Tabitha: A disciple who lived in Proximity

Evangelism Poverty Proximity Principle
An Image of Martin Charlesworth Martin Charlesworth
5th June 2024 4 minute read
Two women talking together

Joppa was a simple little coastal fishing town in Israel at the time of Jesus. An ordinary place in which the rich and the poor lived close together in it’s narrow streets and jostled with each other in the marketplace and at the harbour. Tabitha was a very ordinary woman living in this seemingly unimportant place. However, one day some fellow Jews from nearby Jerusalem brought news of the gospel of Jesus soon after the day of Pentecost. Tabitha was intrigued and listened to their story. She was converted to Christ and joined the new church which sprung up quickly in Joppa. 

Shortly after this, Peter the apostle visited Joppa as he travelled around the area encouraging the new churches which were starting everywhere (Acts 9: 32-43). Just as Peter was entering the district Tabitha unexpectedly died. Her friends were extremely distressed. They sent messengers to Peter asking him to come as soon as possible. He came, only to find a tragic scene. Some of Tabitha’s friends, all widows, were crying and mourning as they watched over her body which had been laid out in an upstairs room awaiting burial.  

Into this dramatic and emotionally charged atmosphere Peter acted with great faith and decisiveness. He sent everyone out of the upstairs room, knelt down, looked at the body, prayed and said with conviction “Tabitha – get up.”  (Acts 9: 40-41). Miraculously she rose up from her deathbed – her life was restored to the great amazement of all her friends! Nothing quite like this had happened in Joppa before! 

As we read this story we focus, quite understandably, on the fact that Peter, like his master Jesus, was able to bring about, through faith, a miraculous rising from the dead! It was an astounding miracle.

Let’s look at the story a bit more closely. There is another remarkable theme within it which is usually unnoticed and overlooked.

Tabitha was described as a disciple – a true follower of her master, a committed church member, who lived her life with integrity according to Jesus’ teaching.

How did she live? “She was always doing good and helping the poor” (Acts 9: 36). Interesting. For Tabitha, discipleship meant reaching out to those who were poor. She did not have far to look. In the crowded streets of Joppa there were many beggars to be found. There were many elderly people languishing at home. There were numerous poor widows. These were her neighbours. 

It has been estimated that in the Roman world at this time about 50% of people lived at or near the poverty line, and there was virtually no organised charity and no welfare state.1

Tabitha was a disciple. She knew what to do. She was a gifted seamstress. So, she got to work making clothes for those who could not afford to buy them or did not have the skills to make them. It seems as though she focused on widows, because it was widows who mourned her death most. These widows wanted Peter to see the clothes Tabitha had just made which had not yet been given away (Acts 9:39).

Tabitha lived in proximity to those in need in the bustling little town of Joppa. She helped them practically. She became their friend. As we reflect on this remarkable story, we see the sort of discipleship and lifestyle which must have characterised so many in the early church. Rich and poor lived in close proximity. Christian disciples instinctively reached out to those in need. They reproduced the lifestyle that Jesus had lived amongst them. They followed Jesus’ clear teaching. They learnt from the energetic support given to those in economic need in the Jerusalem church from the very beginning (Acts 6: 1-7). 

What was the outcome of the combination of Tabitha’s sacrificial lifestyle, the preaching of Christ and an astonishing miracle? ‘This became known all over Joppa and many people believed in the Lord’ (Acts 9: 42). 

Proximity. 

Proclamation. 

Power. 

It is an unbeatable combination for advancing the kingdom of God.

 

FOOTNOTE

1See Remember the Poor, Bruce Longenecker, Eerdmans, 2013, for a sociological and economic perspective on the communities in which the early church became established.

Written by

Martin Charlesworth

Martin Charlesworth lives in Shrewsbury in the UK. He is married and has three children. He was in church leadership for over 30 years. He now works with a number of church-based charities in the UK and runs church leadership training programmes.

Martin has co-authored three books about the church’s engagement with issues of social justice in the UK. He has also pioneered ‘Word Online’ a unique Bible teaching resource.

An Image of Martin Charlesworth
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