A Tribute to the First Female Disciple

Posted on November 17, 2020

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By David Ettinger

Unfairly Overlooked
Chapters 9 and 10 of the Book of Acts are absolute behemoths of Church history. Chapter 9 deals primarily with Saul’s conversion to Christianity. Chapter 10, which focuses on the apostle Peter, concerns the Gospel’s expansion to include Gentiles.

However, tucked into the middle of these two towering accounts is a wonderful narrative which unfairly gets overlooked because of its placement. The narrative is found in Acts 9:36-43 and concerns a woman named Tabitha, who has the honor of being attributed with two “firsts.”

Quick Background
Who is Tabitha? Verse 36 tells us: “In Joppa there was a disciple name Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor.”

The city is important not because of its location, but because of the notable personality who was nearby. Joppa (located near modern-day Tel Aviv) was 12 miles from the city of Lydda (modern-day Lod), a crucial piece of information.

Tabitha (her Aramaic name; her Greek name Dorcas, which means “gazelle”), is referred to as “a disciple.” This is significant as she is the first woman in the Bible referred to as such. This does not necessarily mean she was the first female disciple of the Lord Jesus, but she does have the distinction of being so designated.

And what a disciple she was! For the Christian, you can’t do much better than to be described as one who is “always doing good and helping the poor.” This was a woman of profound Christian kindness, consideration, graciousness, and good works.

In verse 39, we read about “the robes and other clothing Dorcas had made while she was still with them.” The connotation is that these were garments she weaved with her own hands and distributed without charge to friends and those in need.

The little we read about Tabitha indicates this was a woman worthy of admiration!

The Crisis
In verse 37, we read these sobering words: “About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room.” We can only imagine the grief experienced by those who loved and admired Tabitha.

However, the key phrase here is, “About that time.” What time was that? It was at that same time that the apostle Peter was ministering 12 miles away in Lydda (v. 32). Knowing this, believers in Joppa sent two men to summon Peter, urging him to “Please come at once” (v. 38).

Why did they do this? After all, Tabitha had already died. Perhaps they believed Peter could return Tabitha to life? Note, however, that to this point, there is no recorded biblical account of a mortal being raised to life in the Church era.

The Miracle
Peter returned to Joppa with the messengers and made his way to the upstairs room. We read: “Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning to the dead woman, he said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up.”

With this miracle, Tabitha – the first-named woman disciple in all of Scripture – also became the first mortal – man or woman – recorded in Church-era Scripture as being raised from the dead.   

The Glorious Result
God never does anything without a purpose, and the purpose for this miracle was monumental: “This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord” (v. 42).

God’s purpose for allowing Tabitha to die in the first place and then miraculously raising her was that the Gospel would be manifested, resulting in the salvation of souls. God used two of His cherished servants – Tabitha and Peter – to accomplish His will.

The Great Lesson
For believers, the story of Tabitha is instructive. What if God said to you or me, “I am going to take your life from you, but in the doing, many people will come to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior”? How would we react? How accepting would we be?     

It is clear God uses His dearest servants for purposes we often cannot comprehend for the much bigger picture we cannot envision. He only asks that we obey Him in faith, and trust that His perfect purposes will work out for good (Romans 8:28).

I can only imagine that once the details of all that had occurred were made known to Tabitha, she was thrilled to have been used in such a dramatic and momentous way. Tabitha was a true woman of God – the first named female disciple and first mortal recorded as being raised from the dead in the Church era – and Scripture has given this wonderful saint her due. Her brief biblical account is a tribute well-deserved!