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Vol.  9  No. 8 August 2007  Page 13
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Priscilla's Page By Marilyn LaStrape *Editor's Note*

Bonnie Rushmore

Dorcas: Sewing Good Works

By Bonnie Rushmore

Character Study

Acts 9:36-42

    Joppa is located on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea about 45 miles northwest of Jerusalem. It was a chief seaport for the land of Palestine. Solomon had the Cedar trees of Lebanon floated in the Mediterranean Sea along the coastline to Joppa when he built the Temple in Jerusalem. When Herod rebuilt the Temple, he also used the seaport of Joppa to receive the Cedar trees. Jonah tried to run and hide from God by fleeing to Joppa and boarding a ship to Tarshish. Joppa’s residents were both Jews and Gentiles at the time of Luke’s writing.

    The biblical account of Dorcas occurred in the early stages of the church with the church comprised of both Jews (Hebrew) and proselyted Jews (Gentiles). This may be the reason Luke chose to refer to both the Hebrew name and the Greek name for the readers of the Book of Acts. The Hebrew name, Tabitha, and the Greek name, Dorcas, mean gazelle or roe. “The Greeks used Dorcas, i.e., ‘female gazelle,’ as a term of endearment for their women” (New Unger's). It was not a common practice to define names in the Bible. By Luke recording the Hebrew name Tabitha, then giving the Greek interpretation, Dorcas, seems to place significance on the definition of her name. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown makes the following observation that “the Greek name for an antelope or gazelle, which, from the grace of its motions and the beauty of its eyes, was frequently employed as a proper name for women. The interpretation of the name is given by the historian, to signify that it expressed the character which she bore among the Christians of the place.”

    Luke tells us that Dorcas was a disciple of Christ. A disciple is a learner or pupil. The use of the word disciple in the New Testament implies one is a learner or pupil of Christ. The Greek word used for disciple in this context is in feminine form and is only used in Acts 9:36 with reference to Dorcas (International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia). The term disciple is used many times throughout the New Testament. Jesus told the Jews who believed on him, “…If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed” (John 11:35). Jesus chose twelve of his disciples to be apostles (Luke 6:13).

    Luke further describes the actions of Dorcas. She was full of good works and “almsdeeds.” The term good works literally means to toil, labor or act beneficially. The word “almsdeeds” literally means to have compassion towards the poor. Since Dorcas was a faithful Christian, she would make a monetary contribution during the first day of the week worship. However, the use of the word “almsdeeds” signifies that Dorcas went beyond the monetary giving by bestowing gifts to the poor and those in need. The Bible does not indicate the financial status of Dorcas. She may have been a wealthy woman who used her wealth to help others. She may have had a modest income and used what she could to help the poor. Her status in life may have been similar to that of the widow Jesus praised in Mark 12:42-44 when she gave all that she had. What we do know is that as a disciple of Christ, Dorcas put her faith in action by providing some of the necessities of life to those in need.

    Dorcas became sick and died. Luke neither tells what illness caused Dorcas to die nor does he tell how long she was sick. He matter-of-factly states the obvious without any unnecessary added information. As was the custom of the day, upon Dorcas’ death her body was washed. Unlike the death of Ananias and Sapphira whose bodies were buried immediately upon their deaths, Dorcas’ body was laid in an upper room. The purpose for immediate burial was because of the quick decomposition of the flesh in the hot humid atmosphere of the region. So, why was Dorcas placed in an upper room rather than immediately buried is not revealed in Scripture.

    With the passing of their dear friend and benefactor, the disciples sent two men to Lydda to request that Peter come to them quickly. Lydda was about 10 miles southeast of Joppa (Wycliffe). Ten miles was an easy distance for Peter to come to Joppa and bring Dorcas back to life before her body would begin to decompose. Some commentaries suggest that this was the reason for placing Dorcas’ body in the upper room rather than an immediate burial.

    Upon Peter’s arrival in Joppa, he was taken directly to the upper room where the body of Dorcas rested. Many of the widows who Dorcas had helped while alive stood by weeping. They showed Peter the clothes Dorcas made for them. This scene is similar to that of our modern day viewing when a loved one dies. Years ago, the body was laid out in a room at the home of the one who died where friends and loved ones gathered for a period of mourning and reminiscing about the life of the loved one. Current practice utilizes the facilities of a funeral home or a church building to accomplish the same purpose.

    Peter sent all those gathered around the body of Dorcas out of the room. He then kneeled and prayed to God. After his prayer, he turned to the body and told Dorcas to arise. He gave her his hand, lifted her up and called to those gathered in the home. Dorcas was now alive!

    Luke states that Peter called the saints and the widows, indicating that all those gathered were not Christians. Apparently, some of the widows to whom Dorcas provided clothing were not members of the Lord’s church. Dorcas provided for believers and non-believers. Her acts of kindness and good deeds were directed to those in need not to believers only.

    This quiet act of God, through the hand of Peter, of restoring life to Dorcas was soon known throughout the city of Joppa. Many people of Joppa soon believed in the Lord. Their belief was not a simple “I believe that Jesus is the Son of God.” Their belief involved hearing (Romans 10:17), believing (Acts 8:37), repenting of sins (Acts 17:30), confessing Jesus (Romans 10:9-10) and being baptized (Acts 2:38). Many souls were saved from the fires of hell because one woman chose to do what she could with what she had to show kindness to those in need.

Applicable Principles

Dorcas was a Christian woman who put her faith to work.

    James 2:14-18 states:

What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.

    Dorcas understood the correlation between saying we love God and showing we love God by our actions. She was not like the “Cretians” Paul rebuked in his letter to Titus. These individuals professed to know God, but their actions told a different story. Their actions told all that observed them that they actually denied God. Paul condemned the “Cretians” for their behavior and instructed Titus to rebuke them (Titus 2:12-16). She exemplified the words of Christ in Matthew 25:34-36. Christ taught that when we help those in need we are serving him. When we fail to help those in need, we deny him and will be punished accordingly. Dorcas did not hide what God had given as did the one talent man in Matthew 25:14-30, but bountifully used her abilities to help others.

    Dorcas was not a Sunday worship only Christian. She understood that being a Christian required action. Dorcas used her talents to show others her faith in God.

    Are you using the talents and abilities God has given you to serve him? When you die, will friends gather to mourn your death and talk about all the wonderful things you did for them? Will the church with which you worship miss the great works that you do? Will your funeral be like that of Dorcas?

Dorcas saw a need and fulfilled that need.

    Dorcas lived in the seaport town of Joppa. Shipwrecks and the death of the sailors were prevalent. I am sure there were many families devastated by the loss of a husband and father. With this loss came the loss of an income and the ability to obtain the necessities of life. Dorcas saw the need to provide clothing to those less fortunate than her. She did not sit back and wonder why no one was helping the poor. She did not go to the elders at church and say, “Someone ought to help these poor people.” She did not criticize the poor for their inability to care for themselves. Dorcas used the abilities God gave her, took needle and thread in hand, sewed garments, and gave them to those who were unable to provide for themselves.

    Paul told the Corinthians, “Now therefore perform the doing of it; that as there was a readiness to will, so there may be a performance also out of that which ye have. For if there be first a willing mind, it is accepted according to that a man hath, and not according to that he hath not” (2 Corinthians 8:11-12) It takes more than a willing mind, it takes action on our part. God expects us to use what we have in service to others. We cannot wait until we are financially secure before we help others. We need to do what we can, with what we have each time an opportunity arises to serve others.

    Are you like Dorcas? Do you see a need and fulfill that need? Are you proclaiming Christ by helping those in need?

Dorcas made the church her family.

    Since the Scriptures lack any mention of family, we can assume Dorcas was either a widow with no children or she never married. With no physical family members to hold her back, it was easier for Dorcas to make the church her family. It was Christians and those toward whom she had a good influence who were gathered at her bedside upon her death. On the other hand, Christian women who have spouses, children, parents and siblings who are not dedicated Christians have a harder time putting Christ first as is commanded in Mark 14:26. As difficult as it may be, we must place an emotional distance between ourselves and family members who will discourage and pull us away from our God. Amos asked the rhetorical question, “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3). The implied answer is no; two individuals cannot walk the same path when each wants to go a different direction. Spiritually, when some family members do not embrace Christ as their Savior, they are not walking the same path as those who have obeyed the Gospel. Faithful Christians have very little in common with non-Christians. Those who are faithful to God do not enjoy the entertainment enjoyed by most non-Christians. As faithful Christians it is difficult to discuss the Bible with those who do not hold the same beliefs that we hold so dear. Typically, our non-Christian family members do not want to spend time with our Christian friends, thus making fellowship with Christians a difficult task. Paul told the Romans to prefer one another (Romans 12:10). Christians need to spend more time with those who will help them go to heaven than with those who pull them away from God. Yes, we do have a responsibility to our families, but we have a greater responsibility to God. We need to be sure we do not let our family responsibilities out weigh our spiritual responsibilities.

    If you are single, please be careful who you date. Any individual who you date is a possible spouse. Most Christians who date and marry non-Christians experience heartache and discouragement. Many Christians who marry non-Christians will fall away from the church or become weak members as they try to balance family responsibilities with spiritual responsibilities. Often, children brought into the family are lost to the church because of the conflicting life styles they observe in the home.

    Are you like Dorcas? Do you prefer to spend your time with faithful Christians? Are you spending more time with non-Christian family and friends than with your brothers and sisters in Christ? Like Dorcas, you can opt to more closely associate with your Christian family—the Lord’s church.

Works Cited

Barnes’ Notes. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 1997.

Clarke, Adam. Adam Clarke’s Commentary. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 1996.

International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 1996.

Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary. CD-ROM. Nashville: Nelson, 1986.

New Unger’s Bible Dictionary. CD-ROM. Chicago: Moody P., 1988.

“Thyatira.” Holy Land Photos. 28 Mar. 2007 <https://holylandphotos.org/browse.asp?s= 1,3,7,20,82>.

Wycliffe Bible Commentary. CD-ROM. Chicago: Moody P., 1962

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