Easter is the time to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. The claim that Jesus was raised from the dead was part of the earliest preaching of his followers. Paul includes the affirmation ”that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” in his credal-like recitation of what he had received from earlier witnesses (1 Cor 15:3).
Stories about how Jesus appeared after his death and burial are told in the Gospels of Matthew (28:16–20), Luke (24:13–53), and John (20:11–29).
Even though John 20:30–31 provides a definitive conclusion to the book of signs, an editor subsequently decided that a further account of an appearance by the risen Jesus should be added on (John 21:1–23). (See https://johntsquires.com/2022/04/28/the-third-time-that-jesus-appeared-to-the-disciples-john-21-easter-3c/)
Later on, scribes copying Mark’s Gospel obviously felt dissatisfied with the apparently inconclusive ending of Mark’s Gospel; a number of attempts were made to conclude the work appropriately: a “shorter ending” with a brief reference to an appearance of “ Jesus himself”, and then a “longer ending” in which the various resurrection appearances of Jesus from Matthew, Luke, and John are included (Mark 16:9–20).
The resurrection of Jesus plays a dominant role in drawing the narrative flow of all four Gospels to a climactic conclusion. But there are other stories about resurrection included in the New Testament. The most famous, of course, is the story found in John’s book of signs, about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. This story, told in some detail, is very well-known and clearly entrenched in the regular lectionary cycle (see https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/25/holding-out-for-hope-in-the-midst-of-turmoil-john-11/)
As well as the central narrative of the resurrection of Jesus, Luke has two other stories of resurrection in his two-volumed orderly account of the things coming to fulfilment amongst us. First, there is the story of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11–17). Having already lost her husband, this woman now finds that her son is dead. The story comes straight after the account of Jesus healing the servant of a centurion who was “ill and close to death” (Luke 7:1–10). The two accounts focus attention on the remarkable healing powers of Jesus.
The exclamation of the people of Nain, after witnessing the miracle of Jesus raising the dead man, forms a suitable conclusion to both stories: “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” (7:16).
The key point of this story is to establish Jesus as a prophet who enacts the visitation of God for the people of Israel (7:16). It is strange that the NRSV renders this statement as “God has looked favourably”, but it is the same verb (episkopeo) which appears at 19:44, where it is more accurately translated as “the time of your visitation from God”. And in that passage, Jesus comes to pronounce judgement up the sinful city.
It is clear that Jesus, by raising this man from the dead, demonstrates his credentials as a prophet—and also signals that the divine is drawing near to the people of Israel. It is curious that this story sits so deeply within the shadow cast by that other story of raising a man (Lazarus): from the dead. This is a striking and dramatic story, as is attested in the response of the people, of whom Luke reports, “fear seized all of them, and they glorified God” (7:16). Fear, or awe, is the appropriate response to such an amazing act (see 1:12–13; 1:30; 1:75; 2:10; 5:10; 8:37, 50; 9:34; 21:25–26).
For this coming Sunday, the First Reading offered by the lectionary is another biblical story about resurrection. It comes from the book of Acts, which features every year during the season of Easter, as the first reading, in place of the Old Testament passage which occupies that place throughout the rest of the year. The book of Acts tells a version of the story of the early church, as the followers of Jesus first regrouped in Jerusalem, and then began sharing their faith, travelling to places beyond the capital city, stretching out into Samaria, Syria, and across what is modern-day Turkey, into Greece, and eventually into Rome.
The story we have heard is set in Joppa, which was the Greek name for the town named Jaffa in Arabic. We know this place, today, as the southern suburbs of Tel Aviv, a large and growing port city in modern Israel, a city with a vibrant multi-cultural and multi-religious life. Tel Aviv-Jaffa is also the place where most nations base their embassies to the country of Israel.
This story in Acts, set in Joppa, sits within the season of Easter and recounts a resurrection, told along the lines of the way that the resurrection of Jesus is told. Tabitha, the woman in the story, becomes ill and dies. There is no doubt about this; she is dead.
As the story proceeds, the apostle Peter commands Tabitha to rise; and then, “she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive.” (Acts 9:40-41) There is also no doubt, that the one who was dead, is now alive.
As a result, Luke informs us, “this became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord” (Acts 9:43). What happened was striking, noteworthy, remarkable—miraculous!
Tabitha, or Dorcas, is introduced in this short narrative as a woman “full of good works and acts of charity” (9:36). The array clothing that she produced is noted (9:39). She is one of a number of significant women in Acts who are presented as positive models of faithfulness. These include Lydia in Philippi, who provides hospitality to Paul and his companions (16:15); Priscilla, who with her husband, Aquila, teaches Apollos in Ephesus (18:26); and the four female prophets in Caesarea (21:9). Each of these women exercise a leadership role in the early church.
See https://johntsquires.com/2022/01/27/lydia-dorcas-and-phoebe-three-significant-strategic-leaders-in-the-early-church/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/19/women-in-the-new-testament-1-the-positive-practices-of-jesus-and-the-early-church/
The flow of the narrative in Acts 9 is the same as what we read in the accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, moving from death, to life. We have this story in our readings during the season of Easter, to help us maintain our focus on the resurrection, and to invite us to consider how the story of new life shapes our life of discipleship.
As Jesus died and was raised, as Tabitha died and was raised, so we are called to move from death to life within our own discipleship. The paradigm which is provided by the death and resurrection of Jesus provides a model for the way that we are to be, as disciples of Jesus in our own time. And this might very well be how “many believe in the Lord” in our own time. It is not so much the promise of some future life beyond death; it is the transformation of life here, and now, in this present reality, that is the promise of the risen Lord.
This blog is based on a section of my commentary on Acts in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. Dunn and Rogerson (Eerdmans, 2003). I have also explored the theme of the plan of God at greater depth in my doctoral research, which was published in 1993 by Cambridge University Press as The plan of God in Luke-Acts (SNTSM 76).