FROM MESSIANIC JEW TO COUNTER-MISSIONARY:
By Julius Ciss, Executive Director, JEWS FOR JUDAISM (Canada)
This is part 2 of the 3 part series in which Julius Ciss tells us his story.Â
What influenced me to consider Christianity? The sermons promising a personal relationship with G-d were delivered in English, in easily comprehensible terms. The ambience was warm and familiar. The members of the congregation were overwhelmingly loving and friendly. My ignorance of Judaism and my profound emotional involvement with my Christian girlfriend most certainly had an effect. Lastly, I rationalized, "How can hundreds of millions of Christians be wrong?"
I thought, "How could it be so wrong for a Jew to believe that Jesus is the Messiah?" Nonetheless, I was concerned that I might be making a mistake, and decided to speak to a rabbi. I made an appointment and went to see him. The rabbi was not available at the appointed time, and I was obliged to wait a while for him. When he did finally have time to see me, it was for no more than a few minutes. He spent these few minutes chastising me for even considering such a "silly belief system." He recommended that I go to Yeshiva and start learning about Judaism, and sent me away. As I left, I considered the attitude of this rabbi, who ostensibly represented Judaism, and asked myself, "Was he from G-d? What did I experience from him that would draw me closer to G-d?" The man had no time or patience for me; he didn't appear to be offering me anything that the Christians were offering: love, hospitality, endless hours of discussion, and tireless encouragement to believe in what they believed. In marked contrast, the rabbi did not seem to have a sincere interest in what was troubling me.
I couldn't help but compare the rabbi's attitude towards me to that of the "Hebrew Christians". I rationalized, "If one were a representative of G-d, surely it must be the 'Hebrew Christians"'. Consequently, I plunged myself even further into exploring the "truths" of Christianity.
It was at a Messianic "Rosh Hashanah" service in the fall of 1976 that I formally committed myself to Christianity. At this service, the "Messianic rabbi" (as their pastors often call themselves) had preached a message of atonement, stressing the need for us to be forgiven for our sins through the blood of Jesus. Many aspects of his sermon were quite moving. I was overwhelmed by a sense that everything he preached was true. I was overcome by guilt for my sins. The opportunity to be forgiven these "sins" and to secure for myself a place in heaven was irresistible. The pastor announced that refusing to atone carried with it as a consequence an eternity of burning in hell. I couldn't afford the risk of not "atoning". I decided to come forward and make my statement of faith: that I believed Jesus was the Messiah, and that he had died as an eternal sacrifice for my sins.
After I had stood up in front of this congregation and confessed my belief in Jesus, the "Messianic" leader asked me to recite a prayer inviting Yeshua into my heart and requesting that he forgive me for my sins. After a tearful prayer, he then addressed both the entire congregation and me. "Julius, it is G-d who has guided you on this incredible journey through your unique education and through the people whom you have met, to bring you to this point today, where you have finally discovered the truth of Yeshua being the Messiah. Do you believe this?"
I replied, 'Yes, of course!"
"And do you believe that G-d wants more than anything for you to have eternal life and to enjoy the eternal pleasures of heaven with Him?"
I said,'"Yes, I believe that."
"G-d wants you to repent and be forgiven for your sins and to not sin anymore. Does that make sense to you?"
'Yes, I believe that, too."
"Good", he responded. "Then be prepared, when doubts enter into your mind that would cause you even to entertain the possibility that Yeshua was not the Messiah, to realize that those thoughts are not from G-d. G-d doesn't want you to doubt Him. Does that make sense to you, Julius?"
And I answered, 'Yes, of course it makes perfect sense."
"Understand," he continued, "that when doubts regarding Jesus' salvation enter your mind, such thoughts are not from G-d; they are, in fact, from Satan. And you must know that, from the moment you walk out of here, Satan is going to pursue you and cause you to doubt. When that happens, you have to cling close to your saviour. Now that G-d has shown you the truth, that Jesus is your Messiah, the Devil is going to want you to doubt, more than ever. And if you start thinking that Jesus is not the Messiah, you must recognize that those thoughts come from the Devil himself. That's when you have to pray even harder that Jesus should protect you with his blood."
I was stunned and terrified. It seemed to me that I had accepted two belief systems instead of one that day, or two opposing gods: Jesus and the Devil. The Devil isn't a god in the sense that Christians worship him, but they attribute so much power to him that it is almost as though he is an evil deity in contradistinction to Jesus. In some Christian circles, the Devil seems to be as much a spiritual focus as Jesus.
After receiving this admonition, I walked away from the meeting extremely troubled. After all, what nice Jewish boy who had just converted to Christianity wouldn't have some qualms that maybe he was making a big mistake? Needless to say, I was having doubts from the moment I walked out of there, wondering, "What have I done?" Yet I could not allow myself to brood about these doubts, because I had been infected with this new "doctrine of the Devil".
After about a year of involvement with Christianity, I discovered how much emphasis the Torah places on the importance of a Jew's not marrying a gentile. Although I believed in Jesus, I also still believed in the Jewish Bible; I didn't want to violate that prohibition. Because of this, I decided that I could not marry Mary Beth, even though it was she who had led me to belief in Jesus.
Throughout this time, I had the sense that G-d had shown me something that very few Jews in the history of the world had ever known: that Jesus was the Messiah. It was crucial that I learn as much as I could to prove Jesus' "true" identity, so that I could be G-d's instrument in bringing many Jewish people to a saving knowledge of "Yeshua HaMashiach". With this motivation, I started diligently attending various Bible study programs as well as studying daily on my own, reading through the Bible and listening to Christian radio programs.
In the summer of 1977, I attended my first Messiah conference, in Pennsylvania, an ingathering of about 1,000 "Messianic Jews" from around the world. No longer did I feel isolated as a Jew in my belief in Jesus. Instead of the handful of "Hebrew Christians" with whom I was acquainted in Toronto, I now had the opportunity to meet literally hundreds of friendly Jews for Jesus. To me, this experience seemed to be corroboration that I was part of a growing religious movement. For eight full days, I attended intensive workshops, Bible study sessions and seminars. I underwent the ceremony of "Mikveh-Bris", or baptism, immersing myself in the river that flowed through the Conference grounds. That week was the most spiritually motivating experience I'd ever had. I absorbed a great deal of Christian teaching and made many contacts with Messianic leaders and missionaries. I was later to work for many of these individuals. I returned to Toronto "on fire for the Lord"; ready to do whatever I could to reach Toronto's Jewish community for "Yeshua HaMashiach".
Soon afterwards, I was given the responsibility of leading my "Messianic" congregation's choir. Our choir visited various churches, where we sometimes gave our personal "testimony" (a short emotional account of how we converted to Christianity), and often quoted passages from the New Testament, which urged congregants to reach out to convert Jews.
In time, I was elevated to Public Relations Director for the congregation, and was in charge of community relations.
I was excited by the momentum of my spiritual growth and by the active role I was taking in the congregation. As I had never been familiar with the content of the Jewish Bible and had never had an appreciation for prayer, it was through my involvement with "Hebrew Christianity" that I became aware of the Bible's profundity and of one's potential for a personal relationship with G-d.
In my zeal to spread the "good news", I was a featured guest on various "Hebrew Christian" radio and television programs across North America. Listeners to these talk shows would often write to the station to express how inspirational the program had been, and would send generous donations. I also helped to design and illustrate brochures, pamphlets, record album covers and book jackets for many prominent "Hebrew Christian" missionary organizations. My talents were so much sought after that Jews for Jesus, one of the largest missionary organizations of its kind, asked me to consider moving to San Francisco and working at their headquarters.
I was so committed that I actively tried to convert many of my friends and family members to Christianity. A few of those friends are still involved in Christian belief to this day, and refuse to speak to me.
However, as time wore on - and despite feeling good about belonging to a congregation of Jews who believed in Jesus - I sensed that something was terribly wrong. I noticed that almost all of the Jewish people who shared my Christian beliefs came from backgrounds, which were clearly devoid of any substantial Jewish content. I felt that my background had been characterized by more religious observance than theirs. Even the little acquaintance with Jewish practice that I had acquired was more than most of these people had ever had; Jewish content and education were sorely lacking in their lives.
What disturbed me most about their obvious lack of Jewish background was beginning to crystallize: the only Jews who appeared to accept Jesus as the Messiah were Jews who were ignorant of Judaism. This observation was confirmed time and again. None of us had enough previous Jewish knowledge or understanding to enable us to determine who was truly the Jewish Messiah. None of us even came from homes in which there were any serious observance of Shabbat or Jewish holidays. We had all grown up in an environment in which Judaism was lox and bagels and meaningless ritual, but did not denote a belief and a lifestyle. This was our most readily apparent common denominator. Nevertheless, when attempting to convert Jews, many of us would claim to have been dedicated, observant Jews ourselves, or that our grandparents had been Orthodox. (This latter assertion, in fact, may well have been true.) An honest appraisal would usually expose the first claim as a lie, or, at the very least, as a "well-meaning" exaggeration. Our collective vacuum troubled me, but I rationalized that there must be a reason for it.
As a result of this awareness, a process of questioning, doubting and probing had begun. I started to take mental note of issues I found troubling.
One such issue was the question of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. According to the New Testament, the only way a Jew (or non-Jew) could be forgiven for his or her sins was to accept Jesus as saviour, and to believe that Jesus died for those sins and rose from the dead. This, according to my Christian understanding, was the only formula by which a Jew could gain eternal life.
What, then, is the nature of the eternity to which those six million Jews were consigned? According to the Old Testament, the Jews are the apple of G-d's eye, engraved on the palm of His hand. G-d committed Himself to an everlasting Covenant with the Jewish people, a people whom He promised never to forsake. Yet, according to Christianity, the six million Jews are burning in hell for eternity because they never accepted Jesus! At the same time, according to Christian doctrine, it is feasible that Hitler and his henchmen if they repented before they died, and accepted Jesus - could be forgiven for their sins and be sitting up in heaven basking in G-d's presence. This deeply distressed me.
I found it difficult to accept what Christianity had to say about my wonderful and loving parents: that they were sinners doomed to go to hell. Many pious Jews died in the Holocaust. Many very famous rabbis andÂ tzadikimÂ (righteous people) had perished in the gas chambers - as had my own grandparents. From what my parents told me about my grandparents, they were devout, G-d- fearing people. But Christianity maintained that they were burning in hell. I found it incomprehensible that Jews who had died tortured deaths with the words "Hear O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One" on their lips would be punished by that same G-d by being banished to hell.
There were many Christian precepts, which I found difficult to digest. Yet, because I felt committed to my belief in Jesus, I was convinced that the issues I was unable to comprehend would somehow soon become clear.
Nevertheless, occasionally there were irreconcilable contradictions. One such example occurred during an evening Bible class, when our group was studying the Book of Ezekiel. Chapter 18, verses 21 through 24, clearly states that if a wicked man turns from all the sins he has committed, keeps G-d's ordinances, and executes justice and righteousness, he will surely live and will not die. The Scripture further states that the transgressions he had committed will not be remembered against him, and that "in his righteousness that he hath done he shall live". Similarly, Jeremiah 36:3 states "that [when] every man will turn from his evil way; then I will forgive their iniquity and their sin." This is a reiteration of the prominent Biblical theme of Teshuvah (atonement for sins, and earning of G-d's forgiveness). All this stands in flagrant contradiction to the Christian doctrine that the only way a person can truly repent and be forgiven is to accept Jesus as his sacrifice. As the New Testament Book of Hebrews declares (9:22), "...Without shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness."
I realized that there was no mention in the passages of Ezekiel of having to offer a sacrifice in order to be forgiven for one's sins. But when I confronted the pastor that evening and asked him about this glaring contradiction with Christianity, he gave me a weak answer which appeared to be inconsistent with what was being expressed in Scripture. Instead of contesting his claim, I determined not to "rock the boat", and merely stored this incident in my mental file for future reference.
During my final two years, this and other issues were continually surfacing which indicated a striking contradiction between the scripture of the Tenach (Old Testament) and the teachings of the New Testament.
Continued in Part 3
Julius Ciss, Executive Director of JEWS FOR JUDAISM (Canada), was a prolific Advertising and Editorial Illustrator in North America from 1975 to 2004. He was also a popular Illustration Professor at The Ontario College of Art & Design from 1977 to 2004. The images on his personal website, www.juliusciss.com, are just a few samples of the hundreds of paintings he created during his award-winning illustration career in Canada. Once referred to as the Jewish "Norman Rockwell", Julius retired from both creatingÂ and teaching illustration in 2004 to devote himself full-time to the vital counter-missionary work of JEWS FOR JUDAISM (Canada). You can contact Julius at firstname.lastname@example.org