Doorways to Diversity

InterVarsity's commitment to ethnic diversity actually began twenty centuries ago in the home of a vo-tech graduate in what is now a suburb of Tel-Aviv. Back then the place was called Joppa, and the graduate was Simon, a tanner. The story is in Acts 10. Peter is the main character and gets most of the press, but without Simon the book of Acts would probably be only half as long. At the beginning of Acts, Jesus had told the disciples that the gospel would start in Jerusalem, swell to include Judea and then scatter to Samaria and beyond. This chapter is where his promise is fulfilled that the gospel would go to the "uttermost parts of the earth."

It is a well-known story of how Peter (also called Simon) had a vision on the rooftop of Simon the tanner's house. While Peter was praying, God directed him to eat food forbidden in the Jewish dietary laws. God was showing Peter a new way to understand the ethnic inclusiveness of the Gospel. The vision concludes with this declaration, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean" (Acts 10:15 NIV). The English rendering "impure" or "unclean" carries the Greek sense of something which is common property being passed around from person to person and becoming defiled and profane. This was essentially the attitude Jews held against the Gentiles. And this is what God was beginning to change in Joppa on the roof top of Simon's house. (If the story is not familiar to you, you might want to pause here and read Acts 10.)

Simon was a tanner -- a fact that Scripture mentions twice. It is not uncommon for Bible folk to be distinguished by their trade, but in this story it is particularly significant. Simon was a Jew, but his trade made him an unclean "outsider" in his own community. Tanners worked with the carcasses of dead animals. For Jews, although tanning was not forbidden, it was considered an "unclean" trade according to the Jewish law. Ceremonial and fairly extensive washings would be mandatory before tanners could hear the Torah read in their synagogues -- let alone worship or sacrifice in the Jerusalem temple.

Simon the tanner was an unlikely host for the Apostle Peter. Peter would have had to take extra precautions to remain kosher, or clean, in the Jewish sense. There were risks involved in associating intimately with Simon. Others had probably offered Peter hospitality, but maybe Simon had asked first or with an eagerness Peter couldn't refuse.

It was also risky for Simon to ask Peter to stay with him. The Apostle might have taken offense or declined his offer. But Simon the tanner was also Simon the Christian. He had been transformed by the Spirit's invasion in his own life. If he inherited his trade from his father, then maybe for the first time Simon knew what it was to be truly and deeply cleansed. He had been made holy by God. So Simon the tanner asked Peter to stay in his home. And Peter, perhaps remembering what it was like to feel like an outsider, to feel "unclean" after his denial of Jesus, agreed to stay with this tanner by the sea. God was already preparing Peter for a ministry he wasn't expecting, to a people he didn't naturally care for -- and, in fact, had been taught to avoid!


It is clear that God was directing Peter to this unlikely roommate in Joppa. And from this seaport, God was intending to send the gospel to the "uttermost parts" of the world. But this wasn't the first time. In the first century, Joppa was famous for piracy. Eight hundred years earlier, it was also the seaport used by the famous Old Testament prophet Jonah when he decided to say "No!" to the call of God. The Lord wanted Jonah to go to Ninevah, the Gentile capital of the nasty and oppressive Assyrian Empire, in order to proclaim God's mercy toward those who would repent. But Jonah fled to Joppa instead. He took a boat to Tarshish, which lay in the opposite direction from Ninevah!

Jonah had no sympathy for the Assyrians. They were godless and ruthless, and the less he had to do with them, the better he'd feel. He did not desire their repentance and had no intention of giving God an opportunity to forgive them, bless them or include them in his plans!

And now, in the first century, nothing had changed but the oppressor's name. Instead of hating the Assyrians, the Jews hated the Romans. Peter knew that Joppa represented God's call to love the unclean. And now Peter was beginning to love the unclean tanner he stayed with. The vision on the roof showed that God accepted the unclean -- and God had repeated that vision three times in a row.


Just as Peter's vision ended, Romans arrived at Simon's home. In keeping with the customary separation of the Jews and non-Jews, these messengers ventured no further than the gate. They had been sent by the Roman centurion Cornelius, and they were asking to see Peter. Cornelius wanted to hear the gospel, and was inviting Peter to his home in Caesarea.

If Simon were to let them in, and if Peter went to this Roman Gentile's home, it would mean breaking every rule of their upbringing since they were knee-high to a rabbi. But in receiving this Gentile delegation, Simon the tanner provided an outworking of Peter's vision on the rooftop. God's new standards of what was clean and unclean began to make sense.

And so, according to Acts 10:23, they invited them in, and the next day Peter went with them. Now Acts 10:23 isn't exactly a verse you'd rush to memorize for its inspirational or doctrinal content. But the book of Acts, the growth of the church and the history of the missionary enterprise hinges on its simple frame. Simon, the homeowner, along with Peter, opened the door. And unlike Jonah, Peter did not get on a boat set for somewhere else.

In a way, Simon hosted the first multiethnic conference in the history of the gospel. And he did so without the benefit of visions or a celestial voice! Simon risked his new sense of acceptance and opened his home to the Roman messengers who were considered more unclean than even he.

Simon understood their longing. It was always clear to the Gentiles that the Jews considered them "unclean." As mentioned before, the biblical word indicates a sense of being "common" or used roughly. Jews looked at Gentiles and saw that they didn't keep themselves apart from things the Jewish law declared defiled. Gentiles were considered a "dirty" people -- passed around like a glass everyone drinks out of, but which no one washes properly. Because of a prejudice based on ethnicity, underscored by watching a life-style that looked filthy, Jews hated Gentiles. Here in Acts 10, God asks Peter and Simon to put an end to generations of hatred.


Who are often considered the "unclean" on your campus? Are they the ethnically "other" whose habits or life-style seem too different? Are they students who are used roughly or are defiled by people or systems set to keep them from holiness? 

Or are they nice folks like Cornelius, religious types attracted to good deeds, but without a sense of grace, forgiveness or love? Are they people who are tough to get close to, easy to misunderstand and often embarrassing? "Outsiders" today can be a racial minority, a despised majority, or the obese, handicapped or socially tiresome.

Our InterVarsity chapters certainly need a few Peters who carry a vision and can communicate it. But we could really use more Simons too -- more "unclean tanners" who understand people's pain, and more risk takers who open their doors and their hearts to alienated students around us. If we are to be a people who reach the "uttermost parts of the world" with the good news of Jesus, we need to learn what Peter learned. We must know that there is no limit to the love of God, that prejudice has no place in the kingdom of God, and there is no kind of uncleanness that God cannot redeem.

And, like unclean tanners, we need to reach out to our Peters, too -- visionary students, staff, and elders in the faith -- inviting their scrutiny and their company in order to foster partnerships in saying "Yes!" to the will of God at the "Joppa-Junctions" of our lives. These are the places where our habits, upbringings, or learned prejudices make obedience to God hard. Like unclean tanners, we need to open up our lives to people who are on the outside of God's family. These people show us God's transforming power.


Acts 11 records Peter's return to Jerusalem to report on the extraordinary events that began in Joppa. Not everyone was thrilled with the news that Gentiles were now included in the family of God. Becoming ethnically diverse wasn't comfortable for the early church, nor did it seem wise to many. But Peter ends his report by saying, "If God therefore gave to them the same gifts as he gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God's way?" (Acts 11:17).
Simon the tanner answered that question well. He had a rooftop where prejudice and hatred began to die. He had a doorway which he opened so that God could begin to make the unclean holy.

--Robbie Castleman

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(Reprinted from Student Leadership Journal, vol. 9:3)