In Acts 9:36-42, Luke describes a disciple in Joppa named Tabitha. “This woman was abounding with deeds of kindness and charity which she continually did,” especially making tunics and garments for widows.
Her name refers to an animal like a doe or antelope, an Eastern symbol of graceful beauty. Who knows what Tabitha looked like to earn the appellation; but in Christ, her true beauty shone forth through “the hidden person” of her compassionate heart (1 Peter 3:4, 1 Timothy 2:10), as she provided handmade articles of clothing for the widows of the church in Lydda.
From time to time, a sister in Christ will do sweet things like knit booties for new babies in the congregation. Tabitha’s contribution was more than just thoughtful trinkets. In the ancient world, making garments was a very time-consuming task. “Tunics” refer to the clothes worn against the body, and “garments” refer to the outer coverings. These were essentials of life for the poor, perhaps not only the difference between comfort and misery, but life and death (Deuteronomy 24:12, 2 Timothy 4:13).
Tabitha may not have had the financial means of Barnabas (Acts 4:32), but she used her time and energy to become “rich in good works” (1 Timothy 6:18). The word “abounding in” (pleres) literally means “full of” or “completely occupied with” which Luke uses to describe both positive things, like being full of grace and faith (Acts 6:5-8), or negative things like being full of deceit (Acts 13:10), rage (Acts 19:28), or disease (Luke 5:12). When one thought of Tabitha, one couldn’t help but think of her good works!
May our family in Christ be full of kind deeds (1 Timothy 2:10, Titus 2:7, Galatians 6:9-10, 2 Thessalonians 3:13) which lift the spirits of others. “Pure and undefiled religion” includes alleviating the suffering of orphans and widows (James 1:27). There is love in simple things: preparing a meal for a funeral, visiting a sick person in the hospital to read and pray or just while away some minutes in pleasant conversation, offering a ride to the grocery store for shut-ins, sending a thoughtful card or gift, doing yard work and household chores for the disabled. “Our people must also learn to engage in good deeds to meet pressing needs, so that they will not be unfruitful” (Titus 3:14). Let us never forget that our eternal judgment will be based, at least in part, on the compassion we showed (Matthew 25:34-36).
The significance of Tabitha’s humble work was brought to the fore by her sudden passing (Acts 9:37-42). Those she had helped held vigil over her body, wearing the garments she had made for them. The Apostle Peter was already visiting these lands to encourage the churches recently evangelized by Philip (Acts 8:40). The disciples asked Peter to hasten to Joppa.
Recently, in Lydda, Peter healed a man who had been paralyzed for eight years, and this remarkable miracle caused many to turn to the Lord (Acts 9:33-35). Did the saints in Joppa call on Peter expecting a miracle, even for him to raise Tabitha? Perhaps, though before this, no apostle had raised the dead. Perhaps they just wanted his encouragement at this time of great distress. Perhaps his haste is explained because the burial would happen soon. Luke just doesn’t say. But the outcome is amazing, for with an echo of Mark 5:41, Peter raises Tabitha from the dead, and gives her back to the widows of Joppa, causing many to believe in the Lord.
Such tragedies as the passing of Tabitha often challenge our faith. If someone in Joppa had to die, why not some less-dedicated person, some high-maintenance fringe member who rarely makes it to services? Such blessings as the raising of Tabitha can challenge our faith, too. Why was Tabitha in this far-flung church was brought back to life rather than Stephen, who had taught so powerfully in Jerusalem (Acts 6:5-8)?
We must confess ignorance, while professing faith. God doesn’t often share our scale of value; Tabitha’s contributions were equal to Stephen’s in God’s view, if such considerations had anything to do with it at all. Besides, inexplicable disasters can be used by a gracious and omnipotent God to bring about good ends. Perhaps Tabitha was ready to stand before God, and her passing could bring others closer to God. Perhaps like the man born blind (John 9:3), God laid the groundwork so that “the works of God might be displayed” in her. In any case, the great miracle Peter performed made many people turn to the Lord.
One thing I am sure of, that whatever rhyme or reason we seek, Tabitha would be happy to bring glory to Christ, whether in death or in life. Let us strive for the same mindset! –John Guzzetta