Signs and Wonders! — Week Three
In the book of Acts, new missionary advances are always heralded by signs and wonders. The miracles of chapter 9 prepare the way for the advance of Christian faith into Gentile cultures, which occurs in the context of the conversion of Cornelius’s household in chapters 10 and 11. This particular story of Peter raising Tabitha from the dead also signals a completely new development in the work of the Spirit through the followers of Jesus in that it is the first example of an apostle of Jesus performing a miracle of this magnitude. The point of the story is to demonstrate for one and all that the power of God that was seen in Jesus Christ continues to be available through the power of his Spirit in his followers. Through the Spirit, the power of God that was and is in Christ lives on in the body of his church.
But who is Tabitha? Here I am once again indebted to the amazing work of Bonnie Thurston (Women in the New Testament: Questions and Commentary. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2004), who has opened my eyes and transformed my understanding of the role of women in the early church. As a result, the sign and wonder at work in this story can be seen not just in the work of the Holy Spirit through Peter to raise Tabitha from death, but in the story of Tabitha herself. Perhaps seeing in a new way might even function as a sign and wonder for the men and women of our congregations this Easter season!
Thurston points out several interesting things to consider. First, in verse 36, she notes that Tabitha is identified as a “disciple.” The Greek word mathetes in its masculine form is consistently used to describe the followers of Jesus, including the disciples. It means a disciple, follower, or pupil. According to Thurston, this is the only place in the entire New Testament where this word is used in its feminine form, mathetria, and it is in reference to Tabitha. Thurston and other scholars suggest that it is possible that not only were there more than twelve disciples, but the initial group of Jesus’ disciples, followers, and pupils likely included some women. Perhaps Tabitha was among those who knew Jesus personally. What is the evidence for this interpretation? Peter, when summoned, went immediately to see Tabitha without asking any questions (verses 38-39). Maybe he went simply because he knew her reputation for “good works and charity” (verse 36). Maybe he knew her because she was among the “other women” who travelled with Jesus and the twelve and ministered to them (Thurston, 121). There may have been residents in Joppa who had heard about Jesus and became his disciples; maybe Tabitha was one of them, or even a leader among them. Tabitha’s ministry sounds very similar to the work of the women described in Luke 8:1-3. Perhaps Tabitha was a widow who operated a house-church, or perhaps she was among the group of women who ministered to the widows. It is hard to know exactly who she was or what her position was in the early church. What we do know, however, is that her story is one of the few stories about women that was so significant that it inspired many in Joppa to believe and become followers of Jesus. Indeed, her story continues to inspire today!