. Because it was a busy shipping center, Joppa was a good place from which to spread the Gospel to the gentile world. I believe that God, in His providence, deliberately placed Dorcas in a city from which her story could best spread to other lands.

Second, we find that she had a very lovely name. In Aramaic, her name was Tabitha; but in Greek, her name was Dorcas. Both names - Tabitha and Dorcas - meant the same thing: Gazelle.

The gazelle is used symbolically in the Bible in several different ways. For one thing, the gazelle was a symbol of grace. In Proverbs, a husband is encouraged to adore his own wife, "as a loving deer and a graceful doe" (Prov. 5:19). Gazelles are also symbolic of exquisite beauty. The Shulamite woman, in the Song of Solomon, was enthralled at the appearance of her beloved; and said, "My beloved is like a gazelle ..." (Song of Solomon 2:8; cf. also v. 17). Her husband also used the symbol of a gazelle to express his delight in the beauty of his bride (4:5; 7:3). Finally, the gazelle was symbolic of swiftness and speed. 1 Chronicles 12:8 tells us that King David had a band of men that joined themselves around him who where, among other things, "as swift as gazelles on the mountains" (see also 2 Sam. 2:18 and Prov. 6:5).

Dorcas' name, then, brought to mind the image of grace, beauty, and swiftness at a time of need. While I suspect that this name was given to her at her birth, people who grew to know and love her couldn't help but feel that it was the best name for her. She was certainly a woman of grace; she was certainly "beautiful" in spirit (as well perhaps as in appearance); and she was certainly very swift to meet the needs of those around her.

A third thing we're told about Dorcas - the most important thing of all - is that she was a disciple of Jesus Christ. A little while before this time, a great persecution arose against the Christians in Jerusalem; and as a result, these believers were scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. We're told that, "... those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word" (Acts 8:4). Perhaps Dorcas heard the gospel as a result of the preaching of these scattered believers; and she believed and placed her trust in Jesus as a result of what she heard. She became a devoted follower of Jesus Christ - a disciple. A woman who is "gazelle-like" in other ways can't help but be a particular blessing to those around her if Jesus has taken up residence in her!

A final thing we're told about Dorcas was that she displayed her love and devotion to Jesus Christ in very practical ways in her life. We're told that she was "full of good works and charitable deeds which she did". "Good works" is a phrase that speaks of general acts of kindness to people. But "charitable deeds" is more specific, and has to do particularly with acts of mercy that relieve the burdens of the poor and needy. The nature of these good works and charitable deeds can be seen in verse 39; because there, we read of all the widows who were showing the tunics and garments Dorcas had made while she was with them. I suspect they were "showing" them by the fact that they were wearing them. Dorcas' blessed hands were continually at work, in practical ways, meeting the pressing needs of those around her. She didn't just do these things in a half-hearted manner; but, as the Bible says, she was "filled" with such deeds - that is, those deeds permeated her life and ruled her conduct, because they sprang from a heart that was overflowing with love for Jesus. And she didn't just do these good deeds and charitable acts occasionally; because the Bible uses a tense of the verb that describes them as things "which she did" as a regular pattern of her life.

We don't know whether or not Dorcas had children of her own; but she was clearly a "mom" to many. She made things that they needed, and saw to it that they were warm and cared for. She was very much like the woman described in Proverbs 31 - a woman who "stretches out her hands to the distaff, and her hand holds the spindle. She extends her hand to the poor, yes, she reaches out her hands to the needy. She is not afraid of snow for her household, for all her household is clothed with scarlet" (Prov. 31:19-21). Dorcas' "household" was very large indeed; and it included many around her who were needy and destitute. And her care for them was motivated out of a deep love for Jesus. Jesus saved her unto Himself, and made her His gracious gift of a "mother-type" to others.

* * * * * * * * * *

In the old days, small churches like ours used to have something commonly called a "Dorcas Society". It was a group of women who got together regularly to make things for those in need. They used their God-given gifts and talents to serve others in very practical, "motherly" ways. They made and repaired clothing, cooked and sent out meals, sewed blankets and quilts, and knit sweaters - all things that would be used to meet the needs of those around them, and all done in the spirit of loving others in Jesus name. They weren't merely societies devoted to raising funds and support so that others could do the work - as important and as necessarily as such societies might be. Rather, they were groups of women that came together in the name of Jesus to make things with their own hands - things they then brought personally to those in direct need of food, clothing, comfort and encouragement.

We have such a group in our church - although it's not called a "Dorcas Society". Once a month, women in our church get together to make quilts and other hand-crafted items. These items are made specifically to be given to those in need - often to young women in a crisis pregnancy for their babies to sleep on. Its a physical product of Christian hands that says, "Jesus loves you, and so do we." This group ministers in the same sort of spirit as Dorcas.

I hope that what the Bible tells us about the character of Dorcas is an encouragement and inspiration to you. Perhaps you don't feel that you have the ability to speak in front of crowds, or lead Bible study groups. Or perhaps you don't feel that you have talents or skills that would stand out in a church. But God has placed you where you are for a reason; and if you embrace the example of Dorcas from the heart, and if you've got two hands, then you can surrender those hands and that heart to Jesus in meeting the needs of those He has placed around you. Perhaps you can sew or cook for those in need. Or perhaps a group of guys, with tools and know-how, can do fix-up jobs or auto repairs for some of the older folks. Just ask the Lord to show you how you can work together with other members of the body of Christ to meet the needs of others. All He requires is that you make yourself available to Him; and He will use the talents and abilities He has already given you to bless and meet the needs of others.

* * * * * * * * * *

Dorcas was such a woman. As a result, God made her a mother-type to many. And this leads us to consider ...

2. HER IMPACT (VV. 37-39).

Without giving us any details, Dr. Luke - a physician - simply tells us that "it happened in those days that she became sick and died". Dorcas didn't die a natural death; she died before her time as a result of some tragic illness. And we're told that, according to the custom of the Jewish people, they washed her body as if in preparation for burial.

Can you imagine the loving tenderness with which the believers in Joppa cared for this precious "mother-type"? But we're also told that, even though they prepared her body in the traditional way for burial, they didn't immediately bury her. Instead, we're told that "they laid her in an upper room". It might have been because this dear woman was so precious to the people around her that they just couldn't bring themselves to bury her right away. But I suspect that more was involved. I suspect that they were also holding on to the hope that God could heal her, and even raise her from the dead.

They heard that Peter was staying in the nearby town of Lydda - just seven to ten miles inland from Joppa. Some marvelous news had come out of Lydda recently concerning Peter and his ministry. We read in the passage prior to this one,

Now it came to pass, as Peter went through all parts of the country, that he also came down to the saints who dwelt in Lydda. There he found a certain man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden eight years and was paralyzed. And Peter said to him, "Aeneas, Jesus the Christ heals you. Arise and make your bed." Then he arose immediately. So all who dwelt at Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord (vv. 32-35).

And so, when the grieving disciples in Joppa heard that Peter was still in nearby Lydda, they wasted no time. They sent two men to him, begging him to come to them as quickly as possible. Perhaps their sense of urgency was because of the fact that Dorcas had just died. Perhaps (in all frankness) they thought that the sooner Peter got to them, the less her body would undergo decay, and the greater the likelihood that Peter could revive her.

I suggest that their hopes for a miracle shows something of Dorcas' impact on the people around her. When someone we love dies, we certainly sorrow and grieve - even if it was someone that was ornery and cranky. But because of the way such a person might have lived, and because of the less-than-positive impact they may have had on other people, we may not be in such a big hurry to try and get them back! I certainly wouldn't want to end up being such a person, would you? But Dorcas was such a beloved "mother" to those around her, that if there was any chance of getting her back, they grabbed at it.

None of us, of course, is utterly indispensable. But may Jesus live in us in such a way that our impact on others is a sweet and blessed one. May we live such a life of Christian grace, beauty and swift compassionate for others, that we will be missed when we're gone. As someone once suggested, may we live in such a way that when we're finally gone, people will miss more than the money we still owe them.

* * * * * * * * * *

Luke tells us that, as soon as the two men came for him, he arose and went with them. When he arrived, they took him to the upper room where Dorcas' body had been placed. And there, surrounding him, were all the widows - weeping, and showing the tunics and garments which Dorcas had made while she was with them. In the days in which this story took place, there were few people in culture who were more destitute than widows. They were usually considered the neediest people in society; helpless women who typically had no one in their lives who could care for them. These widows, however, had Dorcas. It's a testimony to Dorcas that they had more to show for her impact on them than just pleasant memories.

When I've read this story in the past, I've often imagined that they set up a few tables to display the things that she made for people. But I think that it's also very instructive that the Bible says they had things Dorcas made "while she was with them". Certainly, the practical purpose of these things she made - that is, to clothe those in need - had been met. They were, after all, showing them and had them in their hands; perhaps even on their backs. But Dorcas didn't make these things from a distance and send them over. Dorcas herself had been "with them" - and not just the things that she made. Her very life had been intricately woven into their lives.

When you think of the real "moms" in your life, you cannot help but think of personal contact. A mom doesn't impact the lives of those she loves merely by "proxy", but rather by "proximity". May our impact in the lives of others be the same. May it be that we don't merely impact people from a distance; but that our acts of loving compassion and care be felt by them while we are "with them".

* * * * * * * * * *

Dorcas had an impact among those whom she loved while she lived among them. And yet, one of her greatest impacts in the lives of others was about to occur through something that was totally outside her control. Here, we really see ...


When Peter saw the situation - the body of Dorcas laying in the upper room, the grieving and disparate disciples, the weeping of the widows and the needy all around him - he had to decide what to do. I suspect he knew that God's mighty hand was at work in all this. I suspect that he saw in all this an opportunity for the advancement of the Gospel in Joppa, and for the growth in faith of the new believers who lived there. But how should he respond to it all?

I believe that, right then, Peter remembered what He saw His Master do. He simply did what Jesus did in a similar situation. He remembered how Jesus raised someone else from the dead.

Do you remember that story? It was the story of the daughter of Jairus, the synagogue ruler. This man came to Jesus one day in desperation; falling on his knees and begging Jesus to come and lay His hands on his dying daughter and heal her. Jesus consented to go; but while He was on the way, the girl's life left her. Those who brought the news to Jairus said that his daughter had died, and that he should not trouble Jesus any further. But Jesus told him not to be afraid, but to only believe.

Here's the story, as Dr. Luke tells it in his gospel:

When He came into the house, He permitted no one to go in except Peter, James, and John, and the father and mother of the girl. Now all wept and mourned for her; but He said, "Do not weep; she is not dead, but sleeping." And they ridiculed Him, knowing that she was dead. But He put them all outside, took her by the hand and called, saying, "Little girl, arise." Then her spirit returned, and she arose immediately. And He commanded that she be given something to eat. And her parents were astonished, but He charged them to tell no one what had happened (Luke 8:51-56).

Peter was present to witness this remarkable display of the power of Jesus. He was one of the privileged disciples that had been permitted to enter the little girl's room with Jesus; and he saw with his own eyes how Jesus raised her. And I believe he took seriously what Jesus had said before going to the cross - "Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also ..." I believe he looked at Dorcas' body and understood that, from God's perspective, "she is not dead, but sleeping". Trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit to work through him, Peter simply did everything he remembered seeing Jesus do, and trusted God with the results.

First, Peter put all of the mourners and weeping widows outside. Jesus did this in the case of Jairus' daughter because the crowd of mourners were ridiculing Him; but since the people had called Peter in this case, I doubt that Peter had put them out because they were ridiculing him. Instead, I suspect Peter needed some "alone time" with God. He needed to be able to kneel down pray beside the body of Dorcas privately, so that he could entrust himself - and the situation - to the power and authority of Jesus.

After having knelt in prayer, Peter turned to Dorcas' body and, following once again the example of his Master, spoke to Dorcas. He even spoke to her in words that were very similar to those spoken by Jesus. Jesus had turned to the little girl and, in Aramaic, said, "Talitha, cumi" - which meant, "Little girl, I say to you, arise" (Mark 5:41). Peter, also speaking in Aramaic, called Dorcas "Tabitha"; and if he used her Aramaic name, it's very likely that he gave her an Aramaic command; "Tabitha, cumi" - "Dorcas, I say to you, arise." At this, Dorcas opened her eyes. And upon seeing Peter, she sat up.

Perhaps Peter then remembered that Jesus had taken the young girls hand; because the Bible also tells us that, as Dorcas sat up, Peter also gave her his hand and lifted her up. As someone pointed out, Peter knew the gentlemanly thing to do - even at a time like this. And as Jesus had presented the young girl to her parents, the Bible says that Peter called the saints and widows up to the upper room and presented Dorcas alive to them. Often, a preacher is called to the place of the dead in order to officiate a funeral. Peter, however, was called to make the funeral unnecessary; and, by the authority of Jesus, that's exactly what happened! What a celebration there must have been in the upper room that day!!

I believe that God had a particular purpose in granting this miracle. It was God's intention that the power and authority of the gospel, as it was now being preached through the apostles in the new regions of Judea and Samaria, be shown to have the same power and authority as it had in Jerusalem. Thus, the Holy Spirit authenticated Peter's authority in the eyes of all, by granting that the same miracle be performed through him that was performed by Jesus. And what was the impact of this miracle? The Bible says, "And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed on the Lord."

We're not given any further details about Dorcas' life. But I suspect that no greater honor could be granted to Dorcas than that she could be used by God to bring many people to a faith in Jesus Christ. That, again, is the true heart's desire of a "mother-type" for the "kids" under her care.

* * * * * * * * * *

A question might come up in all this: Why doesn't this happen more often? When we sometimes lose the precious "moms" in our life to death, why is it that God doesn't raise them up as He had raised Dorcas? Why is it that we pray for their healing, and yet they are still taken from us? Why is it that, if God can bring them back to us, He doesn't do so when we ask? One reason, I'm sure, is because of the unique purpose of this particular miracle - that of authenticating Peter's authority as an apostle to those who were outside the regions of Jerusalem.

But in thinking about that question, an image also came to my mind of what it must have been like for Dorcas to be in heaven. No sooner did her body die than her spirit was immediately ushered into the presence of Jesus. She beheld her beloved Savior in all His majestic glory; and she must have thrilled to at last to see His blessed face. But as she was basking in the splendor of Jesus, I wonder if perhaps an angel or two had to come to her and tell her some sad news. They had to whisper in her ear that it was necessary for her to go back - if only for a little while - in order to finish the task God had for her. And while I'm sure that she willing to do anything Jesus asked, I suspect that it would have been sorrowful to leave the glories of heaven in order to return to the frailties of her body, and to the griefs of a fallen world.

When you consider all the people in Jerusalem around Jesus who died while He walked upon this earth, it's remarkable how few of them He raised from the dead. There was Jairus' little daughter, and there was the son of the widow (Luke 7:11-17), and there was Lazarus (John 11). There were also a few people that were raised when He was crucified (Matthew 27:52). But that's all. Perhaps there's a reason. Perhaps His having raised so few is more of a mercy than we realize. Can you imagine entering into the glorious presence of the beloved Savior, and getting to leave behind us all the pain, suffering and death that has been brought into this world through sin - only to, then, have to return to this world of pain, suffering and death once again? However many years such a peron would have lived after that, those years certainly must have seemed like an eternity!

We grieve when a precious "mother-type" is taken from us by death - just as the believers in Joppa grieved at the passing of Dorcas. But we really grieve with a selfish kind of sorrow if we would actually want them to leave the blessings of heaven and come back to comfort us. If we could only see the bliss the saints enjoy in the presence of Jesus, I suspect we'd never truly want them to leave it. It takes a measure of spiritual maturity on our part to think this way; but let's learn to see it a matter of God's grace to our loved ones that such a wish isn't granted to us.

But let's also be reminded of something else in the story of Dorcas. It's God's promise concerning those beloved "moms" who have been taken from us by death: that He will raise them once again on the great Resurrection Day. He did so for Dorcas, to assure us that He is able to do so for all who believe in His Son Jesus. Paul writes,

But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:13- 18).

We lose those godly "moms" for only a little while now; but we will have them for eternity then. And just as they told us about the love of Jesus imperfectly while they were among us, just think of the stories about the Savior they'll be able to tell us after having been with Him for a while!

* * * * * * * * * *

Our look at the story of Dorcas suggests one more thing to me in closing. Dorcas loved Jesus, and she lived the kind of life that drew others to Him. God even used her death to caused people to trust in the mighty name of Jesus. And then, she drew even more people to Jesus when He raised her from the dead.. The great burden of the heart of a godly "mother-type" like Dorcas is that all her precious kids would trust in Jesus and be with her in heaven.

I wonder; do you have a precious "mother" or a "mother-type" who tried to teach you about Jesus' love, and encouraged you to put your trust in Him? Was there a believing mom that God put in your life, that prayed often for you, and pleaded with God for your salvation? Perhaps you enjoyed the blessing of such a person's motherly love and care for your soul; and yet you have, to this point, rejected the Savior she was holding up to you and disregarded His offer of salvation.

Perhaps God has placed a godly mother-type in your life who has prayed much for your soul; and perhaps that mother-type is in heaven now. But I believe God still hears the echo of those prayers that she prayed back then and is able to answer them even today. It would be a tragic loss to enjoy the story of Dorcas, and yet not place your trust in the Savior she loved. And I would certainly be remiss if I told you about Dorcas, and didn't invite you to place your faith in the Jesus who loved her and raised her.

Jesus loves you too. He has promised to forgive the sins of anyone who places his or her trust in His sacrifice on the cross. He will rescue you from the consequences of sin, and to make you into the man or woman He wants them to be. I may be, this very moment, passing on to you the appeal that a godly mother made to you in times past; and my doing so may very well be in answer to her prayers.

Will you respond to that appeal? Will you place your trust in the Savior today?

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