The church of Acts 9 is filled with Jewish believers in Jesus. But the Lord is about to expand it radically by including Gentiles. First, however, he grants his people a period of peaceful growth.
Three years or so earlier, the church was launched, with great drama, at the Pentecost festival in Jerusalem (Ac 2). Now, through various means, it has believers all across the ancient landmass of Israel (v31). Back in Jesus’ time of ministry it was important to have fast-moving evangelistic campaigns (Lk 10:1,2). Then the work centred, for a while, on Jerusalem, especially her temple (Ac 2:43-47). Later, persecution scattered the believers and led them to preach in many places, including a new development in Samaria (Ac 8:1-5). Now they are established in the land and are fulfilling Jesus’ description of his people growing in the midst of others (eg Mt 5:13,14; 13:25-30). Though they have suffered, they live openly as believers, not fearing men but the Lord. The Holy Spirit is also active within them, enabling them to live out all the teachings of Christ. And so they shine in the villages and towns, rejoicing as the Spirit draws others to join them.
The verses give a very attractive picture of church life. Christians are not called to be alone. We are saved to become members of churches, communities of believers who stand together. In them we find the Spirit working to create good lifestyles. A settled church seeing such development should rejoice. Of course, when numerical growth occurs too then that is an added delight. But not all times and places are for harvesting (Jo 4:35). All churches, however, can grow in the Lord.
Well, into the groups of v31 the Lord now sends blessing through Peter. He travels around and meets the ‘saints’ (v32), which is a word that identifies Christians as people made holy through faith in Christ, and ready to live with God forever. Peter gives foretastes of that future hope through two miracles he performs, the first of which occurs in Lydda, to the west of Jerusalem. There a believer, Aeneas, has long suffered painfully with paralysis (v33). The Lord does not promise Christians perfect, healed lives in this world and so the church has not received a miracle for the man before. However, Peter mercifully raises Aeneas back to his feet (v34). It’s a lovely gift to him and a generous taster of the resurrection hope for every believer: one day the stiffness of the coffin will give way to a new mobility in all of us. Peter does this to strengthen hope in the church. But it also has a profound impact upon the local area as the Holy Spirit uses it to bring about a fresh ingathering of believers (v35). We would love to see such miracles today, of course, but apostles were for the first generation of the church, to lay the foundations on which we build (Ep 2:19-22) and to call Israel to urgent repentance before judgement (Ac 2:37-40). Nonetheless, we can smile as we read this tale and look forward to the great healing at the end of time.
But Luke doesn’t leave us with just the one tale; he adds a second witness. Peter moves on to the seaside town of Joppa (v36; a town famously linked with Jonah – Jh 1:3). Living there is a woman named Tabitha who is described as a ‘disciple’. This is a noticeable term which reminds us that, unlike other 1st century Rabbis, Jesus did not only have male disciples (Lk 10:39). Her life has been a shining example of the loving care of others which delights Jesus (Mt 25:34-36) and which is an outliving of his teaching. However, grief has now come into the hearts of Joppa’s believers since Tabitha has died (v37) and she was deeply loved (v39) – a great testimony to the grace of the Lord. So hearing that Peter isn’t far away, they request a visit (v38). It’s unclear whether they expect a miracle from the apostle, but he sees that it is the right thing to do. So imitating Jesus (Mk 5:40) and older prophets (1Ki 17:19), he works alone to raise her from the dead (v40) before restoring her to the believers (v41). It’s a great miracle which shows us: (i) the hope of resurrection; (ii) the reward of righteousness; (iii) the reality of God’s eternal community. Once more, many are converted as a result (v42). Peter, meanwhile, stays in the area (v43) which is important because the Lord is about to use him to kick-off the new phase of the church’s life.