Date: 21 May 2023
Speaker: Ps Luwin Wong
Sermon Text: Acts 9:31-43
Luke wrote to authenticate Peter’s gospel ministry.
Peter’s ministry is reminiscent of Jesus’ ministry which is reminiscent of Elijah’s ministry.
The snapshot of Peter’s ministry is to be a model for our ministry.
In Dec 2019, a two year old girl named Olive Heiligenthal died in her sleep. Her parents worshipped at a Bethel Church, a large, charismatic church with global influence and has training schools all over the world, including Singapore. If you listen to Contemporary Christian music, chances are, you would have heard songs produced by Bethel. All this to say, that what Bethel does, sends ripples across the Christian world.
When Bethel received the tragic news of Olive’s death, instead of doing what most churches would have done: grieve with the family, pray for spiritual comfort and strength, point the bereaved to the hope of eternal life in the new creation, and conduct the funeral service for the deceased, Bethel, instead, held a resurrection service.
The body of Olive lay unburied, as the church gathered to pray for her resurrection. Her mother posted on Instagram the following call to all Christians. It said:
We’re asking for prayer. We believe in a Jesus who died and conclusively defeated every grave, holding the keys to resurrection power. We need it for our little Olive Alayne, who stopped breathing yesterday and has been pronounced dead by doctors. We are asking for bold, unified prayers from the global church to stand with us in belief that He will raise this little girl back to life. Her time here is not done, and it is our time to believe boldly, and with confidence wield what King Jesus paid for. It’s time for her to come to life.
It sparked a worldwide movement with the social media hashtag #wakeupolive.
The church gather to praise, to pray, and to declare in faith that Olive will be raised. Day 1 passed, and there was no resurrection. Day 2 came and went. There was a heightened expectation on Day 3, but Olive didn’t rise to life. Day 4, Day 5, Day 6. For 6 days, the body lay still. And then Bethel decided to conduct the memorial and funeral service for Olive.
In those 6 days, apart from an outpouring of support and encouragement directed to the parents, there was also an intense debate on the legitimacy of Bethel’s resurrection service raged on on social media. One side felt that it was pastorally unloving, even cruel, to grant false hope to grieving parents, who more than ever needed the comfort of closure rather than the pain of disappointment all over again.
The other side, were adamant that the Christian God is a miracle performing God, and there is biblical basis for Christians to pray and expect a resurrection, not least because Jesus and the Apostles raised the dead. And in fact, to not expect a resurrection actually represents a lack of faith in the power of God revealed in the Bible.
No doubt one of the biblical warrants marshalled by the Bethel for expecting a resurrection comes from our passage this morning.
36 Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity. 37 In those days she became ill and died, and when they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men to him, urging him, “Please come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter rose and went with them. And when he arrived, they took him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping and showing tunics and other garments that Dorcas made while she was with them.
40 But Peter put them all outside, and knelt down and prayed; and turning to the body he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. 41 And he gave her his hand and raised her up. Then, calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive. 42 And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.
So what are we to make of this resurrection miracle? Can we expect the same to happen today? If not, how should we understand it?
First thing to note is that this resurrection miracle does not stand alone in this passage. It is accompanied by, preceded by, another healing miracle, and they have to be taken together to properly understand the meaning of both. So here’s the other miracle.
32 Now as Peter went here and there among them all, he came down also to the saints who lived at Lydda. 33 There he found a man named Aeneas, bedridden for eight years, who was paralyzed. 34 And Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed.” And immediately he rose. 35 And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord.
Less spectacular, but no less miraculous. It’s a miracle all the same.
Back to the question, how do we interpret this passage? What do these miracles mean for us today?
To answer those questions, we’ll ask two questions, to draw out the authorial intent of the text:
1. Why does Luke highlight these two miracles?
We know for certain that Peter performed other miracles. We have already seen him healing a lame man at the temple gate in chapter 3. And in Acts 5, we read that people were bringing the sick out to the streets, so that when Peter walked by his shadow might fall on them and heal them.
We already know Peter is capable of miraculous healing, some perhaps more noteworthy than the healing of a paralysed man. So if the point was to impress us with Peter’s ministry, why not give the entire laundry list of all the miracles he ever did?
Why highlight these two?
What we see is that these two miracles of Peter recorded in the book of Acts, find parallels with Jesus miracles recorded in the gospel of Luke. And we know that Luke-Acts is really one continuous story, which means that the parallels are significant.
But Jesus’ miracle of resurrecting Tabitha is itself reminiscent of the miracles performed by Elijah and Elisha during their ministries.
Now Elijah and Elisha are spoken of almost in the same breath, because there was a close continuity between their ministries. The spirit that empowered Elijah rested on Elisha when Elijah was taken up in a chariot of fire. And we know that because Elisha subsequently performed almost identical miracles that Elijah had performed.
Now, remember how Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal at Mt Carmel to establish who is the true prophet of the true God? And Elijah won through the miracle of calling down fire to set alight a water-filled altar. And so, Elijah is thereby divinely authenticated as the true prophet of God. We know that Elisha is likewise an authentic prophet of God because his ministry is set in the mould of Elijah’s ministry.
And Jesus comes along, and his resurrection miracles remind the Jews that Jesus comes in the mould of authentic prophet of God.
And here, Peter is portrayed as performing the miracles reminiscent of Jesus’ miracles. And in that way, he is authenticated as the genuine article – a true representative of God.
In summary, Peter’s healing of the paralytic and the resurrection of Tabitha parallel the ministry of Jesus as well as the earlier ministries of Elijah and Elisha. In so doing, Peter is validated once more as an authentic representative in the line of prophets sent by God.
That is how I understand the meaning and purpose of the miracles highlighted in this passage. It is written not to grant us an example to follow, but to authenticate the apostolic ministry of Peter.
If my interpretation is right, then there must be a good reason for Luke to authenticate Peter’s apostolic ministry at this juncture in the orderly account of the book of Acts.
So, here’s the second question:
2. Why authenticate Peter at this point in the narrative?
Is there an obvious reason to reassure readers of Peter’s authenticity as an apostolic witness at this juncture?
Well, yes. Because notice how our passage today concludes. It’s setting up a turning point in salvation history – the conversion of Gentiles through the Gospel.
In the next chapter, we will see how God instructs Cornelius to send men to find Peter, who is residing in the house of Simon the Tanner. It is on the rooftop of Simon’s house, where Peter will receive the ground-breaking vision that renders all animals clean.
In other words, God is doing something new, something radical, through Peter’s ministry. Normally, if you do something radical, something that constitutes a break with religious law and tradition, it is going to be seen as heretical. Unless of course, you are right and you have been sent by God to reveal a fresh revelation that would shake up the traditional order.
Fresh revelation that contradicts accepted theology is always risky unless you can be sure that the one giving it is truly sent by God. So, authenticating Peter’s credentials as a true apostle, at this juncture, is necessary in the flow of the narrative in Acts.
To sum it up, the miracles recorded in our text today serves to authenticate the apostle Peter as a true and trustworthy representative of God.
What this means then, is that this passage offers no biblical warrant to expect resurrection miracles today. It is not written to give us a ministry model to emulate, it is written to authenticate the ministry of Peter, in the context of his role as pathfinder into new theological territory in salvation history.
How do we apply this? If the application is not that we can expect miracles of resurrection today, what is the application? The application is trust.
When you go to a lawyer to notarise a document, when you are given a certificate of authenticity when you buy a Rolex, when you sign your signature on a cheque, all these things are done to create trust. That’s the purpose of authenticating something – so you can place your trust in it.
That’s the application – place your trust in the apostle Peter. Trust his apostolic ministry, trust his preaching, trust the Gospel he proclaims. Trust the apostolic Gospel.
Not every watch with a Rolex symbol on it is the genuine article. We know this, that’s why authentication certificates exist. Not every person that comes to your doorstep asking for donations is legitimate. They could be scammers, lining their own pockets. That’s why the NCSS issues permits, so we can authenticate.
In the same way, not everyone who claims to be preaching “the gospel”, is truly preaching the gospel. The New Testament is replete with warnings that there will be false teachers in the church, cloaked in sheep skin, whose teaching will lead people astray.
So how do we know if a pastor is preaching the true Gospel? We see if his gospel bears the hallmarks of the apostolic gospel. We ask if he is preaching the gospel that the apostles like Peter preached.
When you read the preaching of Peter and Paul in the book of Acts, do they sound similar to what you hear over the preacher saying, whether online, or in other churches, or Christian conferences, or even in Hermon. Do their preaching sound similar to what you familiar with in the New Testament? Do their preaching share the same vibe, the same voice, the same truths as what you hear from the apostles?
Because you can read the New Testament cover to cover, over and over, and you will not find Peter or Paul or any of the apostles say anywhere close to something like this: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be healthy and wealthy” – never. And yet there are those who preach that way.
You will never find them saying, “Name it and claim it!”, “Declare your destiny into reality” – never. And yet there are those who preach that way.
When you visit some churches, you might often hear the members saying “Pastor so-and-so said this”, “Pastor so-and-so said that”. And rather than a bible study, their small group discussion is a discussion based on what the Pastor said during the sermon.
In Hermon you will be hard pressed to hear anyone saying, “Ps Luwin said this”, “Ps Daniel said that”, because Hermon pastors don’t say anything worth repeating.
Maybe. But I hope it’s because we do not claim to be the authoritative spokespersons of God. To be clear, when we preach, we preach authoritatively – that is, we expect the church to submit to the pulpit, we’re preaching, we’re not proposing suggestions, compliance is not optional – we preach with authority, but our authority is a second-hand authority, a derived authority, it is not inherent in us, it comes from the Word. It’s not what we say that’s important; it’s what the bible says. We are only worth listening to, insofar as we faithful to the apostolic witness.
So, first application from the text: trust in the apostolic gospel and no other gospel. Not even the one in your head. Continually ensure that your gospel, the one you believe in, is the apostolic gospel. How? By listening to sound preaching humbly, by reading the bible regularly, and by studying the bible in community, so our understanding can be questioned and can be sharpened by others.
In other words, be faithful in attending Sunday Service, be regular in your devotions, be committed to your CG bible studies. All these are important because God has spoken, through his authoritative witnesses codified for us in the pages of Scripture.
That’s our first point in today’s sermon: You can trust the apostolic Gospel.
Our second point: This is how you can grow the church.
Let’s be reminded of how Luke prefaces our passage today.
31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.
This is a passage, as we shall see, about how the church multiplies, how it grows. And the keen reader of Acts, would by now, have a clue on how the church grows. Because Luke has told us over and over again. The Word grows the Church.
Acts 2:41 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.
Acts 4:4 4 But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.
ACTS 6:7 7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem…
Word growth = Church growth. That’s the standard and repeated equation.
And every next verse we read:
32 Now as Peter went here and there among them all…
And at this point, we go, “Aha! Just as we guessed!”
Because we’ve seen this phrasing before, just 4 verses back.
28 So he (referring to the apostle Paul) went in and out among them at Jerusalem, (doing what?) preaching boldly in the name of the Lord.
There we go, word ministry.
And even before that, in Acts 5, we see the apostles going here and here, from the temple courts to the disciples houses, teaching and preaching that Jesus is the Messiah.
42 And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.
And so we have the phrase “the church multiplied”, which anticipates the growth of word ministry, and then we have “Peter going here and there”, which also leads us to expect word ministry.
And so what the informed reader of Acts, at this point, would expect to see in the following verses is an emphasis on Word ministry, which multiplies the church. The story is set up to prime the hearer to expect an emphasis on the ministry of the word.
So when we read on, what we will in fact see, comes as a surprise. And the element of surprise is intended to draw our attention and focus to it.
32 Now as Peter went here and there among them all… 33 There he found a man named Aeneas, bedridden for eight years, who was paralyzed.
38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men to him, urging him, “Please come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter rose and went with them.
We indeed see Peter going here and there amongst the disciples, but what is surprising is the absence of any mention of him preaching or teaching. What we see is there is going here and there, doing what we would call pastoral visitation.
The text says, Peter was visiting the disciples in Lydda, and there he found a man who was bedridden.
And then he gets a call to come with some disciples to Joppa to attend to an urgent pastoral matter, the death of a disciple. This is the other aspect of pastoral ministry. We don’t merely preach the word on Sundays, we also visit the bedridden in hospital or at home, we also respond urgently to the news of bereavement. We don’t just preach good news, we also engage ourselves in good works in service to the saints.
What I’m saying, is that the author is highlighting to us, that one way the church grows, in addition to the preaching the good news, is the doing of good works. Notice the result of Peter’s pastoral work.
34 And Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed.” And immediately he rose. 35 And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord.
Acts 9:41-42 41 Then, calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive. 42 And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.
You might say, it’s not the good work that mattered, it was the miracles that led to the conversion of the people. Perhaps, but I doubt that is the key takeaway, because while miracles consistently serve the function of authenticating a person’s ministry, it is rarely offered as the reason that people turn to the Lord in faith.
When Jesus resurrected Lazarus in the Gospel of John, the response of the Jewish leaders was plan to to kill him, not believe in him.
When Peter and John healed the lame beggar at the temple gate in chapter 4, the response of the Jewish leaders, was to arrest them and threaten them, not believe in them.
There is simply no clear cause-and-effect relationship between miracles and faith. So I do not think that miracles was the point in our text today, I believe the emphasis is on good works in addition to the good news, which multiplies the church.
Which is the reason why there was an extended description of Tabitha. If the miracle was the point, then focus on Peter. But Peter is not spotlighted, he says all of two words in these verses. Whereas Tabitha was given a surprisingly lengthy introduction.
36 Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity.
39 All the widows stood beside him weeping and showing tunics and other garments that Dorcas made while she was with them.
Tabitha was full of good works, and the evidence of her good works was presented to Peter when he arrived. All of these are unnecessary details, that is, there was no need to know anything about Tabitha, unless Luke intended to emphasis the theme of good works in this passage, both by Peter and by Tabitha, in relation to the growth of the church.
What’s the application here? So far, as we preached through the first 9 chapters of Acts, you would have clearly heard the biblical call to participate in the mission of the church of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.
Today’s passage reminds us that the good news must be accompanied by good works. Because it is not a gospel of a theoretical abstraction, but the gospel of a tangible kingdom, a kingdom where love dwells and righteousness rules, which though not yet consummated, has already begun in the spirit-filled community of believers.
So, as John Stott said, good news and good works are the two wings of the plane of missions. Without either, the plane cannot fly.
So, listen to the gospel, read your bible, be diligent in bible study, yes, do all that, but not neglect love, and good works and charity. Make the kingdom a reality not merely with our lips, but also by our lives.
In your workplaces, look for opportunities to evangelise, but also take every opportunity to do good to your colleagues, be gracious, be helpful, be caring, and that is how you grow the church.
In your CGs, don’t just come together to study the bible. Live life together as well, share a meal, share your burdens, laugh together, love each other, do good to one another. That is how you grow the church.
In everyday life, be a witness for Christ in speech and deed. Remember Barnabas, who not merely taught the church the word, but also sold his land and laid the proceeds at the feet of the apostles to distribute to anyone in need. Remember Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, who when confronted by his persecutors, did not merely proclaim the Lord Jesus Christ, but was a picture of Jesus at his death, using his final breath to cry out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”.
True Christianity the kind that is worth growing, the kind that God promises will prevail to the end of the age is marked by a preaching of good news and the doing of good works.
To conclude, we have seen two things in our text today:
This is why you can trust the apostolic gospel - Because God authenticates their ministry with miracles.
This is how you can grow the church - By our good works accompanying the good news.