Acts 9:20-43, "Jesus and the Ordinary"

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What is something that has changed your life that was done by an ordinary person? There’s probably a lot of things. Most of our lives are not the highlight reel. Most of our lives are the ordinary things of life like friends, and clothes, and beds, and backpacks. Does Jesus use these things in His work of expanding the kingdom of God among us? Can we as a community on mission with Jesus leverage these ordinary elements of our lives as ordinary people to participate with Jesus in His work?
Our passage today shows us that even in uneventful times, Jesus does extraordinary work in ordinary people. What could He be doing in your life right now that might impact His kingdom and our world for years to come?

Jesus Puts Paul on the Shelf

Our first example of Jesus doing extraordinary work in an ordinary person is the Apostle Paul. You might say, “the Apostle Paul was no ordinary person.” And just two weeks ago, we saw that Jesus Christ, the risen and glorified king dramatically changed the course of the life of Saul of Tarsus because He had big plans for Him. He would take this brilliant, rising rabbinical star, and transform him from persecutor of Jesus’ disciples to an apostle of Jesus to the nations.
But this week, what we read is that this new brilliant, gifted, radical convert to faith in Jesus gets totally sidelined for ministry for ten years or more.
Our passage starts out like the story of many people who radically receive new life in Christ. Saul wants to tell everybody about Jesus. He is on fire. Once he realized that Jesus was the fulfillment of all his hopes and the promises of his beloved scriptures, he couldn’t keep it to himself. Luke tells us in Acts 9:19 that for “some days” Saul was with the disciples at Damascus, and immediately he proclaimed Jesus as the Son of God. And this got him in a lot of trouble. Because the same people he had partnered with in persecuting Christians didn’t like very much that he had gone over to their side. And Luke says in Acts 9:23
Acts 9:23 ESV
When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him,
Another good translation would be “a considerable number of days passed”.
What Luke leaves out, but Paul writes in a letter to the churches of Galatia (a region of what is now central Turkey) is that this “considerable number of days” was a period of three years. And some of this time was spent by Saul on a personal prayer retreat in the desert of Arabia seeking the Lord and meditating on the meaning of the gospel.
So far, Saul has a very limited scope to his ministry. And it ends in what appears to be failure, being lowered through an opening in the city wall in a basket to escape a plot to kill him.
Saul heads to Jerusalem, where the Christians still don’t trust him, and don’t accept him, until he makes one friend. Barnabas brings him to the apostles to tell his story, which gives him a little credibility. And now, back among his own people, the Hellenistic Jews, he does what he had been doing in Damascus with the same result.
Acts 9:29 ESV
And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him.
So, the Christian brothers in the Jerusalem church send Saul of Tarsus home. Our passage leaves the great Apostle to the Nations on the shelf, back where he started. For eight more years.
What is going on? Jesus has changed Saul’s life and told him His big plans. And Saul got right to work. But then everywhere he goes, barriers go up, everyone’s trying to kill him, and he’s on the run.
But there is more going on than meets the eye. Could Jesus have been doing an extraordinary work in Saul during a time of frustration, failure, and flight? Jesus used Saul’s time in Damascus and Jerusalem disputing with opponents to sharpen his theology of Jesus as the Messiah into a razor sharp clarity that has guided the church for 2,000 years. He used their opposition and threats to build perseverance and faith in Jesus, so that he could say later,
Romans 5:3–5 (ESV)
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Saul’s time in the desert taught him to value Christ more than acceptance from others. And it redefined success.
Philippians 3:8 (ESV)
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ
It taught him the sufficiency of Christ and the love of Jesus for him personally. This led to a great contentment.
Philippians 4:12–13 (ESV)
I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Saul, who would one day become Paul, the great Apostle to the nations just as Jesus had said, became that person not despite the setbacks and frustrations, but because of them. That’s an extraordinary work Jesus did in Saul when he was just an ordinary Christian, a fugitive with only one friend, and put on a shelf for a decade.
Have you ever felt put on the shelf? Do you measure success by how many people like you or how many big things you accomplish? Maybe our success has more to do with what Jesus does in us during times of failure and frustration. Maybe He can even use failure and frustration to form us into the kind of person He will use in the lives of others as a demonstration of perseverance, faith, and contentment in Christ.
After Saul gets sent home, Luke tells us the church enters into a very uneventful period. The persecution Saul was leading has dissipated.
Acts 9:31 (ESV)
So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.
This is the way life should be. Jesus uses this uneventful period to perform two more extraordinary works in the lives of two ordinary Christians.

Jesus Puts Aeneas Back on His Feet

Peter used the time of peace and comfort of the Holy Spirit to build up the Christians around Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. Jesus’ command is starting to be realized, slowly. Peter goes down from Jerusalem to the town of Lydda, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. In Lydda was a man named Aeneas, who had been paralyzed in bed for eight years. When Peter finds him,
Acts 9:34 (ESV)
And Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed.” And immediately he rose.
This passage with the detail about rising and making the bed reads just like the gospel accounts in Mark 2 and John 5 of Jesus healing other men, one who had been lame for thirty-eight years, and He told them to get up, pick up their beds, and walk. And Peter makes it clear that this healing was not something he had done. “Jesus Christ heals you.” Jesus is continuing His work through the Apostles. And everyone in that region turns to Jesus.
Aeneas is just an ordinary man. But he’s important to Jesus. Everywhere Jesus went, he showed compassion for those in need and healed them. What did Aeneas or any of these people do for Jesus in return? We have no idea. Except that their very lives were a testimony to His healing power. In the end, the story is not about what we accomplish for Jesus, but what He accomplishes in us. For those of us that are able, getting up in the morning and making our bed and giving thanks to Jesus for another day on your feet might be the only thing he asks of you on an otherwise uneventful day.
Jesus does one more extraordinary work for one more ordinary Christian.

Jesus Puts Tabitha Back in Action

Word of Jesus’ healing of Aeneas spreads to nearby towns. One of those is Joppa, where some disciples of Jesus had already formed a church.
Acts 9:36 (ESV)
Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity.
Tabitha probably had some money. We find out that one way she did good works was making clothes for widows. In those days, most working class people had one set of clothes. They would wear a tunic, like a long shirt. And they would have a cloak to put over it on cold nights. A widow would have had very little means to buy new clothes. Tabitha’s Christianity was just the kind that Jesus and the apostles commend to us, clothing the naked and caring for widows all rolled into one. The sudden loss of Tabitha is a great blow to Joppa.
What happens next, again sounds like the passage we read about Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus in Mark 5. Peter sends all the mourners out of the room. But then, because he’s not Jesus, he prays. What will Jesus do? Whatever Peter heard back in prayer gives him the go-ahead. He speaks to Tabitha and she rises. Jesus has done another extraordinary work.
What’s remarkable about this passage is the ending. Aeneas was a non-contributor to his church. Just an ordinary person. Tabitha is a somebody, an important person in the church, a contributor. And Jesus just used Peter to raise her from the dead. Extraordinary. This is the perfect opportunity to form a strategic partnership. Tabitha's home could be a base for Peter’s apostolic miracle ministry. Maybe that’s how we would do things.
Acts 9:43 (ESV)
And he stayed in Joppa for many days with one Simon, a tanner.
Side note for context: in a culture in which handling dead bodies made you an unclean person, tanners were among the lower class. They had a little money, but only because they did the job no one else wanted to do. They would not have been in society with pious religious people. Peter chooses to stay with Simon anyway.
Where do you and I fit in all this? We have a diverse set of gifts and callings. Some of us are Sauls, full of promise but frustrated by barriers. Some of us are Aeneases, in need of the help of others. Some of us are Tabithas, contributing a practical service with what means we have. But whatever kind of person you may be, this passage show us a common theme. The plot of Acts is not moving forward in this passage. The gospel is not going to new places. The apostle Paul has just gone home for eight years. But in these uneventful days, Jesus at work.
When you read this passage, you can’t help but see Luke’s details about everyday things like baskets and friends and beds and clothes. But you also can’t help but see Jesus at work in the ordinary. He is at work in the lives of ordinary people, doing extraordinary things. He doesn’t need super-apostles or strong people or wealthy people. He can make you into any of those if He chooses. But He can also do extraordinary things in you and through you just as you are. If you are looking to Jesus, expecting Him to work, not waiting for some big event, your long periods of waiting can produce a faith the rest of us will learn from you. Your praise of Jesus for getting you out of bed in the morning can be a testimony to His reality in your life. And every disciple of Jesus has one thing in common. We were all raised from the dead. We were dead in our trespasses and sins. But God, rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ.
Questions for discussion
What is coming up in your week ahead? Where is Jesus at work in one of these everyday events?
Why would Jesus call Saul into ministry and then give him adversity and put him on a shelf for 10 or 11 years? What does that teach us for the times we feel like we’ve been put on a shelf?
How have you seen your faith grow during times of frustration or failure?
What are some ways we are learning to walk in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit as a church? Are there ways we can grow in this area?
How has Jesus healed you, put you back on your feet, or granted you strength to become more active in the life of the church?
What is the value of practical service like Tabitha gave to widows and the poor in the life of the church? What can we do to encourage and celebrate the ministry of Tabithas in our church?
What do we learn about the relationship between Jesus and His disciples in this passage?
What is one way you will respond to this passage this week?
Who is someone you could share this passage with this week?
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