Rev. Richard Anderson
How Messiah Sought Me Out
My name is Richard Anderson. I am a Jewish believer in Jesus who came to faith about 25 years ago. I know, the name Anderson probably doesn't "sound Jewish" to you! My parents Anglicized the family surname before I was born. I offer my testimony with hope that Christians will be emboldened to witness to their Jewish friends, that they may be confident that the Holy Spirit is at work today among the Jewish people as He calls forth a remnant to Himself, and that God will use the efforts His servants who speak the word of life fearlessly.
My upbringing is typical of many Jewish people in America. I was ritually circumcised on the eighth day after birth, and while attending public school, was also sent to Hebrew School after public school hours were over. This education lasted until my Bar Mitzvah when I was 13 years old. My parents were Conservative Jewish, the middle and largest branch of the faith. The Conservative branch attempts to strike a balance between the stricter Orthodox branch, and the more lenient Reform branch.
It's important for Gentile Christians to not think of words such as Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed in their "Christian" settings. They mean different things in Judaism. An "Orthodox" Jew is similar to what the Pharisees were in Christ's time. They are " orthodox" in the sense of being strict, literal adherents to rabbinical tradition, and rabbinical tradition is what the honored rabbis of the past say that the Jewish Bible means. (And, of course, the "Jewish Bible" excludes the New Testament, but includes everything before it.) Reform Jews are comparable to theologically liberal Christians, and Conservative Jews attempt to find a middle ground between both. Think of Conservatives as moderates, "middle-of-the-roaders," who tend to be more Orthodox-leaning or more Reform-leaning, depending on the particular synagogue to which one belongs.
Our family was Conservative, so we would retain certain Orthodox traditions such as reading some of the worship service in Hebrew, or of excluding women from being rabbis in our synagogue; but at the same time adhering to certain Reform tendencies such as not keeping kosher, or in believing in the coming of a messianic age, rather than in the coming of a personal Messiah. Such a middle position is typical of Conservative Jews.
My family attended synagogue, or temple service as it is sometimes called, about every other week. We celebrated the Jewish Sabbath regularly, albeit loosely, and kept at least the major Jewish holidays like Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, better know to gentile Christians as the Feast of Trumpets and the Day of Atonement. Of course Hanukkah was always celebrated. Even secular, irreligious Jews celebrate Hanukkah because of its gift-giving popularity.
My Hebrew school education taught me the importance of all the other holidays, but of course without the Christian overtones that so many Gentiles take for granted. I learned the significance of Shavuot which is the Feast of First-fruits (which the Church-at-large calls Pentecost), Passover, but without any of the Last Supper, Easter, Resurrection overtones, and Purim, also called the Feast of Esther, and the others as well. This Hebrew school education continued until I became a Bar-Mitzvah at age 13; then it ended, and I quickly fell away from keeping these traditions and rituals, while still retaining my Jewish identity. This falling away while still retaining one's personal identity as a Jew is prevalent among quite a few Jews today.
The culmination, the high point of religious training among most Jews is the Bar Mitzvah. Bar Mitzvah means "Son of the Commandment," and is a Jewish boy's passage into adulthood. At this time, he is called up, in a ceremony called an aliya, to read aloud - actually to chant, from a portion of the Hebrew Scripture; from an actual Torah scroll (not a book) taken from the Ark, which is a small closet behind the rabbi's pulpit housing the Hebrew Bible scrolls, so named to remind Jews of the original Ark of the Covenant from the days when the original temple still stood. My reading was from Leviticus, and dealt with the sacrifice of lambs. It's typical for boys preparing for Bar Mitzvah to memorize the entire Haftorah reading - mainly because we have not yet, nor do we ever, in most cases, learn the Hebrew language well enough to simply read it by sight.
Hebrew school taught me how to think of myself as a Jew, and taught me how to regard the Jewish faith. It indoctrinates a young person with a certain socio-ethnic identity which lasts with him the rest of his life. Four distinctives of my Hebrew school experience are as follows: First is the "chosen people" concept. This is the belief that the Jews are an especially gifted, righteous people, "chosen" by God for some yet-unclear cosmic end as evidenced by their religion and their religious history. Second and closely related to the "chosen people" concept is the "persecuted people" concept. This is the view that Jews have been unjustly persecuted in history because everyone is envious of them. And the second distinctive segues into the third distinctive: an ambivalent attitude towards God. On the one hand, Jews officially affirm God's love, righteousness and protective care in their synagogue worship. Yet on the other hand, they wonder how He can allow so much evil in the world, especially where it concerns them (first and foremost is the Nazi Holocaust) and still be a God of moral rectitude and integrity. And the fourth concept taught to me in Hebrew school is this: a key to retaining my Jewish identity was in my rejection of Christian beliefs. Faith in Jesus as one's savior, I was taught from as early as I could remember, is antithetical to being a Jew. Such a faith commitment, I was taught, while permissible and even commendable for a Gentile, is an act of treason for a Jew. It is a moral sin of great magnitude - worse even than atheism. Jesus, we were taught in Hebrew school, whoever He might have been, was not the messiah, most certainly not God the Son; and furthermore, we didn't kill him! We learned that He was the over-inflated hero of the Gentile masses; masses who more often than not attacked us for 2000 years for supposedly killing their god. Jews are taught the history of Christian persecutions against them. They learn of Crusaders who first attacked Jews before marching on to the Holy Land. The learn of "Christian" slanders about supposed Jewish desecrations of the Mass; of riots and massacres, of forced conversions to a foreign faith and church-sponsored inquisitions; of instigated riots called "pogroms" by the Russian czars and Russian Orthodox churchmen, and of exiles from country after country - all of which culminated in a German Holocaust by Nazi leaders raised in Christian parochial schools and all related, either directly or indirectly, to the Christian savior and His purported followers. This is what a child is taught in Hebrew school. This is what I was taught, and this is the cultural baggage that a Jew brings with him when he first encounters a presentation of the gospel. It is an enormous hurdle to overcome, and it isn't usually overcome all at once.
And yet, the very fact that I did become a Christian despite my upbringing is a testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit. Here, in part, is that story:
My first serious encounter with the Christian faith occurred while I was a student at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA. And it came as a result of a controversy on campus. The Christian Students Union had decided to invite two leaders of the Messianic Jewish movement to speak on campus, and the Jewish Students Union was upset at this. The president of the Union made a statement that stuck in my mind, and ultimately led me to seriously investigate the Hebrew Scriptures
for the first time in my life. He said "Don't be taken in my these missionaries. They'll try to tell you this nonsense that Isaiah 53 predicted the coming of Jesus."
Now when I heard that statement, I realized that I had never even read Isaiah 53, and when I read it - for the first time in my life, I was amazed at what I read. "He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his stripes, we are healed ..." It said the same thing substantially in the Jewish Publication Society translation as it did in the Christian translation. I thought of my father's words, rehearsed to me
more than once in my life: "That's the beauty of the Hebrew faith," he had said. "We don't need a go-between to approach God, and each man is responsible to atone for his own sin." I thought of the warning of Posner, the president of the college's Jewish Student's Union: "They'll try to say that this passage is referring to Jesus." I remember staring at the passage and saying to myself, at first: "Why not? Why not Jesus? Maybe it is." And then I thought of all the examples of prophetic fulfillment I had read about in such books as Hal Lindsey's The Late, Great planet Earth: the rise and fall of so many cities and nations and kings - the fulfillment of so many events. "Could it be that an event as important as the coming of a messiah would not be mentioned?" I thought, "Even if Jesus were a false messiah, he was no doubt the greatest pretender, the most convincing messianic fabrication in Jewish history. Wouldn't the prophets have sounded a warning about him? Perhaps he wasn't "God the Son", the 2nd person of the Trinity, as the Christians claimed. But the world dates time from his birth. surely he was more important for Jewish history than the scores of kings and events predicted beforehand by so many Hebrew prophets! If He was only a prophet mistaken for the Saviour of the World, wouldn't the prophets have warned the Jewish people? Why had I only been taught to know who He was not, never who He was? And so His very absence from Judaism made Him all the more conspicuous. If I were raised Moslem, if I were raised Hindu or Buddhist, would I not have learned He was one of the greatest men of piety whoever lived?" These were the thoughts that coursed through my mind as I stared at the 53rd Chapter.
In my investigation of Isaiah 53, I spared no effort to understand it. I either wrote to or personally interviewed five rabbis, as well as researching the famous medieval "Disputation of Barcelona" between Rabbi Nachmanides and Pablo Christiani over the meaning of the text. But in the final analysis, I concluded that the prophet spoke of Jesus of Nazareth. In my private meditations, I was aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit guiding me to conclude this. My final determination was thus not a bald, intellectual conclusion, but in a very real way, my response to a divine guidance.
Now this reading did not happen in a vacuum. Other factors in my life played a part in getting me to the point of wanting to read the Bible to begin with, a book I had come to believe was full of errors and of outdated morals and primitive myths. What had gotten my attention sprang from my adolescent interest in the occult supernatural. When I was seventeen, I had a large personal library of books on spiritism, astral-projection, eastern mysticism, yoga, tarot and witchcraft. Whenever I walked into a bookstore or library, I would gravitate to the occult section, and once in the occult section, I'd end up in the Satanism section. As I investigated Satanism, as well as my personal experiments with the supernatural, I came to believe that Satan was real. My fear increased, but also my curiosity and my desire to tap into the power offered. In learning about Satan, I discovered God; for to admit that Satan exists is to acknowledge God exists. A significant number of young American-born Jews come to faith in Christ through a prior interest in "the supernatural."
While at college, I met three Christian friends. Now the fact that I was able to make a distinction between these three and the rest of the student population was itself remarkable because I had been brought up to believe that anyone raised Christian was a Christian. But these three young men were different. They took their faith seriously. And they loved Jesus - not Jesus the historical figure, but a Living Presence to whom they could talk. This intrigued me. I had never met anyone who claimed to have a personal relationship with Jesus, or God. Judaism, except for certain ultra-orthodox mystical sects like the Chasidim, believes in a remote God, too awesome or abstract to speak to with familiarity. But these three young men claimed God as their Father, and I envied them for this. They had a faith and confidence I had never been able to achieve through the occult. By the time I read Isaiah 53 that first time, I had become interested in predicting the future. One of these three friends of mine gave me an amazing book: The Late, Great Planet Earth.
I had never read anything like it. In retrospect, I have to say that I now repudiate many of the things that the author said, but the book did do several things for me, and I cite these factors because Hal Lindsey, despite his dispensationalist errors, is doing several things correctly, and we who have a heart for Jewish ministry need to learn from him: First, his approach is culturally sensitive towards Jews. For example, he doesn't overuse Christian terminology such as Trinity, Christ, church, or convert. Such terms send a signal to Jews that the religion in view is gentile, foreign, not for them. Such terminology requires preliminary explanation before we assume our Jewish listener is on board with us, and Lindsey does this in his writing. Take a term like Christ. To our ears, its meaning connotes reverence. To Jewish ears, just the opposite. Why? For hundreds of years, Jews were persecuted while being called "Christ-killers." So the word is not at all benign to them. Lindsey favors the word messiah, instead. And messiah sounds Jewish to Jews because post-New Testament Jewish belief still includes faith in a coming Messiah. Or take the word convert. To Gentile believers, it has a positive connotation. Not so to Jews. Why? Because post-biblical Jewish history and consequently modern Hebrew school instruction is filled with stories of forced conversions. More than half of the Jews in this country are of Russian ancestry, and it was a practice of the Czar's army to compel young Jewish conscripts, some as young as 12 taken forcibly from their parents, to covert to Russian Orthodoxy. Besides this, "convert" is something a Jew would do to gain social acceptance in old Europe, rarely out of a genuine work of grace in the heart. He'd "convert" and join the state church, become a Christian and repudiate his heritage to obtain privileges reserved for Gentiles. So "convert" to Jews is a dirty word. It doesn't connote to them what it was intended to mean. Lindsey seems to realize this, and he'll use terms like "change of heart," or "repentance;" neutral or benign terms to Jewish ears.
Even more significantly, Lindsey shows the linkage between Old Testament prophesy and modern fulfillment, albeit errantly. Through his writings, I gained an appreciation of my Jewish heritage and the integrity of the Hebrew prophets that a Hebrew school education never taught me. After reading him, I was ready to consult the New Testament, which no longer seemed to me to be an alien book.
One night, after returning from a party at school, stoned on marijuana, I entered my room, conscious of a conflict between Satan and God for my soul. I rose from my bed, flushed my remaining marijuana down the toilet, and prayed to the God of that Person I had read about in Isaiah 53 to save my soul.
My exposure to the New Testament had been minimal at that point. My understanding of grace, the Trinity, and the Mosaic law was yet imperfect, but I was aware of praying to the God of Jesus the Messiah. The next morning, I sought out my three Christian friends, none of whom had ever asked me to take such a step of faith, and told me I had become a believer in Jesus. I remember my first fears: the fear of what my Jewish friends at college would say, what they would think of me. As it turned out, none of them showed hostility except one; they mostly seemed either uninterested or mildly curious. The first real persecution came from my parents who found out about my faith in Jesus from reading a letter mailed to me by a Christian friend. My father, more hurt than angry, told me by phone that he cursed the day I had been born. "Jesus is a false messiah and Paul was a charlatan!" he railed. Part of his anger was because I had left school - dropped out of classes because I was so overwhelmed by the reality of the Person who had suddenly entered my life. My parents were preparing to cover their mirrors with bed sheets as a sign of mourning for their dead son when my elder brother and sister restrained them from these medieval excesses and tried to convince them that they were over-reacting. Our family rabbi told them that if they were patient, I might grow out of this strange quirk, and though they never did disown me (despite Dad's initial threat), they kept hoping I'd renounce Jesus. To the day of his death, Dad cited my conversion as the most painful event of his life. He wrote this in his last will and testament died unrepentant, as far as I know. To this day, I am the only one in my family who professes faith in Christ.
And yet, unknown to me, my father included something else in with his last will and testament: He left me a modest sum of money to be used if I ever decided to attend a Christian Bible school. I only found out about this a year after he had died when my mother volunteered this information to me, and herself encouraged me to further my formal Christian education! She is not a believer. It was this strange sequence of events that led me, twelve years after completing my college degree and seventeen years after coming to faith in Christ, to enroll at Westminster Theological Seminary, where I completed an M. Div in Theology.
I am now a licentiate minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the process of ordination and a call to serve with the CHAIM ministry to reach out to my own Jewish people with the message of Messiah.
Please pray for me and for the work of the CHAIM ministry as we take the good news to our Jewish friends and motivate and educate the church to do so as well.
Rev. Richard Anderson