Luke sets the stage for the first gentile convert by shifting the story back to Peter’s ministry. Peter travels to Lydda and Joppa in the coastal area of Judea and performs two notable miracles that lead many to Christ. In so doing he moves into position – unknowingly – to receive a request from the gentiles to hear the gospel. Peter travels to proclaim the gospel to Jews and minister to Jewish believers but the Spirit leads him to where he will minister in a way he now thinks is impossible.
This last section of Chapter 9 is a transition from Paul’s conversion and early ministry to the conversion of the first gentile – Cornelius. Luke tells us about two miracles Peter performs – one seemingly like many others and one that appears to be way beyond anything the apostles have done to this point. By including these stories Luke shows that Jesus’ ministry continues in much the same way as when He was physically on earth. Jesus performs awesome miracles through Peter for the same reason as when He personally did them before – to bring people to Himself.
One of the benefits of the peace the church enjoys as a result of Saul’s conversion (v 31) is that the apostles feel free to travel outside of Jerusalem. When the persecution first began after Stephen’s death the apostles stayed home presumably to oversee the church from its base (8:1). Now that the threats against them have diminished they can visit believers who scattered throughout Judea and Samaria and proclaim the gospel to Jews outside of Jerusalem.
Peter travels around the areas referenced in vs 31 – Judea, Galilee, Samaria – and makes his way to Lydda, a city on the coastal plain of Judea (roughly 25 miles northwest of Jerusalem). While there he comes across a man named Aeneas who has been paralyzed and bedridden for eight years. The text says nothing more about the man and does not mention how Peter comes to meet him.
Luke does not relate any of the conversation between Aeneas and Peter other than Peter’s command to him. We do not know if Aeneas tells his life’s story or explains how it is that he is paralyzed. The text does say that Peter finds him as he is visiting the saints in Lydda, so it could be that Aeneas is a believer. He has been bedridden for so long that he has no realistic hope for recovery.
Peter’s response to finding Aeneas is simple and direct – “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you: arise, and make your bed.” He does not say, “I heal you.” He does not say, “Be healed,” nor does he say anything about Aeneas’ faith. He simply tells him that Jesus Christ heals him. He uses the simplest and most honest approach. Jesus Christ does in fact heal him, not Peter. And he tells Aeneas that, so there is absolutely no doubt in his mind who deserves the glory and so everyone who hears about it will know also.
Two things happen immediately or very soon after Peter speaks. Aeneas does as he is commanded – he stands up and gathers up his bed. Though he has been bedridden for eight years and his muscles have atrophied from disuse, he stands immediately. His joints are healed, his nervous system and cardiovascular systems are healed, and his muscles are fully restored. He not only can walk, he can walk as if the last eight years did not happen. God heals him as only He can – supernaturally, instantly and completely.
Second, people see Aeneas and hear about his healing and turn to God. They hear that Jesus healed him in a way that is completely impossible and they want to know more about Him and His gospel. Thus the miracle does what miracles invariably do – it brings people to God. God shows His power in such a clearly supernatural way that no one can explain it away as anything other than His work. And because it is His work it brings glory and people to Him.
The effect of the miracle is far-reaching. This man is apparently known throughout the city and even in the surrounding region (Sharon). Everyone who sees him understands what has happened and so many believe the gospel that Luke describes it as all who lived in Lydda and Sharon. [Interestingly, nothing is said about the effect this has on Aeneas personally – perhaps this goes along with the thought that he may already be a believer.]
While Peter ministers in Lydda an important event happens in Joppa – a coastal city roughly eleven miles away. A believer there (a certain disciple) named Tabitha (this is her name in Aramaic, meaning “gazelle” – the Greek translation of her name is Dorcas – Luke may include this fact for his reader, Theophilus, or because in Joppa there are many who speak Greek instead of Aramaic and so the names are used interchangeably – given a choice between the two it is a good bet that Tabitha introduces herself in Aramaic), who is known for her continual deeds of kindness and charity, becomes sick and dies.
Nothing is said about a husband for Tabitha so it could be that she is a widow. Also, the fact that she abounds in acts of charity likely means that she is wealthy. If she is in fact a widow it is notable that she apparently ministers to other widows. She surely sympathizes with them as only someone who is in their position could. Unlike her, a typical widow has no means of support and must depend on others for her survival. It is a mark of Tabitha’s love and generosity that she takes care of those most in need – she does not forget those women who are not as fortunate as she is.
[Note here another example of the generosity that follows wherever the Spirit works. Spirit-filled believers love others and care for the needs of those without – it is what characterizes them (as Jesus said it would – Matt 25:31-46). The church in Jerusalem is known for its generosity and has actually eradicated poverty within its ranks (4:34). Tabitha has continued in the same way in Joppa. Believers with their eyes on God and an appreciation of the love and mercy He has shown them want to show that love and mercy to others.]
Luke tells us in verse 37 that the people wash Tabitha’s body and lay it in an upper room. Likely he tells us this to make it clear that she is in fact dead. There is no chance that they just think she is dead but she is only in a coma – they have washed the body and laid it where her friends and loved ones can mourn her before burial.
The people find out that Peter is in Lydda – not far away – and decide to send for him. They send two men to him with the message, “Do not delay to come to us.” There is no reason to think they want him to hurry because they expect him to raise her from the dead. Something like that has not happened to this point with the apostles and it does not seem likely that anyone would expect it now. What they probably want is for him to pay his respects to her and minister to them. Since her burial is imminent, he cannot take his time traveling to where she is. She is a great woman in the church at Joppa and her death is significant enough to warrant the personal attention of an apostle.
Peter arrives in the city and comes immediately to the upper room. Around the body are all the widows that Tabitha ministered to. They are weeping over her body and begin to show Peter all the tunics and garments that Tabitha made for them (Tabitha did not just send a check to help the needy; she personally made sure the widows were clothed and cared for). They loved Tabitha and want Peter to understand what an amazing woman she was and how great a loss her death is.
Peter sends everyone out of the room. The only reason to do this is if he knows he is about to raise her. It is a mark of how closely he walks with the Spirit that he so clearly knows what he is about to do. He has healed many people since Pentecost and is so known for it in Jerusalem that for a while people lined up just to fall under his shadow (5:15). Still, nothing like this has been done by anyone other than Jesus since the days of Elijah and Elisha, and for him to have confidence that Jesus is about to do it again shows the amazing power of the Spirit that works in him. Peter witnessed Jesus raising people from the dead on more than one occasion and so knows that He can do it again here.
Peter kneels down and prays – presumably to ask God for the power to bring her back. He then turns to the body and says to it, “Tabitha, arise.” She opens her eyes, sees Peter, and sits up (she may feel odd lying down in the presence of a strange man). There is obviously no way to know – the Bible never says in any resurrection story – what Tabitha thinks when she revives, but it would be fascinating to find out. Is she happy to be alive, or sad that she is no longer in the place where she just was? Does she know what just happened or does she wonder why she is laid out in an upper room with a man kneeling beside her? Does she remember dying and if so, is that a painful memory she will carry with her?
Peter gives her his hand and helps her up. He then calls for everyone and presents her to them alive. Nothing is said in the text but the widows and the believers who were mourning assuredly rejoice when they see her. Actually, they likely first experience shock and then start to rejoice. What the text does tell us is that her resurrection – not surprisingly – becomes known all over Joppa and many believe in the Lord. Thus the miracle does what the raising of Aeneas did. It brings people to the one whose power makes the miracle possible – Jesus.
Peter does not return to Lydda after raising Tabitha. He instead stays in Joppa with a tanner named Simon. Interestingly, tanners – men who work with animal hides – are often unclean under the Law because of their continual contact with dead animals. The smell of his work is likely why he lives in Joppa by the sea with its breezes (10:6). Simon’s unclean state is apparently not a concern for Peter (as it would be to someone more strictly observant), but the next story will show he is not yet comfortable with other things (and people) that are unclean.
Conclusion & Thoughts
Both miracles Peter performs are similar to acts of Jesus. Luke seems to want to draw parallels with Jesus to make it very clear that these are His continuing acts, not new works of a new ministry. Jesus healed invalid men on more than one occasion (Lk 5:17-26, Jn 5:8) and told them to rise and take up their bed – just like Peter with Aeneas. Jesus also raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead using almost the exact same words in Aramaic as Peter uses in verse 40 (in Mk 5:41 Jesus says, “Talitha kum” (“Little girl, arise”), in this text Peter says, “Tabitha kum” (“Tabitha, arise”)). Peter follows the example of Jesus through the power of Jesus.
It also pays to remember that even in this time miracles like this are extremely rare. Jesus gives Peter the power to raise Tabitha, but no one raised Stephen after he was stoned and no one will raise James, the brother of John, when Herod puts him to death (12:2). The purpose of such an incredible miracle is to bring many to Jesus. It is not to show that every saint who dies can be raised up. Tabitha is a very worthy woman to be brought back but her resurrection is ultimately not about her. She is raised for the glory of God and for the sake of the gospel as its spread is just beginning. The Spirit shows Himself during this time through amazing acts but it is always to glorify Jesus and spread the gospel. And as is always the case, people benefit when God glorifies Himself.
Finally, the raising up of Tabitha is another example of what Jesus’ ministry and the gospel are all about. Jesus came to defeat death. He went to the cross so death would no longer rule over creation. And the message of the gospel is that the threat of death is gone and the fear it produced is gone with it. Tabitha’s revival occurs to give us a concrete example of the reality all believers face. Death is now a toothless enemy totally beholden to the power of God. None of us will likely escape physical death or come back from it like Tabitha did, but all of us will escape ultimate death and live with Jesus because of what He did. Jesus hates death (Jn 11:33) so much that He died to destroy it, and His gospel message is now all about life in His name. Tabitha is therefore just a small taste of what all believers will experience because of Him.