I just returned from my first visit to the Holy Land. It was a trip that will change my perspective forever. What a privilege and joy to walk in places that Jesus walked, and to take in the amazing sites. I had no idea of just how beautiful it is there. Even in the barren wilderness, the sites are awe-inspiring and I couldn’t help but think about our amazing Creator. For the most part, the people were kind and receptive to us. In our conversations with them, we found open hearts and minds, but the one exception to that was among the religious. I had several experiences that gave me a greater understanding of what Jesus must have dealt with during his time on earth.
The first of these experiences was actually with a dear family friend. A few years ago he decided to go to Israel on the birthright program in order to get in touch with his Jewish roots. Although his mother is Jewish, she decided to embrace Yeshua (Hebrew for Jesus) as Messiah many years ago, and raised him in the church. When he arrived in Israel, he was given a place to stay in a religious school (yeshiva) near the Western Wall. Over time, he came to embrace the teachings of that school and rejected Yeshua as Messiah. I wasn’t sure he would even meet with me, but finally late one night he sent me a message and came to our hostel to see me. He quickly informed me that he was not allowed to enter a Gentile building to talk to me, and asked if I could come out. When I came out, he told me he was not allowed to hug me. Since it was a little cold, I asked if we could go to walk, and he said we could, but I would have to go change into a skirt. I ran up to my 3rd floor room and put on a long skirt so that we could walk together. We walked through Jerusalem for the next 2 ½ hours, and I asked him to tell my why he decided to convert. His whole rationale was about the Law. Since God doesn’t change, and since Gentiles say that it’s okay to eat non-kosher we must be wrong. He informed me that he has found his truth, and that he is happy. The problem is I am sure he’s not. It is as though somebody has sucked the life right out of him. He only smiled once– he used to smile all the time. He was careful to follow the letter of the law, and every bit of the spontaneity I loved so much about him is gone. Second Corinthians 3:6 tells us that the letter of the law kills, but the Spirit gives life. My friend is case in point, and how it grieves my heart.
The second experience that helped me understand the religious animosity Jesus faced came in the form of a testimony I heard near the end of our trip. In the hostel where we were staying, I met a young volunteer who had run away from her religious family in Jerusalem after they arranged a marriage for her that ended up being extremely abusive. The rabbis in her sect would not allow for divorce, and she managed to get to America to stay with relatives for a while, but her move was clearly unacceptable, and she was basically stalked by the leaders. She had been told that if she ever set foot in a church, she would die, and she became so miserable that she walked into a church one day hoping to do just that. To hear her tell it, she did die, but in a good way. She died to the old way of life and became a believer in Yeshua. He set her free from the bondage of legalism, and now she glows with the love of God. What a contrast between these two young people. One has embraced bondage and the other freedom.
Finally, there was a third experience that seemed to tie everything together for me. We spent a day with our friend who is an American born Israeli citizen. He is an expert in Torah law, but also happens to believe that Yeshua is the Messiah. While at his house, he did a bible study with us from Leviticus 19, which deals with God’s command to Israel regarding holiness. Our friend said that when he thinks of holy, he thinks about meanness. To him the first images that come to mind when considering holiness are hateful religious attitudes. As a Believer in Yeshua, he has faced much persecution for his faith by religious people. The average Israeli would never bother him, but the ones who claim to be holy are the ones who give him the most trouble—much the same as when Jesus walked the earth. The common people embraced him, but the religious did not. Our friend says that the passage in Leviticus on holiness is obviously relating holiness to loving God and others. He said that true holiness flows out of a relationship with God that is only possible by receiving the redemption He offers. Only those who know they are sinful and have accepted the Messiah, who sacrificed himself and took the punishment for theirs sins, can be truly holy. Isaiah 53 says that like sheep we have all gone astray, but that the Lord has laid the iniquity of us all on Him. True holiness is based on receiving this wonderful gift, and not on rigidly holding to a set of rules. The Spirit gives life, but the letter of the law kills.
After returning to the States, I decided to read the Gospels with a new perspective based on my travels. Yesterday I landed in Matthew 7, which starts with “Do not judge.” Certainly mean religious people spend a lot of time judging others. The problem for them is that their own standards come back to haunt them, and they end up in miserable bondage like my friend. It is not just the religious in Israel who have this problem— it is universal. As a Christian, I have both judged and been judged. This happens when we set our standards above our relationships—when we love our ideals more than we love God and people. Judging is basically an act of pride in which the judge sets himself in the place of God. Jesus implied that a judgmental spirit is usually the result of spiritual blindness. When we think we are holier or better than anyone else, we are operating in blindness. Jesus compared it to someone trying to remove a speck in his brother’s eye when there is a log in his own eye. Judgmental attitudes almost always flow from a failure to honestly look at our own hearts. They spring from a focus on rules and regulations rather than heart issues. My trip to Israel really brought this to light, but I know that the American church is just as guilty.
When you find fault in another person, what is your first thought? Is it one of condemnation or love? Do you run to tell others about it (gossip) or share it with others as a “prayer request” (gossip) without loving the person enough to speak first directly to him or her? Do you focus on that person’s issues without evaluating your own heart? Are your motives pure, or are they based on pride? Do you enjoy pointing out others’ mistakes? If so, you probably have a problem with pride. Do you find yourself angry with someone? Do you stew in anger as you imagine the motives behind that person’s actions? If so, you have set yourself up as judge—a place that is reserved for God alone. Jesus’ most harsh words were aimed at religious people. He showed grace and mercy to those who were automatically considered sinful by the scribes and Pharisees. To sum it up in the words of my counseling professor Robert D. Jones, “The only thing worse than being an adulterer or thief (or whatever the sin) is being proud that you aren’t one.” True holiness is not mean like that. It cares for God and others. It is kind and never mean (1 Cor. 13:4-7).
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple complex to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee took his stand and was praying like this: ‘God, I thank You that I’m not like other people —greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’
“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, turn Your wrath from me —a sinner!’ I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other; because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”