Well we’ve heard six testimonies tonight to what Jesus has done in the lives of these friends who’ve been baptised or publicly renewed their commitment to Christ. And I wonder what you made of them? If you’re a believer yourself, they probably struck some chords with your own experience. On the other hand, if you wouldn’t call yourself a Christian, if you’re just giving this all a look, you may be thinking, ‘Can’t it all be explained some other way?’ Might not a sense of God’s love just be put down to psychology? And change of character put down to self-improvement?
Well, tonight we’re looking at part of the Bible under the title, ‘The miracles of an apostle.’ It’s about two Christians whose testimonies would certainly have been interesting. Because one had been healed after 8 years of paralysis. And the other had been pronounced dead and then resuscitated in answer to prayer. So says Acts chapter 9.
And if you’re just giving this all a look, you may already be thinking, ‘That couldn’t have happened.’ And if so, what’s going on is a clash of world-views. The world-view you’re bringing to the Bible is that there is no personal, Creator God interacting constantly with his creation; that this universe is a closed system of cause and effect; and that only what you’ve experienced is possible. And on that view, this stuff in Acts chapter 9 couldn’t have happened.
Whereas the world-view the Bible is bringing to you is that the Jesus who really lived and died 2,000 years ago also really rose from the dead – as the great sign that he was and is the Son of God. It’s the world-view that he’s alive, and is actively ruling over everything that’s happening in this universe – from the next beat your heart takes, to all the sicknesses and recoveries you’ll ever experience, to the last beat your heart takes. And on that view, this stuff in Acts chapter 9 is perfectly credible.
So as we look at the Bible tonight, will you at least let its world-view challenge yours?
So would you turn in the Bibles to p1103, Acts 9? Acts was written by Luke, as a sequel to his Gospel. So, ‘volume 1’, Luke’s Gospel, records Jesus’ life death and resurrection. Then ‘volume 2’, Acts, describes how the eye-witness followers of Jesus preached the message we now have in the New Testament (NT). And if you’re a regular, you should know by now that the big theme of Acts is the spread of the gospel to all people in all places. That’s why Luke put in Philip and the Ethiopian in chapter 8 – where the gospel goes deep into Africa for the first time. That’s why most of chapter 9 is about the conversion of Paul – who takes the gospel to Europe.
But how does this bit at the end of chapter 9 fit in with Luke’s big theme? Have a look down to 9.31:
Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.
And that was partly thanks to the apostle Peter, read on, vv32-34:
32As Peter travelled about the country, he went to visit the saints [ie, the Christians, the church] in Lydda. 33There he found a man named Aeneas, a paralytic who had been bedridden for eight years. [And I take it we’re to assume he’s one of the Christians.] 34"Aeneas," Peter said to him, "Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and take care of your mat." Immediately Aeneas got up.
So this suddenly seems much more just to do with the church, much more ‘in house’. So what’s it got to do with the big theme of the spread of the gospel to all people in all places? Well, part of the answer is in v35, if you read on:
All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him [ie, saw Aeneas back on his feet, having known him as a paralytic] and turned to the Lord.
And the resuscitation of this woman Tabitha (also called Dorcas) has the same impact, look on to v42:
This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord.
So even though these miracles seem at first glance rather ‘in house’, people outside the church heard about them, and they were part of what brought them to faith. And that’s the first way they fit the big theme of the spread of the gospel to all people in all places. So let’s think a bit more about that under my first heading:
Firstly, MIRACLES AND FAITH
And the obvious question is: if these miracles back then were part of what bought people to faith, shouldn’t we want, or expect, miracles to accompany our sharing of the gospel today? Eg, wouldn’t it make our Christianity Explored course a lot more compelling?
Well, the first thing to say is that narrative is not normative. Ie, the fact that something happened back then does not mean that it must, or will, happen now.
And these two miracles in chapter 9 are a case in point. Because the person who does them is an apostle – ie, one of the unique eye-witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, whom Jesus himself chose to be the original carriers of the gospel. Now Paul was another apostle and in one of his letters he wrote about the miracles they did. His own claim to be an apostle was being questioned, so he’s arguing the case that he really is one, and he writes this in 2 Corinthians 12:12:
The things that mark an apostle – signs, wonders and miracles – were done among you with great perseverance [by which he means ‘done among you by me, Paul’].
So he’s saying the sort of miracles we’re reading about tonight were to mark out the apostles. The risen Lord Jesus empowered them to do them, as if to say, ‘Listen to their claim that I’ve risen from the dead – because look at the evidence before your eyes that I’m alive and at work.’ So by definition, not everyone was doing them, otherwise Paul’s argument that they marked an apostle wouldn’t have worked – the Corinthians would just have said, ‘But Tom, Dick and Harry are all doing this sort of thing.’ Paul’s argument only works if the apostles were doing what others weren’t.
So remember these miracles are not normative for us today. They were the miracles of the apostles – and they were by no means doing them all the time.
The other thing to say is that miracles don’t always bring about faith, anyway. Because you can always explain them some other way than by accepting that Jesus is Lord. Eg, back in his Gospel, Luke records Jesus delivering someone from demonic possession. And he writes in Luke 11:15:
But some of them said, ‘By... the prince of demons he is driving out demons.’
Ie, ‘He’s not doing this by divine power but by Satanic power.’ They’d already made up their minds against Jesus, so any explanation other than the truth was fine by them. And listen to what Jesus said about people like that, Luke 10:13:
Woe to you Korazin! Woe to you Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon [two places notorious for godlessness], they would have repented long ago.
So remember: miracles don’t always bring about faith. In fact, where there isn’t already faith, or at least the beginnings of it, people will always explain them some other way. So, for example, a Christian I know did experience a remarkable healing from a serious illness – remarkable enough for the doctors involved to say, ‘We’ve never seen anything like this with this disease.’ And my friend said to them, ‘Well, I attribute it to the fact that fellow-Christians have been praying for me.’ And one of the doctors cuttingly said, ‘Well, believe that if you want to’ – as if to say, ‘Something else must be the real explanation – but cling to yours if it helps you.’ And my friend didn’t let him get away with that. He said, ‘Well, actually I don’t just believe it because it helps me. I believe it because there’s good evidence that Jesus rose from the dead, and I therefore take these test results to show that he’s still answering people’s prayers.’
So, that’s the first way these miracles fit Luke’s big theme of the spread of the gospel to all people in all places: in this case, they did play a part in people coming to faith.
But they serve that big theme in another way, too. Because Luke’s also interested in things that threaten the spread of the gospel, and how the risen Lord Jesus overcomes them. So, eg, the biggest threat we’ve seen so far is earlier in chapter 9 – Saul persecuting the church. How does the risen Lord overcome the threat? By converting him.
And similarly, the two things dealt with at the end of chapter 9 – sickness and death within the church – are also potential threats to the spread of the gospel, because they can shake the faith of believers and leave them unable to share the gospel any more – even struggling to believe it any more. Eg, I know of one couple who for a long time professed to be Christians. They got married, had a little boy but he died of leukemia just a few years later. And they’d no longer call themselves Christians. They’d say, ‘We just couldn’t go on believing in a God who’d let that happen.’ I know another family where the son was badly and permanently injured in an accident, and the father would now say, ‘I think I’ve really lost my faith.’
So sickness and death within the church are potential threats to the spread of the gospel. Because Christians in that kind of state can barely be positive witnesses for Christ – when they’re saying, ‘I just can’t reconcile my experience with the claim that Jesus is Lord – so I’m beginning to think Jesus isn’t Lord, after all.’
Well I think Luke also put in these two miracles to teach us how to reconcile the Lordship of Jesus with the realities of sickness and death. So that brings us to my second heading:
Second, THE LORDSHIP OF JESUS AND SICKNESS (vv32-35)
Look again down to v33:
There he found a man named Aeneas, a paralytic who had been bedridden for eight years.
Now I take it we’re to assume he’s one of the Christians. Which means he must have become a Christian while he was a paralytic. Which is a reminder that the Lord Jesus can bring people to trust in him even when they’re suffering serious sickness or disability.
Now why do I mention that? Well, because it’s easy to think of such people as almost impossibly hard to share the gospel with. In fact what they’re suffering can become such a barrier in our minds that it stops us even trying. Because we think to ourselves, ‘The moment I say anything about God, they’re bound to ask me, ‘So why did he let this happen?’’
But we need to remember Luke’s theme that the Lord wants the gospel to go to all kinds of people, across all the barriers you can think of. And if our inability to talk Biblically and sensitively about suffering is stopping us sharing the gospel with someone who is suffering, we need to read and think and learn about how to do so.
But above all, we need to believe that the Lord Jesus can bring people to trust in him even when they’re suffering serious sickness or disability. It’s not an insuperable barrier.
Eg, I vividly remember helping with a university mission in Oxford. And a guy in a wheelchair was lifted onto the stage to give his testimony. And he began like this: ‘I’m studying physics here at Oxford University. But that is not important. I’m in this wheelchair because of a car crash. But that, also, is not important. What I’m here to say is that, thanks to Jesus, I am a forgiven person – and that most certainly is important.’ And you could have heard a pin drop as he went on to say that he had no answer to the question, ‘Why me?’, but that he understood that these things happen in a fallen world and that the important thing is that he’d be able to walk again beyond this life when Jesus raised him from the dead.
And it taught me unforgettably that the Lord Jesus is perfectly able to bring people to trust in him even when they’re suffering serious sickness or disability, and that we shouldn’t shrink from trying to share the gospel with them.
So likewise, this man in Acts 9 had become a Christian while a paralytic. Now read on, v34:
"Aeneas," Peter said to him, "Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and take care of your mat." Immediately Aeneas got up.
And in his Gospel and Acts so far, Luke has already explained that such miracles are not meant to show us what will happen every time a believer is sick in this life. They’re meant to show us what will happen when Jesus comes again and believers are raised to life with him beyond this life. They’re visible glimpses, or signs, of Jesus’ Lordship over sickness – for us to hold onto in our normal experience of Jesus being invisible, and of us being prone to sickness, because being a Christian doesn’t make us immune from the effects of a fallen world.
So we’re not to look at Aeneas and say to ourselves, ‘This is what will happen to me in this life, if only I have enough faith.’ We’re to look at Aeneas and say to ourselves, ‘This is what it’ll be like in heaven, in the new creation. This is what I can sustain myself with as I deteriorate physically.’
So, eg, Beethoven’s last words, having gone deaf in his twenties, were, ‘I shall hear in heaven.’ And if his faith was in Christ, he will indeed have been doing so for the last few hundred years.
That’s how we’re to think of the Lordship of Jesus and sickness. In this case – which is not the norm – there was a miraculous healing, which played a part in bringing people to faith in v35. But the normal situation is where we face sickness with no promise or certainty of healing, but simply with faith, based on incidents like this, that Jesus is Lord over sickness, and that we are in his hands. And that too can play a part in bringing people to faith. Eg, a Christian I know who’s had cancer over the past few years was told by a non-Christian family member that he’d been impressed by her faith throughout. Finally, onto my third heading:
Third, THE LORDSHIP OF JESUS AND DEATH (vv36-43)
Look down to vv36-37:
36In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which, when translated, is Dorcas), who was always doing good and helping the poor. 37About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room.
Which is a reminder of the normal experience of believers this side of the return of the Lord Jesus. The risen Lord doesn’t keep his people from dying. He didn’t do so here in this incident. What he did do was to give another sign to show us his power not just over sickness but over death – the culmination of sickness.
And again, we’re not to look at Tabitha and say to ourselves, ‘Every time a believer dies we should pray for them to be restored to us.’ We’re to look at Tabitha and say to ourselves, ‘What we see here is the reality of Jesus’ Lordship in every experience of facing death and bereavement.’ And the reality is that when a believer dies, they are with Jesus and in his hands throughout. And we see how the Christians in Joppa believed that, in vv38-41:
38Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, "Please come at once!" [Well, why send for one of Jesus’ apostles in the circumstances? Because you believe she is not ultimately in the hands of death, but of Jesus. Read on, v39:] 39Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them. 40Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, "Tabitha, get up." She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. 41He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called the believers and the widows and presented her to them alive.
So here, so that it would be visible and therefore evidence for our faith, Tabitha was resuscitated back to this side of death. But that was a sign of the Lord Jesus’ power to resurrect us out the other side of death – which is currently invisible to us. And this incident is meant to show us that Christians who’ve died are not just dead and gone, they’re dead and now with Jesus. Death hasn’t got them; Jesus has. Which is why Paul writes this to the Thessalonians in 4:13-14:
13Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 14We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep [ie, died] in him.
And this scene in Acts 9 is like a cameo of what Paul says. There is grief, v39, when a Christian dies – of course there is, because of what we’ve lost. But as Paul puts it, we don’t ‘grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.’ Because although we’re painfully aware of what we’ve lost, with a Christian we can also be joyfully aware of what they’ve gained, and that we will one day re-join them in it.
That’s how we’re to think of the Lordship of Jesus and death. And again, in this case – which is not the norm – there was a miraculous resuscitation, which played a part in bringing people to faith in v42. But the normal situation is where we face death with no promise of resuscitation back to this side, but with the promise of resurrection out the other side. And as we live by faith in that promise, it can play a powerful part in pointing people to Christ. So, eg, as I’ve mentioned once before, a Christian friend was recently told by his consultant that he had cancer and probably only a year to live. And he was able to say to the consultant, ‘You may not understand this, but, to me, what you’ve just said is more a sentence of life than a sentence of death.’ And confidence like that in the face of sickness, and ultimately death, can be as compelling to our hopeless generation as these miracles we’ve been looking at tonight.