Dorcas — The Woman Full of Good Works

All the widows stood by him weeping, and showing the coats and garments which Dorcas made (Acts 9:39).

   Dorcas' life presents a study of a single woman who accepted responsibility in the Christian community until she became a mother to many. Her life was one of kind ministrations to those in need. Her name has since been appended to countless societies of women who are willing to sew for the sake of the poor or who meet together to perform works of love which are inspired by Jesus Christ.

   The Hebrew name of this woman was Tabitha which translated into Greek, is Dorcas, but in English means "gazelle." A gazelle is distinguished for its slender and beautiful form, its graceful movements, and its soft but brilliant eyes. It is like a fawn because of its diminutive size, yet it is graceful, swift, and lovely. In 1932 I was driving a car across the desert of Amman on my way to Petra, when several hundred yards away from the car several gazelles started up. They gracefully ran alongside the automobile but outran it with startling beauty and grace. It is quite possible, therefore, that Dorcas was a beautiful woman, but whether beautiful or not, she was a good woman who was full of good works.

   Her name Dorcas implies that she was a Hellenist; that is, a Jewess who lived among the Greeks and spoke the Greek language, but who had become a Christian. We note by the book of Acts that at Pentecost, and again in connection with

Page 222

the testimony and martyrdom of Stephen, there were many Grecians or Hellenists in the Early Church. These also were among the first to go outside Jerusalem preaching the Gospel. It may well be that some of those who were present at Pentecost, or who subsequently heard the Gospel in the various preachings of the apostles and of Stephen, went to Joppa and founded the little Christian church there. As we read of so many Jewish Christians in the New Testament, we wonder why it is so difficult for Jews to become Christian today. Perhaps it is because they feel unwanted in the Christian Church, ill at ease among Gentile Christians, or still the objects of prejudices. Many are the sins committed by Christians in the past of which we Christians today should repent in order that the Jews would feel more at home in our midst. Surely the Church should have many Jews in membership today. We are indebted to them for both the Old and New Testaments, for the Lord Jesus Christ, and for countless spiritual blessings.

   The home of Dorcas was Joppa, a name which means beauty. It was a very ancient place said by some to go back to the antediluvian times and to derive its name from Japheth, one of the sons of Noah. However that may be, it is mentioned in the Tel Armana of letters about 1500 B.C. The name means beauty and it is justly applied unto the location of Joppa, which surveys the surrounding countryside and the Mediterranean Sea while being bathed in a mass of sunshine which is reflected from its white, pink, and blue houses. The view from the roofs of Joppa is breathtaking. It was Jerusalem't port, located approximately thirty or thirty-five miles northwest of Jerusalem on the Mediterranean Sea. It was used as the port through which Hiram of Tyre floated the great fir trees of Lebanon in order that they might be taken out of the sea and carried up to Jerusalem for Solomon's temple. Today it is a thriving and well-known port of Israel. In Dorcas' day it was under the jurisdiction of Rome and was a typical port city marked especially by widows who had lost their husbands in the traffic of the sea.

   Dorcas had the faith of a Christian. She is referred to as

Page 223

"a certain disciple named Tabitha." Here is evidence of the spread of Christianity even before the persecution about Stephen. After the preaching of Peter at Pentecost and the conversion of several thousand, among whom were the Grecians, the Gospel was carried by these Grecians to the ports along the Mediterranean. What is described in Acts 11 as occurring in Antioch of Syria undoubtedly also occurred in Joppa. These Christians went everywhere preaching the Word. This is exactly what modern Mohammedans do. They go everywhere preaching their faith and winning converts. Why do not modern Christians engage in the same activity and thus propagate the faith? Dorcas was a Christian. She had heard the Word in the synagogue, her heart had been opened by the Holy Spirit, and her life had been renewed through faith in Jesus Christ. Now she no longer attended the synagogue but was one of the pillars in the church at Joppa. Her faith was exhibited in her works. Paul declares that we are to be careful to maintain good works. James adds that faith without works is dead, and our Lord Jesus Christ declared that a tree is known by its fruits. It is to be expected that a Christian will bear good fruit in the production of good works. Dorcas is described as being "full of good works and alms deeds which she did." The latter describes her treatment of the sick, the poor, the widows, the orphans and the burdened mothers among whom she was an angel of mercy in the community. The former express her works of Christian faith and grace.

THE TESTIMONY OF DORCAS' DEEDS

   Dorcas was a woman who dedicated herself to the needs of the many. We have no evidence that she was ever married, although the implication of her name is that she was a beautiful and graceful woman. Therefore, we may assume that she denied herself marriage, family, and home for the sake of the Lord. What a long roster of notable women have done the same thing in the Christian service. One thinks of Jane Adams, of Frances Willard, of Florence Nightingale and of modern missionaries who are attractive girls but who put God's work

Page 224

before their own personal interests and affections. Certainly there will be a compensation from the Lord in the day when we shall appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that everyone may receive for the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether good or bad. The Lord will not be unmindful of our labors of love.

   Dorcas did not go to the mission field but she found a field of endeavor at her doorsteps. She was alert to the opportunities which were round about her. Christian women need not regret that they have not had adventurous opportunities of serving the Lord in notable places. An inventory of opportunities round about their community will present mental hospitals, missions, child evangelism classes, shut-ins, and others who could very well be served. Dorcas did the Lord's work effectively in a quiet and unsung manner. Whatsoever she did she did as unto the Lord (Colossians 3:23).

   Dorcas was a woman whose deeds displayed love. This meant entering a home and giving a lift to a distraught family in a time of sickness. One thinks of the mothers who have been overburdened with care and responsibility during time of sickness of their family and have been unable to get any kind of practical help from others. The kind of service Dorcas performed is almost forgotten today. It has come to the point where sickness is prohibitive because of its terrible cost. Dorcas assumed responsibility for some aged people who lived alone and needed the ministry of a friend. Today all too many of them are prey to unscrupulous exploiters. We Christians ought not to relegate such responsibilities to the town nurse, but to assume some of them ourselves. Dorcas accepted the direction and cost of educating some children who otherwise could not be educated. Her work can be duplicated in congregations today where there are women who use their income for the support of those who otherwise would not have opportunity. More women than we know have dedicated their lives to deeds of love as Dorcas did.

   The works of Dorcas were recognized in the feeling which the Christian community experienced when Dorcas was gone.

Page 225

They remembered her self-consuming service, her compassion, her faithfulness, her charity. They knew that they had lost their dearest friend. The picture of these people gathered about in her room weeping does not describe people who are sorry for the things and services they have lost but because they have lost one whom they love.

   What Dorcas did for them was what a mother normally does in her family. One thinks of the devotion, the self-sacrifice, the love which is expressed by a Christian mother when one reads in the newspapers of the unnatural brutality, hardness, and neglect experienced and manifested by some women toward their children today.

   Dorcas was a woman who mothered the needy, the lonely, the helpless in the church community. The Scripture has a body of teaching concerning the treatment of widows. They were considered to be the responsibility of the church if they had no children, or nephews, to support them, and if they were pious, devout, and prayerful. These the church were to take in charge and to see that they lacked nothing, but if any individual did not care for his own, he was considered worse than an infidel if he allowed the responsibility to fall upon the church. The true widows in Joppa became Dorcas' responsibility and they came to depend upon her. In every Christian group there will be a number of needy persons who will come to depend upon the church and upon its pastor. Think what godly women can do by way of service in such needy cases. They can give themselves to good works in the church by sewing, by nursing, by aiding, and their labors will be recognized of value by God as well as men.

THE TRAGEDY OF DORCAS' DEATH

   Because a woman is a faithful minister unto others, is righteous and generous, does not mean that she will be spared the tribulations and trials of life. We may well imagine how Dorcas became tired in her endless errands of mercy and her deeds of kindness. Some of our missionaries who have been on furlough have communicated to me the grueling demands

Page 226

of their schedules: Rising at five in the morning, treating out-patients by the hundreds during the morning, teaching in the afternoon, performing administrative work following that, doing the rounds again after dinner, and then holding public devotions in the evening until they can do nothing but topple into bed, totally exhausted. How many a mother has found this same experience when the tasks piled up so high that she thought she could never dig herself out and worked long after the rest of the family was in bed. Such tiredness grows from day to day and finally takes its toll.

   The time came when Dorcas fell sick. We do not know the nature of her sickness nor the length of it, but it was serious enough to eventuate in death. One wonders how well the others cared for Dorcas during this time, how much she suffered, how many expressions of sympathy and love she received while she was still living. Too often we allow those expressions to go unsaid until it is too late, and then we weep out our love when the individual cannot hear.

   In the humble surroundings of her upper room, she found her strength ebbing away. Friends did for her what they could. Finally, when the end was near, the church was called in. Their prayers were ineffectual and the seemingly untimely passing of Dorcas occurred. Many times we refer to the untimely passing of a person because we cannot understand the interruption in their life's activities, yet there is nothing which is not embraced in God's time. Her home-going was a triumph for her as her labors were acknowledged in the presence of the Lord Jesus who must have said to her, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me." But it was a heartbreak unto others. These widows, orphans, and overloaded mothers felt helpless, much like sheep without a shepherd. No matter what anyone would say or do, they were comfortless, and they continued in their weeping. They performed all the deeds of respect and remembrance for her which they could, but it brought them no solace. The poignant expression is given describing them showing to Peter the garments and coats which Dorcas had made "while

Page 227

she was with them." Now they knew that she was gone and there was no compensatory help. Many are those who experience similar sorrow and heartache in the loss of their loved ones.

   As Christians, they should have known the Christian viewpoint of death, that it is a separation of the spirit from the body, that the spirit departs to be with Christ which, for the believer, is far better, and that the body sleeps until the time of the resurrection. Then a new body, which is incorruptible, immortal, powerful, glorious, and spiritual, is given to the redeemed spirit. A true concept of death does not make for overmuch sorrow except in the sense of loss on the part of those who are left. The Bible leaves no doubt about the fact that to die is to go and be with Christ (II Corinthians 5:1ff; Philippians 1:21; Luke 23:43). The spirits of just men have gone into the presence of Christ to await the advent of the final events (Hebrews 12:22-24; Revelation 6:10).

   The Christian message brings the hope of deliverance from death's tragedy through the victory of Christ. Christ tasted death for every man that He might deliver them who all their lifetime were subject to the bondage of the fear of death. His resurrection is the first-fruits of which our resurrection will be the full fruit. The fact that our Lord Jesus arose from the dead should bring comfort to all who pass though bereavement. Therefore the people of God are triumphant over death; they treat it as only a shadow, a transition, a home going. His promise is that at death we go to heaven, a better country, a city that hath foundation, a house of many mansions.

THE TRIBUTE TO DORCAS' GOD

   Upon  the death of Dorcas it was learned that Peter was near at hand in the town of Lydda, and Peter was the representative of Jesus whom Dorcas followed. They sent to Peter, requesting "that he would not delay to come to them." Here we have the principle of association. Dorcas was a disciple of Jesus and it was the love of Jesus which manifested itself in her life. They were now in need, so they believed that they

Page 228

could get help through a Jesus man. They knew that Peter was connected with Jesus who could help them. Just as the disciples of John the Baptist at his death went and told Jesus, so these friends of Dorcas, at her death, sought a disciple of Jesus to help them. Their act was one of acknowledgment. They recognized that Dorcas' good works had been inspired by the Lord Jesus who has inspired all such Christian deeds of mercy from that day to this. We should ask ourselves whether the life we live would make men turn to Jesus in the hour of their need. Their act was one of application of faith. They requested Peter to come and help them, to delay not. How similar this was to the request of Mary and Martha who sent to Jesus when Lazarus was ill that he might hasten to their side. Let us not hesitate to call upon Christ or upon His representatives to assist us in the time of need.

   After Peter's arrival we have a beautiful picture of a Christian, a man of God who lived in total dependence upon God. Peter immediately wanted privacy. There are times which are too sacred for even sympathetic eyes. He made no promise of what he would do, but he knew where to go. He turned to the Lord Jesus. Peter prayed. We read that he kneeled down and prayed. Here is a reinforcement of the position Christians should take in praying. Probably there came to his mind the case of Elijah's raising the widow's son, of Elisha bringing the son of the Shunammite back to life, of Jesus raising the son of the widow at Nain, and he called these to mind in prayer, claiming the power of God. Probably Peter also appropriated the promise which Jesus had made. And then, with assurance in his heart that God would answer his prayer, he demonstrated the power of faith by turning to the body and saying, "Tabitha, arise." The name of Jesus which had raised the dead, caused the lame to walk, cured the lepers, and given sight unto the blind now cause Tabitha to open her eyes, to see Peter, and to sit up.

   The action was a demonstration of the power of God. With quietness but with confidence, Peter invited the widows and members of the church into the chamber and presented

Page 229

her alive to them. Here was a certifying miracle establishing the apostolic authority of Peter and also the truth of the Christian religion. It was only one of several resurrections recorded in the New Testament, but it authenticated the Gospel. Simultaneously, it was an act of mercy on the part of God. The outcome was the establishment of faith and joy in the whole city. God had put his stamp of approval upon the works of Dorcas in caring for the poor, and He had certified the truth of His Gospel. We do now know what became of Dorcas. Probably she lived a long life of usefulness, mercy, and attestation to God's power until she was laid to rest, awaiting the great resurrection of the just.

   But it is certain that the immediate cause of the miracle was that "many believed in the Lord." As many had been ministered to by Dorcas in life, so she ministered to many also in this experience. The greatest memory which Joppa has is the memory of Dorcas. How wonderful it is for a godly woman to be the mother of one or of a few, but if she cannot be a mother to one, let her be a mother to many, as was Dorcas.

Chapter Twenty  ||  Table of Contents