Melisa Ortiz Berry, PhD
Each day before I go on Facebook Live to do “Daily with Dr. Berry,” I listen to the scripture on BibleGateway. Today, my mind wandered and I thought about the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7) and how sometimes God calls us to death for His glory. But that’s not what God had for today’s topic--He wanted to talk about life.
Listening to the scripture beyond Stephen’s stoning, I heard the story of Peter and Tabitha (Acts 9:22-43).
Tabitha, who was called “Dorcas” in Greek, had died, and the Christian community was distraught. What would they do without her? When Peter arrived the scripture says, “all the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing all the tunics and garments that Dorcas used to make while she was with them,” (Acts 9:39, NASB). Because clothing took a lot of skill, equipment, and resources to make--from sheep sheared→ to a woman to spin and weave the wool → to equipment and people to finish it at the “fullers” → to dying → to tailoring--it was expensive.1 We do not have many sources giving us direct pricing, but the Roman poet Martial says a finished toga (expensive material) cost the same as a slave!2 Because of this, emperors would use clothing as a gift and it was an item often stolen3--which helps explain why the soldiers squabbled over who would get Jesus’ clothing at the cross (John 19:23). Although Jesus’ garment was likely not the silk and fine wool of the aristocracy, it was probably still finished cloth since even commoners preferred this to homespun wool.4
Despite the expense, somehow Tabitha provided clothing for this early Christian community. Likely a widow of some means,5 Tabitha participated in clothing production in some manner, perhaps by purchasing wool that she spun, paid to be sent for finishing at the fullers, and then tailored and embroidered for specific people. Whatever she did, she did such a beautiful job, that they were very proud of it. In my mind, I see them standing near her body, showing her work to Peter saying, “See, what beautiful clothing she made for us! How will we be able to afford clothing now? Let alone like this? She was mater familias to us all!”
And what about Peter? Peter was being stretched--God had brought this devout Jew to Joppa, a seaport town that was likely filled with Gentiles, to a church that may have had a large number of God-fearers, Gentile converts. Just as Tabitha’s name meant “gazelle,” an animal ritually clean enough to eat but not to sacrifice, who lived in the hills around a civilized area, this community was only “sort of” Jewish. Having both Greek and Arabic names suggests that Tabitha was one of these God-fearers, a “proselyte.” Perhaps lowering her in the eyes of still others, having an animal name like “gazelle” was often a sign of being or having been a slave--was Tabitha a freedwoman?6 And yet, no matter what anyone else thought of her, she was an amazing woman of God. A woman that the Holy Spirit moved so powerfully for that Peter called her to stand and she rose from the dead! God had brought this servant to the poor back to life. Tabitha--the gazelle who lived on the borderland, who was ritually clean and unclean--was resurrected! This was the beginning of God showing Peter and the first church that there was no difference between Jew and Gentile, male or female, slave or free--we are all clean through Christ Jesus.
Friend, God is calling you to life! Yes, at times God calls us to sacrifice ourselves for him, even to the point of death. But, here we see how God also calls us to life.
Tabitha took her own resources and gave her best to the Christian community around her. Celsus, a second-century Greek philosopher, criticized the early church complaining that it was full of women, children, and slaves--mostly commoners from the lowest classes.7 Yet, here was this woman, likely (at least now) from the upper classes, using her means to serve them--clearly a work of the Holy Spirit in her, because she was breaking caste and custom. Through Christ she had learned what Agape love was and through Christ she poured it out. Christ gave her new life twice, once through salvation and a second life through this resurrection. Tabitha lived to be a blessing to others and they loved her for it. In the same way, God wants to fill you with His Spirit and teach you what true Agape love is. He wants to give you a new life filled with the joy of serving others--in whatever way you are skilled to do that. The absolute truth is: you have a unique skill and gift that can change the world, one person at a time (1 Cor. 12:7).
As we close, can I pray for you?
Lord, Jesus, bless this one reading with the gift of life. Reveal to this one, right now that you have a special calling on his or her life. Please, give this one hope! Please, give this one vision! I pray for your anointing on this one right now, to be filled with your Spirit, in Jesus’ name I pray, Amen!
To affirm this, here is a responsive prayer for you to say:
Amen, Lord, yes! I agree with this prayer, give me life! Please, Lord, give me hope and a vision for the future. Fill me with your Spirit and show me the way. I am yours, Lord. Please, use my life to bless others today and every day. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen!
1 Keith Roberts, "Roman Businesses," In The Origins of Business, Money, and Markets (New York; Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press, 2011) 223-225.
2 Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones and Glenys Davies, “Value of Textile,” Greek and Roman Dress from A to Z (London: Routledge, 2007) 205.
3 Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, 205.
4 Roberts, 221.
5 Carolyn Osiek and Margaret Y. MacDonald, A Woman's Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006) 230.
6 Rick Strelan, “Tabitha: The Gazelle of Joppa (Acts IX,36-41),” Biblical Theology Bulletin 39, no. 2 (May 2009): 77–78.
7 Carolyn Osiek and Margaret Y. MacDonald, 72.