Wednesday 3 July 2013

Healing (Acts 9:32-43)

In today’s passage, the apostle Peter heals a man who hasn’t been able to walk for eight years and he raises a woman who has just died. Today’s passage is about miraculous healing.

I wonder if you are surprised to read this in the bible today? Are we seriously going to study a passage which teaches us that God can heal a serious illness? Isn’t that embarrassing in this day and age? Isn’t that irresponsible?

In part, our skepticism in reading such records of miraculous, seemingly unexplainable, incidences of healing flow from our skepticism of God. Some of us simply don’t believe that there is a God.

But some of us are cynical, not because we don’t believe in God or that God can’t heal miraculously - we do - but we’re cynical because we don’t see God healing people today (at least, not in such miraculous ways).

Now if that is you, I just want to say that in both cases, the focus seems to be on miracles as proof of God’s existence: The evidence of miracles is the evidence of God. But that is not the focus of the passage. It’s not the connection the bible wants us to make. Indeed, Jesus, himself, who performed miracles and healed people and raised people from the dead, cautioned us against believing in the miracles. No, the miracles were pointing us to something else. The miracles were meant to make us ask: Why has God done this? Why were they healed?

That is the real surprise in this passage. Not that God heals, but why. Why did God use Peter to heal these two individuals in Lydda and then in Joppa. The simple answer is: these two healings foreshadow the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is, they point us to a greater problem than falling sick and going to the hospital. And they point us to a greater solution than God making us feel better so we that can get on with our day. They point us to the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

That is the direction we are heading in as we look at three points from our passage: the raising, the turning and the staying: The raising of Aeneas and Dorcas, the turning of the crowd resulting finally in Peter staying in this place called Joppa.

1. The raising

We begin with the raising. Peter heals two individuals - Aeneas and Dorcas. In both instances the healings are miraculous. In both cases, the healings are instantaneous - Aeneas gets up and walks; Dorcas gets up from the dead - that is, there is no long recovery period during which they progressively get better and better. Both are healed instantly, completely and miraculously.

But also, notice, both are raised. To Aeneas, Peter says to him, in verse 34, “Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and tidy your mat.” He says the same thing to Dorcas, in verse 40, “Dorcas, get up.” Peter speaks a command and they obey: “Rise up!”

There is something bigger going on here than healing. Healing might even be the wrong word. Healing is what happens when your health improves after an illness; when you get better or feel better after falling ill. No, what God does is radically change the status of these two individuals - from inability to obedience, from death to life. This is a radical complete transformation.

We meet Aeneas: who is a paralytic, bedridden for eight years. To him, Peter says, “Get up!” but also, “Tidy up your mat.” This is a complete reversal of his previous condition: from being paralysed to walking on his own two feet; from laying on his mat all day long to picking it up and putting it away. Peter is saying to him, “That life is done. That old condition you have been in for eight years. Pack it up. Put it away.”

It is a complete reversal from helplessness to obedience. Notice, it is Jesus who heals him, not Peter (verse 34), and it is Jesus who commands Aeneas to rise. The power of his command is seen in the act of healing, “Jesus Christ heals you. Get up!” It is also seen in the obedience to that command, “Immediately Aeneas got up.”

This is especially important in the case of Dorcas. The call of Jesus goes beyond the grave.

We learn that her name is Tabitha, or Dorcas (Both names mean “gazelle” or “deer”). She is described as someone who was always doing good and helping the poor. It is why so many of the poor are mourning her death at the funeral. Many of them are widows (verse 39).

Here was a woman who spent her life serving other women in need. Widows in the ancient world were especially vulnerable in their society. They didn’t own property (it was all in the husband’s name) and if they were childless, these women were without any financial safety net. The “robes and the clothing” which Dorcas made for them, mentioned in verse 39 tells us that Dorcas looked out for their physical well-being. These weren’t knitted jumpers you got from your gran for Christmas. Dorcas generously provided for their basic needs, even their clothing.

So, when they hear that Peter was in the neighbouring town - verse 38, says “Lydda was near Joppa,” - they quickly send two men to urge him, “Please come at once.” Peter follows them to Joppa where he meets the widows in the upper room. Again, the reason why Acts records this is not simply to show us what an outstanding woman Dorcas is, but more so, to show us how much these widows loved her and depended upon her. That’s important because right at the end, in verse 41, he “presented her alive.” That is, this miracle was done partly for their sake - to return Dorcas alive to the believers and widows who loved her so much.

But for now, Peter sends them all out of the room (verse 40). He gets down on his knees. And he prays. You might remember another incident remarkably similar to this one, involving Jesus raising a little girl from death (recorded in Mark 5 and Luke 8) where there were also mourners around the body. When Jesus says to the mourners, “This child is not dead but asleep,” they laugh at him and Jesus is forced to put them out of the room and close the door. What is so interesting in the episode involving Jesus in Mark Chapter 5 is what he says to that little girl.

He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means, “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”)
Mark 5:41

Now look at what Peter says to Tabitha.

Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet.
Acts 9:40-41

The remarkable similarities between the mourners being sent out of the room and the command given to a dead body to “Get up!” - even the the similarity between “Talitha” and “Tabitha” - are there to draw a connection between Peter and Jesus’ ministry, they authenticate Peter’s apostolic authority, they signal a continuation of Jesus’ work on earth, but most of all, they remind us this is a call all of us will hear one day and respond to, even from the grave. One day, Jesus will return. We will all hear his voice. And he will command the dead to rise again to face him either as our Saviour or our Judge.

In other words, what we see are foreshadowings of the resurrection. In the same way that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead after his crucifixion so one day, we will be raised - some to eternal life, others to everlasting condemnation. But make no mistake of this, all of us will be raised. Jesus will raise his voice and command the living and the dead to rise up and acknowledge him as Lord.

2. The turning

This bring us to our second point: The turning. The reason why these miracles happened in Lydda and Joppa was to enable the people in these cities to respond to Jesus now before that final day.

All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.
Acts 9:35

This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord.
Acts 9:42

Two different words are used to describe the same response - turned and believe. To turn is synonymous with repenting. In fact, it is a better word, I think, than repenting, because many people think that you repent by feeling sorry and awful about the horrible things you’ve done in your life. Not that you shouldn’t feel sorry about the horrible things you’ve done, but that isn’t repenting. That’s feeling remorseful; sorry. To repent is to turn and face God to whom you should say sorry. To repent is to turn away from doing those horrible things and to face God to serve him instead. When Christians repent from their sins, what they are doing is saying sorry to God, asking him to forgive their sins and change them so that they will serve him instead of continuing on in their sin.

The second word is “believe”. Today, someone might say, “I believe there is a God,” but that’s not what happened in Joppa. It wasn’t a general awareness that there is a powerful being who can heal terrible illnesses and therefore I’m going to pray to him whenever I have the flu. No, the people of Joppe “believed in the Lord,” which means that the incident about Dorcas’ being brought back from the dead made them pay attention to what the Christians were saying about Jesus and his death on the cross, his resurrection from the dead and his offer of forgiveness and new life for all who trust (or believe) in him, and they responded, “I, too, trust in Jesus who died on the cross for my sins.” That’s what it means. In short, it means they became Christians.

More importantly, it means they understood the reason why Aeneas and Dorcas were raised - not as a guarantee that Christians will automatically get well if they pray for healing - but that these events were pointers to bigger event when all of us will be raised at the voice of Christ: The Resurrection.

If you understand this, you understand the reason why many don’t get healed. The bible tells us that all illness, all ageing, all pain are but symptoms of a bigger problem: death. We tend to wait till things get really bad before we face up to the reality of death. But death is not just a one-off event that happens at the end of life. No, death is curse we all live with every day. It’s in the air that we breath. It’s on the toothaches, the wrinkles, the hair-loss, the sun-burn. Death reminds us that life is not as it should be.

And the bible tells us the reason for death is sin. We have all sinned, that is, we have all turned our backs against God. We reject him and we don’t want anything whatsoever to do with him. And as a result of that rejection - of that sin - God punishes us with a curse called death.

Death in the bible is separation. We remove God from our lives. In turn God removes us - he separates us - from himself, the source of life. When you understand that, you begin to see that death goes beyond being something physical to being something that is essentially relational. This is why physical death is so painful even for the living. This is why we mourn over our loved ones, why the pain still lingers for years and years. Death separates us from life; from those we love. It separates us from God.

The resurrection is a reversal of death. Now get this, it is not simply the removal of death, but a complete reversal of death. On the cross, Jesus Christ took our death upon himself. He took our punishment of sin upon himself by dying in our place. God treated Jesus the way he should have treated us: by sending him to the cross. But when God raised him from the dead, the bible says that we were also raised with Jesus from the dead. What this means is, for the Christian, the resurrection is not simply a hope for future, it is a living reality for today. Christians live free from the curse (or control) of death. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus our Lord, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life has set me free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:1-2)

A reversal means we live a new life empowered by God’s Spirit. We have a relationship with God that is reconciled. We have a relationship with one another that can never be separated.

3. The staying

And this brings us to our final point, which I call: the staying. What does this new resurrection life look like now? We see this in Peter’s journey which ends up with him staying “for some time” in Joppa. Don’t forget that in reading about Aeneas and Dorcas, what we are really reading is the account of God leading Peter step-by-step in his mission. These events are there for his benefit as well, to show Peter how God is making known this new reality of the resurrection age in this age. He does this through gospel.

Right from the beginning, in verse 32, Peter is travelling about the country with the intention of visiting the Christians in Lydda. At this point the gospel has spread beyond the borders of Jerusalem, such that there are now Christians all over Israel - in Judea, Galilee and Samaria (which we saw last week in Acts 9:31). Peter is visiting some of these churches to strengthen them and encourage them as brothers and sisters in Christ. At least, that is his plan for making this trip around the country.

But pretty soon, we realise that Peter is not in full control of his itinerary. He heals Aeneas and the whole town of Lydda becomes Christian. Then the widows hear about him and urgently send two guys to bring him to Joppa, where Peter heals Dorcas, which, in turn, results in many people becoming Christians in Joppa. Do you see? The events themselves are pulling Peter in a particular direction - out of Jerusalem to Lydda and finally to Joppa.

Now look at how the Chapter ends in verse 43.

Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.
Acts 9:43

Contrary to our modern usage of the word “tanner”, Simon the tanner does not operate a shop where you can get fake tans and end up looking like George Clooney with a curry-coloured complexion. A tanner is someone who skins animals to make leather, meaning he works with a lot of dead animals in his backyard, meaning that when it says that Peter lived in Simon’s house “for many days” (ESV), Peter would have been breaking Jewish social taboos and Old Testament laws which forbade touching dead animal carcasses.

But God led him to that city in Joppa. Next week we will see that God led him there so that he can tell the gospel to a Gentile named Cornelius, and by doing so, Peter was breaking one of the biggest no-no’s in Jewish etiquette: mixing with an unclean outsider. But the point is, God led him there, step-by-step, to show him that the resurrection of Jesus Christ breaks down the barrier between life and death but also between Jew and Gentile. God raises the dead. He forgives the sinner. He welcomes the outsider. If death means separation, new life in Jesus Christ means reconciliation with God and with one another.

That is something we will look at in more detail next week. But for now, I just wanted us to notice that Peter staying in Joppa with Simon the tanner was no accident. In the same way that Aeneas was healed and Dorcas was raised was no accident, but these were events put into place by God to point us to one single reality: Jesus Christ is Lord.

Peter makes it clear to Aeneas, “Jesus Christ heals you.” Whether or how or when such healing takes place today is in the hands of Jesus Christ, not ours. And before the dead body of Dorcas, Peter bows down on his knees and prays. He cannot do this, only God can.

Friends, what would it take for us to acknowledge Jesus as Lord; to submit our lives and the lives of those we love into his hands. Some of us think that it is only when faced with a real situation of death and despair. When we are in the halls of the cancer ward or before the coffin in the funeral home. Now, that may have been the reaction of the mourners at Dorcas’ funeral, but I want you to see that it isn’t Peter’s. In Chinese we say, “Boh Pian” - “No choice. Haiii, I guess, we should pray about it.”

That wasn’t Peter’s attitude in submitting to Jesus. No, rather it was trust in the completed work of Jesus Christ in taking our death and our suffering upon himself. It was the knowledge that Jesus is Lord because he took our death and suffering upon himself.

Am I saying that we should not pray for healing? Quite the contrary. There can be no doubt that the God who made the universe and sustains every single living being by his will can heal us. In an instant. To say otherwise is just plain silly. He, otherwise, would not be God.

But we reveal something about what we really know about this God when all we pray for is healing. We reveal that we don’t need anything else, but healing. If all we pray for is healing, then we reveal quite clearly that Jesus Christ is not our Lord.

Why was Peter in Lydda and then Joppa? It tells us right from the beginning. He was there to see the believers, to encourage them, to remind them to stay faithful in Jesus. And that’s just what he did - through the healing, which resulted in many turning to Jesus - yes, but then by pointing them back to Jesus. He pointed them to Jesus, the one who heals, the one who sustains, the one who forgives and the one who raises even the dead to new life.

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