A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 9:32-11:18. The conversion of Cornelius.
From the conversion of Saul to be the apostle to the Gentiles, Luke proceeds to the conversion of Cornelius, the first Gentile to become a believer. Both conversions were essential foundations on which the Gentile mission would be built. And prominent in both was a leading apostle, the first conversion having Paul as its subject, the second having Peter as its agent. Both apostles (despite their different callings (Gal.2:1ff.) had a key role to play in liberating the gospel from its Jewish clothing and opening the kingdom of God to the Gentiles. Luke therefore makes an abrupt transition in 9:32 from Paul to Peter. He leaves Paul in Tarsus for a while (9:30), temporarily out of sight, until he is ready to bring him to the centre of the stage with the first missionary journey (13:1ff). Meanwhile for more than three chapters (9:32 – 12:25), although he mentions Paul twice (11:25-30; 12:25), he concentrates on Peter. So, if his book narrates ‘Acts of Apostles’, this section records some specific ‘Acts of Peter’, after which Peter drops from the scene altogether.
The three Peter-stories Luke selects are (i) a double miracle story (how Aeneas was healed and Tabitha raised from death), (ii) a conversion story (how Cornelius was brought to faith), and (iii) an escape story (how Peter was rescued from prison and so from Herod’s evil intentions). Each may be seen as a confrontation – with disease and death, with Gentile alienation and with political tyranny. Moreover, in each case conflict gave place to victory – the cure of Aeneas, the resuscitation of Tabitha, the conversion of Cornelius, and the removal of Herod. The apostle Peter is portrayed as an effective agent through whom the risen Lord by his Spirit continued to act and to teach. Leaving Peter’s imprisonment and deliverance until the next chapter, we will focus in this one on his ministry to Aeneas, Tabitha and Cornelius. 1). Peter heals Aeneas and raised Tabitha (9:32-43).
Peter is introduced as engaged in an itinerant ministry: he *travelled about the country* (32a). Previously, when persecution had broken out, the apostles had deemed it prudent to remain in Jerusalem (8:1b). Now that the church was enjoying a time of peace (31), however, they felt free to leave the city. Peter’s purpose was not only to preach the gospel, but also *to visit the saints* (32b), in order to teach and encourage them. On one of his tours he was itinerating towards and then along the western seaboard, when two incidents took place which Luke evidently regarded as a complementary pair. In Lydda, about twelve miles south-east of Joppa, there lived a man named Aeneas, who had been paralysed and *bedridden for eight years* (33). In Joppa, the modern Jaffa and the nearest sea port to Jerusalem, there lived a woman named Tabitha or Dorcas (the Aramaic and Greek words respectively for a ‘gazelle’), whom Luke describes as *a disciple…who was always doing good and helping the poor* (36). In particular, she seems to have made both undergarments and outer clothing, ‘shirts and coats’ (29, NEB) for the needy. But she *became sick and died* (37). Such was the basic situation in these two cases. It seems that, by the way in which he recorded the miracles which then took place, Luke deliberately portrayed Peter as an authentic apostle of Jesus Christ, who performed ‘the signs of a true apostle’ (2 Cor.12:12, RSV). Similar miracles had endorsed the prophetic ministry of Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:32-37). Four factors support this suggestion.
First, both miracles followed *the example of Jesus*. Aeneas is reminiscent of that other paralytic, who lived in Capernaum. As Jesus had said to him, ‘Get up, take your mat and go home,’ (Mk.2:11) so Peter said to Aeneas, ‘Get up and tidy up your mat’ (34). And the raising of Tabitha recalls the raising of Jairus’ daughter. Because the people were weeping noisily. Peter ‘sent them all out of the room’, just as Jesus had done. Further, the words spoken to the dead person were almost identical. Indeed as several commentators have pointed out, if Peter spoke Aramaic on this occasion, only a single letter would have been different, for Jesus had said *Talitha koum!* (Mk.5:41, ‘Little girl, get up!’, whereas Peter would have said *Tabitha koum!* (40).
Second, both miracles were performed by *the power of Jesus*. Peter knew that he could not overcome disease and death by his own authority or power. So he did not attempt to do so. Instead, to the paralysed, bedridden Aeneas he said. ‘Jesus Christ heals you’ (34), while before addressing the dead Tabitha ‘he got down on his knees and prayed’ (40), a detail which must have come from Peter, since nobody else was present.
Thirdly, both miracles were signs of *the salvation of Jesus*. Because of his confidence in the power of Christ, Peter dared to address the deceased man and the dead woman with the same word of command: *anastethi*, ‘Get up!’ (34, 40). Yet *anistemi* is the verb used of God raising Jesus, which can hardly have been an accident. This is not to forget that Tabitha was ‘resuscitated’ to her old life (only to die again), whereas Jesus was ‘resurrected’ to a new life (never to die again). It is rather to point out that recovery from paralysis and resuscitation from death were both visible signs of that new life into which by the power of the resurrection we sinners are raised.
Fourthly, both miracles redounded to *the glory of Jesus*. When Aeneas was healed, *all those who lived in Lydda and Sharon* (the coastal plain) *saw him and turned to the Lord* (35). Not that we need interpret the ‘all’ as meaning literally every single inhabitant, for, as Calvin wisely comments, ‘when Scripture mentions *all*, it is not embracing, to a man, the whole of whatever it is describing, but uses “all” for many, for the majority, or for a crowd of people’. Similarly, when Tabitha was restored to life, *this became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord* (42). In accordance with the purpose of the signs, which was to authenticate and illustrate the salvation message of the apostle, people heard the word, saw the signs, and believed.
Tomorrow: Tomorrow. 2). Peter is sent for by Cornelius. (10:1-8).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.