God at Work
There are two extreme kinds of professing Christians, the extremely positive and the extremely negative. Some are just kind of happy-clappy always smiling, always failing to reckon with the sufferings of this life and the massive biblical emphasis on the reality of suffering and pain. But far more common is the professing Christian who is given to a fatalistic, I’ll never change, nothing will ever happen kind of attitude. But the passage we’re going to look at this week gives me great hope because it reminds me that God is at work. His calling for us is to be faithful. God can at any moment change the status quo and bring greater glory to His Name. This is what we see in Acts 9:32-43 . . .
Acts 9:32 Now as Peter went here and there among them all, he came down also to the saints who lived at Lydda.
It seems here that Peter is functioning as a traveling pastor to the people in the region where Philip had had his ministry in Acts chapter 8. While Philip and Paul seem to have been more like traveling evangelists, Peter seems to have functioned here in a role of pastor, building up the faith of those who already believed in Jesus. We need both. We need people whose primary calling is to take the gospel to the unreached and we need also those men who are called to be shepherd-leaders, pastors, who will build up the church. We need those pastor-elders who can come alongside people and strengthen them in the faith. Notice too how God powerfully uses people who are engaged in active ministry. If you are sitting on the shelf waiting for God to come pick you up, you probably should not expect much of God’s work in your life. If, on the other hand, you are seeking to faithfully serve Him every day, you should expect His work through you.
So Peter came to this town of Lydda, a town about 25 miles northwest of Jerusalem. The town of Lydda was a fairly important place, located on the trade route from Babylon to Egypt. It was about eleven miles inland from the Mediterranean Sea. You might wonder, how had the gospel come to Lydda? There are basically two answers. First, we learn from the beginning of Acts chapter 8 that many of the Christians who were living in Jerusalem when Stephen was killed fled to the surrounding regions when persecution broke out following Stephen’s death. We can assume that some of these persecuted Christians relocated to this region and began sharing Christ with those who lived there. In addition, we can see that Philip, after his encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch, was moved by God to the region of Azotus and he went on preaching through all the towns of that region until he arrived at Caesarea. Lydda would have been one of the towns in which Philip ministered. The town in the next passage, Joppa, also would have been one reached through Philip’s ministry. Again, we see the hand of God in hardship. The persecution that sent Philip out of Jerusalem was used by God to spread the gospel all over the region around Jerusalem. Don’t sell short the sovereign hand of God. He may be moving in a way that confounds and frustrates you, but which in time will work for His greater glory and your eternal joy.
Peter was last mentioned preaching the gospel to the Samaritans in 8:25. Now he turned to this coastal area where Philip had already worked, in order to strengthen the believers there. And it is here that two great miracles will take place. And a great miracle is also taking place in Peter. The first miracle is seen in verses 33-35.
33 There he found a man named Aeneas, bedridden for eight years, who was paralyzed.
Aeneas is a Greek name which means “praise.” It is an ironic name for a man who had been bedridden for eight years. For you who cared for your loved ones for a year or two or ten or twenty, praise is probably not the first thing that comes to your mind. Yet Aeneas will soon have cause to give praise. Two questions confront us as we think about Aeneas. First, was he a Gentile and second, was he a Christian? The fact that he lived in Judea probably indicates that he had a Jewish background but his Greek name may mean that he influenced by Gentile culture, like many of the people who lived in that region. As to whether he is a believer, I am inclined to say that he is for two reasons. First, verse 32 tells us that Peter is going about strengthening the saints and it is in this context that he finds Aeneas. Therefore, it is likely that Peter found Aeneas among the believers. Second, verse 35 tells us that when Aeneas was healed, the whole region turned to the Lord, but Aeneas himself is not mentioned as having turned to the Lord. This means that either Aeneas was already a believer or that Aeneas was healed but did not trust in Jesus. I think it is most likely that Aeneas is a believer. It seems very likely that Luke would have noted his unbelief if indeed he had rejected Jesus after being healed. So here is a believer, and he is suffering. We are not free from all suffering because we are believers. Many of us will suffer greatly. But God is also merciful. He will either be merciful to you in this life by giving you healing or the comfort of His presence to endure, or He will be merciful to you by rewarding you a hundredfold in heaven for your patient earthly suffering. Here God shows mercy to Aeneas. Look at verse 34 . . .
34 And Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed.” And immediately he rose.
This is pure mercy. There is no request for healing on Aeneas’ part. Peter just speaks it to him in the authority of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ heals you. What mercy. Rise and make your bed. Chuck Swindoll jokes that this was a true miracle because when Peter told Aeneas to make his bed he was getting him to do something that parents through the years have been unable to get their teenagers to do. But really, the miracle is that Jesus works through Peter’s words to bring healing to a man who had been paralyzed for eight years. As Jesus healed the paralytic in Luke chapter 5, now Jesus is healing Aeneas through Peter. Peter is doing things like we saw in the ministries of the great Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha. So Luke relates these stories to show how Peter is part of that prophetic line which culminated in Jesus, and Jesus is now continuing his work through Peter and the other apostles. And this healing is not only for Aeneas, as we see in verse 35.
35 And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord.
In Acts, as in the gospels, miracles are God’s acts of mercy to the needy, but that is never all they are. Much more significantly, miracles support and spread the message of the salvation in Christ. You see, far more miraculous than the healing of a paralyzed man or the raising of a woman from the dead is the work of God in the human soul, a soul set against God, a soul in rebellion, a soul bound for hell. The great miracles of the Bible point to the greatest miracle, that God saves to the uttermost his enemies, through the death of His Son, and His Son brings human beings from every tribe, tongue, language and nation to glory. The only way to see life from a right perspective is to plumb the depths of the gospel. It is good news. It is the greatest news. And the miracles of the Bible and the New Testament in particular are consistently designed to point to the truthfulness and effectiveness of the gospel message. Again, notice what happens when Aeneas is healed. The gospel goes out. People turn to the Lord.
Luke says all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw Aeneas. Lydda was a town but Sharon was a name for the coastal plain that stretched 50 miles from Lydda to Mt. Carmel. Surely Luke can’t mean every single person in that region saw Aeneas. I think it is clear that what Luke means is that the news of Aeneas was widespread. In other words, Luke is using language like we often use. “I had to wait at the DMV all day.” “Really? You were there from 6 am to 6 pm? No, you know what I mean!” The same thing was going on here. All means the message was widespread. Luke often uses this kind of language.
So in the first miracle, God gave a guy who had absolutely nothing to offer a new life by sheer mercy. Aeneas is a really good picture of salvation. “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.”
The second miracle is a picture of salvation as well, but from a different angle. Look at verse 36 . . .
36 Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity.
The scene shifts from Lydda to Joppa. Joppa was about 10 miles northwest of Lydda, it was on the coast and served as the port city of Jerusalem. We are introduced here to Tabitha or Dorcas. Wheras Aeneas was inactive, Dorcas was active. Aeneas was probably looked down upon by people, while Dorcas was greatly admired for her good works, particularly it seems, toward widows. So catch the contrast between the poor, crippled Aeneas and the active, serving, admired Dorcas. But notice verse 37, because it teaches us something very important.
37 In those days she became ill and died, and when they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room.
Dorcas became ill and died. Again, her faithfulness to God did not free her from suffering in this life. She still struggled with sickness, she still faced death. I just want to mention that to try to bring a measure of comfort to you who have struggled with sickness. God does not shield even his choice servants from hardship. I think of Billy Graham. All the crusades, all the preaching of the gospel, but in the end, weak, sick, in and out of the hospital, slowly heading toward home. So take heart that this is the path that many faithful believers will walk. You may not be sick because you have sinned. You are not sick because God does not love you. You are sick because all the effects of sin have not yet been removed from the world. But one day they will be. The healing of Dorcas is a picture of this future freedom from sin.
When Dorcas died, her body was washed, as was common, but then it was laid in an upper room, which was not common. Most Jewish custom said that the body was to be buried on the day of death, but some customs allowed up to three days. Nevertheless, the way they handled the body, as well as what they say in verse 37, makes me wonder if these believers in Joppa were hoping for a miracle. Maybe they had heard of the miracles Jesus had done some years earlier. Maybe they knew of the raising of Lazarus, which had happened just a few miles away in Bethany. Maybe they had heard of the raising of Jairus’ daughter or of the son of the widow at Nain. Maybe these Christians were thinking that maybe, just maybe, one of the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples, one of the 12 apostles, Peter, could do something. I think verse 38 supports this idea . . .
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.”
Why did the believers in Joppa send for Peter so urgently? Because they were hoping for a miracle. Because they knew Peter had been given special power from God. Why the urgency for Peter to come to one who was already dead unless they believed that God could use Peter to do something to help in this situation?
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.
Peter is a model of servant hood, walking 10 miles on foot to Joppa to meet a need, a need most of us would have said that there was no need to hurry for. The woman was dead. But maybe Peter remembered when Jesus had walked with him, how those from Jairus’ house came up to them with the news that Jairus’ daughter had died. And maybe he remembered how Jesus said, “Do not fear, only believe.” When Peter got to Joppa, maybe the very scene reminded him of the earlier event from the ministry of Jesus. The widows were there weeping, showing the garments Dorcas had made for them. What love she had for these widows and now what grief they feel, as their advocate has died.
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.
There is a strong parallel here to Jesus’ raising of Jairus’ daughter in Luke 8. Peter had witnessed, along with James, John and the girl’s parents, the raising of Jairus’ daughter. Jesus took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha, cumi” or “little girl, arise.” But Peter does not do this, instead he sends everyone out. I think the reason he did this is so that no one would think it was Peter who raised this woman from the dead. Peter wanted God to get all the glory from this miracle. And notice, Peter kneels and prays. He knows that healing is in God’s hands. Peter does not have power in himself to bring healing. Instead, he calls on God to bring this woman back to life. Then Peter says, “Tabitha, cumi.” Just one letter different than what Jesus said. And she came to life.
41 And he gave her his hand and raised her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive.
The Greek verb here for raised her up is the same word used throughout the NT for Jesus’ resurrection. Dorcas would one day die again, but still, her resurrection by the power of God was a reminder to all believers that there was a resurrection coming. The sin that brings disease and death will not have the final word. And this is one of our greatest hopes as Christians. Death will not have the final word. There is a new heaven and a new earth coming. There are new bodies coming to all who trust Jesus.
When verse 41 tells us that Peter “presented” her to them we are reminded of how Elijah “gave” back her son to the widow of Zarephath. We are reminded of how Jesus “gave” her son back to the widow of Nain. In these two instances the restoration of an only son to a destitute widow was a gift, and Peter’s presentation of Dorcas alive was also a gift to the widows of Joppa.
42 And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.
As with the healing of Aeneas, so with the raising of Dorcas, the news spread quickly and many believed. The miracle validated the gospel message. The miracle led to people turning to the Lord. Again, miracles in the Bible are expressions of God’s love but they are rarely isolated incidents but are intended to teach deeper truths. If Jesus can raise a dead woman, maybe He is who He says He is and I need to trust Him to be forgiven and one day raised myself to eternal life.
So I love the picture we see in these two miracles. In the first, a paralyzed man with nothing to offer is made whole by the power of Jesus. In the second, a wonderful woman noted for her love is raised from death by the power of Jesus. God will save us, and God will raise us. God is at work in people who have nothing to give. God is at work in people who are admirable and virtuous. But there is someone else God is at work in these miracles and we get a hint of it in verse 43.
43 And he stayed in Joppa for many days with one Simon, a tanner.
At first glance, it seems strange to believe that this verse is very important at all. It just tells us that Peter stayed in Joppa with this guy Simon the tanner. But it begins to be a little more significant when we realize that tanning was an unclean occupation for a Jew. Because it involved contact with dead animals, tanning of animal hides was viewed as an unclean occupation. Yet Peter stays with this man Simon. Do you see what is happening? The gospel is beginning to break down barriers for Peter. It is true that Peter had not been a Pharisee like Paul was, yet still he was firmly committed to Judaism. But in following Jesus and now in ministering in the name of Jesus, these barriers from his former life begin to fade away.
I take all of this passage, from the healing of Aeneas to the raising of Dorcas to staying with Simon, as a part of the preparation for the momentous events that would happen in chapter 10. God is showing Peter that if he can heal the lame and raise the dead then he can surely save the Gentiles. So these miracles were not only for the benefit of Aeneas and Dorcas, they were not only for the spread of the gospel, they were also for the benefit of Peter, to prepare him for what was to come. And this is the way it is in ministry. As you give of yourself in ministry, you find that God blesses you in wonderful ways. And as you serve Him faithfully, you often find that He gives you greater and greater opportunities to serve. And you can know from this passage that you never again have to let pessimism have the upper hand. Just be available and faithful in the life and ministry God gives you and trust that God can turn things for good at any moment, even right now, in this moment.