Peter travelled to the churches in Judea. In Lydda, he healed Ananias from paralysis and in Joppa, he raised Dorcas from death through the name of Jesus.
Peter travelled to the churches in Judea. In Lydda, he healed Ananias from paralysis and in Joppa, he raised Dorcas from death through the name of Jesus.
Welcome to the next series in our study of the book of Acts, Series 3, where the Gospel goes to the Gentiles. The non-Jewish communities are now the focus of the advance of the Gospel and of the Church.
Background and Introduction
We left the previous series after a fascinating couple of episodes looking at the conversion of Paul. We looked at the Damascus road encounter with the risen Jesus Christ and the astonishing things that happened to Paul in those early days: when he was in the city of Damascus; in Arabia for three years in preparation; back in Damascus briefly; escaping dramatically when there was an assassination plot against his life; and travelling to Jerusalem for the very first time, to the headquarters of the Church to meet the Apostles. He had a difficult time initially, connecting with the church, because they were afraid that, as the previous arch persecutor, he was not truly converted to Christianity. But they found that he really was, and he formed a good relationship with the Apostles there. He joined the Apostolic team, and so, the persecution, which he had been leading, died down.
We ended Series 2 on a very positive note. Every series comes to an end with a summary statement, in the words of Luke, where he explains what the situation is, now that that particular series of events has come to an end. I’m going to start this episode by going back and briefly reminding us of what Luke says as a summary of all the events of Series 2. It’s in Acts 9: 31,
‘Then the Church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.’Acts 9:31, NIV
As I said in the last episode, here we have the first reference to the whole land of Israel having churches established in every one of the three major regions: Galilee in the north, Samaria in the middle and Judea in the south. They enjoyed a time of peace because persecution had come to an end. The Church was strengthened, as it was taught and built up in the faith by its leaders, and as the Apostles travelled around. That’s going to be the theme of the events that occur now. The Apostles in Jerusalem were responsible for this Church in these three regions, in Galilee, Samaria and in Judea. They travelled down from Jerusalem to keep an eye on things, to develop things, to preach and to encourage the churches. We saw that the church was getting stronger and bigger. More people were coming to faith.
Peter Reaches Out to Judea
This particular episode focuses on Peter. Peter is the senior Apostle, the one appointed by Jesus to lead the Apostolic team and he’s leading the Apostles in Jerusalem. We encounter him in this episode in one of many visits that he made to churches in this area. He was travelling around in Judea - the southern district, regions quite close to the city of Jerusalem, where he was based. Luke tells us this story to illustrate what was going on in verse 31. It illustrates the peace - no persecution; it illustrates the Church being strengthened; it illustrates the fear of the Lord, the high level of discipleship; it illustrates the encouragement of the Holy Spirit and it illustrates, above all, the growth of the Church numerically. This story called ‘Remarkable Miracles in Judea’ is an illustration of the amazing, wonderful, Spirit filled situation that the Church was in at that time. It’s a very encouraging story. Acts 9:32 - 35:
32 ‘As Peter travelled about the country, he went to visit the Lord’s people who lived in Lydda. 33 There he found a man named Aeneas, who was paralyzed and had been bedridden for eight years. 34 “Aeneas,” Peter said to him, “Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and roll up your mat.” Immediately Aeneas got up. 35 All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.’Acts 9:32-35, NIV
Healing in Lydda
This is amazing! Peter is travelling around and he comes to a place called Lydda, which is now known as Lod, in the nation of Israel, and has a church there to this day. He goes to Lydda, and there is a problem because Aeneas is paralysed. We don’t know why he was paralysed. There are all sorts of possible reasons. Did he have a degenerative illness? Had he had an accident? Was he very old? We don’t know. But paralysis was hugely debilitating and it says he had been bedridden for eight years. This puts severe pressure on the family. There’s no external support available for people with relatives who are paralysed, in the situation that Aeneas found himself in, in the ancient Middle East. But he was in a church community. We know the church community was strong from everything we’ve just said, and doubtless the church community would be supporting him, praying for him, and praying for his family.
Then the Apostle arrives. They would have seen Peter before. Lydda is not far from Jerusalem. Many of these disciples will have visited Jerusalem. Some of them may have been converted on the Day of Pentecost, or in the months that followed and some of them had been travelling up and down. Peter may well have visited Lydda before. It’s very likely that he had. This was his area of responsibility geographically; it wasn’t very far from Jerusalem. Peter is coming to town. What an exciting moment. Amazingly, in an instant Peter senses that the Holy Spirit is calling on him to step out in faith in a dramatic way. This isn’t the first time Peter has done this, even as recorded in the book of Acts but he does it here very quickly. He senses intuitively, through the voice of the Holy Spirit, that this is the time where God is going to demonstrate his power. So, he commands Aeneas to, ‘get up and roll up your mat’. This is a physically impossible task in all sorts of ways: his muscles have wasted, and he’s lost his physical capacity. How can he possibly do this? Only by an instantaneous miracle of astonishing proportions. This is very like the incident, recorded in Acts 3, where Peter and John are entering the Temple through the gate known as the Beautiful Gate. They saw a man there who had been lame from birth, who was 40 years old. Peter commanded him to stand up and be healed. That was utterly impossible. Here we have a similar impossibility. Aeneas has been bedridden for eight years.
The miracle had a very dramatic effect on the community. Luke makes an astonishing statement here. ‘All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.’ Lydda is the name of the place, Sharon is the name of the district. It represents a low-lying coastal district, on the Mediterranean coast on the west side of the nation of Israel. In other words, the word got out to people. Such was the impact of the Church already, that many people were really open to the Gospel. They had seen many miracles before; they had been up to Jerusalem and seen the Apostles in action; they had heard about the Day of Pentecost and all the things that had happened; and they may have heard about the lame man who was healed at the Beautiful Gate. They have heard of so many miracles and now they’ve seen the incredible power of God come and saturate their community. Sometimes we get communities in countries that are saturated by the impact of the church, such is the effect of the church in their community. The sheer numbers of people who believe, the sheer power of their faith and the sheer quality of the miracles that are coming out of that church. This is what we would call revival. It is being described here, briefly by Luke, in this very short statement. We see that many people ‘turned to the Lord’ ‘all those who lived in Lydda’. This is a representation of people across the community. It doesn’t necessarily mean every single individual. It just means that faith spread right the way across the area, in large numbers, as a result of this miracle, and everything else that lay behind it in all the preaching of the Gospel. Isn’t that amazing?
This is illustrating what Luke has said in Acts 9: 31, in that summary statement. They’re increasing; they’re being strengthened; they’re living in the fear of the Lord; they’re growing; and they’re in a time of peace. No one is invading their meetings. No one’s interrogating. No one’s imprisoning. That period has passed for the time being, and the Church is in a situation of great opportunity. This is not everybody’s experience. The book of Acts describes the Church in many different cultural contexts and situations: sometimes under extreme pressure; sometimes under temporary pressure; sometimes with lots of opposition; sometimes with lots of opportunity. There are all sorts of different contexts. This is one of the most positive contexts of the Church that we see described in the book of Acts and Peter capitalises on this and no doubt preaches about Christ significantly to the people who had come to the church in Lydda, as a result of the healing of Aeneas. If the story ended there, that would be a pretty good story, wouldn’t it? But it gets even better.
Resurrection in Joppa
The next story is even more dramatic. Acts 9: 36 - 43. This is describing a nearby town to Lydda, by the name of Joppa, which was a seaport on the Mediterranean coast.
36 ‘In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor. 37 About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. 38 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!” 39 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. 40 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. 41 He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers, especially the widows, and presented her to them alive. 42 This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord. 43 Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.’Acts 9:36-43, NIV
This is one of the most moving stories of the book of Acts. Here we focus on a very humble disciple - a background person - Dorcas. But really, she was a model disciple. It says she was always doing good and helping the poor; her way of helping the poor was to make clothes for needy people. I hope you can imagine her - somebody who truly loved Jesus, had truly found the Messiah, was a committed member of the church community, was deeply loved by members of the church community, as indicated by the level of their grief, particularly the widows, who just spent her time doing things for other people, especially with this gift of being able to make clothes for those in need. What a delightful portrait of a humble disciple. Yet she had died. Two men were sent to Lydda from Joppa with a sense of urgency. In the Jewish tradition, burial comes pretty soon after death as in many modern cultures; there isn’t a long gap between death and burial. The body was awaiting burial in a room. If Peter comes quickly before the funeral and the burial, then maybe another miracle could happen. If Aeneas can be raised up from paralysis, perhaps Dorcas can be raised up from death itself. They must have had some faith, those two men. I imagine them running some of the journey, or getting on a mule or horseback and getting there as fast as they possibly could. “Peter. Peter, come with us before the burial. There’s a lady in our church who’s died. She’s a wonderful lady. We’re so sorry to lose her. Surely God can do something, especially if you come, because we know at the hands of the Apostles signs and miracles take place in a remarkable way. It’s one of the characteristics of who the Apostles are. We know that. We’ve seen you perform miracles. Come with us.”
I wonder what Peter thought while he was travelling from Lydda to Joppa, knowing he was going to be faced with a woman lying, prepared for burial, and people weeping and mourning around, in a sense of great loss. That puts pressure on you, doesn’t it? What was Peter thinking as he travelled there? He must have been praying, “Lord, what are you going to do?” In his mind, not only was he praying, but Peter would be recollecting things that had happened. As he travelled from Lydda to Joppa, I imagine he remembered the three resurrections that Jesus performed in his ministry which are recorded in the Gospels. There were almost certainly others, but there are three recorded. The notable thing about them is, Peter was present in each case. He was present when a man called Jairus came to Jesus as he was travelling along saying that his daughter was on the point of death or dying, and he had to come quickly. Peter was present when Jesus went to his house and all the crowds had gathered mourning, and he pushed them away and he closed the door with the dead girl lying here with the parents and who else? Peter, James and John - nobody else. He raised the little girl up. Peter remembered this. He knew that resurrections were possible. He also remembered the occasion when the Apostles, or disciples, were walking along the road to a town called Nain, in southern Galilee. There was a crowd of people with them. Jesus was walking ahead. As they approached the town they saw, coming out of the town, a funeral party, which met them on the road just outside the town of Nain. A widow’s only son could be seen laid out on a funeral carriage, literally heading for the burial site just outside the village. Peter was there. Peter remembered how Jesus raised the son of the widow. Peter was there when Jesus came into the village of Bethany, near Jerusalem, where a man called Lazarus was actually in the tomb, and had been there several days. His sisters, Mary and Martha, friends of Jesus from previous visits, were pleading with him, “Lord, is it too late? Can you do anything?” Then Peter actually saw Jesus command the man to come out of the tomb and all that happened after that. So, as he travelled along from Lydda to Joppa, Peter remembered these things.
He also remembered that Jesus had commissioned the Apostles with power and told them that they would perform signs and miracles. In fact, Paul says, on one occasion, that miracles and signs and wonders are an indication of true Apostleship. Peter was faced with the issue that maybe God wanted to do a resurrection miracle, through him. We’ve no record that he’d raised anyone from the dead up to this point. We’ve got records of him performing remarkable miracles for many people but he sensed, deep down, this was the moment for something to happen that was right at the extreme end of his faith.
He comes into the room, he kneels down and prays.
‘Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up.’Acts 9:40b, NIV
What an astonishing event took place on that occasion. Not surprisingly, in the town of Joppa, Luke records, ‘This became well known and many people believed in the Lord’. So the Church develops again through these signs and miracles. Peter stays in the town of Joppa with a man called Simon the Tanner. This will become significant in our next remarkable story.
Before we get there, we need to step back and reflect, “What do we learn from this incredible story? The first one is, God is sovereign over hostile circumstances. It didn’t look as though it was going to turn out this way a short time before when the persecution was really strong. It’s easy to forget that. Paul was organising the persecution, the High Priest’s organising it; they were mobilising many people, they were going through Jerusalem, and they were no doubt going through the towns of Judea looking for Christians, towns like Lydda and Joppa. That process was very difficult for the Church. There was a scattering. People were moving from place to place watching out for these religious leaders and their appointed representatives coming into the different towns. But it all stopped because Saul, or Paul, met Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus and changed his view completely. The persecution petered out; it slowed down and stopped. There’s no record of it here. It doesn’t look like there’s any opposition at all. God is sovereign, even in the difficult circumstances of persecution, in opposition. Usually persecution or opposition comes, and it goes. It varies. Even when some of you will be living in countries which have a formal position against the Church and they have laws and rules against Christian assembly and conversion. The implementation of those laws and rules will vary from time to time. Opportunities will come because God is sovereign over that situation, and his purpose will always prevail. This time of peace did not last forever. It was only for a period of time. But during that time the Church grew significantly. God is sovereign over hostile circumstances and can turn them for good.
My second reflection is to think further about Dorcas, a person who has always fascinated me in the story of the book of Acts. We can see the quality of this person. She had a servant heart, with a gift of mercy, kindness and compassion to people that must have characterised many of these early disciples. She exemplifies something that Peter and Paul spoke about on a subsequent occasion. They were discussing the exact message they were preaching, and checking that Paul’s message was exactly according to what Peter’s message was. There was a conference between Paul and Barnabas on the one side, and Peter and some of the other Apostles in Jerusalem on the other. They agreed that they were preaching the same message. But Peter then made a surprising statement to Paul, which is recorded in Galatians 2: 10,
‘All they asked was that we (Paul and Barnabas) should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.’Galatians 2:10, NIV
Peter was essentially saying, “In the churches that I oversee amongst the Jewish people,” that’s the very churches we’re talking about in this passage, in places like Judea, “one key characteristic of the church is a priority of meeting the needs of the poor people in the community, as well as in the church. Paul, when you travel to other countries outside the Jewish area, amongst all the Gentile nations and ethnic groups, do you make sure that the Church is reaching out to people in need in those communities?” Paul said, “Yes Peter, that’s what we do.” Peter was reassured. There was a priority in the Early Church to find needy people, or vulnerable people, in the community and to prioritise reaching out to them. Dorcas is a classic example of this, from the very earliest days. She did it out of a heart and a gift, but also out of teaching from the Apostles; this really mattered. She’s an example of the priority of the Church to remember the poor. What does that mean to your church community? It means very different things in different parts of the world, in different countries, in different societies, with different economies and different situations. But always, in every community, there are vulnerable and needy people. God gives us the grace, as church communities, to help them. In doing so, we are being a New Testament church. Dorcas is a human example of that reality. We catch a brief glimpse of it in this story. She’s in the story because of the resurrection from the dead, but her biography tells us something about the characteristics of the Early Church that Peter very much valued, and asked Paul to continue the same priority.
My third application concerns faith. Faith can grow. Here is a situation where Peter’s faith has grown over the years. We know that he stumbled along the way in the time of Jesus’ ministry. He didn’t get everything right. He didn’t always believe everything that Jesus said. He was learning what it was to have faith. We can see that his faith has grown through the years of Jesus’ ministry. We see that he’s learned from his mistakes, that he’s come to believe Jesus’ words to him more and more sincerely. So, when it comes to the Day of Pentecost, and he’s preaching the Gospel, and when it comes to praying for the Holy Spirit to come on people, when it comes to performing miracles, he has a sense of confidence and faith in the book of Acts that he didn’t have before. His faith is growing. I wonder whether, even in this case, Peter’s faith grew a little more because this was a miracle of the highest order. The most impossible situation is to raise somebody from the dead. It may well have been the first time it happened in his ministry. We can learn from this. We’re not Apostles, given that quality of power necessarily, but we have been given faith. We have been called upon to believe God for miracles. The challenge to me and you from this passage, is that our faith grows as we read these stories in the book of Acts. It would be a tragedy if we look at the story and think these things can never happen in the modern world. They certainly can, and they are happening all over the world. There are many stories that we can tell of these miracles. Our responsibility is to allow Scripture to strengthen our faith and to teach us. I would encourage you to think, “How can my faith grow? What faith challenge is God putting before me?” There was a faith challenge for Peter, as he walked from Lydda to Joppa, to enter into a new realm of the supernatural. What’s the faith challenge before you today? Identify it, pray about it and step out in faith. I look forward to seeing you in the next episode.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- What do you learn about God’s sovereignty in this episode?
- What kind of person was Dorcas? What would people say of you?
- What does it mean for your church to ‘remember the poor’?
- Compare this resurrection with others that Jesus did? Use tagging to help.