In the last year or so of Paul’s life, when imprisoned in Rome, he wrote a letter to his son in the faith, Timothy. And, looking back across the years of his ministry, he spoke of the coming of our Savior Christ Jesus, “who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel…” (2 Timothy 1:10 RSV).
That is the great and central fact in the good news about Jesus Christ: He has done what no other can ever do — he has abolished death. That is what is unique about the gospel.
Death has many forms. We begin to die long before we take our last breath. Death seizes us in many areas of our life other than the physical. There are many forms of death.
- Boredom is death.
- Sickness, of course, is death, but despair is also death.
- Fear and worry are forms of death.
- Mental illness is death, but so is bitterness of spirit.
- Death can seize our life while we live, and rule over vast areas of our life long before we ever die. We know that from experience.
But the great good news of Jesus Christ is that he has come to abolish death, death in every form, whatever it may be.
This morning, in Chapter 9 of the book of Acts, we are going to leave the Apostle Paul, home ruminating in Tarsus, and come again to the Apostle Peter. We find him right where we left him, traveling around among the churches of Judea and Samaria, ministering to them in the power of Jesus Christ.
Like all true Christians, he is a channel of the power of Jesus Christ, and we find that power doing one thing through Peter everywhere he goes — abolishing death. There are three different forms of death involved in the three incidents that we look at in this passage. We will see how in each case the power of Jesus Christ abolishes death. The first incident is a picture of death’s power to paralyze:
Now as Peter went here and there among them all, he came down also to the saints that lived at Lydda. There he found a man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden for eight years and paralyzed. And Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed.” And immediately he rose. And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord. (Acts 9:32-35 RSV)
If you have ever been to Israel, you have probably been to Lydda. If you fly into Israel that is where you land. The airport outside Tel Aviv is the ancient town of Lydda, known now as Lod. It was to this village that Peter came on his way down from Jerusalem, visiting the new churches of Judea and Samaria. The church had been thrust out from Jerusalem and pockets of Christianity had begun in all the villages in Judea and Samaria. In Lydda, he finds a man who had been paralyzed for eight years. He says to him,
“Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed.”
Now Peter was no faith healer. He was not the same as the group in America today who go about making grandiose claims of possessing powers to heal people. Peter never said that he had any power to heal anyone. “Jesus Christ heals you,” he says. Peter was but the instrument and channel of his healing power.
In June of 1970, one of the popular faith healers of America was found dead at his hotel in San Francisco. The coroner’s report on the cause of death published: It was acute alcoholism. That is a rather sad commentary on the fakery and hypocrisy involved in much of the so-called “faith healing” of our day. Make no mistake about it — God can heal physically, and he certainly did in this case. But Peter acts only as a channel of Jesus Christ. He only says to this man, “Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed.”
When Peter said it, speaking as the instrument of Christ, it worked. This man was made well — instantaneously, completely delivered.
As we have seen before in Acts, these physical miracles are in turn for us a picture of the spiritual miracle that God wants to perform in every human spirit. God heals physically. He still does, and there are numerous perfectly valid instances of modern healings.
But one thing is true of those today, just as in New Testament days: God heals physically only selectively. He never heals everybody that is sick. Our Lord did not even in the days of his flesh. He selectively healed because it is intended to picture the healing of the spirit. That is what God wants.
Any healing of the body is, at best, temporary. Everyone who was ever healed in New Testament days died later on. The healing of their bodies was just temporary because it was designed to be a picture — God’s wonderful way of illustrating the healing of the spirit which would be eternal and which is what God wants. We must understand this as we come to these New Testament accounts and as we view modern day stories of physical healings.
Here we have a paralysis of the body. For eight years it held this man impotent, unable to fulfill life as God intended human life to be lived. He was paralyzed; he could not move. That can happen to the spirit as well.
In fact, it does happen to many. It very likely has happened to some of you. Some of you are suffering from paralysis of the will, from the immobility of the spirit. There are things you have wanted to do, knowing that you ought to do them. For years you have been saying, “Oh, I wish I could do that. I’d like to. Someday I want to do it.”
But you never have. You are suffering from paralysis of the will because you are looking for your resources. You are expecting that somehow you will get some new sensation or feeling and when you feel motivated, then you will do it.
It is to that very kind of condition that this story makes its appeal. Jesus Christ says to you,
“Rise and begin to live. Do what you want to do, in my name. Stand up and be strong, in my name. Rise, and be well.”
I have seen this happen to those who finally begin to believe that Jesus Christ will make them well. I have experienced this myself. There have been times when I have wanted to live at a higher level of experience in life. I knew it was God’s will for me, but I just couldn’t do it for awhile. It seemed as if every effort I made would fail until I began to realize that I was reckoning on something in myself.
When I understood that Jesus Christ, in me, was enough to do what God wanted to be done — I believed it. I saw that this was what he meant. Then I began to do what needed to be done, depending on him for strength. And when I did, beautiful things happened.That is what this account is for — to show us that Jesus Christ can heal us from the paralysis of death.
The next incident is even more challenging, for here we find death in its most fearful form — the actual ending of life:
Now there was at Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which means Dorcas or Gazelle. She was full of good works and acts of charity. In those days she fell sick and died; and when they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men to him entreating him, “Please come to us without delay.” (Acts 9:36-38 RSV)
Here is an emergency. Death’s power to interrupt service is pictured for us in this account. The outstanding characteristic of this woman, Dorcas, was grace and ministering in selfless love. She helped others. Her very name, both in Hebrew and Greek, means Gazelle.
A gazelle is an animal characterized by grace and charm. Here was a woman exhibiting grace and beauty in her life. She was the founder of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and there have been chapters of it in many homes since then — women who spend their time sewing and making garments for others. The pay is low, but the profit and the productivity are tremendous.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, her service was brought to an end. She fell sick, the power of the enemy striking hard and viciously, and she was laid low and died. But now the sequel:
So Peter rose and went with them. And when he had come, they took him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping, and showing coats and garments which Dorcas made while she was with them. But Peter put them all outside and knelt down and prayed; then turning to the body, he said, “Tabitha, rise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, she sat up. And he gave her his hand and lifted her up. Then calling the saints and widows he presented her alive. And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. And he stayed in Joppa for many days with one Simon, a tanner. (Acts 9:39-43 RSV)
And this is a marvelous miracle — a restoration from the dead. Here is a woman whose ministry of love and selflessness was interrupted by death. But now, the hand of God and the power of Jesus Christ restored her to ministry, and she resumes her good works.
Of course, she later died again because this is but a picture, intended to teach us that this can happen to the human spirit too. Something can interrupt the progress of a spiritual life, which is beginning to blossom, to flourish and bear fruit, to grow and minister to others.
Some circumstance, some event or experience, can interrupt and change it and cause it to die. The person loses that zeal, earnestness, and eagerness, and becomes cold and hard, indifferent and unconcerned, bitter of spirit. He is literally like someone dead.
A lot of people are like that. Some have been dead for years and are still walking around. That reminds me of the famous comment by Dorothy Thompson, the newspaper reporter when she heard of the death of Calvin Coolidge.
She said, “How could they tell?” Many are like that. Their life of service has been interrupted by some incident, which has been like the hand of death laid upon a zealous and earnest ministry. They have grown cold and indifferent, the very picture of death.
And this can go on for years. Edwin Markham, the great Christian poet, once knew a banker whom he entrusted with the settlement of an estate. The banker betrayed him, and Markham lost all his money and was rendered penniless by the deed. It made him bitter, and for several years he could write no poetry.
Then one day as he was trying to write he was sitting at his desk aimlessly scrawling circles. As he doodled, making these circles, suddenly the thought struck him of the great circle of God’s love, of how it takes us in. He was struck with inspiration and wrote these words:
I drew a circle and shut him out;
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.
He forgave the banker and was able to resume his ministry. After that came some of his greatest poems. And this is what Jesus Christ can do. He can heal a dead spirit, raise it to life and restore it. He can heal the bitterness that may be in your life, rendering you cold and indifferent to the needs of others.
God, thank you for the gifts you’ve given us. May we generously use them in the service of others like the brothers and sister of this chapter. We pray in the mighty name of Jesus Christ! Amen.
Holman Old Testament Commentary