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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Joppa Cakes


 


"As Peter travelled about the country, he went to visit the Lord’s people who lived in Lydda.

Acts 9:32


The very last thing which the risen Jesus said to his disciples before he was taken up into heaven, as recorded in Acts 1:8, was, ‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’. What did the disciples do when Jesus left? They stared into space! Acts 1:10-11 says, ‘they were looking intently up into the sky’. ‘Suddenly two men dressed in white’ appeared. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky?’ In effect, the disciples were being told, ‘Don’t stay in this position – God’s given you a mission’. So, they got moving. We are now nine chapters into this book of Acts. How is the mission going?


In the early chapters, the ‘Jerusalem’ bit of the mission was covered. Thousands of people came to faith in Jesus Christ through the witness of these men. Peter was very much a lead spokesperson for that group of early Christians and his life of service for Christ was a point of real focus. Then we looked at an issue that arose in church life – some things never change – where certain needy widows were inadvertently being neglected. The church showed real, God-given wisdom in finding a solution to that crisis. Seven servants were selected to serve these people. Two of those men, Stephen and Philip, then featured in subsequent chapters. Stephen was the first Christian martyr – put to death for refusing to renounce his faith in Jesus. It was a powerful witness but also led to a time of great persecution of believers, who were then scattered away from Jerusalem. We considered how this was all in God’s overruling purpose. The gospel message was then taken outside the Jerusalem boundary, by the scattered church, into Judea and Samaria. Philip was one of those people. He was a significant evangelist – he preached the saving message about Jesus wherever he went.


Lastly, in the first part of Acts 9 we witnessed the conversion of a man with two names – Saul/Paul. He was a hard-hearted, Jesus hater, until Jesus touched his heart and changed his life forever. We read about God’s promise that Saul would take the gospel message further afield as God’s ‘chosen instrument’. Finally, it appeared that the last words of Jesus were going to come true – the message about him was going to be taken outside of the limits of that relatively local area, and ‘to the ends of the earth’. This would be a huge change. What is certain, when we read these Acts accounts, is that the church would never have got about to accomplishing this mission left to themselves. They wouldn’t. They couldn’t. But God could and God would. A revolution was about to take place. It was a time of great change. But it needed a change of heart – it needed a change of understanding. The early-church leaders, like Peter, didn’t grasp the full extent of what Jesus meant. Peter’s view was still somewhat stuck. He had a mind-set still heavily influenced by his old Jewish way of life. In the next chapters, Acts 10-11, Peter’s view, and that of the wider church will change dramatically. How is that going to happen?


Proverbs 2:6 says this, ‘…the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding’. That was how it was going happen. Once again, the Lord was going to give the knowledge and understanding to equip his people for his service.


But, before we get to that we are now re-introduced to Peter. We stay with him for the next 3½ chapters, before the remainder of the book of Acts focuses on the ministry of Saul/Paul. We are, like the children’s song, going to ‘Go! Let's go, round the Mediterranean. Go! Let's go, with the Gospel and Paul. Go! Let's go, all around the world - Telling everybody that Jesus is Lord’… but not quite yet!


So, what is Peter doing at this moment in time? Acts 9:32 tells us that he ‘travelled about the country’. I like to go on long walks. What is the reason why I go on long walks? As if I need another reason! But Peter wasn’t just intent on getting some countryside ‘R & R’. He may have enjoyed walking, but his purpose in travelling was to visit ‘the Lord’s people’. Some of our modern translations perhaps lose something here. Many of them go with something very similar to our NIV. It helps us to clarify, who we are talking about. But, in the original Greek language, which Acts was written in, there is a really important word that tells us something about ‘the Lord’s people’. They are holy.


The word in the original is ‘hagios’. It means holy. Elsewhere, it is often combined with another word in the Greek original. That word is ‘pneuma’. We derive our English words, ‘pneumatic’ and ‘pneumonia’ from this word. ‘Pneumatic’ describes something operated by air. ‘Pneumonia’ is similar – it is a serious lung infection that affects our ability to extract the vital oxygen from the air. It inhibits our breath. ‘Hagios pneuma’ means holy breath, or more properly, ‘Holy Spirit’. That is how our Bible translates it. But that same word, ‘Hagios’ which describes the Spirit of our Lord as ‘Holy’, is used to describe the Lord’s people as holy. And in the original they aren’t being called ‘holy people’. If we translated verse 32 word for word, we would end up with something like, ‘he (Peter) came down also to the holy who lived in Lydda’. They are the holy, the saints. In fact that is how the more word-for-word bible versions translate this – the ESV, NASB and the AKJV all call this group, which Peter visited, ‘the saints’.


This may make us shudder! We may think, ‘I thought I was a believer, but I would never describe myself as holy – a saint - are you sure about this?’ I am. But we must understand this word, not according to our own preconceptions, but in the way in which the Bible frames it. ‘Holy’ is a word, and a concept, which appears a lot in the Old Testament. It describes objects and garments and people involved in the Jewish ceremonial worship of God. In order to be ‘holy’, these things had to undergo a ritual purification. They couldn’t be used in God’s service just as they were. They needed to be made special by cleansing or by being sprinkled with the blood of animals offered in sacrifice to Jehovah God. They needed to be set apart from the ordinary before they could serve. And that is what the Bible often means by ‘holy’. It is something separated from other things that may look very similar. Something set apart for the Lord’s service.


This is how it is with the ‘Lord’s people’. If we have not come to faith in Christ Jesus, how can we be used in service of the Lord to further his kingdom? We can’t. Yes, our Lord can overrule in his providence and allow people to do things that fit his plan, like we considered with Saul/Paul, before his conversion, where his aggressive actions resulted in the scattering of the church, which actually led to church growth. But how did, even under those circumstances, the good news message of Jesus actually reach people. It was carried by those who were set apart from others to carry it. People who had personal experience of its personal value. People who already believed it. People whose lives had been turned around by it. People of the Lord – ‘the Lord’s people’ – those whose lives were now in his hands – now made ready to serve him.


I’ve mentioned already that Peter’s view, at this moment in time, was heavily influenced by his Jewish upbringing, but that this was soon to change. Later, when he has been a believer for many years he wrote two of the letters which form part of our Bible record. In the first letter (1 Peter 1 18), he gives his new found estimation of the inherent value of those old Jewish rituals. He calls them ‘empty’ - ‘the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors’. That section in our NIV is titled ‘Be Holy’. He is reminding ‘the Lord’s people’ about how they have been made holy – how they have been set apart for the Lord’s service. It wasn’t through ritual performance or animal sacrifice, ‘but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect’.


So, Peter was visiting these people, purchased by Jesus at Calvary’s cross. First, he arrives at Lydda and heals a man named Aeneas. Or does he? Peter seems to think not – we see it in his language to this man, in verse 34. Peter says, ‘Aeneas… Jesus Christ heals you’. This man could have thought, and who could blame him, ‘Who is this madman? What is this nonsense?’ He could have stayed where he was. He could have remained immobile forever. But he didn’t. He believed. He ‘got up’. And, once again, this was a ‘sign’. People saw this and understood the message that it had for them. That is what a sign is for. If a sign doesn’t tell us something then it’s a pretty rubbish sign! This sign told them that there really was power in the name of Jesus. Aeneas experienced the miracle of physical healing, which seems to have been a feature of these times. But many others experienced a greater miracle. This is a miracle that is in no way limited to the era in which Jesus lived on earth, and when the early church began. ‘Jesus Christ heals you’ is a miracle of inward change, which holds true for anyone and everyone who believes it. And many people did in that place, ‘in Lydda and (the plain) of Sharon… and turned to the Lord’ (v.35).


Next, Peter goes to Joppa, where we read of another miraculous sign. But let’s pause for a moment because the geography is important, I think. I have mentioned Philip. In Acts 8, we left him in Caesarea. He had just preached Christ Jesus to a eunuch from Ethiopia, and baptised that believing man, who then ‘went on his way rejoicing’. Acts 8:40 then continues with, ‘Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and travelled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea’. This connects us with Peter here in Acts 9. Now, you may be thinking, ‘Does it? Are you sure? I’m a bit lost.’ Well, let’s do what we should always do when we feel a bit lost – let’s get out a map!


Peter visits Lydda and Joppa. Then, in Acts 10, he is called to journey on to Caesarea. From a map we see that he was following in Philip’s footsteps. Philip preached the gospel in all the towns between Azotus and Caesarea. This would surely include Lydda and Joppa. We should rejoice at this. In Acts 9 a period of time has now passed since the good news message was first brought to these places. But we see evidence of thriving churches - what an encouragement! The Lord’s ‘holy’ people are found in Lydda. And, from verse 36 onwards, we have a wonderful window into church life in Joppa.


So, does anyone know what food Joppa is famous for? What if I told you that it’s modern day name is not Joppa, but Jaffa? What food is Jaffa famous for? It isn’t Jaffa cakes! It’s Jaffa oranges. Their thick skin makes them a particularly durable fruit. They are exported around the world where their excellent flavour is enjoyed. Actually, I have a question about Jaffa cakes – why are they called Jaffa cakes? It is because of what is at their heart. They have an orange bit in the middle. They have a Jaffa orange heart, and so they are called ‘Jaffa’ cakes. Perhaps this can be used to illustrate my earlier point.


Why are the Lord’s people called ‘holy’? Because of what is at their heart – a new, holy, heart, now set apart for the Lord’s service, given to them when they put their trust in Jesus. I mentioned this in my last message, referring you to the promise found in Jeremiah 31:33. This promise of a new heart and spirit is also found in the promises of Ezekiel 11:19 and 36:26. This is what the Lord desires to see in his new ‘holy’. And he does see it. Let us look through the window into church life at Jaffa/Joppa and observe this lady Tabitha as the Lord, and others, observed her.


These verses are ostensibly about a life restored – a miracle. Actually, I think they have a lot to say about a life that already existed. They seem designed to highlight a person made truly beautiful by the Lord’s life changing power. She already had a beautiful name, or names. In the Aramaic language she was known as Tabitha. Those who spoke Greek, knew her as Dorcas. In both these languages, her name literally means ‘gazelle’, which is a most beautifully coloured small antelope. An attractive name – a more attractive life! Look at the way she was valued by the Lord’s people. When they thought she had died they were distraught. She did so much for others. Her loss was tremendous.


The way that the church valued her contains a real lesson for church life. We are inclined to create, in our minds, a hierarchy within our churches. At the top we place people who have lovely words. How often within church life the person who preaches becomes the ‘main man’. They are considered the most important – the most vital – for the Church to prosper. That isn’t what I see when I look through Joppa’s church window. Acts 9, highly values Tabitha/Dorcas. It doesn’t show her thinking pleasant thoughts. It doesn’t have her speaking flowery words. It does have her doing – ‘always doing’ - ‘always doing good and helping the poor’. It was her actions that were perfumed. They smelt of a principle. I suspect that Philip may have influenced this church’s thinking, when it was first established. He may well have passed on this principle, which he developed when called to provide for the needy widows in Jerusalem’s church. But this didn’t originate with Philip. This is a principle rooted in Philip’s Lord and Master. It comes straight from Calvary’s cross, where Jesus laid down his life for his people.


What was it that Tabitha was doing? She spent her time making clothes for those in her Church family, and perhaps those in the wider community, who were experiencing poverty. In Roman times, people often only had one outfit. If that wore out and you had no income, then what happened? Here, Dorcas covered those who, without her, would have been left, at best, filthy, at worst, naked and exposed. How like Jesus?! Without him, what would we be like? The prophet Isaiah illustrates the reality of fallen humankind found outside of God’s saving plan. He says that even if we are clothed with our very best, ‘righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags’ (Isaiah 64:6 NLT). But, when we come to Christ to cover us, we become like the lost son in the parable of Jesus in Luke 15:11-32. ‘He came to his senses’ and recognised the filth that covered him and returned home to his father full of repentance. He was met with compassion and the ‘the best robe’ was put on him. It is like Isaiah also prophesied. ‘He has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness’ (Isaiah 61 10). Wow! That will make us ‘holy’! How should we react to this? Isaiah says, ‘I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God’.


What Tabitha/Dorcas did for others was motivated by what had been done for her by Jesus. Paul, in Romans 12:1, urges the Lord’s people. He says, ‘I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship’.


Verse 39 tells us about the widows showing Peter ‘the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made’. She was quite obviously very skilled with her hands. But Acts 9 isn’t really highlighting the quality of her work. It is highlighting the greater quality of her (holy) heart.


The Lord was very merciful to that infant church in Joppa. They really needed Dorcas and Peter miraculously resuscitated her. And what further mercy was extended? - This was yet another sign that was read and understood in Joppa’s streets. Verse 42 tells us that, as a result, ‘many people believed in the Lord’.


Dorcas would eventually die. The clothing that she made has long gone. But the window into her life – a life made beautiful by Christ - is still open for us to look into. Like Abel, in Hebrews 11:4, ‘by faith (Dorcas) still speaks, even though (she) is dead’. She is an example of faithful, holy, service. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11:1, ‘Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ’. Dorcas followed Jesus Christ. We are meant to imitate her.


To sum up, then – how can we be more ‘holy’? As ‘the Lord’s people’ this should be our desire. Let us follow these wonderful, living, picture examples from God’s own word, to help us in our Christian journey to know what we need not do and what we need to do. My summary to finish today is this:-


Don’t be a dork! Be a Dorcas!

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