A ‘Nice Jewish Boy’ Like Me
How I as a Jewish young man came to believe Jesus
It was a Tuesday evening in the spring of 1978. I was a college sophomore, and as part of my fraternity’s recruiting mission, I was visiting a young man in his dorm room.
To this day, I haven’t the slightest idea who the young man was whom I was trying to “proselytize.” But I sure do remember the other two guys who were there.
As I walked into the room, I saw my “prospect” along with these other two guys. Immediately I offered to come back at another time. My prospect didn’t respond, but the other two guys did.
And so I entered the room. Not long after doing so, I realized what was going on. I was the one being proselytized — and not by my friend. You see, the other two guys were also on a mission — and a “religious” one at that.
Immediately they started to “share their religion” with me. But it all went in one ear and out the other. I knew how to tune them out; I’d endured my share of religious sales pitches in the past.
But then came The Question.
They asked me how I would respond to God if He asked me why He should let me into heaven (after my death, of course). I didn’t know how to answer. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I gave a very weak “well, I’ve been a good person” answer.
I’ll never forget their answer. It began with, “If you did without accepting Jesus Christ as your lord and savior…”. It ended with these words verbatim: “…you will burn in hell for eternity.”
My spiritual quest intensifies
Those seven words (“you will burn in hell for eternity”) started me on what would become a life-changing spiritual quest. But first, I had to work through the blind rage that these words produced in me.
I am a Jew. Even though I wasn’t raised to be religious, I was (and am) proud of my heritage. I knew the history of ‘the church’ condemning us Jews to ghettos because we didn’t believe in ‘their’ Jesus. Heck, we were even told that Hitler and his goons were ‘Christians.’ And now here come these #@$%& Gentiles, condemning me to hell for eternity because I didn’t believe in their God.
Up to that point, ‘their’ God was attracting my curiosity without me knowing it. You see, during those first two years in college, I was befriended by many students who loved Him and who reflected that love to me unconditionally. I was secretly jealous for the peace these peers had!
The next day, I called one of them to tell them what was said to me and to get his reaction. His response was, “Well, Gary, they’re right!”
God was now no longer trying to attract my curiosity. He was now getting my attention — loud and clear!
That summer, while hundreds of miles away from home selling books door-to-door in Kansas, I kept running into Christians (or as I called them, “religious people”) who were not shy about telling me of the Source of the peace they carried. Even my roommates (both Christians) impressed me with how they were handling the pressure of door-to-door sales much better than I was.
‘Closing the sale’
By the time I returned to college in the fall, I was ready to ‘try’ going to church — even if I still didn’t want to have anything to do with this ‘Jesus thing.’ Well imagine my shock at meeting a fellow Jewish U.T. (University of Tennessee) student on my first Sunday in a church! I thought, ‘what is this guy doing here?’
It didn’t take long to find out.
Dave (that was his name) didn’t hesitate to share with me two things. First, he shared with me the prophecies from the Old Testament (you know, the part that we Jews consider ‘ours’) that perfectly described Jesus as the sacrifice for our sin and rebellion against God. Second, he went into detail about how Jesus had transformed him from a hippie rebel into a young man with purpose.
Intrigued by his presence at this Baptist church, I agreed to follow up with Dave. In the process of doing so over the next several days, I learned more about his personal faith journey as well as about Old Testament messianic prophecies.
Of all the things he said to me, none stood out more than this quotation from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah:
“we all like sheep have gone astray;
each of us has turned to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6, Tree of Life Version)
I was stunned to find out these words were spoken 700 years before Jesus was born. But even more to the point, these words pierced my heart like a sharp sword. As they made their cut, I suddenly saw the ugliness of my own soul.
In a flash, I saw my real inner problem — far worse than low self-esteem. I would lie and connive my way to getting what I wanted out of people. I was angry and expressed that anger through a filthy vocabulary. I may not have rebelled outwardly, but inwardly I disrespected and at times even hated my parents. I had no desire for women except to use them as sex objects or as ‘replacements’ for the mom I lost.
I knew I had no choice but to cry out to God for help.
And so on Tuesday, October 3, 1978, shortly after 7 in the evening, I found myself in my new Jewish friend’s dorm room doing something that up till then I would have thought unthinkable for a Jew to do: I prayed to Jesus. Specifically I cried out to Him to forgive me and take His place in my heart as my Messiah and Lord.
As a Jew, I knew this was a total game-changer. My life as I’d known it was now over. Immediately after saying that prayer, I knew this was an all-or- nothing proposition. I belonged to Him — no questions asked.
Almost immediately, I began to feel a peace inside of me that I’d never felt before. In the days ahead, I would read through the Bible like a hungry man would finish off a scrumptious meal. I was hungry for more of His truth! And thankfully, I had my friend Dave and several other Jesus-followers close by to give me new friendship and to guide me in my new-found faith.
As for the guy who told me I’d ‘burn in hell for eternity’ without Jesus? Well our paths crossed again in December of that year.
Navigating through troubled waters
Those first 2 years following Jesus were among the happiest years of my life. I was surrounded by a close-knit community of Christian students with whom I enjoyed school, church, and ‘doing life’ together. But after graduation, relocation, and entry into the ‘real world,’ my gross insecurities came to the forefront. I drifted from job to job, never being able to establish myself in a ‘real career.’ I couldn’t shake off feeling like a total failure occupationally, relationally, and (most of all) emotionally.
Yet throughout those years, I held on to Jesus and never turned my back on Jesus. Or shall I say, He never turned his back on me but held tightly to me.
Finally, in the late ‘90’s, I began to deal with my emotional pain and to get to the root causes of it. I walked through the process of forgiving family members who’d hurt me so much, and also learned to beginning to forgive myself for my own failings. That was not an easy or a quick process. I’m still walking it out, and probably will be doing so for the rest of my life.
The longer I live, the more I realize that true success does not amount to how much money I have, whether or not I have a prestigious career, or even who I know. I’ve been blessed to know successful people, and have been blessed to know common, ordinary people who the world would not consider a success. Many people who I thought ‘had it all together’ really don’t, while many who have struggled on the outside have a peace on the inside that is the envy of many. There’s a Jewish man who lived two millennia ago who named Saul of Tarsus. He became known as the Apostle Paul, and he wrote 13 letters that today make up half of what we know of as the New Testament. Before he became a Jesus follower, he was a man who the world would consider very successful. Yet here’s what he said toward the end of his life:
“Forgetting what is behind, and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward calling of God in Messiah Yeshua (Jesus).” (Philippians 3:14, Tree of Life Version)
I so resonate with those words. For despite all my failings and the ‘what-might-have beens,’ I am still a man of peace. I am still a man of hope.
The point of it all
Many in the Jewish community — and indeed the world — believe that humankind is intrinsically good and that through whatever means (be it meditation, evolution, being religious, or just plain ‘living by the golden rule’), we can conquer our evil impulses and build a better world. To some degree that is true. We are reducing poverty worldwide. Oppression of black Americans, once accepted or ignored, is now scorned and reviled. There are other things that can be pointed to as evidence of humanity’s goodness.
But honestly, if humanity is so good, why do people like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King stand out? Why has our history been so littered with war, oppression, and hatred? To come closer to home, why do we have to teach our children to behave? Why is rebellion against authority honored and even celebrated in our culture?
Why is divorce so rampant? Why is pornography — which is nothing more than the reducing of a woman to a sex object — an industry that some say out-earns Netflix and even some or all of the major sports? Why is human trafficking a $30 billion dollar-a-year industry?
Even the best of us have to admit: the human race is pretty messed up.
Let’s cut to the chase. Which one of us hasn’t given someone else the middle finger (either actually or in our heart)? Which one of us hasn’t been jealous for who or what someone else has? Which one of us (particularly us men) hasn’t wanted to turn someone else into our own sex toy?
Jesus told us, in so many words, that just having these thoughts is on par with committing the act — that is, the murder, the theft, the sex abuse, and so on. And no amount of human or religious effort can whitewash any of it.
This is precisely why Jesus came to earth. In spite of having lived a perfect life, he took upon Himself the punishment that you and I deserve — so that you and I can be forgiven and reconnected with our Maker.
I can tell you first-hand that Jesus is not a figment of my imagination or a religious construct to assuage my hurting soul. Remember: it’s not popular in the Jewish community to believe in Him. In fact, such a decision may well get you ostracized.
I knew that deciding to follow Him was all-or-nothing. And I am proof today of His transforming power.
So are countless others. And there is more than ample evidence that His life, death, and resurrection are historical fact.
I invite you, if you ever want to hear some of those testimonies, to check out www.iamsecond.com. If your curiosity is ever pricked about His life and His claims, than I invite you to read the book The Case for Christ, by Lee Strobel.
Regardless, it’s been my privilege to have you read this brief introduction into my life. Perhaps some day we can sit down over a cup of coffee (either in person or ‘virtual’)— and I can get to hear your story.