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UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, June 24 2021

A woman, a city and God's miracles

During the life of the Apostle Peter, Dorcas was known for her good works and care for the disadvantaged in Joppa, and when she died there was great grief and mourning at her passing.

A woman, a city and God's miracles
Illustration of Tabitha (Dorcas) gifting garments to the poor. Credit: Sweet Publishing /
by Karen Meeker

There was a welcome lull between storms, and the congregations throughout all Judea enjoyed a sense of peace. Unlike the incessant waves frothing and crashing against the rocky harbor of Joppa, Saul's fomentation against those who were of "the Way" in Jerusalem had been calmed by a miracle. When word of Paul's conversion spread, those who had fled for their lives reacted first with fear and disbelief, and then pure relief. It was the mid-30s, several years after Christ's resurrection, and "the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied" (Acts 9:31).

Joppa found itself home to some of the believers. The port city for Jerusalem already had a certain history connected with it—as a part of the territory assigned to Dan, as the delivery port for wood floated down from Lebanon for Solomon's palace and temple (2 Chronicles 2:16) and as the ancient seaport from which Jonah began his effort to run from God's direction for his life (Jonah 1:3). Even pirates had roamed its waters from time to time. But nothing could compare with the events about to unfold.

To the eye of a casual observer, Joppa probably looked and functioned like any other city of its size. But within its hustle and bustle, a disciple named Tabitha (Dorcas in the Greek) was earning a reputation for doing good works and charitable deeds. She might have been a philanthropist who supported local widows out of her own resources; or she may have belonged to a community of widows that was active within the Church at Joppa. Whichever the case, the Scriptures record that she made tunics and garments for the poor. She probably spun her own yarn or thread on a distaff, then wove it into cloth. (A typical loom of her day produced cloth about three feet wide, and it took two widths joined side by side to get enough for a garment.) Finally she would have turned the cloth into clothing. Countless hours were invested in her gifts of love.

Then, "it happened in those days that she became sick and died" (Acts 9:37). By local custom, sounds of lamentation announced her death: the shrill cry, followed by weeping and wailing of professional mourners. Her body, washed and rubbed with oil or sprinkled with perfume, was prepared for burial within 24 hours. Normally she would have been wrapped with special grave clothes made of long strips of linen, but the book of Acts only records that she was laid in an upper room.

Quickly her friends devised a plan. The disciples in Joppa knew that Peter was in nearby Lydda, some 10 miles away. And they knew of the miracles that often accompanied his preaching wherever he went. Messengers were sent to inform the apostle of Tabitha's death and to implore him to come quickly to Joppa. Arriving a few hours later, Peter was greeted by grief-stricken widows who had lost their beloved benefactor. Clearing the room where she lay, Peter prayed and said, "Tabitha, arise." Tabitha opened her eyes. Her life had been restored!

Word of the miracle quickly spread, and "many believed in the Lord." Peter remained in Joppa for a time and yet another miracle occurred—the vision that led to the opening of salvation to the gentiles. And though the Church continued to grow, rumblings of discontent and fears of sedition began to trouble the land. Jewish unrest grew under the tightening control of the Romans, making confrontations inevitable and frequent. Military forces moved down the coast of Palestine, burning and destroying cities as they went. In the fall of A.D. 66, an army was ordered to take the walled city of Joppa by surprise and keep it, if possible. Meeting with no resistance, Josephus records that "soldiers fell on them, and slew them all, with their families [some 8,400 residents by his account], and then plundered and burned the city" (Wars of the Jews, Book 2, Ch. 18, 10). And so the place that had witnessed the mighty works of God a few decades earlier was no more.

The Bible is silent as to the fate of Tabitha and the rest of the believers in Joppa. But it continues to bear witness, to any who might care to read, of the miraculous power of God and of a woman who ministered, not with words, but with charitable deeds.