Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 36: Acts, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
36. And there was a certain disciple at Joppa called Tabitha, which, if you interpret it, is called Dorcas. This woman was full of good works and alms which she did. 37. And it happened in those days that she was sick, and died. And when they had washed her, they laid her in an upper parlour. 38. And forasmuch as Lydda was near to Joppa, the disciples, who had heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him, requesting him that he would come to them.
36. There followeth a more famous token of Christ’s power, by how much it is more hard to restore life to a dead body, than to restore health to a man that is sick. But Luke doth first commend the person of Tabitha on whom the miracle was showed, and that with a double title; to wit, that she was Christ’s disciple, and that she approved her faith with good works and alms. He hath oftentimes already put this word disciple for a Christian man; and lest we should think that that name was proper to men only, he attributeth the same to a woman. And this title teacheth us that Christianity cannot be without doctrine; and that that form of learning is prescribed, that the same Christ may be Master to all. This is the chiefest praise, this is the beginning of holy life, this is the root of all virtues, to have learned of the Son of God the way to live, and the true life. The fruits of good works proceed afterward from faith. By good works I mean the duties of love, wherewith our neighbors are helped; and Luke placeth the chief kind in alms. The commendation of liberality is great, because, as the Holy Ghost doth witness, it containeth in itself the sum of a godly and perfect life. Now we see what titles Tabitha hath. For religion toward God or faith goeth first; secondly, that she exercised herself in helping the brethren, and specially in relieving the poverty of the poor. For by use it is come to pass, that all that help wherewith the poor, and those which are in misery, are helped, is called ελεημοσυνη. Tabitha is rather a Syrian word than an Hebrew, which Luke did turn into Greek, that we might know that it was not like to the virtues of the holy women, and that she was debased in such a simple name; 634 for Dorcas signifieth a goat; but the holiness of her life did easily wipe away the blot of a name not very seemly.
37. It happened that she was sick. He saith in plain words that she was sick, that he may the more plainly express her death which followed. To the same end he saith that the corpse was washed and laid in an upper chamber; therefore, these circumstances serve to make the miracle to be believed. Whereas they carry her not straightway to the grave, but lay her in the upper part of the house, that they may keep her there, we may thereby gather that they had some hope of recovering her life. It is likely that the rite of washing, whereof Luke maketh mention, was most ancient; and I do not doubt but that it came from the holy fathers by continual course of times, as if it had been delivered from hand to hand, that in death itself some visible and of the resurrection might comfort the minds of the godly, and lift them up unto some good hope; to wit, seeing the manifestation of eternal life was not so evident, yea, seeing that Christ, the pledge and substance of eternal life, was not as yet revealed, it was requisite that both the obscurity of doctrine, and also the absence of Christ, should be supplied by such helps. Therefore they washed the bodies of the dead, that they might once 635 stand before the judgment-seat of God, being clean. 636 Finally, there was the same reason for washing the dead which was for the living; the daily washing put them in mind of this, that no man can please God save he who should be purged from his filthiness. So, in the rite of burying, God would have some sign extant whereby men might be admonished that they went polluted out of this life by reason of that filthiness which they had gathered in the world. Washing did no more help those which were dead than burial, but it was used to teach the living; 637 for because death hath some show of destruction, lest it should extinguish the faith of the resurrection, it was requisite that contrary shows should be set against it, that they might represent life in death. The Gentiles also took to themselves this ceremony, for which cause Ennius saith, A good woman did wash and anoint Tarquinius’s corpse. But (their) imitation was but apish 638 in this thing, as in all other ceremonies. And Christians also have taken to themselves this example unadvisedly, as if the observation of a figure used under the law ought to continue always; for at the beginning of the gospel, although the necessity were abolished, yet the use was lawful, until such time as it might grow out of use in tract of time. But the monks do at this day no less imitate Judaism than did the Gentiles in times past, without choice and judgment, for they wash corpses, that they may bury Christ in shadows, which, being buried with him in his grave, ought never to have been used any more.
38. The disciples, which had heard, The washing of the corpse showeth that the disciples knew not what would come to pass, for by this means they make the corpse ready to be buried. Yet this is some token of hope, that they lay her in an upper chamber, and send to Peter. Furthermore, they murmur not against God, neither do they cry out that it is an unmeet thing; but they humbly crave God’s help, not that they will make Tabitha immortal, but their only desire is to have her life prolonged for a time, that she may yet profit the Church.
“Ut sanctae mulieris virtutibus non fuisse conforme sciremus, et in nomine parum honorifico fuisse quasi dejectam,” that we might know that it was not suitable to the virtues of a holy woman, and that she was, as it were, degraded by a name far from honorable.
“Ut pura aliquando ad Dei tribunal sisterentur,” that they might one day stand pure at the judgmentseat of God.
“Quotidianae ablutiones,” their daily ablutions.