Commentary on Acts 9:36-43
Get up, stand up! A call to action.
Miracles are extraordinary events. In this text Peter performs the miracle par excellence — the raising of the dead. With the notable exception of Jesus’ resurrection, there are three other occasions in the Luke-Acts corpus where were we find this type of miracle: the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-17), Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:49-56), and Eutychus, a young man who Paul literally bored to death (Acts 20:7-12). Here in Acts, it is Tabitha (Dorcas, her Greek name) falls ill and dies and then is miraculously brought back to life.
In the gospels, miracles are signs. They are demonstrations of the power of God (and by extension they also signify a relationship between the one performing the miracle and God; only a few had the privilege of raising the dead). Like road signs, miracles in the text also act as guideposts, leading people to God. Moreover, miracles are intended to serve as fuel for our faith; they compel witnesses to believe, to believe in a powerful God who is able and willing to intervene on their behalf.
The story of Tabitha’s miracle is told within the context of another miracle. As the progression of the narrative would tell us, while in Lydda, Peter found Aeneas, a paralyzed man who had been bed-ridden for eight years. Peter tells Aeneas: “Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make up your bed” (Acts 9:34). As a result of this miracle, all the residents of the town turn to the Lord.
Lydda is close to Joppa, so it seems logical that the disciples in Joppa would send for Peter. Though they had requested that Peter come quickly, Tabitha was already dead. Given the proximity of the two towns, it is likely that the believers in Joppa would have heard about what had happened in Lydda. Doesn’t the request for Peter’s presence indicate that the disciples in Joppa anticipated that there was something he could do to help Tabitha? It is an atmosphere of anticipation that facilitates the miraculous.
When Peter arrives in Joppa he is greeted by mourners. They are weeping and showing him all of the things Tabitha had made for them. Peter puts them out of the house and then prays. Taking the time to pray reminds the audience that Peter is not acting on his own accord. He turns to the body and commands Tabitha to get up. Anastethi is the same command that Peter had given Aeneas in Lydda – ‘Arise, get up or stand up!’ This verb, in some form, is found over 100 times in the New Testament. Peter’s command to the dead woman was really no different from the statement we may hear or say on a daily basis. Wake Up! Arise! Stand Up! On the basis of this miracle, many in Joppa come to believe in the Lord.
Tabitha’s awakening may be further illuminated by exploring how a change in our state of being can result in altering the lives of many people. We do not know much about Tabitha. We know that she has a Greek name, Dorcas. She is described as a disciple. The text informs us that she was “devoted to good works and acts of charity.” These acts of charity can be characterized as almsgiving. It is likely she was giving money to the poor and/or to the synagogue or ministry.
We can assume that the community of which Tabitha was a part loved her and valued her based on the way they mourned for her loss. Her brief obituary, perhaps, tells us all that we need to know. Although she may not have been famous or well-known, she was important to those who did know her. It is clear that she loved and that she was loved. They did not want to lose her. She was a disciple who was giving and faithful — should that we all be described as such.
The command to get up or wake up is associated with both action and belief. It should be noted that these are, in fact, imperatives. Peter does not ask or beg Tabitha to please get up. She is not given a choice. She is told to arise and then is taken out of the house for all of her friends, family and neighbors to see. Miracles may be performed secretly but they are not hidden away. They are publicly displayed. As a result, many come to believe. The implication of Tabitha’s extended life is that she will continue to do what she had been doing. She will remain devoted to doing good works.
In our contemporary society, the notion of being awake or being aware is similarly associated with a state of consciousness. For example, “Stay Woke,” a motto often associated with the Black Lives Matter movement was a rallying cry to those who were unaware of police brutality in the Black community. The term is not simply meant to invoke a state of awareness but it is also an indication of vigilance — one must not simply awake from their slumber, but one must also stand up or stand against injustice. To “be woke” extends beyond the Black Lives Matter movement and is a term used more generally in other instances of injustice and means to have an acute awareness and be moved to corrective action.
It is not enough to simply know. Once we become aware, it is imperative that we, too, act to improve the conditions of those who are suffering. Our actions can be the difference between life and death.
In the first century context, this miracle was a demonstration of the power of life over death. I think that power still exists today. It is this power that gives Christians hope; a blessed assurance that we live to live again. But perhaps even more so than the hereafter, this resurrecting power should flame the fire of our desire to create a more loving and just world. Like Tabitha, we devote our lives to good works and acts of charity. We should live a life that sounds the alarm, alerting the world that there is a God who is willing and able to act on our behalf. This loving and just God continues to resurrect death “things.” For as long as we are here in this realm, we must get up and stand up and bear witness to the kingdom of God here on earth.