Dorcas window, Christchurch, Bath, England
This portrait of Dorcas’ hometown gives us some insight into her story, because it turned out that she was well-known to many people. This might be interesting, but not so meaningful if one comes from a small town. But Dorcas lived in a large and sophisticated city.
Incidentally, we are told that her name means Gazelle, and that the Aramaic translation is Tabitha, a name still in use today. She is called a disciple. Some scholars speculate that she was a leader in her local church, because of the use of this word. It certainly tells us that she was a devout Christian, intent on practicing her faith. Philip, one of the Apostles, had preached along the Mediterranean coast, and she may have come to hear of Jesus as a result of Philip’s tour. (Acts 8:40)
The reason Dorcas first became known to the people in Joppa is that she was a noted seamstress. I suppose that there were quite a few seamstresses in those days before the racks of ready-made clothing, so this alone was still not enough to make her stand out. But Dorcas was a Christian, and what she did that was different from those around her was to sew extra clothing and give it to the poor.
The reason that we remember Dorcas, hundreds of years later, is that she died. That’s not a very notable feature either, is it? But she did not remain among the dead. What we are told in the direct story is that she became ill and died. Her friends prepared her for burial, but then they heard that the apostle Peter was in Lydda, a city over 10 miles away, probably a day’s walk. Peter already had a reputation for being able to perform miracles, so much so that people tried to maneuver their sick friends and relatives so that just his shadow would fall across them (Acts 5:15). He was immediately sent for. The time frame here gives us plenty of evidence that Dorcas was really dead. Even supposing that the messenger rode an animal or ran to Lydda, then fetched Peter, it’s unlikely he could have reached her in less than 24 hours. When he returned her wake was in progress.
The upper room where she had been laid was filled with widows who were weeping over her. They all wanted to show Peter the clothing that she had so generously made for them. Peter sent them all out of the room, and he knelt and prayed, then said, “Tabitha, kumi,” or “Tabitha, arise.” And she did. Just like that!
She sat up, and Peter helped her to stand. She then received her friends back into the room, and greeted them. We are told that the news “raced through the town.” That’s certainly easy to picture. What an amazing event! As a result, many people believed in Christ. This event happened in the early days of the church, before Paul’s ministry began. It’s no wonder that it became one of the miracles recorded in the Bible.
We often commemorate events like this, and people like Peter who obviously had the power of the Holy Spirit. But there are lessons to be learned from Dorcas as well. She was not a public speaker, or a traveling missionary. Yet, she had a talent, and she used it for the Lord. Through her friendships her story had a powerful influence on the entire city of Joppa, and the early church.
We are never told if Dorcas is a Jew or a Gentile, both Hebrew and Greek names are given for her. The leaders of the early church were already learning that Christianity was for all the world, not just the Jews. It may be significant that Peter’s next stop in his journey was with the Roman army officer in Caeserea named Cornelius. There he was told of the vision which became the pivotal message to the apostles that they were to preach to the Gentiles.