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Lesson 24: Faith in the God of All Power (Acts 9:32-43)

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At a missions conference in 1986, Stuart Briscoe said, “All that’s being done in evangelical Christianity in America can be done with good equipment, modern media, and a few gifted men. Very little that is happening in the church is explainable solely on the basis of God’s activity and authority.” His words should make us pause and ask, “Is that true in our church? Is it true in my life personally? Is there anything that can only be explained by God’s activity and power?”

Some react to such words by seeking miracles, such as speaking in tongues and divine healing. They argue that the church today should be doing the works of Jesus, and even greater works. While I believe that we should pray for the sick to be healed, we also must recognize that often it is not God’s will to heal miraculously. I do not disregard dramatic encounters with the Lord, although I think that 99 percent of what is called speaking in tongues today is not the New Testament gift. Unless a person develops discipline unto godliness and a consistent walk in the Holy Spirit, no experience, however dramatic, will result in lasting change.

We come to two stories where God used Peter mightily, first to heal a man who had been paralyzed for eight years; and, second, to raise a Christian woman from the dead. Since resurrections are rare in Scripture (there are only three such miracles recorded in Jesus’ ministry), this was an extraordinary event.

We need to ask why Luke included these two stories. Did he mean for us to imitate Peter by going out and performing miracles in Jesus’ name? If someone answers affirmatively, I would point out that there were many in these towns who remained sick or who died and were not raised. In other words, God willed for these two miracles to take place, but there were many for whom no miracle occurred. Thus I conclude that these miracles were not recorded to teach us to go out and do likewise, but for some other purpose.

To make it obvious for us who have trouble seeing, Luke repeats his purpose twice. In 9:35, he mentions that all who lived at Lydda and Sharon turned to the Lord as a result of Aeneas’ healing. By “all,” Luke probably does not mean every single person, but rather, a great number. Then, in 9:42, Luke tells us that the result of the raising of Dorcas was that many believed in the Lord. Luke is showing how the gospel of Jesus Christ spread, resulting in the salvation of many.

Thus I believe that he wants us to view these miracles as spiritual lessons of the power of the gospel to transform sinners. The miracles actually happened, but like Jesus’ miracles, they were signs, pointing to something beneath the surface. They show us how God mercifully imparts spiritual healing and new life to those who are helpless and dead because of sin. Thus we learn that …

God’s mighty power causes unbelievers to turn to Him in saving faith and should encourage us to proclaim the gospel.

There are five lessons:

1. Incapacitating sickness and death are pictures of the spiritual condition of lost people.

It is clear that Dorcas (Greek), or Tabitha (Aramaic), whose name means “Gazelle,” was a believer. She is called a disciple (the only time this word occurs in the feminine form in the Greek New Testament). We do not know about Aeneas’ background, but the fact that he is only referred to as “a certain man,” not “a disciple,” seems to indicate that he was not a believer. But the physical condition of both Dorcas and Aeneas represents different pictures of the spiritual condition of every person outside of Christ. By nature we all are born as sinners, spiritually paralyzed and dead. We are as unable as a paralyzed man to take a step toward God. We are as unable as a corpse to free ourselves from our many sins and to live in a manner pleasing to God (Eph. 2:1-3). This spiritual inability is what theologians call “total depravity.”

Since this doctrine is taught so clearly and repeatedly in Scripture, it is amazing that there are many Christians who deny it. Dave Hunt, for example, adamantly denies that sinners are unable to choose to believe in Christ. In his “The Berean Call” (March, 2001), he responds to a letter that I had written to him, in which I pointed out that he was advocating the view of the Roman Catholic scholar, Erasmus, whom Martin Luther refuted in The Bondage of the Will. Hunt lists a number of Scriptures that supposedly prove that men can will whatever they choose. Then he states, “Once it is admitted that man has a will, it is impossible to maintain either that it is in bondage or to explain how it was delivered except by its own choice. No one is made willing against his will but must have been willing to be made willing.” Thus he makes man’s willingness to be made willing the sovereign factor in salvation, thereby exalting the will of fallen man above the sovereign will of God!

Contrary to this, Jesus taught that the sovereign factor in salvation is God’s will, not man’s will. He said, “No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him” (Luke 10:22). That statement is meaningless if Jesus wills to reveal the Father equally to every person. He said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.” In case we missed it, He repeats, “No one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father” (John 6:44, 65). Again, clearly those words are meaningless if God has granted to all the ability to come, but now it’s up to the will of man. Jesus asked the unbelieving Jews, “Why do you not understand what I am saying?” He answered, “It is because you cannot hear My word” (John 8:43). Obviously, they could hear the verbal words that Jesus was speaking. Jesus meant that they were unable to respond positively to the spiritual truth of His words. Many other Scriptures affirm the same truth (John 1:13; 10:26; Rom. 9:16; 1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 4:4; James 1:18; and many more).

It is crucial to affirm this doctrine because if we deny it, proud men will boast in what their will could accomplish. If salvation hinges on the human will, then it is that will that makes a saved person to differ from an unsaved person. But, as Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, our salvation rests in God’s choice, not in anything in us, “so that no man may boast before God.” It is totally “by His doing” that those of us who are saved are in Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 1:30; see also, 4:7, NIV).

Since it is God who wills our salvation and imparts it to us, how does He do it?

2. The Lord uses His servants to bring His powerful cure to spiritually incapacitated people.

Peter was God’s instrument to bring healing to Aeneas and resurrection to Dorcas. By the way, as far as I know, there are no New Testament examples of believers being miraculously healed, although three believers, Lazarus, Dorcas, and Eutychus, were raised from the dead. From Peter, we can learn three things about the servants whom God uses to bring His powerful cure of salvation to those who are spiritually incapacitated:

A. The servants God uses do not rely on their own ability, but trust totally in God’s mighty power.

Peter did not say, “Aeneas, in the name of Jesus Christ, I heal you.” Rather, he said, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you.” He gave all the glory to Jesus and took none of it for himself. With Dorcas, Peter did not claim to have any power to perform such a miracle. Rather, he humbly knelt down and prayed, depending totally on God’s power to do what only God can do.

Think of how Peter could have abused the power that the Lord gave him to perform these two amazing miracles. He could have set up a tent and held healing services, with big banners reading, “Come and See Peter the Apostle and Evangelist Work Miracles.” Everywhere he went, he could have attracted attention. If he lived in our day, he could have gone on talk shows and written books to tell about how it happened. But Peter was not into miracles to bring glory to himself. No, Peter gave God all the glory and God was pleased to use these incidents to bring many to saving faith in Jesus Christ.

Whether God uses us to perform a miracle or to bring a soul to salvation, we cannot rely on our own ability or take any credit for ourselves. We can only say, with Paul, that we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves (2 Cor. 4:7). Alexander Maclaren says, “The first condition of work for the Lord is—hide yourself behind your message, behind your Master, and make it very plain that His is the power, and that you are but a tool in the Workman’s hand” (Expositions of Holy Scripture [Baker], on Acts 9:34, 40, p. 293).

B. The servants God uses should follow the example of Jesus.

The striking thing about these two miracles is how closely they parallel two miracles that Jesus performed. When four men brought a paralytic man to Jesus, He first forgave the man’s sins. Then, to back up His authority to forgive sins, He commanded the paralytic to do something impossible, namely, to get up, pick up his bed, and go home (Matt. 9:7). With the command, Christ imparted the power to obey. Here, in a similar way, Peter commands Aeneas to do the impossible: “Arise and make your bed” (Acts 9: 34). Those of you with teenagers know just how impossible that command is, unless the Lord grants the power!

The incident with Dorcas also parallels Jesus’ raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:35-43). Both incidents happened when the healer was absent and had to be summoned. Jesus put out the noisy mourners, since He was not there to put on a miracle show. Here, Peter hears the weeping of the mourners, but he goes alone into the room where Dorcas’ body lay. Jesus took Jairus’ daughter by the hand and said (in Aramaic), “Talitha kum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” Unlike Jesus, because Peter could not speak in his own authority as Jesus could, Peter knelt down and prayed. Then, when he was assured of God’s will, he spoke to the corpse, just one letter different than Jesus’ words to Jairus’ daughter, “Tabitha, kum.” The parallels are too close to be coincidental. Peter was following the example of the Lord Jesus, in dependence on Him.

Peter was able to imitate Jesus because he had been with Jesus when He performed these other miracles. Although we have not physically been with Jesus, if we have spent much time with Him in His Word, He will use us to be His instruments in bringing His saving power to those who are spiritually dead. Study how the Savior dealt with sinners. Sometimes He asked questions to stimulate a person’s curiosity or to get the person to think about his spiritual condition. Surprisingly, Jesus was not always successful, as we see in His encounter with the rich young ruler. He didn’t always press for a decision. Learn from Him and then follow His example in bringing the gospel to sinners who need His powerful touch.

C. The servants God uses must learn to lay aside their human prejudices.

We don’t know if Aeneas was a Gentile, but we do know that the region where Peter was traveling was heavily populated by Gentiles. In the next chapter, God will strip Peter of his Jewish prejudice against the Gentiles by sending him to Cornelius’ house. But here (9:43) we read that after these things, Peter was staying in Joppa with a certain tanner, named Simon. Luke includes this detail because it gives Peter’s whereabouts in anticipation of the story in the next chapter. But it is also significant in that the Jewish rabbis considered tanners to be unclean because they were constantly in contact with the skins of dead animals. Tanners’ homes were smelly; tanners had to live at least 50 cubits outside of town. Rabbinical law stated that if a young woman discovered that her fiancé was a tanner, she could break the engagement (Kent Hughes, Acts [Crossway Books], p. 143). But here is Peter overcoming this Jewish scruple, staying many days with a tanner.

We all have certain prejudices, but if God is going to use us in proclaiming the gospel, we must lay them all aside. There may be certain races or certain types of sinners that you do not naturally like. If you don’t turn from it, your prejudice will be a sinful hindrance to God’s using you. More of this in chapter 10!

Thus we’ve seen that incapacitating sickness and death are pictures of the spiritual condition of lost people; and, that God uses His servants to bring His powerful cure to such people. But the task seems utterly impossible, and it is if it is up to us.

3. Human incapacity and death are no hindrance to God’s mighty power.

The name of Jesus is able to do what no amount of human persuasion or human power can ever do. He alone can impart strength and sensation to paralyzed legs. His power alone can raise a corpse from the dead. He alone can call a soul out of spiritual bondage and impart eternal life. We are only His instruments, and if we think that any of the power depends on us, we misunderstand how He works. In fact, it is only when we sense our complete inability, as Peter surely did when he knelt and prayed for Dorcas to be raised, that we are in the place God wants us. If you have any confidence in your ability to lead a soul to faith in Christ, it is misplaced confidence. But if you cry out, “O Lord, who am I to raise the dead? But You can do the humanly impossible through me”—then, God will work wonders.

Don’t misunderstand: I am not saying that you should not be trained in how to share your faith. Such training is useful and God will use it. But if you trust in your training or in your ability to lead someone to Christ, your trust is misplaced. God is not limited in the saving of souls by our training or ability. All the training and ability in the world cannot impart life to dead corpses! Thus our confidence in sharing our faith should be in nothing less than the living God alone. He is able to do what is humanly impossible, to save those who are dead in their trespasses and sins.

4. Those healed by God’s mighty power always give evidence of their healing.

Peter commanded Aeneas to get up and make his bed, and Aeneas did it! “All who lived at Lydda and Sharon saw him” (9:35). They saw the evidence of the miracle: this man who had been bedridden for eight years now walked. The people around Joppa heard about Dorcas being raised from the dead. It’s pretty difficult to keep something like that secret! She now resumed doing the many good deeds that she had done before. In fact, now she knew from experience how short life can be, and so she probably abounded even more in doing all that she could for her Savior while there was time. Note that the first sign of life in Dorcas was that she opened her eyes. Matthew Henry (Matthew Henry’s Commentary [Scripture Truth Book Company], 6:122) points out that the first sign of life in the raising of dead souls to spiritual life is the opening of the eyes of the mind (Acts 26:18).

But the point is, there unmistakable evidence when a lame man gets healed or a dead body is raised to life. Even so, when a sinner is raised from spiritual death to spiritual life, it will be evident to all who knew the person before and after. Just as these two miracles resulted in the salvation of many others who saw the evidence, so the evidence of our changed lives should attract many to our Savior.

5. God’s power in saving lost people should encourage us to proclaim the gospel.

These two miracles must have taken everyone by surprise. There was no human hope in either situation. But where there was no human hope, God miraculously broke in with His power and accomplished in an instant what no one could ever do.

Sometimes (my experience is, quite often) we view difficult situations and people from our human, horizontal perspective, forgetting that with God, nothing is impossible (Luke 1:37; Jer. 32:17). Sometimes we see a person who seems so far gone in sin that we despair, thinking, “There’s no way that he will ever come to Christ!” It’s true, there is no human way. But God is mighty to save sinners. Whether the corpse is washed and dressed in clean clothes or whether it is smelly and dirty, dressed in rags, it’s still a corpse. It makes no difference to God what the corpse is wearing! He has the power to impart new life to dead sinners. So we should be encouraged boldly to share the gospel with others, knowing that it is not our power or the other person’s will power that will bring about the change. It is God’s mighty power; if He raises the dead, the dead will be raised!

Conclusion

Evangelist Luis Palau answered the phone in Ecuador. On the other end, a woman requested an appointment with him the next morning at 9:30. He had no idea that she was the secretary of the Communist party in Ecuador. She arrived promptly the next day, accompanied by two bodyguards who stood outside. After looking around for hidden recording devices, the woman sat down and without introduction, for 20 minutes poured out a barrage of verbal abuse, attacking the government, Christianity, and Mr. Palau’s character. At first Palau was speechless. He had never seen such hatred unleashed from anyone.

When the woman finally paused for a moment, Palau snatched the silence and asked, “Madam, is there anything I can do for you? How can I help you?” She stared at him and then began to sob uncontrollably. Finally, when she was composed enough to speak, she said, “You know, in the 38 years that I have lived, you are the first person who has ever asked if he could help me.”

Palau asked her name. Her face instantly hardened again. “Why do you want to know?” “Well, you’ve said a lot of things here, and I don’t even know you.” She gave him her name, Maria Benita-Perez, and for three hours she poured out her life story, which reeked with sin and guilt. Finally she paused and asked, “Palau, suppose there is a God—and I’m not saying there is—do you think He would receive a woman like me?”

“Look, Maria,” Palau replied, “don’t worry about what I think; look at what God says.” He opened his Bible and turned it so she could see. “But I don’t believe in the Bi—”

“But we’re supposing there’s a God, right?” Palau interjected. “Let’s suppose the Bible is His Word. Listen to what God says: ‘Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more’” (Heb. 10:17). She went on to tell him more of her sins: she had stabbed a man who later committed suicide. She had led riots where people had been killed. She had been married three times, committed adultery numerous times, and done all sorts of other terrible things. Each time she told him her past sins, 17 times in all, Palau responded by quoting, “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.”

Finally, after a long silence, she said softly, “If He could forgive me and change me, it would be the greatest miracle in the world.” Within ten minutes, Palau witnessed that miracle as she confessed her sins, asked for God’s forgiveness, and received the Lord Jesus Christ as her Savior (told in tract, The American Tract Society).

God’s saving a sinner, whether a notorious sinner or a more respectable sinner, is always a miracle, no less than His healing a paralyzed man or raising a dead woman to life. He wants to use us to bring that miraculous cure to the sinners we meet. We need to remember that the gospel is nothing less than the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16).

Discussion Questions

  1. If sinners are truly dead in their sins, is it mockery to call upon them to repent and believe in Christ? Why/why not?
  2. Why is it important to affirm that salvation, even of a “good” person, is always a supernatural act of God?
  3. Some argue that if we say that a saved person will give evidence of his salvation, we are adding to salvation by grace through faith alone. Why is this fallacious?
  4. Since Jesus never seemed to use a method of evangelism, should we? Why/why not?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Evangelism, Faith, Predestination