Jesus didn’t save us so we would live afraid.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Acts 9:36-43
Tabitha selflessly served God in her church; when she died, her friends boldly asked God to bring her back, and Peter boldly went along. God answered their prayer, and many people came to Christ. How bold are we in our prayers and our service? Can the world see Jesus through what we say and do?
In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha. Acts 9:36
[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Fortune Favors the Bold
Boldness is another one of those topics that folks probably have a range of understandings of. One of the best known phrases about it is “fortune favors the bold” (never mind how the original Latin can be translated a number of ways). It works itself out in our culture in such ideas as “seize the day” and “take life by the horns.” And I think we all kind of understand the idea behind that: if you want to do something great or make some great change, you have to attempt it. Obviously, this idea can go off the rails in a hurry! And too many Americans have grown up with the flawed mentality that “taking what you want boldly” is somehow a virtue in itself. Blessedly, there are enough Christian quotes on boldness to keep us grounded. For us, we simply have to remember that God has given us His Son; will He not give us everything else we need to accomplish His purposes?
In our passage today, we will see (in my opinion) three examples of boldness, from everyday service to extraordinary requests. Get your group thinking about bold projects. I give you one of my favorite examples inside.
Google “God-sized project” and you will find other examples: a start-up church that just gave $1.3 million to missions; a small Atlanta mission trip that ended up partnering with major construction projects in the schools; a church in Memphis that raised $560,000 for medical missions in Iraq; a south Texas church of 25 who sent 2,000 shoeboxes to OCC. Our church has taken on projects bigger than we have any business attempting. As long as the glory goes to God, I think that’s exactly what God wants us to be doing!
This Week's Big Idea: Attempt Great Things for God
This is the kind of boldness that I believe our passage promotes. One of every Baptist seminary student’s heroes is William Carey. Carey was a poor cobbler in England (late 1700s) who was brought to Jesus by some Baptists. His life was so changed by Christ that he would go without food so he could buy books to learn more about the faith. He read Jonathan Edwards’s biography of the early American missionary David Brainerd. He was also taken with Captain James Cook’s voyages of discovery in the Pacific Ocean and the realization of how big the world was and how many people lived in it. Carey was moved by a need to spread the gospel.
Unfortunately, Protestant life in England was dominated at the time by a theology we now call “hyper-Calvinism” that says that God has already decided who would be saved and who would be damned, so our efforts in missions and evangelism were unnecessary. Andrew Fuller had written against this attitude in 1781 one of my favorite pamphlets, The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation (which basically argued that the gospel is too powerful and important to keep to ourselves, that God wants it shared). When Carey went to a meeting of Baptist leaders in London to talk about the importance of sharing the gospel, the response he got was: "Young man, sit down: when God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid or mine.” Historians think that line wasn’t actually said, but everyone agrees that the attitude was thick among those leaders.
Well, Carey didn’t sit down. He researched the Bible and found irrefutable commands and examples in the Bible of evangelism and missions. He compiled his research into one of the most influential books in the history of modern Christianity, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen. (I tell you more about this book below.) He talked about the need for a missions society that would support the efforts of men around the world to share the gospel. He then preached a message at a Baptist conference in 1792 (that no one wrote down and was never published, but was also never forgotten). It only had two points:
Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.
But it didn’t work. The conference adjourned on the note that the idea of starting a missionary society was too hard, too big for them. As they were leaving Carey found his friend Andrew Fuller and cried, “Does that mean we are going to do nothing?” Apparently, something snapped in Fuller; he called the conference back into session and they put together the framework for the “Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Amongst the Heathen” (which we simply call the Baptist Missionary Society). They found a doctor who was willing to travel to India and appointed Carey as his assistant. Carey found work as a factory manager and used his first 6 years in Calcutta to translate the New Testament, form the rules for the missionaries, and begin training local pastors.
Expect Great Things from God
There are lots of examples of men and women taking Carey’s call to heart, and every one of them would be a great illustration for you to use in teaching this passage. There are three examples of boldness in the passage:
Tabitha (who was a “normal” person who worked very hard serving the Lord in “normal” ways),
her friends (who had the boldness to ask for their friend back from the dead), and
Peter (who had the boldness to ask God for that).
All are important; vital, even. So I don’t want you to give the impression that attempting great things for God means that you have to start a missionary society and change the world. But you do want to think about your service as something so big that only God could get credit for it. I know we’ve talked about that in my Sunday School class, and it seems to make sense: a God-sized project. One example I can give you is that my last church, outside of Arlington TX, decided to make a feature-length evangelistic film. And we did! It was extremely difficult, and we ran into all sorts of problems, but when it was over a done everybody knew that God was the one who made it happen. If you have any examples of that in your life, be sure to share them!
David told me that his very first sermon had the title “Attempt Great Things for God.” That’s awesome, of course. He said he pulled out several examples of people in the Bible who attempted great (and crazy) things for God. That would also make a great discussion for this passage. Consider . . .
Noah, who built a huge boat when nobody had even seen rain.
Moses, who made big demands of the most powerful man on the earth.
Gideon, who took on an army with a fraction of the fighting force.
David, who stared down a true giant.
Daniel and his friends, who stayed true to God against the pressure of the greatest nation on earth.
And on and on and on. And before you can say, “Wait, but God told them to do those things!” remember that God has told us to do some things too!
The Rest of Carey’s Story
I want to make sure to point out that Carey wasn’t some kind of saint, and the first families to serve as missionaries in India weren’t perfect superheroes. Carey’s wife didn’t want to go, and when one of their sons died of dysentery, she had a nervous breakdown from which she never recovered. Carey spent so much of his energy on the Bengali people that he didn’t have much to spare for his own sons (who also didn’t have their mother). The work he did in translating the gospel (which was tremendous—he wrote the first Bible in an Indian language) also included bringing in a lot of British culture. He didn’t like local food or music, so he also taught the superiority of British cuisine. He had a hard time teaching the next generation of missionaries the same passion for the work that he had, with at least one new guy coming and wanting his own house and servants. As the mission grew, he could not adapt to the new layers of management and bureaucracy, eventually leaving the very society he helped form.
But those are human frailties. No one had ever done what Carey attempted for God, and I’m sure we cannot imagine the hardships he faced. He translated the Bible into 44 languages. He was humanly responsible for making Adoniram Judson a Baptist and helping him start the first American Baptist Mission board in 1814 which would go on to be the basis for almost every group of Baptist associations in America (including the SBC). He started the first degree-granting college in all of Asia. His failures aside, Carey truly attempted great things for God, and his legacy is still recognized today.
Part 1: The “Final” Rest (Acts 9:36-37)
In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha, which is translated Dorcas. She was always doing good works and acts of charity. In those days she became sick and died. After washing her, they placed her in a room upstairs.
I start with Tabitha (an Aramaic word meaning “gazelle” like the Greek word Dorcas). We might not think of her in terms of “boldness,” but think about it—she had lived a life that God thought appropriate to bring back from death! Lots of disciples had died; only two were brought back in Acts. Here are three good parallels to this story: Elijah and the widow (1 Ki 17:17-24), Elisha and the Shunammite woman (2 Ki 4:32-37), and Jesus and Jairus (Mark 5:21-43).
The story is very straightforward; no real interpretive difficulties. But it gives you lots and lots of major topics to talk about. Start with Tabitha. Here was a “normal” woman who worked very hard for the Lord. She may have been wealthy, She may have been a widow. Whatever, the Bible celebrates her. Wouldn’t it be great if that’s how people remembered us? So I think you could talk a great deal about the value of a simple, humble life of service.
The next thing is the inevitability of death. Tabitha eventually died, and they placed her body in an upstairs room. This was . . . unusual. Bodies decayed quickly in that climate, and Jewish cleanness ritual called for a same-day burial.
Plus, the upstairs would have been the living quarters. It is possible that the new Christians were distancing themselves from Judaism, and it is also possible that they were holding out hope of resuscitation. One way or another, it was a tragic loss for the Christian community of Joppa. Every church can relate to such a loss. If you can keep control over it, talking about the death of a pillar of the church is healthy. All of us are going to die one day, and that doesn’t mean God has lost control.
After the story of Paul, Luke switches back to Peter. His travels had taken him as far as Lydda (which was only a couple of days from Jerusalem on a major road), where he healed a paralyzed man named Aeneas. Word of that spread throughout the region, which would have included nearby Joppa.
Joppa was the only natural harbor for hundreds of miles, and it was the primary port for Jerusalem (when not under control of the Philistines or Assyrians). And of course, this is the city from which Jonah fled from God. The Greeks eventually allowed Jewish rule in the city, and even established a mint there. Consequently, Joppa was a very multi-racial and cultural city in the traditional territory of Israel. In many ways, it was the “gateway” to the Gentile world and very fitting that God would choose to put Peter in contact with Cornelius while he stayed in Joppa.
Joppa later changed its name to Joffa (becoming a major port for crusaders to land), and today it is a suburb of Tel Aviv, the largest city in Israel. There is a small mosque on the traditional site of Simon the Tanner, and it is a common pilgrimage destination for visitors to the Holy Land.
Part 2: The Request (Acts 9:38-39)
Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples heard that Peter was there and sent two men to him who begged him, “Don’t delay in coming with us.” So Peter got up and went with them. When he arrived, they led him to the room upstairs. And all the widows approached him, weeping and showing him the robes and clothes that Dorcas had made while she was with them.
The second example of “boldness” is this group of disciples. Personally, I can’t imagine asking God to bring back someone from the dead, but then I live in an “enlightened” America where that just doesn’t seem to happen. [And I really had to stop and think about that for a while. I pray for miraculous healings, but I’ve never prayed for God to undo a death.] The phrase in the previous verse, “In those days,” connects us with Peter’s miraculous healing in Lydda (10 miles away; 3 hours walk?). They wanted Peter to come quickly. I’ve read several people say that they wanted Peter to be there for comfort and counsel. That could absolutely be true, but the circumstances indicate that they wanted Peter to come perform a miracle. Showing him the robes she made (why do they still have them?) seems more like an appeal than a memorial. As a cold, calculating, enlightened American, I would tend to think that these folks aren’t coping very well. They aren’t handling this death very well. Asking Peter to raise her from the dead is almost creepy. But let me look at this through the eyes of love: a fledgling church in a hostile environment under persecution has just lost possibly its most important member(?). They’re shaken and worried about the future. How many of us have taken such a loss equally hard? The difference between them and me? They have Peter down the road. Might that not make us a little bolder in our requests?
Your chance for discussion here is how people cope with death in different ways. Some folks find it harder to let go than others. In this case, their tie to the dead woman was so strong that they prayed her back to life. The one thing I really don’t want you to do is suggest that if our faith were stronger, God would send our loved ones back to life. That’s not true! God has His own purposes, and they rarely include resuscitation. Death is precious to God—He takes His saint home and sends His Spirit of comfort to the survivors. Please do not let it come across that it is somehow up to us to convince God to answer our prayer (that our boldness impresses God)! Rather, when the author of Hebrews tells us to approach God with boldness (4:14-16), it is the boldness of knowing that God will always listen, always care, and always give us what we need. We serve a God (Jesus) who is on our side and has experienced every loss and sorrow.
If you want to make an application here, it is that Peter came when called. I’m sure he was very busy (remember our previous week’s discussion about Margin? Peter made sure he had margin.) God would later have to encourage Peter to go to see Cornelius, but not here. We must go when people need us.
Part 3: The Restoration (Acts 9:40-41)
Then Peter sent them all out of the room. He knelt down, prayed, and turning toward the body said, “Tabitha, get up!” She opened her eyes, saw Peter, and sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her stand up. Then he called the saints and widows and presented her alive.
The third example of “boldness” is Peter, who believed that God would grant this miracle. This is one of those beautiful, precious moments in the Bible. Where did Tabitha go? What did she see? People have made a lot of money telling their after/near-death stories, but we don’t get any such satisfaction here. Here’s my take on the “I saw a bright light”, “I heard a voice” or whatever. God knows if someone is going to truly die or not, so any such experiences would be something God strictly controls for His own purposes. If the report doesn’t line up with the Bible, I say it didn’t happen.
Your leader guide rightly talks about the difference between resurrection and resuscitation (see below), and you want to be able to speak briefly on the idea. Tabitha eventually died again. So why did God grant this miracle here? I don’t know. There are lots of dead people Peter could have raised. But God chose Tabitha, and I’m sure her experience was surreal. Unlike certain “faith healers” today, Peter wanted privacy and quietness for this moment. How wonderful it must have been for those women to receive their friend back! How they must have been emboldened to stand up for Jesus!
You have two areas to talk about here: the joy that answered prayer brings, and the reality that God doesn’t always honor requests for miracles. When you talk about answered prayer, make sure to point out that the answer should not make us selfish or puffed up, as if we “deserve” it. It should make us humble and a better servant of God. When you talk about unanswered prayer, talk about grief and loss. The grief those ladies felt was real, and God doesn’t always end it with a miracle.
Aside: Resuscitation in the Bible
When we talk about “resurrection,” we’re really talking about the future, once-for-all-time bring back of the dead to life. Jesus is the firstfruit of that harvest, but the rest of the harvest is in the future. When the dead are brought back to life in the Bible, it is what we call “resuscitation,” or a temporary extended lease on life. With our advancements in medicine, skeptics of the Bible have said that the events in question (if they happened at all) were a case of mistaken diagnosis, that the people weren’t really dead. That’s why it matters that Lazarus had been dead for three days—tough to get that diagnosis wrong.
Here are all of the examples I can find of the dead being brought back to life in the Bible (only to die again some day later):
the widow of Zarapeth’s son (by Elijah, 1 Ki 17:7-24),
the Shunammite woman’s son (by Elisha, 2 Ki 4:18-37),
an Israelite man (by Elisha’s bones, 2 Ki 13:21),
Jairus’s daughter (by Jesus, Matt 9:18-26),
the widow of Nain’s son (by Jesus, Luke 7:11-17),
Lazarus (by Jesus, John 11:38-44),
Tabitha (by Peter, Acts 9:40),
Eutychus (by Paul, Acts 20:7-12).
In other words, it didn’t happen very often; 8 times in more than 1000 years. This makes it clear that Tabitha’s friends’ request was very bold, and if God had not brought Tabitha back to life, they shouldn’t have been surprised. So why did God bring just these few back from the dead and not others? I’m sure we can all list worthy people who lives ended too soon! Frankly, I don’t know. But look at the list of people who did the resuscitating: Elijah and Elisha (the two great rebel prophets), Jesus, Peter, and Paul (the founders of a new movement). If we believe that God alone has the power of life and death, then allowing those men to be a part of such a great miracle would seriously validate their message.
Part 4: The Results (Acts 9:42-43)
This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. And Peter stayed on many days in Joppa with Simon, a leather tanner.
Here’s the big point, and you have to be careful how you say it. God performs miracles for His own glory and the souls of the lost. God works in our lives and answers prayers for our comfort and peace, but this kind of miracle is about the “big picture.” We must never keep a miracle story to ourselves! On a side note about the tanner: tanning is the process of turning animal skins into leather. It was smelly and considered a ceremonially unclean profession. But Peter had no problem staying there. This was a big step for Peter eventually pushing for the full inclusion of Gentiles in the church, as Cornelius would soon send for Peter to come back to his home.
The big closing questions: are you boldly serving Jesus? Are you boldly going before God in prayer? Are you serving for God’s glory or your own? Does your service point people to Jesus? Are you a part of what God is doing in Thomson?
Closing Thoughts: "The Use of Means to Convert the Heathen"
We take this book's argument for granted today, but Carey had to write a book arguing that Christians should actively evangelize the lost and not wait for God to convert the lost through other means. His argument in An Enquiry is simple and profound.
(1) The Great Commission given to the apostles is still binding on Christians today. (It was argued at the time that only the apostles were given the authority to complete the Commission.) Why? We still baptize, therefore we should do the rest. We still discover new nations, therefore the Commission is not complete. “Until the end” implies incompleteness. But this Commission does not mean that we stop evangelizing people at home.
(2) Carey had to demonstrate that “means” are even possible with respect to evangelism, as in the danger, the distance, and the difficulty of communication. He takes offense that anyone would fail to share the gospel because they are afraid, and greater offense that a missionary would be concerned about creature comforts. Plus, technology makes travel easier, and translation can be learned with great effort. (Note that Carey also has a section how Christianity can teach the “heathen” proper culture and civilization. I firmly believe that efforts to “civilize” the lost would become a major distraction to our missionaries and a source of great tension.)
(3) Carey then described what the means would look like: a group of praying, concerned Christians forming a society, investigating a people group, selecting a missionary, then giving that missionary everything he needs (money, resources, education) to evangelize.
Carey also included a brief history of Christian mission work and details about the population and religious preferences of every known part of the earth. In short, this pamphlet was a well-reasoned, irrefutable call for Christians to be actively engaged in the work of spreading the gospel around the world. It became the foundation of “modern missions” and is completely rooted in the kind of boldness that our lesson calls for.