Chapter 2 – Rabbi Jonathan Bernis
They Thought For Themselves, Chapter 2
No Place for a Good Jewish Boy
by Rabbi Jonathan Bernis
I was raised in a traditional Jewish home. I refer to myself as a former “holiday Jew.” We went to synagogue on the high holidays and had family gatherings on the important holidays like Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
I was forced against my will to go to both Hebrew school and religious school. So while my friends were out playing on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school, I was studying Hebrew in the synagogue to prepare for the most important experience a Jewish young man can go through — the Bar Mitzvah, becoming a son of the commandment. And so at age 13, I was Bar Mitzvah and entered into adulthood. At that time my parents felt they had fulfilled their responsibility and they gave me the choice whether to continue on with synagogue life or not. I had had enough of Hebrew school and religious school, and so I departed from the synagogue except for the high holidays.
As I reflect back on the things that I learned growing up, I had quite a rich heritage. I learned all about the patriarchs of our faith, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and I learned about the calling of the Jewish people. I was taught that we were chosen people and that we had a special relationship with God. But I never really quite understood. I remember asking some of my teachers, “We’re the chosen people, but what are we chosen for?” One teacher responded that we were chosen to be persecuted. That wasn’t something I was too excited about.
I remember being taught about Moses and how he had this divine encounter with the burning bush and how he led the children of Israel out of Egypt. I learned that the Passover, the Exodus out of Egypt, is probably the watershed event in Jewish history. It is the most important holiday that we celebrate. And I fondly remember sitting together as a family and reciting the story of the Passover Exodus. I heard all about the God of Israel. But one thing that I didn’t learn was how to have a relationship with God. I remember asking what God was like, and none of my teachers could give me an answer.
At that time I had a great fear of dying. I went to my rabbi and asked, “Rabbi, what happens after you die?” He gave me a long answer about this man climbing a mountain and not being able to see the other side. When he finally reaches the top, then he can see the other side. He said that God is already at the top of the mountain looking over the other side. I left the rabbi’s office amazed at his wisdom, but having no idea what he meant. I was more confused than before. Years later as I thought about that encounter I realized the rabbi had no idea how to answer my question. He was just too proud to admit it.
From the time I was a little boy I learned a prayer called the Shema, which is found in Deuteronomy 6:4, “Shema Israel Adonai Elohenu Adonai echad, Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” I was taught that we Jews were responsible for bringing the revelation of the one true God to the world and that this was something of which we could be proud. We believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Israel. From the time I was knee high I learned to recite that prayer, the central confession of Judaism.
In spite of all this, I learned more about what Jews did not believe than what Jews did believe. I learned that Jews do not believe in Jesus. That was made very, very clear to me. I was taught that the Christians were responsible for the holocaust, for the Crusades, for the pogroms, for all the terrible persecutions of Jewish people. My understanding was that anyone who wasn’t Jewish was a Christian. A Gentile, a Christian, it made no difference to me. They were non-Jews.
I grew up with what I refer to as an “us versus them” mentality. As Jews we had the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. On the other side was Christianity. There was the religious institution of Judaism and the religious institution of Christianity. Christians had three Gods. Their central deity, as I understood it, was Jesus Christ, son of Mr. and Mrs. Christ. I thought that Jesus was His first name and Christ was His last name. That was all confusing to me.
I remember visiting a Catholic church with a friend as a young teenager. The priest was standing in the pulpit with all these goblets and smoke rising around him. And there was a statue of Jesus Christ and a couple of other Gods. It didn’t make much sense to this good Jewish boy.
I understood that as Jews we had the synagogue and the temple, and on the Christian side they had the cathedral, the church and the monastery. We had the Star of David on our flag, the religious symbol of our people. The Christians had their own symbol called the cross. There was no relationship between the two whatsoever. I was taught that we had our book called the Torah, the five books of Moses and the writings of the Jewish prophets, a book that Christians call the Old Testament. And they had another book called the New Testament. This was the book of the Christians.
In my view, the two religions had nothing in common except for one thing — Christians embraced our book. I was pretty happy about that. I didn’t believe in the Christian Bible, but Christians believed in the Jewish Scriptures.
I was brought up believing in the Jewish holidays. We had Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Passover, Hanukkah and all the other Jewish holidays. The Christians had Christmas, Lent, and Easter.
We had matzo, gefilte fish, and kreplach. They had Easter eggs, chocolate bunnies and Christmas trees. We had our menorah that we lit on Hanukkah. They had the little baby in the manger. On the one had I saw this picture of the Christian God hanging on the cross eternally. Then during Christmas He was transformed into this eternal infant. It was very confusing.
We had our rabbis and Christians had their priests, pastors and monks. We had our religion, they had theirs and there was a gulf and a wall between the two. The idea was very clearly expressed in all the teaching that I received that Jews are not to believe in Jesus. Judaism and Christianity were two distinct religions with nothing in common. Never the two shall meet. That is the mentality of most Jewish people and that’s what I was raised to understand and believe.
I Knew Christians Were “Dangerous” People
In high school, my preconceived notions about Christians and Christianity were seriously challenged. The assistant coach of our wrestling team was different from anyone I had ever met. Besides being an all-American wrestler, he was part of a group called Athletes in Action and the leader of a high school outreach called Young Life.
This man was always smiling. I could not figure out why. No matter what people said to him or what comments they made about him, he was always smiling. Word quickly circulated around the high school, “Stay away from this guy, he’s one of those born again Christians.”
By this time I was convinced that all born again Christians were hypocrites. I knew they were “dangerous” people who we were supposed to avoid. But there were some things about this man that I could not figure out. First of all I couldn’t deny that he was probably the nicest person that I’d ever met. I couldn’t deny that he had great joy, something that I didn’t have. I was happy some days; other days I was miserable. He was always happy. But what impressed me the most about him was that he had a sense of purpose, a sense of destiny. He knew where he had come from and where he was going. He knew that God had put him on this earth for a purpose. He didn’t have any fear of death. I was impressed by that. That drew me.
This coach started to share the Gospel with me and invited me to some of his Young Life meetings. I figured, Why not? There are some beautiful girls who attend, and it looks like the thing to do. A short time later he invited me to one of the Young Life camps down in Florida. I went for one reason and one reason only — he offered it to me free of charge. I thought, I can go to Disney World and hang out on the beaches for free. Such a deal!
So I went down to this camp and everything was going great. I was having a wonderful time — until I found out that part of the deal was I had to listen to the guest speaker every night. One speaker began to share about Jesus Christ, the God of the Christians. And for the first day, I was squirming in my seat and very uncomfortable. But as time went on, I was really drawn in by the things he had to say.
I marveled at the stories of this man Jesus who could walk on the water, heal the sick, raise the dead and supernaturally provide food for a multitude. I thought, This is really interesting. And I noticed that there was something different about these messages than anything I had experienced growing up in the synagogue. The teaching in the synagogue seemed to go into my head, as head knowledge, but as this man spoke, it was like something was happening in my heart. There was a churning and a drawing from my heart.
I was amazed at what was happening. I didn’t know what to make of it. Later I attended another Young Life camp. Again I felt a drawing. The speaker challenged those who hadn’t made a decision to embrace Jesus to ask God to reveal Himself to them. He directed us to find a place of solitude where we could pray.
That was a real dilemma for me. I had never prayed before outside of using the prayer book. I knew how to read Hebrew and how to recite the prayers in the prayer books, but I had no idea how to spontaneously pray to God from my heart.
So I sat by a stream looking up at a beautiful clear sky with thousands of stars, not knowing how to pray to God. I said something like, “God, I believe You’re real, and I’ve never spoken to You before, but I’m talking to You now. I really want to know You. If this Jesus is who they say He is, please show me. I really want to know. Amen.” I returned to the meeting and watched as a number of my friends made a profession of faith in Jesus. And I saw their lives change before me. But there was a problem. Something in me said, This is true, but I’m Jewish and Jews do not believe in Jesus.
Eventually, I lost contact with my coach and lost interest in Jesus.
A Change in Plans
After I finished high school, I had one goal — to be a rich and successful businessman. I wanted to earn a million dollars before I was 30, to make my mark on the world as a worldwide industrialist and retire early with multi-millions of dollars. So off I went to the University of Buffalo to earn a degree in business and start making as much money as possible as quickly as possible. God, however, had other ideas.
It was at college that I began experimenting with drugs, eastern meditation, and the occult. “Mind-expanding” drugs and the supernatural realm became a major pursuit around my business studies and occupied much of my free time. All of this radically changed with an encounter with a young woman I knew who was almost destroyed by drugs.
She quit going to class. She stopped caring about her appearance. Every time I saw her, she looked worse than before — her eyes bloodshot, her hands shaky, and her hair unkempt. There was nothing I, or anyone else, could do to bring her back from the brink of ruin and death. My relationship with her grew more distant because I couldn’t watch her continue to destroy herself. Eventually, I lost contact with her.
You can imagine how shocked I was when I ran into her off campus one day and she looked completely well and healthy. Light sparkled in her eyes. When she saw me, the happy grin on her face got even bigger. Everything about her was different.
“I Have Been Born Again!”
Before I could think better of it, I blurted out, “What in the world happened to you?” I realize now how rude that sounds, but I really could not help myself. It was as though she had come back from the walking dead.
“I’ve been born again!” she said.
“You’ve been what?” I asked.
“Born again,” she laughed. “I’ve made Jesus Christ the Lord of my life.” She could tell from the puzzled look on my face that I wasn’t making the connection, so she proceeded to tell me, with great enthusiasm, that she had turned to Jesus, and that He had set her free from her addiction. The desire had just gone away. One instant, she was a hopeless addict. The next, the craving had vanished.
I could not deny the evidence standing right in front of me, but I did not want to accept what she was telling me. I thought, If it worked for you, fine, but I have other plans for my life. I just wanted to get away from her, and that took at least ten minutes.
Even then, I couldn’t really get away. For the next few weeks she called me every day, asking questions like, “Do you know why you’re here on earth?” and “Where would you go if you died right now?”
At first, I politely tried to brush her off, but I was beginning to sense a certain pressure. Her questions haunted me. Why was I here? Where would I go if I died? Her words had impact because there was no denying that something amazing and real had happened to her. She was not the same person I had known before.
No Place For a Good Jewish Boy
After numerous invitations, I finally agreed to go with her to a home Bible study group that she belonged to. From the moment I walked into the room, I wanted to turn around and run. Clearly, this was no place for a good Jewish boy to be — especially one who was still using drugs. But I couldn’t leave. At this time, my only mode of transportation was a Suzuki 750 motorcycle. It was a terrible, stormy night, complete with pouring and blowing rain. By the time I arrived at the Bible Study, I was soaked to the skin.
The wife of the leader who was hosting the Bible study gave me some clothes to change into while my clothes tumbled around in her clothes dryer throughout the evening. I couldn’t leave without my clothes!
The study session seemed to go on for hours, although it was probably only around 90 minutes or so. I was miserable. I felt totally and completely out of place and was positive that everyone there was fully aware of my extreme discomfort. I’m sure you know how this feels — it is not a great feeling.
In addition to that, the leader approached me at the conclusion of the Bible study, and in a decidedly German accent, invited me to join him in the living room for a few minutes. You can imagine my horror from the moment I heard his very clear German accent addressing only me. After all, I had been brought up believing that the world was divided into two groups: Jews and Gentiles — and that Gentiles didn’t like us very much — especially German Gentiles, based on the facts of the holocaust. I had a subconscious fear of all Germans, and I felt as though I was standing in the fiery furnace of that fear.
Nevertheless, I followed him to the living room and sat down on the couch where we were joined by an older gentleman. He placed a Bible on my lap and began to lead me through the Scriptures to Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Interesting. I knew I was a sinner, since I was dealing and using drugs, but it was the first time in my life that I was aware of my physical separation from God. Then he took me over to Romans 6:23, which said, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
At that moment, I had what can only be described as a supernatural experience. Although I did not have a vision or hear a heavenly voice, I do not know what else to call it. The room became abnormally bright and warm. I began to sweat profusely, and I can honestly say that I felt as though the couch I had been sitting on had arms that reached out and grabbed me — holding me in place.
I had begun to deal with a sense of my own separation from a God who loved me, Jonathan Bernis, 20-year-old college student! It was that plain and simple! At the same time, I struggled with an innate understanding that this direction meant abandoning my own goals and ambitions. Looking back at this event from more than 30 years ago, I am convinced that the presence of God came into the room that evening and apprehended me. God had a plan for my life that was different from my own, and He meant to make sure I would lay aside my plans and follow Him. I felt the weight of my sin. And then I was asked to pray a simple prayer repenting of my sin and inviting Jesus into my heart. By this time, I was so uncomfortable and there was such a battle going on inside of me, I would have prayed anything just to get out of that house. It wasn’t very eloquent, but it was a sincere prayer of repentance.
As soon as I prayed that prayer, the lights and the temperature in the room returned to normal, the battle was finished and the couch released me. Then the teacher’s wife brought in my folded, dry clothes and I was free to go. It was a very strange experience.
What Were the Jewish Heroes Doing in the Christian Bible?
Over the next few days, I developed a tremendous hunger for the Bible, but I did not have a Bible and did not know where to get one! I wanted to read the New Testament in particular, but where does a good Jewish boy go to shop for a New Testament? I could not go to my friends —they were all drug users. I could not go to the rabbi — he surely did not have one. I had no idea the Bible was the bestselling book of all time, and I could have bought one at any grocery store or pharmacy!
Finally I remembered that my high school wrestling coach had given me a Bible and said I would need it some day. I had thrown it into a box in my closet at home and forgotten about it.
I jumped on my motorcycle, drove over sixty miles to my parents’ house, ran up to my room and dug through the box in the closet until I found the Bible. I ran back out of the house without ever saying “hello!” or “goodbye,” and drove back to my dorm room, where I devoured the Scriptures. I couldn’t get enough.
I do not know what I expected to find in the New Testament. I had always thought of it as the Christians’ book, and I didn’t think there would be any connection at all to what I had learned at synagogue as a child.
You can imagine my shock when I dove into the book of Matthew and immediately found references to Abraham, Moses, David and the other Jewish heroes I had learned about as a child. I couldn’t understand, though, what these great figures of Judaism were doing in the Christian Bible. Was there a parallel universe? Were there two Abrahams — a Christian Abraham and a Jewish Abraham, the father of all Jewish people? Was there a Christian David and a Jewish David? What about the other Jewish heroes? Was there a Jewish Isaac and a Christian parallel? Had they converted to Christianity and no one had ever told me?
My mind was reeling! As I continued to read, I discovered that Jesus was not the God of the Gentiles, as I had always been told, but was in fact Yeshua, the Messiah of Israel. I nearly laughed out loud with joy as I learned that Yeshua was born to a Jewish mother in the Jewish homeland of Israel, and that all of His first followers were Jews.
And the Holy Spirit began to do a work inside of me drawing me back to my own Jewish identity. Now if you think it was amazing when I opened the New Testament and discovered how Jewish it was, how much more of a shock do you think I experienced when I went back to my own Jewish Scriptures, the Scriptures that I supposedly believed in as a Jew and my parents believed in and the rabbi believed in. I began to read the Jewish Scriptures for myself as if for the very first time, and I discovered prophecy after prophecy that spoke about the Messiah. In almost every prophecy I saw Jesus!
I discovered that His name wasn’t even Jesus, it was Yeshua. In Matthew it says His name would be called Yeshua, which means the “salvation of God” or “God saves,” because He will save His people from their sins.
I realized that someone way back in history had spread a lie that said a Jew should not believe in Jesus. That the New Testament was not for Jews. That the Jewish Scriptures did not speak of Jesus as the Messiah. As I read hundreds of prophecies about Jesus in the Jewish Scriptures, I began to wonder, Why don’t the Jewish people see the truth? The answer is that most have never read their own Scriptures.
One of my favorite prophecies is found in Jeremiah 31:31-34: “The time is coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.” This is a promise to all of the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob even though they were split into the two tribes.
Verse 32: “‘It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord.”
When Jeremiah speaks of “the covenant…with their forefathers,” he is clearly referring to the Mosaic covenant. Most Jewish people today still embrace the Mosaic covenant that’s being spoken about here. But Jeremiah also prophesies a newer covenant that has not yet been accepted by the majority of the Jewish community.
God says in this Scripture that the reason for the new covenant is because “they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them.” So the Jewish people are being given this new covenant because they were unable to keep the old covenant. Rather than rejecting the Jewish people for breaking the previous covenant, He is offering them a new one. Do you see that? Now look at verse 33, “‘This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,’ declares the Lord.”
And then God mentions four things. One: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” Number two: “I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Number three: “No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me….” And number four: “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (v. 34).
These are four promises that God made in His new covenant. The first one tells us that the laws of God are going to be written on our hearts. The law has been taken off of tablets of stone and off of parchment and has been placed within our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Second, He will be our God and we will be His people. Third, we will all know God from the least to the greatest. This is not yet fulfilled. And then the fourth one, I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more.
Only His blood can remove sin and remove all uncleanness from us. Animal sacrifice only covered our sin, but the Bible says that if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness through His own blood. So this is the new covenant. I remember staring in amazement at these words in our Jewish Scriptures written hundreds of years before Jesus was ever born.
I want you to catch one more thing. In verse 35 there’s another prophecy that says, “This is what the Lord says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar — the Lord Almighty is his name.”
Now look at this: “‘Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,’ declares the Lord, ‘will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me” (v. 36).
God is saying that as long as the sun is shining by day and the moon and the stars at night, He is going to preserve the Jewish people as a nation. Let’s read on, “Only if the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth below be searched out will I reject all the descendants of Israel because of all they have done” (v.37).
Even though Israel rebelled, even though she was unfaithful, God is faithful. He made the covenant with Himself. God is being faithful to Himself to fulfill His promise to Israel. And as long as there are stars and the moon at night and the sun during the day, as long as the heavens above haven’t yet been measured God will preserve the Jewish people.
Jonathan and I have been friends for more than 30 years. We have seen tens of thousands of Jewish people make peace with God through Messiah Jesus. I find it interesting that both of us had as a life goal to become a millionaire before age 30. We found something that money cannot buy. We found peace with God and peace within. As I write this commentary, His peace is bubbling throughout my entire body.
It’s not like we are ostriches burying our heads in the sand. No! When God is for you, no one or thing can prosper that is against you.
We have no fear of sickness, poverty or even death. It’s the only way to really live.