It is important in any study of the book of Acts to respect the author’s intent. Of course, the ultimate Author was God the Holy Spirit, but the human author was Luke. Luke, under inspiration, was intent on giving an accurate account of all that Jesus “began both to do and teach” (1:1)—before and after He ascended.
Let me pause here and say a word about the Ascension of our Lord Jesus. Ascension Day is in many ways the most significant day in the Christian calendar, for apart from Christ’s ascension both Christmas and Easter would be moot. From Christ’s position at the right hand of the Father He is orchestrating world conquest (see Psalm 2). Acts is the inspired account of the beginning of Christ’s inheriting of the nations. What Luke records, as we will see, is the account of Jesus actively working in the furtherance of His kingdom through the saving of souls and the building of His church. And it is for this reason that it is important for us to study this book of the Acts of the Apostles.1
We must keep before us that no person is indispensable to the work of God and yet at the same time we must never minimise the reality that God’s plan is to use people in the establishment and extension of His kingdom. The King has willed to use His subjects. He has willed to use faithful servants.
Luke wrote his history of the very early new covenant church not so much to give us a thorough account of what it was like to be a believer in those days, but rather to give us an accurate account of how the gospel spread from Jerusalem to the uttermost. It is the account of how the early church advanced the Great Commission of making disciples of all the nations. And noted, it records how Jesus did this through His people.
We might then legitimately ask, what kind of people did Jesus use to advance His kingdom and to build His church? We could answer this many ways. He used various people to whom He had given particular spiritual gifts. He used men and women. He used husband-and-wife teams. He used singles. He used believers who stayed in the place where God saved them, and believers who God moved from place to place. He used demographically diverse people. He used apostles and “ordinary” believers.
And all of these would be valid answers. God used a diverse set of people to evangelise the known world (Colossians 1:6, 23). But the one common characteristic—at least among most—was faithfulness. And I believe we have a good example of this in the text before us.
If God will use us in the extension of His kingdom then we must be faithful. Peter was such a believer.
Peter has figured heavily in the book of Acts from chapter 1 through chapter 5. He disappeared briefly in chapters 6-7 and resurfaced in chapter 8 in Samaria. After some significant attention given to the conversion of Saul, Peter then reappeared in these final verses of chapter 9.
At this point, Saul was in Tarsus, out of sight, for at least 18 months. In the meantime, Peter would be used in a magnificent way both in the physically miraculous as well as in the spiritually marvellous. Through Peter, a man who had been paralysed for some eight years would once again walk, and this would lead to the conversion of an entire region. From that event, the Lord would then use Peter to literally raise from the dead a cherished church member. This, as in the former case, will also lead to a number of conversions.
But as wonderful as these events were, the most wonderful is recorded in the two chapters that follow. That which had, until this point, been so wonderfully hinted at would burst on the scene with undeniable evidence that the gospel is for the entire world. It would become abundantly clear to the church at Jerusalem that Gentiles were included in the gospel blessings. And Peter, apostle to the Jews, would be the harbinger of this.
The word “harbinger” speaks of one who prepares the way for another—a “forerunner,” if you will. This is in many ways a function that Peter played in the divine economy with respect to the apostle Paul. It was through Peter that the gospel door was opened to the Gentiles on a wide scale. Truly, Jesus built His church on this chosen apostle. But, of course, it would be the apostle Paul who would subsequently do the most for the spread of the gospel among the nations (9:15). It is indeed true that “both apostles (despite their different callings) had a key role to play in liberating the gospel from its Jewish clothing and opening the kingdom of God to the Gentiles.”2
But though Peter would continue to play an important role in the church, it would be Paul who would have the more prominent position. And this helps us to see something of the character of Peter. This man would remain faithful even though he would not be in the spotlight. And the reason for his faithfulness, as we will see in our text, was that he was Christ-centred rather than self-centred.
In this study, we see some things that mark the faithful servant of God—those whom God uses to build His church.
The Faithful Servant is Forgiven
We cannot appropriately appreciate this passage and glean the hope with which it teems without first remembering Peter’s glaring failure when the Lord Jesus was betrayed, arrested, tried and crucified. The lesson here for us is that there is hope for those who fail. After all, faith is the gift of God, and not a reward for good works.
I don’t suppose that there was any believer in the early church who failed the Lord like Peter did. You will remember how Peter, James and John were the three disciples closest to Jesus. It was to Peter that Jesus said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church” (Matthew 16:18). To whom much is given much is required. This principle, no doubt, lay behind Jesus’ strong rebuke of Peter’s hesitancy to embrace the Father’s plan of the cross for His Son: “Get behind me Satan! You are an offence to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (Matthew 16:23). Peter had failed miserably. And yet, by God’s grace, he persevered.
There were also other foot-in-mouth moments in which Peter starred. But his biggest failure, his biggest sin, of course, was when he denied the Lord three times after so brazenly boasting that he would remain faithful even if all the other disciples forsook Jesus (Matthew 26:33). This failure was actually not far from the sin of apostasy. And yet, thankfully, Peter felt remorse and was granted repentance and faith to believe God (see Luke 22:31-34; John 21:15-20). His faith went from strength to strength and he was used by God to strengthen the faith of others.
If we will be faithful we must experience forgiveness from the Lord. No matter how far you have fallen, no matter your failure of faith, by God’s grace you can be restored. You can be a faithful servant of the Lord. David failed and was faithful again. John Mark failed and was faithful again. And you can do the same.
In fact it may very well have been Peter’s experience of gracious forgiveness that, coupled with the fullness of the Spirit, motivated him to faithful service again. You see, the person who is forgiven much loves much (see Luke 7:47).
The Faithful Servant is Fervent
“Now it came to pass, as Peter went through all parts of the country, that he also came down to the saints who dwelt in Lydda” (v. 32). The ESV speaks of the fact that “Peter went here and there among them all.” The reference here is to “the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria,” spoken of in v. 31. This indicates, then, that Peter was busy in the churches of those regions.
Peter was a shepherd, and with a shepherd’s heart he visited believers. It is very likely that these believers had at one time been in the church at Jerusalem, which had been scattered upon the martyrdom of Stephen. Now that they had gone to other regions Peter made this journey (after his trip to Samaria 8:25) to shepherd them. He had learned well from His Master. In fact, Peter was here becoming the answer to his own prayers (Matthew 9:36-38).
Peter was adept at speaking to crowds, but he was not averse to dealing with smaller groups and individuals. Such is the mark of a truly faithful servant. I remember C. A. Carson saying years ago that, when he was invited to a speaking engagement, he never asked about the size of the church or the honorarium. He did not want these incidental factors to determine his willingness to minister to others.
There is another principle here for us to learn: The faithful servant of Christ is busy in the things that matter, and this often leads to wonderful opportunities. John MacArthur, no stranger himself to fervency, writes “Those actively involved in ministry are usually the ones to whom God grants the most ministry opportunities. God has always seemed to entrust His richest ministries to the busiest saints. Just being wholeheartedly active in ministry places one in strategic opportunities.”3
Peter was obviously devoted to the church. He obviously took seriously his commission (Matthew 16:16-21). And if we will be faithful to the Lord then we will be busy about the task of seeing to the welfare of other believers. This will take place primarily within our flock, but at the same time, as opportunity arises, within other flocks.
I have had the wonderful privilege in recent months to minister to a group of pastors In Lenasia, west of Johannesburg. I have been taking them through some lessons in preaching Christ in the Old Testament. At our most recent workshop, one of the men approached me and asked if I would be willing to do the same sort of thing with a group of church leaders closer to where he lives. I am honestly praying to God that He would make it possible for me, or for someone in the church, to minister to these men.
Verse 32 informs us that Peter was visiting the “saints” in these regions. The Roman Catholic Church (RCC) teaches that only the Pope and the RCC itself can make someone a saint, and that this can only be done post-mortem. Of course, the RCC claims Peter as the first Pope. But here were believers identified as saints who were very much alive and Peter was visiting them!
The word “saint” speaks of one “set apart” or “holy.” This is synonymous with a believer in Christ or disciple of Christ. Every believer is a saint, and if we truly appreciated what we are in Christ—holy ones—then I suspect that we would be fervently faithful.
The Faithful Servant is Faith-Filled
Our text highlights Peter’s faith in two separate incidents:
There he found a certain man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden eight years and was paralysed. And Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus the Christ heals you. Arise and make your bed.” Then he arose immediately. . . . At Joppa there was a certain disciple named Tabitha, which is translated Dorcas. This woman was full of good works and charitable deeds which she did. But it happened in those days that she became sick and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. And since Lydda was near Joppa, and the disciples had heard that Peter was there, they sent two men to him, imploring him not to delay in coming to them. Then Peter arose and went with them. When he had come, they brought him to the upper room. And all the widows stood by him weeping, showing the tunics and garments which Dorcas had made while she was with them. But Peter put them all out, and knelt down and prayed. And turning to the body he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. Then he gave her his hand and lifted her up; and when he had called the saints and widows, he presented her alive.
(Acts 9:33-34, 36-41)
In both scenes we see a man who believed God for the otherwise impossible. He was focused on what was possible to God, and he and others experienced it. He was quite literally full of faith.
This, of course, was not the first time that Peter had encountered a bedridden individual. It was a similar situation to that which had landed him in trouble in Acts 3-4. But even that was not the first time that he had encountered this, for as a disciple during the Lord’s earthly ministry he also experienced a similar scene (see Matthew 9:1-8).
What Peter experienced then with the Lord he now experienced again with the Lord. The only difference was that now the Lord was not visible—though He was just as present and just as real! “Jesus was there, working through His servant to bring healing.”4
This highlights the reality of the present work of Christ. Lange notes,
The words of Peter . . . bear witness to the actual presence and the divine power of Jesus Christ. . . . It is not the apostle, but Jesus himself, who heals the sick man, and renews his prostrated strength. This miracle is a striking proof that Christ operates in his exaltation, and continues the work which he performed in his humiliation.5
We need such a view of the exalted Lord. Dispensational theology teaches that Jesus Christ will only ultimately be victorious when He physically returns to earth, as if He is somehow impotent to rule apart from His physical presence. Here we see Jesus exercising His power from heaven, and He continues to do so today.
Note some things about the first miracle recorded here.
There is no indication one way or the other as to whether this man had faith. It is interesting to note that it was in this region that, some 400 years later, Pelagius would be condemned as a heretic for denying original sin.
The man is identified by name, thus strengthening the historicity of this account.
The man was healed by Jesus, not by Peter. Peter very clearly said, “Jesus the Christ heals you.” He gave the credit where it was due. “Peter would never have claimed to be a source of power; he was only a channel of power. We think too much of what we can do and too little of what Christ can do through us.”6 This stands in rather stark contrast with many of the self-professed “faith healers” with which we are familiar today. We need to realise that Jesus Christ our Lord is very much at work—even now!
There are some parallels here with one who is spiritually paralysed. Those who are in such a condition are faithless until one who belongs to Christ comes along. They may perhaps not even be looking for any hope of things getting better, until a faithful servant proclaims the gospel and tells them to arise in the name of Jesus Christ.
With reference to the second incident, notice that, again, a personal name is given to strengthen the historicity of the event. This miracle occurred at a place where, at one time, a man of God—namely, Jonah—was not faithful.
Dorcas was a wonderful blessing to the local church, and the church members felt as though they needed her. Even though no one is indispensable, the Lord is gracious to sometimes give to us our heart’s desire for particular labourers. Calvin notes in this regard, “They humbly crave God’s help, not that they will make Tabitha immortal, but their only desire is to have her life prolonged for a time, that she may yet profit the Church. . . . This turned to her greater good that she revived, that she might be a more excellent instrument of God’s goodness and power.”7
These believers did have some measure of faith that perhaps there was hope. They sent an entourage to bring their pastor to them. “Her friends, in distress, but evidently in faith, summoned Peter to Joppa,” wrote Erdman.8 “They apparently wanted him to restore her to life. Having heard of Aeneas’s healing, they seem to have thought it merely a slight extension of divine power to raise the dead.”9
They had prepared her body by washing it but had not yet anointed it for burial. They evidently believed that the signs of an apostle were in Peter. They had perhaps heard the story of Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21-43; Luke 8:40-56). They perhaps knew that Peter had witnessed this and therefore had experience raising the dead. They therefore thought that resurrection was a possibility. They expected great things and they attempted great things!
When Peter arrived they showed him a sample of the good that she had done, perhaps in hope of persuading him to do all he could to help with this tragic situation.
When Peter arrived he made everyone leave the room, and when he was alone he fell on his knees and prayed. Have you ever wondered why he first asked everyone to leave?
Perhaps he was simply following the example of his Master. Perhaps in humility—he realised, after all, that he had no power to resurrect Dorcas—he wanted to pray alone. Perhaps he wanted to plead with the Lord away from curious eyes and ears.
Having prayed, Peter in faith commanded her to rise. She promptly opened her eyes, saw Peter and sat up. The dead had been raised to life. I suppose a case might be made that this was in fact resuscitation rather than resurrection, given that she was sure to die again. Nevertheless, it was certainly miraculous. Peter extended a helping hand and then presented her to those who loved her. I am sure that such a presentation was accompanied by a hearty amen!
What ought to be said about these miracles?
First, they were historical events. They really happened. These people were not somehow more gullible than our generation. After all, those opposing the church were in denial about the risen Lord—despite sufficient and, in fact, overwhelming evidence.
Second, and related to the above, it was the risen and ascended Lord who accomplished these deeds. He did so through the means of Peter, but the miracles were of the Lord. We should therefore, as noted above, take comfort from this that the ascended Lord is the same yesterday, today and forever.
This does raise an interesting question, however: Why do we not see such signs and wonders in our day? I would argue that such signs and wonders may, in fact, still occur—but not in places where God has blessed with so much light, which is consistently rejected.
Third, we must take comfort that Jesus is able to save the lost. Both of these accounts were marvellous miracles, but they do not hold a candle to the miracle of the new birth. Note, however, some of the parallels. In both cases, the person was dead, unresponsive and in a humanly hopeless situation. But the name of Jesus made all the difference (Acts 4:12). “The name of Jesus, and not that of his apostle, is glorified, and, as a consequence of it, many persons in Joppa are converted to Christ, and not to Peter.”10
Take to heart the fact of the ascension. Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
The Faithful Servant is Fruitful
In both instances, the response of the people to the miracle was the same: “So all who dwelt at Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord. . . . And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed on the Lord” (vv. 35, 42).
What Don Fortner says of the first miracle is true of both: “This man really was healed of his physical infirmity by the power of God, but his healing was intended by God both to confirm and to illustrate his saving grace.”11 The miracles that God did through the means of a faithful servant became a launching pad for the power of the gospel. In each case people were drawn to Christ, not to the miracle worker! “In this clause is expressed the fruit of the miracle, because they embraced Christ and his gospel.”12
Peter’s faithfulness was blessed with fruitfulness in the salvation of souls. Stott has observed, “In accordance with the purpose of the signs, which was to authenticate and illustrate the salvation message of the apostle, people heard the word, saw the signs, and believed.”13
Such fruitfulness needs to be our passion and our pursuit. But we may well ask, is fruitfulness a promise from God?
It is important for us to grasp the principle that faithfulness is our responsibility but fruitfulness is God’s. And yet let us not lose sight of the fact that the one is usually inseparable from the other—because God honours His Word. For example, “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord [faithfulness] shall be saved [fruitfulness]” (2:21).
We can therefore conclude that those who are faithful can expect to be fruitful (in God’s time). If you faithfully share the gospel you can expect fruit in God’s good time. If you faithfully preach the Word you can expect to see unbelievers converted and believers edified in God’s good time. If you are faithful to raise a godly seed you can expect to see God save your children in His good time.
This is not being presumptuous. The issue here is Christ-focused faithfulness. In fact, we could add one more item to what the faithful servant looks like: He is focused on Christ. Peter, no doubt, was committed to serving Christ and to His exaltation. That is why he was faithful. And the same is expected of us
By way of application, let me suggest that you should expect this of your pastors. “Such success should attend pastors, when souls are spiritually awakened. To have power with God and joyfulness in prayer . . . to penetrate, with the aid of God’s word, into hearts that are dead—to offer a helping and guiding hand to the awakened (ver. 41), and to present those who had been dead sinners as living saints, who glorify God, and instruct others by their example—this is a work worthy of an apostle and follower of Jesus.”14
The pages of history are littered with those who faithfully persevered in their service to Christ, despite initial lack of fruit, whose faithfulness eventually resulted in great fruit abounding to the glory of God. Keep at it, and trust God to bless as He sees fit.
The Faithful Servant is Flexible
Finally, notice that the faithful servant is flexible. “So it was that he stayed many days in Joppa with Simon, a tanner” (v. 43).
We will see this in greater detail in a future study, but for now I simply want us to see that those who faithfully serve the Lord need to be culturally flexible—and they must do so through being biblically and doctrinally teachable.
Peter went from miraculous events to evident obscurity. He moved to the home of a tanner. The rabbis had made this trade taboo. It was deemed to be an unclean vocation. And yet here was the missionary to the Jews, dwelling—for several days—in the home of a tanner. And let us not forget: Peter had just resurrected Dorcas, and I am therefore certain that he had more accommodations options available than only this one!
Perhaps this man had been initially surprised to be welcomed by the church, and now he was hosting an apostle! “Simon had already found a welcome among believers, and this welcome must have been enhanced by Peter’s willingness to stay with him.”15
We don’t know why Peter was here, but we do know that it was by the leading of the Lord to send a further message that the times were changing and that old prejudices needed to be dropped. And from what follows we know that this was all a part of God’s plan to open the door of the gospel to the Gentiles. Peter was about to use the keys of the kingdom in a world shaking way.
If we will be faithful to the point of being fruitful then we too must be flexible to go where the Lord sends us and to do what the Lord gives us to do. After all, faithful servants simply do what they are commanded. And the world is blessed because of it.
We need to look beyond cultural differences and skin colour. We need to look beyond educational background and socio-economic status. We must instead look to a soul in need of the saving grace of God and minister the gospel faithfully. Peter realised the need to look beyond his prejudices here, and as we will see in chapter 10, God used him to open the gospel door to the Gentiles.
Let us then be flexible in order to be fruitful. Let us be done with our prejudices and go where the Lord sends us. Let us faithfully do what the Lord gives us to do as faithful servants, for the blessings of faithful servanthood are immeasurable.
- Despite all the debate, this is in fact a good and valid title for the book. After all, it was through flesh and blood people that the Saviour built His church. ↩
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 181. ↩
- John F. MacArthur, Jr., Acts: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 2 vols. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 1:281. ↩
- Everett F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 172. ↩
- John Peter Lange, Acts: Commentary on the Holy Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, n.d.), 187-88. ↩
- William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles: The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 80. ↩
- John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 22 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 18.2: 400, 03. ↩
- Charles R. Erdman, The Acts: An Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 93. ↩
- Richard N. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1981), 9:382. ↩
- Lange, Acts, 188. ↩
- Donald S. Fortner, Life After Pentecost: A Guide to the Acts of the Apostles (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 1995), 111-12. ↩
- Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 18.2.397. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 184. ↩
- Lange, Acts, 189. ↩
- Harrison, Interpreting Acts, 174. ↩