The Woman Whose Dressmaking Made Her Famous
Scripture Reference—Acts 9:36-43
Name Meaning—Dorcas implies “the female of a roebuck,” “a gazelle”—an emblem of beauty. Dorcas is the first Greek name of a female in the New Testament, its Hebrew equivalent being Tabitha which is the Syro-Chaldaic form of the Hebrew Zibiah, or Tsibiah, the name of a princess of Judah, the mother of King Joash. Wilkinson says that “the Greek equivalent for her Syriac name may be accounted for by her residence at Joppa, a seaport much frequented, and no doubt partially inhabited by foreigners speaking chiefly the Greek language.”
Family Connections—The Bible is silent concerning the parentage and genealogy of Dorcas. In the seaport town of Joppa she became known for her acts of charity and is the namesake for a charitable group named the Dorcas Society. Here was a woman “who with her needle embroidered her name ineffaceably into the beneficence of the world.” Where did she learn to sew, make garments for the poor and become notable for her charitable works? It could possibly have been in a godly home that she was taught how to use her fingers and her funds for the comfort and relief of the needy. Dorcas must have been a woman of means to serve humanity as freely as she did. We have five glimpses of her witness and work in the historical account Luke gives us.
She Was a Christian
She is called, “a certain disciple,” and is thus included among the numerous disciples mentioned in the New Testament. Through the Spirit-empowered ministry of Philip the evangelist, a Christian Church was established at Joppa—now known as Jaffa—and from an early date the church was not only a center of fervent evangelism but also of a well-organized social service. Possibly Dorcas came to know Christ as her Saviour in this church, and there caught the vision of how she could serve Christ with her money and her needle. Dorcas knew what it was to have a regenerated heart and this was the source of her unselfish life and charitable acts. Behind her sewing of garments was a saved soul. Giving of alms, and the making of garments in themselves gain no merit with God who, first of all, claims our hearts before our talents. It was only when Mary Magdalene was recovered from her stained past, that Christ accepted her desire to minister to His wants.
In our churches and also in commendable societies there are many public-spirited women who, with humanitarian ideals, are engaged in various relief activities, and whose sole object is to do good. But they are not actuated by Christ. Trying to emulate Dorcas, they lack her Christian discipleship, forgetting that caring for widows and others in need springs from “pure religion” which also reveals itself in keeping oneself unspotted from the world (James 1:26, 27). When Luke says that Dorcas was full of good works, he meant the word “full” to refer primarily to her inward grace, which prompted the outward deeds. “Good works are only genuine and Christian when the soul of the performer is imbued with them.” The cup of cold water to be acceptable must be given in His name. With Dorcas, then, being good meant doing good. Her manifold good works flowed from a heart grateful to God for His saving grace.
Lange the commentator says that “The gazelle is distinguished for its slender and beautiful form, its graceful movements and its soft but brilliant eyes; it is frequently introduced by the Hebrews and other Oriental nations as an image of female loveliness, and the name was often employed as a proper name, in the case of females.” Whether Dorcas, whose name means “gazelle,” was a beautiful woman or not we are not told. She certainly lived a lovely life, and had eyes reflecting the compassion of the Master whom she so faithfully served. All whom she influenced and helped saw in her the beauty of Jesus. As a disciple she certainly had faith in the One who had called her, but she came to see that faith without works is dead. She also knew that works without faith gained no merit with God, and so the hands that dispensed alms and made garments were inwardly inspired by Him whose hands were nailed to a tree.
She Was a Philanthropist
Dorcas the believer was likewise Dorcas the benefactress. “This woman was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did.” How significant are these last three words! Too many well-meaning people sit around and talk about charitable works they never do. Sometimes they propose these works and leave others to execute them. Dorcas not only thought up ways of relieving the needy, but she also carried out her plans. Which she did! She knew what she could do, and did it. Studying the female characters of Scripture it is interesting to discover how several of them are conspicuous for one grace or work of mercy, or for another.
Rizpah we remember because of her loving care of the dead.
The widow of Zarephath for giving bread to the hungry.
Anna the prophetess for her fastings and prayers day and night.
Martha, as the queen of gracious hospitality.
Mary for her box of fragrant ointment.
Joanna, and her ministering unto Jesus.
Dorcas, for her care of widows and clothing the poor.
Further, a few Bible characters have inspired profitable institutions for the welfare of human society—
Mary Magdalene—home for wayward and lost girls.
Lazarus—whose name has been given to hospitals caring for the sick and poor.
Dorcas—source and inspiration of Dorcas Societies all over the world.
Among her good works was that of fashioning coats and garments for widows and the needy of her church and community with her own loving hands. The practical, unselfish service of this Christian philanthropist has filled the world with fragrance, for there flowed out of that little city of Joppa a multitude of benevolent and charitable organizations in which women have been prominent. The question came to Dorcas as it did to Moses when he felt he was not the man to deliver Israel from Egyptian bondage, “What is that in thine hand?” And Moses answered, “A rod” (Exodus 4:2). And that rod became the symbol of delegated divine power. “What is that in thine hand?” the Lord asked Dorcas. She said, “A needle,” and He took what she had and she stitched for Christ’s sake. All praise, then, to the needle that represented practical benevolence among the needy. The garments Dorcas cut out and sewed represented Christian faith in action. “I was naked and ye clothed me,” said Jesus of those who clothed His poor and destitute children.
She Was Mourned and Missed
It was a sad day for the church at Joppa when one of its most beloved and devoted members died in the midst of her works of charity. “Death loves a shining mark, a signal blow,” and death certainly found such a mark in the bountiful Dorcas whose passing was a blow to the community. The vessel containing the costly ointment was broken, and the odor filled the house as never before. Kind hands washed the corpse and placed it in the upper chamber, with feelings expressed by the poet—
Sister, thou wast mild and lovely,
Gentle as the summer breeze,
Pleasant as the air of morning
When it floats among the trees.
While Dorcas doubtless owned her home, she seemed to have no relatives to mourn her going. The widows she had clothed and to whom she had been a friend laid her out; and great grief prevailed. Although so diligent on behalf of others, Dorcas died in the midst of a useful life. The writer had a preacher-friend who always said that he would like to die with his boots on—and he did, one Sunday morning, while preaching the Gospel. Is it possible that Dorcas had a sudden call with her needle in hand? What a grand way to go!
She Was Raised From the Dead
Her fellow disciples at the church where she had worshiped, learning that Peter was nearby, sent two members to beseech the apostle to visit the grief-stricken company. They knew that he had exercised supernatural power, and doubtless entertained the hope that their greatly-loved benefactress might live again. Like the faithful minister that he was, Peter did not delay in accompanying the two men to the death chamber at Joppa where the weeping widows were assembled. The apostle must have been moved as they reverently exhibited the coats and garments Dorcas had made for them. Then after Christ’s example at the raising of Jairus' daughter, “Peter put them all forth, and kneeled down, and prayed” (see John 11:41, 42). When he felt his request had been received, Peter spake the word of power and authority, “Tabitha, arise,” and life returned. Dorcas sat up, and Peter presented her alive to the saints and widows (compare Matthew 9:25; Mark 5:40, 41).
What a moving scene that must have been! What joy must have prevailed among her fellow-saints and the widows, now that their much-loved Dorcas was alive again, and in her resurrected life, with fuller dedication to the service of the Master, was willing to take up her needle again. Her return from death must have been a great gain to her church. Her only pang was that she would have to sicken again and for the second time enter the gates of death.
She Was the Cause of Revival
The resurrection of Dorcas had a twofold effect. First of all, the miracle comforted the mourners for she had returned to her life of good works and almsdeeds. This miracle was thus like our Lord’s miracles—one of mercy. The second effect was to convince all of the truth of the Christian faith attested as it was by miraculous power. Throughout Joppa the message rang, “Dorcas is alive again,” and “many believed in the Lord.” The miracle in that upper chamber, then, was not a miracle for the sake of a miracle. Dorcas raised from physical death became the cause of the resurrection of many from their graves of sin and unbelief. How the church at Joppa must have increased its membership through the many who were saved as the result of the return of Dorcas from the realm of death. After the resurrection of Lazarus we read that many of the Jews believed on Jesus. Is not the same true in a spiritual resurrection? A transformed life attracts others to the Saviour. We read that after the miracle, Peter stayed in Joppa for many days, and we can assume that his ministry greatly helped the church there in the establishment of the new converts. Peter stayed with Simon the tanner, a saint who prepared skins for leather to the glory of God, just as Dorcas made up her garments with consecrated hands.
A lesson to bear in mind as we part with our saintly benefactress is that she was unconscious of the magnificent work she was doing and of its far-reaching consequences. Dorcas did not aspire to be a leader, but was content to stay in her own home and try to do all she could in all the ways she could. Thus, in spite of herself, she became a great leader in an almost universal philanthropic cause, just as “The Lady of the Lamp,” Florence Nightingale, did when she went to Crimea to care for the wounded, dying soldiers on the field of battle. May grace be ours to do whatever our hands find to do, as unto the Lord!