I received a comment recently on a previous post titled “Women Disciples of Jesus.” The reader pointed out that I had overlooked Tabitha/Dorcas as a disciple.
After reviewing the story, I decided this character needed more than a paragraph; she needs an entire blog post!
While the entire story of Dorcas may be only 7 verses long, it has many encouraging lessons for us.
We find the story of Dorcas in Acts 9:36-42.
My first question- why was Tabitha called Dorcas?
As a bit of background, Acts was written by Luke, who was mostly writing to Gentile Christians or those interested in Christianity. While Tabitha was her Aramaic name, Dorcas was her Greek name.
There were many Greek and Jewish Christians by now, and she may have ministered to them both. Luke may have wanted both groups to recognize who he was speaking of.
What Does Dorcas Mean?
Interestingly, both Dorcas and Tabitha in the Bible mean “gazelle” or “deer.” It was a common practice at the time to name children after animals. (I mistakenly thought they primarily used family names.)
Animals were greatly appreciated in their culture for their beauty and attributes. I found a list of almost 100 Bible names that are also words for animals (and they are still compiling the list!)¹
Dorcas in Acts
Dorcas lived in Joppa, which was on Israel’s western border. It was on the coast, about 35 miles west of Jerusalem. (The city of Tel Aviv now incorporates the ancient city; now called Jaffa.) It was an important port and trading city on a major trading route.
Who was Dorcas in the Bible?
Luke begins the story:
“In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which, when translated, is Dorcas), who was always doing good and helping the poor.” V36.
Luke uses the Greek word “mathetria” to describe her as a female disciple. It is the only time we see this feminine term of disciple in the Bible.
Characteristics of Dorcas in the Bible
We don’t know her genealogy, whether she had a husband (she may have been a widow herself?) or children, or if she was rich or poor. But this first verse gives us great insight into her character. She “was always doing good and helping the poor.”
We learn later that one of the major ways she helped others was to make robes and other clothing for the widows and the poor. She served others by meeting their needs in practical ways and was selfless in giving of her time. She also showed compassion and love as she served.
Not only was she “hands-on” (not merely directing others or just thinking of doing charitable work) but made it her passion. She was an admired and important member of her community.
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Dorcas’ Death in the Bible
The next verse gives us an abrupt turn in Dorcas/Tabitha’s story.
“About that time, she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, ‘Please come at once.’” Vv37-38.
We don’t know what Dorcas died of, but Luke makes it sound sudden. It is also interesting that after washing the body (which was standard); they placed her in an upper room. That was not the normal course of events. The Jews buried their dead soon after death, usually on the same day.
This close-knit group of Christians sprang into action. They knew that Peter was nearby and performing miracles of healing. They sent two men to persuade him to come and heal Dorcas. This speaks to what a loss this was for their community and the love and concern for her.
Peter and Dorcas
“Peter went with them, and when he arrived, he was taken upstairs to the room.”
Peter responds immediately to the men’s urgent request and travels to Joppa (approximately 10-12 miles) with them. Dorcas may have been dead for a few days by the time he arrives.
All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.” Acts 9:39.
The mourning widows met Peter as he entered the room. They showed him all the clothing she had so generously made for them.
Peter Raises Tabitha
“Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed.” V40a.
Peter does not simply comfort the mourners and grieve with them. Did he sense a different purpose for his presence? He goes to his knees in prayer.
Then, “turning towards the dead woman, he said,” –
“Tabitha arise.” NKJV
“She opened her eyes and, seeing Peter, she sat up. He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called the believers and the widows and presented her to them alive.” V40b-41.
Wouldn’t you have loved for Luke to tell us about the joyous reunion that surely came after Peter raises Tabitha from the dead?! But he leaves it to us to imagine the astonished crowd, overjoyed with awe, wonder, and thanksgiving!
This story of God’s power and answered prayer ends with God’s purpose and plan.
“This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord.” V42.
Dorcas/Tabitha’s resurrection from the dead brought many people to believe in God.
God also used this miracle of healing/resurrection to bring power and authority to Peter’s preaching.
Lessons from Dorcas in the Bible
Even though this story is short, and we do not hear one word from Dorcas herself, it has powerful and important lessons for us.
•Dorcas took to heart Jesus’ command to clothe the poor and care for widows. She made it a priority in her life. She performed many acts of good works and devoted herself to those in need. Her story is an inspiring example of living out Jesus’ example of humble service.
Everyone has a role to play in showing Jesus’ love; what is yours?
•God gives talents “each according to his ability.” (Matthew 25:15) Dorcas’s expertise seemed to be as a seamstress, and she used it, along with her compassionate heart, to help others.
Inventory your own unique God-given skills and level of compassion for those in need. You have an important place in God’s plan!
Christians are called to be compassionate. How can you show this to a hurting world?
Bible Characters Who Left a Legacy
•Dorcas certainly left a legacy to remember and to emulate. God included her story in His word to encourage us to live as she did. She was FULL of good works and charitable deeds. She lived her life in such a way that her community loved her. Her life was a significant loss to them when she died.
What will your legacy be?
•Dorcas’s virtuous life did not guarantee a trial-free life. For all the wonderful things she did, she also seemed to lack close family, had a skill that involved an intense, tedious activity (no sewing machines!) and contracted a disease that took her life. While we don’t know why she had to endure these things, we can see that her sufferings had a greater purpose.
Even though her communities’ prayers went unanswered at first, it strengthened their faith when they saw her brought back to life.
Many people came to Christ when they learned of her story.
Generations of people know her story and are inspired and encouraged to be like her.
Trials and suffering are part of everyone’s life. They can help grow and mature our faith if we let them. Can you see the lessons you’ve learned through your trials?
Caring for those who are powerless puts God’s word and our faith in action!
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27.
Related Post~ Women Disciples of Jesus
All Scripture is taken from the NIV unless specified otherwise.