From Bar Mitzvah to Baptism

Navigating Jewish Identity As a New Believer
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Officer to cadet: “I didn’t see you at camouflage training today.”

Cadet to officer: “Thank you, sir.”

It’s an old joke, but it’s relevant to anyone thinking of becoming a Christian. True faith in Jesus makes it impossible to blend into the background. Believers can’t avoid standing out, especially if they come from a culture that typically rejects Christianity, such as my own Jewish culture.

My encounter with Jesus began when two boys at my high school made an announcement at morning assembly. They said a visiting speaker was coming to the school’s Christian group, and they encouraged anyone who wanted to learn more about Jesus to come along. Their announcement caught my attention because for two years I’d been asking myself whether life had any meaning or point to it. 

Lifted Up

At the start of that search for meaning, when I was 13, I’d had my Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony. Outwardly, everything had gone smoothly. I’d recited a portion of the Hebrew Bible to a synagogue full of supportive people. But the preparation process hadn’t answered my big questions about life: Why am I here? Is there a God, and, if so, how can I be sure he exists? What’s the point of life if we all end up buried and forgotten?

That last question particularly gnawed at me. Life seemed like writing a book using a special ink that will one day fade into nothingness. Why write the book if the ink will disappear? Why throw yourself into life, with its hopes and sweat and tears of sadness or joy, when death will make it all meaningless? I was hunting for answers, and so when the boys advertised their Christian group, I thought it was worth a try.

The guest speaker gave a talk on one sentence from the Bible: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14–15).

It was extremely reassuring to hear that I could still be Jewish and believe in Jesus.

The speaker said this meant that when Jesus was lifted up on the cross, he made it possible for people to live forever. He explained that when the Israelites were in the wilderness, they were plagued by venomous snakes (Num. 21:6–8). Moses fixed a bronze snake to a pole, and he told the Israelites that if they were bitten, they could look at the snake on the pole, and they would live (Num. 21:9). The speaker said our wrongdoing is more serious in God’s eyes than a lethal snakebite. But Jesus was willingly nailed to the cross to solve that problem by receiving the punishment for other people’s sin. All we need do is look and live.

I knew immediately that eternal life would transform everything for me. But one matter still had to be addressed. I went up to the speaker after the talk and said, “I’m Jewish, so I suppose this isn’t for me.” He replied, “Jesus himself is Jewish! He’s the Jewish Messiah, the one the Jews were waiting for. If you follow him, you’ll be following your own Messiah.” It was extremely reassuring to hear that I could still be Jewish and believe in Jesus. I began following Jesus that evening and gratefully received the gift of eternal life.

Sticking Out

Although I was persuaded that I could hold on to my Jewishness while following Jesus, other Jewish people weren’t so sure. This is where that joke about camouflage training comes in. When a Jewish person starts following Jesus, it’s no longer possible to blend in with the Jewish community. There have always been Jewish followers of Jesus—in fact, right at the start, all his followers were Jewish—but most Jewish people don’t accept Jesus’s claim to be the Messiah. So I knew that by becoming a Jewish believer in Jesus I’d inevitably stick out. The same is true in other cultures. In most parts of the world, people who become Christians know that following Jesus will separate them in various ways from the crowd.

Joining the Christian community means gaining a new family, a family with an eternal bond.

This challenge became real for me in college when I helped arrange an outreach event titled “Is Jesus the Jewish Messiah?” As the title suggests, it was primarily aimed at my fellow Jewish students. I wanted them to hear the same good news about eternal life that I’d been so thrilled to encounter at high school. But a local rabbi named Shmuley Boteach (who, strangely enough, later became a spiritual adviser to Michael Jackson) found out about the event and strenuously objected to it. Lost and Found Book

Rabbi Boteach went on record with a statement about our event: “I thought we were in the age of mutual understanding and respect, not the age of spiritual Nazism whereby one faith is promoted as being superior to another or where an ancient people are targeted for conversion by small-minded bigots.” The statement was so fiercely worded that it made it into the student newspaper and then into one or two national papers as well. A radio breakfast show invited the rabbi and me to debate each other in its studio. Everyone advised me not to accept (due to my lack of experience), and my pastor kindly agreed to take my side of the debate.

Counting the Cost

While the storm was raging, I had plenty of adrenaline to see me through. But afterward I found out that the news had reached my grandmother, among other members of my family. I’d been waiting for the right time to tell her about my faith in Jesus, but the controversial outreach event made that decision for me. For many years she didn’t even want to see me or talk to me, and things between us only ever got slightly better in the last few years of her life. 

My parents were much more understanding, although they did ask me to postpone my baptism. So instead of joining in as planned at a river baptism with several others from my church, I was baptized later that year at a Christian summer camp. 

In the eyes of the Jewish community, baptism is often seen as a renunciation of Jewishness. But I viewed it as a way to follow in the footsteps of Jesus the Jewish Messiah, who was himself baptized at the start of his ministry by his (Jewish) cousin John. Baptism makes a person’s membership of the Christian community public and official. Although it can have the effect of separating Jewish believers in Jesus from their family and friends, it has a wonderful upside. Joining the Christian community means gaining a new family, a family with an eternal bond.

Editors’ note: 

This is an adapted excerpt from Lost and Found: How Jesus Helped Us Discover Our True Selves (The Gospel Coalition, 2019), edited by Collin Hansen.

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