Did Jesus — and Jesus alone — match the identity of the Messiah?
Slender and bespectacled, (Pastor Louis) Lapides is soft-spoken but has a quick smile and ready laugh. He was upbeat and polite as he ushered me to a chair near the front of Beth Ariel Fellowship in Sherman Oaks, California.
I didn’t want to begin by debating biblical nuances; instead I started by inviting Lapides to tell me the story of his spiritual journey.
He folded his hands in his lap, looked at the dark wood walls for a moment as he decided where to start, and then began unfolding an extraordinary tale that took us from Newark to Greenwich Village to Vietnam to Los Angeles, from skepticism to faith, from Judaism to Christianity, from Jesus as irrelevant to Jesus as Messiah.
“As you know, I came from a Jewish family,” he began. “I attended a conservative Jewish synagogue for seven years in preparation for bar mitzvah. Although we considered those studies to be very important, our family’s faith didn’t affect our everyday life very much. We didn’t stop work on the Sabbath; we didn’t have a kosher home.”
He smiled. “However, on the High Holy Days we attended the stricter Orthodox synagogue, because somehow my dad felt that’s where you went if you really wanted to get serious with God!”
When I interjected to ask what his parents had taught him about the Messiah, Lapides’ answer was crisp. “It never came up,” he said matter-of-factly.
I was incredulous. In fact, I thought I had misunderstood him. “You’re saying it wasn’t even discussed?” I asked.
“Never,” he reiterated. “I don’t even remember it being an issue in Hebrew school.”
This was amazing to me. “How about Jesus?” I asked. “Was he ever talked about? Was His name used?”
“Only derogatorily!” Lapides quipped. “Basically, He was never discussed. My impressions of Jesus came from seeing Catholic churches: there was the cross, the crown of thorns, the pierced side, the blood coming from His head. It didn’t make any sense to me.
“Why wouldyou worship a man on a cross with nails in His hands and His feet? I never once thought Jesus had any connection to the Jewish people. I just thought He was a god of the Gentiles.”
I suspected that Lapides’ attitudes toward Christians had gone beyond mere confusion over their beliefs. “Did you believe Christians were at the root of anti-Semitism?” I asked.
“Gentiles were looked upon as synonymous with Christians, and we were taught to be cautious because there could be anti-Semitism among the Gentiles,” he said, sounding a bit diplomatic.
I pursued the issue further. “Would you say you developed some negative attitudes toward Christians?”
This time he didn’t mince words. “Yes, actually I did,” he said. “In fact, later when the New Testament was first presented to me, I sincerely thought it was going to basically be a handbook on anti-Semitism: how to hate Jews, how to kill Jews, how to massacre them. I thought the American Nazi Party would have been very comfortable using it as a guidebook.”
I shook my head, saddened at the thought of how many other Jewish children have grown up thinking of Christians as their enemies.
A Spiritual Quest Begins
Lapides said several incidents dimmed his allegiance to Judaism as he was growing up. Curious about the details, I asked him to elaborate, and he immediately turned to what was clearly the most heartrending episode of his life.
“My parents got divorced when I was seventeen,” he said — and surprisingly, even after all these years I could still detect hurt in his voice. “That really put a stake in any religious heart I may have had. I wondered, Where does God come in? Why didn’t they go to a rabbi for counseling? What good is religion if it can’t help people in a practical way? It sure couldn’t keep my parents together. When they split up, part of me split as well.
“On top of that, in Judaism I didn’t feel as if I had a personal relationship with God. I had a lot of beautiful ceremonies and traditions, but He was the distant and detached God of Mount Sinai who said, ‘Here are the rules — you live by them, you’ll be OK; I’ll see you later.’ And there I was, an adolescent with raging hormones, wondering, Does God relate to my struggles? Does He care about me as an individual? Well, not in any way I could see.”
The divorce prompted an era of rebellion. Consumed with music and influenced by the writings of Jack Kerouac and Timothy Leary, he spent too much time in Greenwich Village coffeehouses to go to college — making him vulnerable to the draft. By 1967 he found himself on the other side of the world in a cargo boat whose volatile freight — ammunition, bombs, rockets, and other high explosives — made it a tempting target for the Vietcong.
“I remember being told at our orientation in Vietnam, ‘Twenty percent of you will probably get killed, and the other eighty percent will probably get a venereal disease or become alcoholics or get hooked on drugs.’ I thought, I don’t even have a one percent chance of coming out normal!
“It was a very dark period. I witnessed suffering. I saw body bags; I saw the devastation from war. And I encountered anti-Semitism among some of the GIs. A few of them from the South even burned a cross one night. I probably wanted to distance myself from my Jewish identity — maybe that’s why I began delving into Eastern religions.”
Lapides read books on Eastern philosophies and visited Buddhist temples while in Japan. “I was extremely bothered by the evil I had seen, and I was trying to figure out how faith can deal with it,” he told me. “I used to say, ‘If there’s a God, I don’t care if I find Him on Mount Sinai or Mount Fuji. I’ll take Him either way.’ ”
He survived Vietnam, returning home with a newfound taste for marijuana and plans to become a Buddhist priest. He tried to live an ascetic lifestyle of self-denial in an effort to work off the bad karma for the misdeeds of his past, but soon he realized he’d never be able to make up for all his wrongs.
Lapides was quiet for a moment. “I got depressed,” he said. “I remember getting on the subway and thinking, Maybe jumping onto the tracks is the answer. I could free myself from this body and just merge with God. I was very confused. To make matters worse, I started experimenting with LSD.”
Looking for a new start, he decided to move to California, where his spiritual quest continued. “I went to Buddhist meetings, but that was empty,” he said. “Chinese Buddhism was atheistic, Japanese Buddhism worshiped statues of Buddha, Zen Buddhism was too elusive. I went to Scientology meetings, but they were too manipulative and controlling. Hinduism believed in all these crazy orgies that the gods would have and in gods who were blue elephants. None of it made sense; none of it was satisfying.”
He even accompanied friends to meetings that had Satanic undercurrents.
“I would watch and think, Something is going on here, but it’s not good,” he said. “In the midst of my drug-crazed world, I told my friends I believed there’s a power of evil that’s beyond me, that can work in me, that exists as an entity. I had seen enough evil in my life to believe that.”
He looked at me with an ironic smile. “I guess I accepted Satan’s existence,” he said, “before I accepted God’s.”
“I Can’t Believe in Jesus”
It was 1969. Lapides’ curiosity prompted him to visit Sunset Strip to gawk at an evangelist who had chained himself to an eight-foot cross to protest the way local tavern owners had managed to get him evicted from his storefront ministry. There on the sidewalk Lapides encountered some Christians who engaged him in an impromptu spiritual debate.
A bit cocky, he started throwing Eastern philosophy at them. “There is no God out there,” he said, gesturing toward the heavens. “We’re God. I’m God. You’re God. You just have to realize it.”
“Well, if you’re God, why don’t you create a rock?” one person replied. “Just make something appear. That’s what God does.”
In his drug-addled mind Lapides imagined he was holding a rock.
“Yeah, well, here’s a rock,” he said, extending his empty hand.
The Christian scoffed. “That’s the difference between you and the true God,” he said. “When God creates something, everyone can see it. It’s objective, not subjective.”
That registered with Lapides. After thinking about it for a while, he said to himself, If I find God, He’s got to be objective. I’m through with this Eastern philosophy that says it’s all in my mind and that I can create my own reality. God has to be an objective reality if He’s going to have any meaning beyond my own imagination.
When one of the Christians brought up the name of Jesus, Lapides tried to fend him off with his stock answer. “I’m Jewish,” he said. “I can’t believe in Jesus.”
A pastor spoke up. “Do you know of the prophecies about the Messiah?” he asked.
Lapides was taken off guard. “Prophecies?” he said. “I’ve never heard of them.”
The minister startled Lapides by referring to some of the Old Testament predictions. Wait a minute! Lapides thought. Those are my Jewish Scriptures he’s quoting! How could Jesus be in there?
When the pastor offered him a Bible, Lapides was skeptical. “Is the New Testament in there?” he asked. The pastor nodded. “OK, I’ll read the Old Testament, but I’m not going to open up the other one,” Lapides told him.
He was taken aback by the minister’s response. “Fine,” said the pastor. “Just read the Old Testament and ask the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — the God of Israel — to show you if Jesus is the Messiah. Because He is your Messiah. He came to the Jewish people initially, and then He was also the Savior of the world.”
To Lapides, this was new information. Intriguing information. Astonishing information. So he went back to his apartment, opened the Old Testament to its first book, Genesis, and went hunting for Jesus among words that had been written hundreds of years before the carpenter of Nazareth had ever been born.
“Pierced for Our Transgressions”
“Pretty soon,” Lapides told me, “I was reading the Old Testament every day and seeing one prophecy after another. For instance, Deuteronomy talked about a prophet greater than Moses who will come and whom we should listen to. I thought, Who can be greater than Moses? It sounded like the Messiah — Someone as great and as respected as Moses but a greater teacher and a greater authority. I grabbed ahold of that and went searching for Him.”
As Lapides progressed through the Scriptures, he was stopped cold by Isaiah 53. With clarity and specificity, in a haunting prediction wrapped in exquisite poetry, here was the picture of a Messiah who would suffer and die for the sins of Israel and the world — all written more than seven hundred years before Jesus walked the earth.
He was despised and rejected by mankind, a Man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces He was despised, and we held Him in low esteem. Surely He took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered Him punished by God, stricken by Him, and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He did not open His mouth. By oppression and judgment He was taken away.
Yet who of His generation protested? For He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people He was punished. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in His death, though He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth… For He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. – Isaiah 53:3-9, Isaiah 53:12
Instantly Lapides recognized the portrait: this was Jesus of Nazareth!
Now he was beginning to understand the paintings he had seen in the Catholic churches he had passed as a child: the suffering Jesus, the crucified Jesus, the Jesus who he now realized had been “pierced for our transgressions” as he “bore the sin of many.”
As Jews in the Old Testament sought to atone for their sins through a system of animal sacrifices, here was Jesus, the ultimate sacrificial lamb of God, who paid for sin once and for all. Here was the personification of God’s plan of redemption.
So breathtaking was this discovery that Lapides could only come to one conclusion: it was a fraud! He believed that Christians had rewritten the Old Testament and twisted Isaiah’s words to make it sound as if the prophet had been foreshadowing Jesus.
Lapides set out to expose the deception. “I asked my stepmother to send me a Jewish Bible so I could check it out myself,” he told me. “She did, and guess what? I found that it said the same thing! Now I really had to deal with it.”
Excerpted with permission from The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, copyright Zondervan.
* * *
Have you gone on a journey to discover is Jesus is the one and only Messiah? Come and share your story on our blog! We would love to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily