Gideon Levytam, ‘How I found the Messiah of Israel’

Gideon LevytamOn May 14th, 1948, when David Ben-Gurion read a proclamation establishing Israel as a sovereign state, Jewish nationhood was revived after a lapse of almost 2,000 years. Exactly seven years later to the day, I was born in the city of Jerusalem. Much of my early childhood was spent under the guidance of my grandfather, a devout Jew, who was the head of the house. He took great care that we strictly observed all the laws, ordinances and traditions and he attended the synagogue daily. When my grandfather passed away and with no one eager to direct me in spiritual matters, I had little to do with the synagogue or the ways of our fathers after my Bar Mitzvah, the ritual concerning a 13 year old Jewish boy who becomes ‘son of the law’. From that day on, the boy himself is responsible for his actions. As a teenager, I was more impressed with the American dress, music and free and easy lifestyle. I had little time for God. I was not looking for God, but God was looking for me.

A Christian Volunteer

At eighteen, every able-bodied Israeli enters into military service. Shortly before my eighteenth birthday I went to Kibbutz Malkia, where I had my high school education, to visit my friends prior to beginning my three years of military service. While there, I met Irene, a Canadian volunteer at the kibbutz. Irene and her friend Heather had come to Israel with a volunteer group from Switzerland where they had been working at a Bible camp. Shortly after getting acquainted, I learned that Irene was a believer in Jesus Christ. She had a Bible, which she used in an effort to explain her beliefs. I was not at all interested in the Bible, but I was definitely interested in Irene. Passover was near so I invited Irene and Heather to spend the holiday with my family in Jerusalem. Both of them agreed to come because they were eager to see Jerusalem. Some weeks later, Israel celebrated 25 years of independence and I was granted two days leave. It was an opportunity to be with Irene again for a short time. Saying goodbye the second time was even harder than the first. With heavy heart I rode the train back to the base, wondering if we would ever see each other again.

Yom Kippur war

The months went by slowly until I was home again on a two-day pass, this time for the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur. This is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. For 23 hours almost all Jews, wherever they are, pray and fast. As for the nation of Israel, it closes down on Yom Kippur. All work ceases – not a bus, truck, or private car can be seen on the streets. There is no radio nor television and only a skeleton staff where absolutely necessary. It was October 6th, 1973, and war had broken out on the day we least expected. All soldiers were ordered back to their bases immediately. The three and a half hour trip to my base in the Golan Heights gave me plenty of time to do some serious soul searching. Here I was, 18 years old, still in basic training, my whole life before me, with fear mounting and uncertainty awaiting me at the end of my journey. At such times one remembers to call on God. The verses that became almost synonymous with the Yom Kippur War were ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.’ Psalm 121:1-2

As we drew near to the front, we saw dead bodies all around. While on the Golan Heights, formation after formation of Syrian aircraft swooped over us as hundreds of Syrian tanks, four abreast rolled into devastating action against us. It took five days of relentless fighting and many lost lives to turn the tide. Our unit of new recruits was assigned the duty of clearing captured villages. Among other things, this duty managed to get us flea infested from head to toe.

When the Syrian army was finally halted, some amazing stories circulated among the troops. Supposedly, a hand had reached out of the clouds, holding back the advancing Syrian armies; and Syrian soldiers had turned and fled after seeing soldiers in white fighting beside Israeli soldiers. Whether these stories were true or not, I didn’t know, but I did know that God had once again preserved us from our enemies.

Talks about the Messiah of Israel

After the war ended, I was transferred to the Sinai desert. Once, I called home and my mother surprised me with the news that Irene had arrived from Canada the night before. I jumped for joy and practically went through the roof of our tent. My tent mates begged my commander to send me home as I was driving them crazy. The commander gave in and granted me a three day pass. What a joyous reunion we had! Irene stayed with my family in Jerusalem, working in my father’s restaurant and helping to take care of my invalid grandmother. Her stay was a real help to all my family. She was the Gentile that brought light to our home and everybody loved her. Irene still carried her Bible and talked to me at every opportunity about Jesus being the Messiah of Israel. I was happy to let her talk about it, but I never really seriously considered it for myself. I realized that my being Jewish and her being a Gentile was bound to create problems; but I pushed these thoughts to the back of my mind.

A Christian welcome

I was discharged in 1976. After completing their military service, many soldiers longed to see something of the world and I was no exception. Every Israeli knows that the safest place to be is inside Israel’s borders. I was about to step out into the unknown. My longing for adventure was greater than any reservations I had so in July 1976 I departed for Canada with Irene. Irene’s family warmly welcomed me into their home. At meals her father thanked the Lord for the food, and after the meal he would read from the Bible and then pray in Jesus’ name. Irene and her parents also attended church every Sunday and would invite me to come along with them. But as a Jew, that was the last place I could go, so I decided it was time for me to start going to the synagogue in the small Jewish community nearby.

I came to realize that I was not at all close to the God of the Jews, nor walking in His ways. I also realized that a Jew could have nothing to do with idol worship, nor with the God of the Gentiles. This put me in quite a dilemma, as I was very much in love with Irene. One day Irene’s mother, who was very kind to me presented me with a gift, a complete Hebrew Bible. Upon opening it, I discovered that it contained both the Old and the New Testaments. Although I accepted it graciously, I was deeply offended and vowed never to read it. Other Christians also talked to me about Jesus, explaining that man is a sinner in need of a Saviour and that Jesus is the only One who could forgive our sins and give us eternal life. That was a bit too much for me because I never thought of myself as a sinner. I thought I was pretty good. Besides, I was Jewish and Jesus was not for the Jews. Thus began my confrontation with Jesus.

My inner struggle

Irene’s mother was still determined that one way or another she was going to get me inside their church building. So one day she asked if I would help her clean their meeting hall. I found myself in a very awkward position, although I wanted to help her I was afraid to. I was sure I was going to bring the wrath of God upon me by stepping inside that door. I was greatly relieved when no calamity struck me. To my surprise, there were no crosses or statues anywhere. In fact, in its simplicity, it resembled our synagogue back home. Even so, I was glad when it was time to leave.

It was around this time that I was introduced to Jacob and Margaret Pankratz, an elderly couple who had faithfully served the Lord for many years with Jewish missions in Toronto and Montreal. It was plain to see that they had a real love for the Jewish people. I felt immediately at home with them, even before Jacob showed me some slides from his trips to Israel. As they began speaking to me about Jesus, they were careful to use his Hebrew name, Yeshua and would use the word ‘Messiah’ instead of Christ. Before we left that evening, Jacob handed me a Hebrew-English New Testament and I was encouraged to come again.

I now possessed two New Testaments. Irene had also written to a radio program called the Christian Jew Hour for some material, and they sent me quite a collection of tracts and pamphlets, some even in Hebrew. I looked through them and read of the various prophecies about the Messiah of Israel in the Old Testament, which had been fulfilled by Jesus in the New Testament. Friends of the family were also around who explained the future of Israel to me. I came to resent the fact that these Christians knew more about my God and my Bible than I did. In fact, I remember saying, “If there will be anyone who will tell others about the one, true God, it will be me, a Jew, and not the other way around.” In the midst of all these inner struggles, I had another matter to contend with, my visa to Canada would soon expire. I had three choices, go back to Israel alone, go with Irene, or get married and automatically receive new immigrant status. It was a very difficult decision to make. Irene’s parents did not want her to return to Israel and, understandably, they would be as upset if she married an unbeliever, just as mine would be if I married out of the Jewish faith.

A serious step

After much deliberation we were married in March of 1977. It was a serious step for us to take and neither of us would say that what we did was right. Yet looking back years later, we could see that God by His grace and wisdom overruled our wrongdoing to His own glory. Irene’s church arranged a wedding reception for us and treated us with much love and kindness, seeking to draw us to them rather than drive us away. Unknown to me at the time, many Christians were praying for my salvation. In the first nine months of our marriage, Irene continued to regularly attend the meetings with her parents. One Sunday, I surprised everyone when I came and sat down at the back of the meeting hall with Aaron, an Israeli believer who was also married to a Canadian. Aaron had talked me into coming out that morning. This eventually led to my regular attendance at the Sunday school, which was held immediately following the worship meeting. For safety’s sake, I always sat in the back where I could make a quick exit. While attending these classes I heard of Jesus’ love towards men, how He came to this world to die in order that He might bring people back to God, and that He was the promised Messiah of Israel and the Saviour of the world. I found all of this difficult to comprehend. I could accept the fact that the Gentiles believed in Him, but could I, a Jew, believe in Him? I had to admit that Jesus interested me. He was different from any other man. One day I took out the Bible my mother-in-law had given me. In a very simple way I said to God, “Show me the truth; if this book holds the truth, then show it to me. If not, preserve me from this book.”

Reading the Bible

I then started to read the New Testament in the Hebrew language, which was easier and more comfortable. I was amazed to find that the writers of the New Testament books were Jewish, that the events took place in the land of Israel, and were about a Jew who was called in the Hebrew, Yeshua. I had always thought that Jesus was a Gentile whom the Christians worshipped. As I continued reading I asked myself, “If Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, the Messiah of Israel, how come my people do not believe in Him? Why did my grandfather never mention Him, and how come the Rabbis never teach of Him in our synagogues?”

In Hebrew I began reading passages of Scripture that speak of God in the plural – not three gods, but one God manifested in three persons. For instance, Genesis 1:1 (NKJV) says ‘In the beginning God (plural) created (singular) the heavens and the earth.’ Deuteronomy 6:4, the very core verse of my people, calls out ‘Hear, 0 Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.’ In this verse I could see that the Hebrew word for God is plural, while the word for one (echad) is a compound unity. In English it is not clear, but in Hebrew it is obvious. These, and other passages, clearly showed me that there is more than one person in the Godhead and God wants men to come back to Him. I also saw that God had promised us a Messiah, and that this Messiah would take away our sins. As I pondered these questions, I continued to attend the Sunday school classes.

Isaiah 53

We decided to visit my family in Israel, and Irene’s brother and sister in Europe. As soon as I saw my family and old friends again, I began asking them what they thought about Jesus? One day I went to see my old friend Moses, and found that he had changed from being a modem secular Jew to an ultra-orthodox one. He now spent his days praying, studying, and meditating on the Word of God. I was surprised and asked him what caused such a drastic change. He told me his life was empty and meaningless and by becoming religious his life had direction and purpose. Moses, now attired in religious garb, handed me a kippa for my head and we sat down together and read Isaiah 53. “Who was the prophet referring to?” I asked. We discussed the various possibilities, one of them being the Messiah of Israel. Although we came to no conclusions that day, we both knew that we would continue to search for the answer.

Arriving back in Canada, I began attending the meetings once in a while, but God was working in my heart as I struggled with the issue of a man taking away my sins. “After all,” I said to myself, “Jesus was just a man, so how could He forgive my sins?” I read Isaiah 53 again, as the prophet was describing the sinless One, the Messiah ‘He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him … He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth … All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, everyone, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.’ Isaiah 53:2,9,6.

It was then that I learned something so precious that it brought me to my knees before Yeshua the Messiah and caused me to fall in love with Him. I had never completely understood who He was, nor could I believe in Him and take Him as my very own Lord and Saviour until I recognized that He was the very God of Israel, the Creator of the universe. It was God Himself who took the form of a man and came to this world according to the prophecies of old. What love to me! What love to all men! John 3:16 says, ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.’ God Himself, in the person of Yeshua, the virgin-born Son spoken of in Isaiah 7:14; had taken upon Himself the sins of the world. Isaiah 53:5 says, ‘He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.’

Finding Him

I could now see clearly that I was a sinner ‘For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ Romans 3:23. It was for my sins that Jesus died on the tree, and no matter how good I was trying to be, I had inherited a sinful nature from Adam, and only Jesus, God’s own Son, could take away my sins. Coming into the full realization of this I asked Yeshua to come into my life and forgive my sins ‘If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.’ Romans 10:9. What joy and peace filled my heart to know my sins were forgiven. I found the answer, I found the Messiah of Israel!

I had to tell my family the step I had taken, but it was not easy. I loved my family dearly, and I knew that this would really hurt them. Along with God’s grace, reading Matthew 10:37 ‘He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me.’ gave me the courage to share my faith in Yeshua with my family. I wanted them to understand that believing in Jesus did not make me a traitor, but rather a Jew who had returned to the God of our Fathers and found the promised Messiah of old. I wanted to share with them that this Jesus, whom I believe in, is not our enemy, but our Messiah, the lover of our souls. He is the one who wept over Jerusalem in Luke 19:41-44 and longed to gather our people unto Himself like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings in Matthew 23:37-39. Although my family opposed my faith in Yeshua, they did not reject me and remained hopeful that in time I would see the error of my ways.

Growing and going

As I grew in faith through reading and studying God’s Word, the Lord gave me the desire to reach my people with the gospel ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also to the Greek,’ Romans 1:16. As I also read Isaiah 6:8, the Lord spoke to me, ‘I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”

The last few years have brought many opportunities to serve the Lord among Jews and Gentiles in street evangelism, gospel outreach, young people’s meetings, and Bible studies. It was a great joy to be used by the Lord to bring the good news of salvation to them. The Lord Jesus tells us, ‘I say to you that likewise there will be … joy in heaven over one sinner who repents,’ Luke 15:7. I long for the coming day when Israel will say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD,’ Matthew 23:39. Until that time when Israel will accept Yeshua, the Messiah of Israel, God is building His Church that consists of persons called out from among Israel and every other nation of the world. The cross of Jesus Christ reconciles both Jew and Gentile, uniting them together into one body. (see Ephesians 2:16-18)

Appeal

It is my earnest desire that Yeshua will be glorified through this testimony and not man, that Jews and Gentiles alike may come to know Him, because to know Him ‘is eternal life’ John 17:3. There is an answer to the sin question; there is an answer to all your needs. It is Yeshua! Whether you are a Jew or a Gentile, may God open your heart and eyes and give you the boldness to confess your sins before Him and invite Yeshua into your life, making Him your Lord and Saviour for time and eternity. I can now say not only that I have found the Messiah, but that the Messiah has found me! I pray that it may be so with you as well.