LOS ANGELES (BP)–For Michelle,* it was the Sermon on the Mount that convinced her Jesus must be the Messiah. For Michael Brown, now pastor of a Messianic congregation, it was a Gideon New Testament that he found himself unable to put down during his college years. For Louis Lapides, also a pastor, a confrontation with a Christian pastor prompted him to investigate the New Testament for himself — and he also was convinced.
The testimonies in many ways are similar to those of others who have discovered Christ. The difference is only that they are Jews, raised with the extra dose of resistance to the gospel instilled by the teachings of their faith. But each discovered how their Jewishness actually took on a far richer meaning with their discovery of the hope of redemption found through the work of Christ on the cross.
The three shared their testimonies during the North American Mission Board’s annual meeting of state interfaith evangelism directors March 20-23 in Los Angeles, which this year focused on Judaism.
Michelle said she grew up in North Africa as part of a family more interested in its French background than its Jewishness. “We knew that Adonai, that God, existed. We knew he had something to do with the Jews. But we didn’t know what it was,” she said.
After moving to Paris as an adult, she became heavily involved in the Zionist movement and gained a renewed interest in her heritage. She even spent nine months in Israel as a volunteer on a Kibbutz after the Six-Day War in 1967. “I started to really understand what it meant to be Jewish, but Jewish in the sense of the nation, the people and the land,” she said. “I still didn’t know what it meant to be in relationship with God.”
It was after she moved to the U.S. with her new husband in the 1970s that she first became exposed to Christians interested in telling her about Jesus.
“She said, ‘I love you because my Savior is Jewish,’” Michelle said of her hairdresser. “And I said, ‘What are you talking about?’” But she played “deaf and polite” for several years, while the woman continually told her things about Jesus being the lamb of God who took her sins away.
She also came into contact with a Jews for Jesus missionary, whom she attacked as a traitor to his heritage. “I said, ‘How can you put Jesus with the Star of David? Do you know how many people have gotten slaughtered over these 2,000 years? What are you talking about?’”
Later, however, turmoil in her personal life caused her to start searching for spiritual meaning, and a book she obtained by a New Age author was based on the Sermon on the Mount. But it was the actual biblical text that hit home with her. “When I read the Sermon on the Mount,” she said, “I decided I had found a friend. This is the truth.”
She went back to her hairdresser to ask how she could learn more and was referred to a local Messianic pastor who just happened to be the same person she had so vehemently confronted 10 years earlier. A week later, she accepted Christ.
After meeting with a Jews for Jesus representative in her home, she finally began to understand “the sin problem” — a concept unfamiliar to many Jews raised to believe that good works were what pleased God.
“Why do we need Jesus to go to God?” Michelle had asked. It was then that she heard the analogy of Jesus being like a doormat, allowing a person to clean their “feet” of the sin in their life through the forgiveness of Christ.
“The worst anti-Semitic thing you can do is let them die in their ‘goodness,’” Michelle said, noting her appreciation of her Jewish heritage is stronger than ever. “Now my love for Israel is like a zillion times stronger. I have a love for the Jewish people, and love for the gentiles also.”
Michael Brown grew up in Mississippi in a family that practiced many of the Jewish traditions, although they did not attend synagogue regularly. While in college, he met several Christians who slowly began to make an impression.
“I just started seeing things about them that were very appealing to me,” he said. “They had this inner peace, joy in their life. So I got to become friends with them, and after awhile I felt real guilty as a Jew. These guys were going to church every weekend.”
He began to study a Hebrew prayer book in an effort to become more religious, but he said he found it dry. When he studied the Hebrew Scriptures, he was struck by God’s wrath — but he also realized that God was holy and just and “could not tolerate our sin.” His Christian friends, meanwhile, had been witnessing to him, and he finally reached a point where he desperately needed to know the truth.
“I decided to ask God to show me the truth. I said, ‘God if Jesus is really your Son, I want to love him as I love you. But if he’s not your Son, I don’t want to have anything to do with him,” Brown said. “Then I had this thought, ‘Why don’t I just read the New Testament?’”
It was then that he pulled out a Gideon Bible he had been given and began reading it voraciously. Eventually, he gained assurance that Christ is the Messiah and committed his life to him on a Good Friday 22 years ago. After being discipled by a friend and working in private industry, he later became a Southern Baptist pastor for several years and eventually was called to work with fellow Jews as pastor of the Messianic congregation Adat Y’shua Ha Adon in Woodland Hills, Calif.
“I’m so thankful God provided someone very early on who told me that believing in Jesus was just the very beginning in a lifelong process of me learning and growing,” Brown said.
Louis Lapides’ story was similar in many ways to those of both Brown and Michelle. As a child he attended Hebrew school and went through his bar mitzvah, and he remembers the rabbi asking if he was interested in continuing his studies. “What I was really thinking was that I really don’t know who God is. I’ve read about him, I’ve studied, but I really … don’t know how he relates to me and my life.”
He later found himself drafted into the military as a marine mechanic, serving on a ship during the Vietnam War. After the war, he experimented with drugs, other religions, and he even witnessed occultic practices such as levitation. But with his knowledge of Judaism, he knew it was not of God.
He later came into contact with Barry Wood, then pastor of First Baptist Church of Beverly Hills, who confronted him with the gospel. “I said, ‘That sounds wonderful … but I’m Jewish,” Lapides said, joking with the man. “We don’t believe in Jesus. Jesus saves, but Moses invests. Jesus is for the gentiles.”
He began to examine the claims of Christ, however, and he said he became “angry at [the pastor] for telling me as a Jew about the Bible, and mad at the rabbis for not telling me that Jesus was the Messiah.”
But he too eventually began reading the New Testament and became convinced of its accuracy.
“While I was reading the Bible I used to say to myself, ‘Jesus, if this is the truth, lead me to the rock. I came to the place of intellectual and moral conviction that Jesus was the Messiah,” he said. His future wife, a Christian, one day used the same imagery in a discussion about 1 Corinthians 13. “If you have the rock, then love is good,” she said. He took that as confirmation, and immediately told her he was ready to go to church.
That church just happened to be First Baptist Church of Beverly Hills, where he saw pastor Barry Wood for the first time since their earlier encounter. Lapides soon accepted Christ, became a missionary to Jews for 10 years and eventually felt led to start the Messianic congregation Beth Ariel Fellowship — where he has been for more than 17 years.
An Interfaith Evangelism Belief Bulletin on Judaism, published by NAMB, can be ordered through Lifeway Christian Resources, at 1-800-233-1123. (BP) photos to accompany this and other stories on the March 20-23 interfaith evangelism conference are available in the BP Photos section of the Baptist Press area of the www.sbc.net. Individual photos of the speakers in this article are available on request from James Dotson at NAMB, [email protected] or (770) 410-6466.