By Samantha Shrauner
If you serve any person in any capacity for any length of time, frustration is inevitable. Faithful service can go unnoticed or unappreciated, and you wonder if anyone cares how hard you work. The need feels endless and you know that all your time and effort is a drop in the ocean. We know that Christians are meant to serve, but the reality of service is different from the feeling of satisfaction that we expected. When frustration and fatigue make us wonder if our sacrifice is worth the work, what does it look like for us as Christians to commit ourselves to extraordinary service?
Acts 9:36-43 is tucked between two major conversion stories in the book of Acts. Immediately before, Saul meets Jesus in a dramatic reversal from persecutor to evangelist. Immediately after this account, God sends Peter to Cornelius and the door to the gospel is thrown open to the Gentiles. Between these dramatic and monumental moments in church history, Luke records two healing miracles. The first is a paralytic named Aeneas, and the second is a woman named Tabitha who became ill and died. With the details that Luke records about Tabitha’s character and activity, we see a snapshot of committed Christian faithfulness in the service our our extraordinary God. From this passage we can gain a greater appreciation for practical Christian service and recommit our service to our wonder-working God.
Service in the Ordinary
36 Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity. 37 In those days she became ill and died, and when they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. 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.” 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. Acts 9:36-39
Tabitha is a Christian who lives in Joppa, which is on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea about a day and a half’s journey from Jerusalem. (1) Luke’s description of Tabitha is a brief, resounding endorsement of her character: she was full of good works and acts of charity. The New American Standard Bible uses the phrase “abounding with deeds of kindness and charity.” Tabitha was the kind of person who served and gave to others as a way of life. In verse 39 we get a glimpse of the kind of service she habitually practiced. When Tabitha died, widows came and showed Peter the clothing that she had made for them. She cared for those who were vulnerable and looked out for their practical needs.
In verse 37 we see the conflict in this account: Tabitha becomes ill and dies. The tragedy of our fallen world extends even to those who love the Lord and care for the needs of others. It can be a natural reaction when people become sick to wonder if they have done something to upset God. Surely God protects those he loves from suffering. Here we see that this mentality is a lie. Tabitha, a woman whose Christian life is characterised by acts of service, gets sick and dies. Suffering is not a mark that God has rejected or abandoned his people. When you or people you love experience the worst that life has to offer, do not believe the lie that God’s love for you has grown cold.
Christians find assurance of God’s love and the impetus for good works in the same place: the cross of Christ. In Christ’s death for our sins we see that God was willing to endure suffering on our behalf. Jesus experienced agony so that sinful people could be reconciled to a holy God. No person who trusts in Jesus will endure God’s wrath. Pain and suffering are part of life in this world, but God does not punish in anger those who belong to him. Instead, he took the punishment on himself.
Christian service is a response to what Christ has done. It is an expression of gratitude, a mark of familial love for those who belong to the church, and an act of mission to those who have not put their trust in Jesus. God calls some people to great service seen by many, but God calls all Christians to ordinary service that is extraordinary in its faithfulness, dedication, and care for others. Tabitha’s ministry was not grand in its scope or reach. But over and over again she picked up a needle and thread to care for those who could not provide for themselves. Tabitha knew who Jesus was and she made him known by her care for others.
In your family, among your neighbours and your group of friends, what does it look like to live a life abounding in kindness and charity? Christian service must begin with Christ. If we do not understand and appreciate what Jesus has done to bring us into the family of God, any act of kindness that is not applauded by others will leave us frustrated and resentful. We must begin with God. Then look for areas of need and roll up your sleeves. I remember hearing a story from a sermon about a university student who washed the dishes for his housemates every night as a way to witness to them about Jesus. When lockdown started, I made it my goal to serve my house by cleaning the kitchen every night. In reality, “every night” has turned out to be “a couple of times a week,” but over the past few months I’ve learned more of what it means to dedicate small acts of service to God. Like Tabitha, use the skills God has given you to serve others. Be eager to learn new things that you can use to serve. When the work is thankless, turn to God again for help. No task is too small and no service goes unseen. When you long to abound in kindness, make Psalm 37:3 your battle cry: Trust in the Lord, and do good.
Our Extraordinary God
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. 41 And he gave her his hand and raised her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive. 42 And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 And he stayed in Joppa for many days with one Simon, a tanner.
Through the Apostle Peter, God raises Tabitha to life again. God has power over death, the most fearsome enemy we can face. After raising Tabitha from physical death, God uses this miracle to raise others from spiritual death. Many people in Joppa believed in the Lord when they saw what God had done to their neighbour. Through the finished work of Jesus, God seeks to restore what has been broken by sin and death and all the other devastation of our fallen world.
It can be easy to have an abstract understanding of God’s power over death. We affirm it because we know it’s true, and it feels vaguely comforting right up to the moment when we or someone we love faces death for real. Is our knowledge of God’s power over death enough when we are knocked off our feet with grief and fear? When tragedy hits too close for comfort, what difference does it make that God raised Tabitha from the dead two thousand years ago?
By raising Tabitha from the dead God demonstrated two things. First, God showed that he has power to overcome death. By observing what God has done in history we can see that God has the ability to undo death. God does not have to work within the confines of a universe where death is an insurmountable fact of reality. The second thing we can observe is that death is God’s enemy. It is not part of God’s plan or intention for the world that he has created. When Peter comes, he doesn’t sit the widows down and explain that death is a beautiful and natural part of life. No, Peter prays and God gives death a knockout punch! Death is not a blessing in disguise or anything to celebrate. Death is a consequence of the fall and an enemy of the God who gives life.
As we face the reality of death ourselves, why doesn’t God intervene as he did for Tabitha? We see from this passage that this is not from a lack of power or of desire on God’s part. God is able to overcome death, and God’s ultimate plan involves the end of death and the restoration of life. Rather, it is a matter of timing. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). At precisely the right time, God will deal death not a knockout blow but complete destruction. Between now and then, we will face sorrow when we encounter death, but we can stand firm in our trust of a God who has power over death and has set his sights on its destruction.
The New City Catechism is an excellent resource for articulating and understanding foundational truths about the Christian faith. The catechism begins with the question, “What is our only hope in life and death?” and the answer is a helpful reminder as we seek to serve God in a world where death is the reality. What is our only hope? That we are not our own, but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our Saviour Jesus Christ. (2) Every person who trusts in Jesus belongs to God. Death can separate us from our bodies and from the people we love, but death has no power to separate us from God. When death looms and you wonder if God is powerful or present, stand firm in your trust. The God who sent death away from Tabitha’s upper room still has power against this enemy. Remind yourself who God is and what he has done, and then trust in the Lord and do good.
God’s glory shines in this passage, both in his extraordinary power over death and in the service that Tabitha models in the ordinary things of life. In a few short verses we glimpse God’s greatness and God’s goodness. Before the final resurrection, we may not experience a miraculous restoration of life, but our trust stands secure in a God who has dealt death a blow and who has set a date for death’s destruction. Standing firm in that trust, we can be people who serve others at every opportunity, in matters that are great and small. May we like Tabitha be people who abound in kindness and charity, because of the God who has rescued us from spiritual death and who will bring an end to physical death. May we go through our days with the psalmist’s words ringing in our ears: trust in the Lord, and do good!
Darrell Bock, Acts, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 376-377
Find this and the rest of the catechism online at http://newcitycatechism.com/new-city-catechism/#1