Women of History: Tabitha the Philanthropist

To recognize Women’s History Month, I highlighted a woman from history every Wednesday during March. Today is the last in this series.

After an extended time of fellowship, the ladies attending her weekly sewing class were finally gone. It was not in her heart today to hurry them, although she felt more weary than usual. Now the house was silent, with time enough for a short rest before preparing her upstairs room for the evening meeting of believers.  

Her afternoon visitors were widows who had lost their husbands from the dangerous work on the sea. They became her lifeline after her husband met the same end. Now, Tabitha had a new purpose: serving and encouraging the women of the community and those in the growing church in Joppa.

As Tabitha put aside the day’s sewing, she discovered a robe someone had left to be repaired. Many asked her to fix their clothing – her skillful mending made any item once again look like new. She would take a moment to start this mending before she closed her eyes for rest.  

She felt this intense fatigue daily, but Tabitha attributed that to her busy schedule over the last few weeks. When the church was established in Joppa, she found joy in doing good works along with the other new believers.

Picking up the robe and sewing kit, she moved to her favorite chair by the window. After only a few stitches, Tabitha lost focus. She laid the sewing in her lap and leaned back in her chair. Yes, she should rest. A heaviness slowly descended upon her, yet she didn’t mind. She laid her head back and closed her eyes.

She never awakened.

Tabitha’s story, in Acts 9:36-42, is a short narrative amid other powerful transformation stories in the chapter. While just a few verses, there is a reason that Tabitha’s story is included in the Bible, for she had a vital role in advancing the gospel.

Her home was in Joppa (known today as Jaffa, in southern Tel-Aviv, Israel). Its name means “beauty,” and it still is today – a seaport town on a hilly peninsula overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

Some scholars believe the church was established there by Philip the Evangelist, becoming a center of evangelism but also of well-organized social service. Under Rome’s authority, Joppa had a strong Greek philosophical influence, with residents who may have been open to hearing about the new “philosophy” of Christianity.

Now in Joppa, there was a disciple named Tabitha (which in translation means Dorcas). She was continually doing good deeds and acts of charity.

The writer of Acts, Luke, introduces us to Tabitha, describing her in two sentences. Yet, it still tells us a lot about her. First, Tabitha was a Hellenistic Jewess, a Jewish person who lived in the Greek world, adopted the culture, and spoke the language. Because of this, she had a Greek name, Dorcus, which means “gazelle.” If she was anything as her name suggests, she was lovely and graceful, with an outer beauty that matched the fierce love for God in her heart. Tabitha may have been one of the first converts of Philip the Evangelist and attended the newly formed church. (Nelson)

Second, we are told that she was always doing good deeds and acts of charity. This was her life and legacy. As a seamstress, she was known for her abilities. As a new believer, she found her skills could be used to help the less fortunate. Her good works flowed from her new faith in Christ.

At that time, she became sick and died. When they had washed her body, they placed it in an upstairs room. 

We do not know the age of Tabitha or if her sickness was immediate or due to age. She was likely still in the prime of life, had an illness that came on suddenly and died without warning.

After her passing, she was lovingly washed and prepared for burial. Because this was outside of Jerusalem, burial was not necessarily carried out on the same day, especially if a shroud or grave needed to be prepared. Next, she was placed in an upper room, possibly in her own home, a quiet area away from the home’s busy main floor and courtyard.

Because Lydda was near Joppa, when the disciples heard that Peter was there, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Come to us without delay. ”So Peter got up and went with them

Peter was ministering in Lydda, a town primarily mixed with Jewish and Gentile populations. There he had healed the paralytic Aeneas, and as a result, many saw and believed the gospel.

How did the church at Joppa hear that Peter was in Lydda? Believers traveling through Joppa likely shared what they had seen and heard, possibly sharing the miracle of Aeneas, to encourage the local church.

With the passing of Tabitha, there was an urgency to bring Peter to Joppa. The church sent two of their men to find Peter and to return with him without delay. Why? When locating Peter, they did not mention Tabitha. It may be that the church wanted the support of Peter for the bereaved and grieving church on the significant loss to their community. Or, maybe Peter knew Tabitha, and the church sought to bring him for the burial.  

Lydda (modern-day Lod, a central district of Israel0 is a 14-mile walk to Joppa. Traveling on foot, this journey would have taken about four hours one way. It may have been late in the day or the next day before the group started their return to Joppa. The men had already traveled the 4 hours to get to Lydda, then additional time to find Peter.  

…and when he arrived, they brought him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him, crying and showing him the tunics and other clothing Dorcas used to make while she was with them.

Luke tells of the heavy emotion of the widows, which shows how valued Tabitha was to their community. She was a seamstress, and her work was highly valued and appreciated. Yet Tabitha would be missed because of her love and compassion for them. Showing Peter the clothing made by Tabitha displayed their gratitude for her kindness and generosity.  

But Peter sent them all outside, knelt down, and prayed.

Peter mirrors what he saw Jesus do when raising Jarius’s daughter (Matthew 9:25). First, Peter sends everyone from the room before praying privately and waiting for God’s direction. Peter’s actions show a total dependence on God. What follows is a demonstration of the power of God.

Turning to the body, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her get up. Then he called the saints and widows and presented her alive.

Secondly, Peter again does as Jesus when he takes Tabitha’s hand to help her stand up. Her friends and other believers were overjoyed to see Tabitha alive again!

This became known throughout allJoppa, and many believed in the Lord.

Now we can see why this story of Tabitha is essential to the book of Acts. Tabitha already had her transformation because of the saving grace of Jesus. Witnesses of this miracle were also transformed, understanding that the gospel was not a philosophy but Truth!  

Peter did not merely restore life to someone who largely contributed to the comfort of the poor, but this miracle was used as a means of extending and establishing, as it was designed doubtless to do, the kingdom of the Savior. (Barnes) 

Those things we do not understand can often be the door of opportunity. And God is good. In this case, Peter stayed longer in Joppa, shared the gospel, and encouraged the church. The ministry of Peter in Joppa helped the church to establish many new believers.  

first used at lavistachurchofchrist.org

What we learn from Tabitha

She was always doing good deeds.

It is the first thing we learned about Tabitha: she was “continually doing good deeds.” As a believer, she knew it was important to do good works, not for salvation or for herself, but for the Lord (Ephesians 2:10). Whatever she found to do, she did it with all her heart (Colossians 3:23).

She knew the importance of charity.  

Along with her continual good deeds were Tabitha’s commitment and compassion for those in need. Her mission field was at her doorstep; a ministry for the widows in Joppa, those often marginalized or forgotten. They relied on her, and she gave all to them: love, support, and purpose, demonstrating that Jesus and the church saw their value (Zechariah 7:9-10).

Tabitha was a cheerful giver, especially of her time and talent. She knew that no matter how much she would give, God would provide so she could continue to do for others (2 Corinthians 9:6-8).

She knew how to build community.

Tabitha built a strong community of women, knowing that sharing each other’s burdens was fulfilling the words of Christ (Galatians 6:2). She assumed responsibility for a group of widows who lived alone and needed the ministry of good friendship.

She used her talents for the Lord.

Her talent as a seamstress was not only her trade; it was her calling card for reaching out to others. She followed the example of Proverbs 31:

She extended her hand to the spool, and her hands grasped the spindle.
She opened her hand to the poor and extended her hands to the needy.

Besides her sewing, she used her spiritual gift of mercy. God has given each of us a special gift, and we are to use them well to serve one another (1 Peter 4:10). Using her talent and spiritual gifts for the Lord gave her immense joy (Romans 15:13).

Tabitha was inspired by her Savior, Jesus. All that she did was the magnet that would draw others into her circle so she could share Christ’s love with them.

All the Women of the Bible – Devotional on Dorcus, BibleGateway.com
Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament
Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary
Women Who Made Bible History
by Harold J. Ockenga (1971)

This illustration used has been found on multiple websites, however, the earliest use is in 2011 and appears to have originated from the LaVista Church of Christ (lavistachurchofchrist.org

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