It’s almost Rosh Hashanah, 1988. (That’s 5749 in the Jewish calendar.) I remember last year when Rosh Hashanah was just a couple of weeks away. All of us in the Los Angeles branch of Jews for Jesus were looking ahead to the special service we were planning, but the holiday turned out to be special in a way I had not fully anticipated.

Rafi, a young Israeli, had come to our Friday night meeting with a Christian friend. He sat through the Bible study, listened to my message, and heard me announce our upcoming service for the Jewish New Year. After the study, Rafi introduced himself to me and said he might like to attend the special service. Then he asked, Why do I have to believe in Jesus in order to go to heaven?”

His words were abrupt, but there was no belligerence in his question. Rather his tone of voice suggested that he really wanted to know.

“I believe in God,” he explained, “but this friend of mine,” he nodded with a smile to the person who had accompanied him, “he tells me that unless I believe in Jesus, I won’t go to heaven when I die. Is that true?”

“Would you like a diplomatic answer, or a direct answer?” I asked in return.

“I want to know,” Rafi said.

So I told him, “Yes, it’s true.”

“Why? I believe in God. Why do I have to believe in Jesus?”

I could have responded in many ways, but I didn’t offer an answer just then. Instead, I suggested that we meet again, just the two of us, so we could talk without distractions. I wanted time to pray and consider the best way to reply to Rafi’s question.

I suspected his interest was more than academic. I believed he really wanted to know and understand, and I hoped that once he did know and understand, he might be ready to believe and act upon it.

When Rafi and I met a few days later, Rosh Hashanah was closer still, as was the special service we were planning. My mind was already occupied with the last-minute details I would have to address. Nevertheless, I was happy to set aside the details as I met with Rafi at a nearby coffee shop. He told me he had been raised in Israel and in England and was studying to become a doctor. Again he said he wanted to know why he had to believe in Jesus in order to go to heaven.

“I believe in God,” he repeated.

“To believe in God is one thing,” I said. “To believe what he is telling you is something else.”

“What’s he telling me?” Rafi asked.

He didn’t seem the least bit distracted as the waitress brought our coffee while I explained the gospel message.

“You’re a student,” I began.

“Pre-med,” he said.

“Rafi, what if you were my doctor, and you told me I had a deadly disease? What if you told me of a cure that always worked, and what if I said to you ‘I don’t see why I should take the cure. Isn’t it enough that I believe in being healthy?’ What would you tell me?”

Rafi smiled and put down his cup. “If you believe in being healthy, then you should do what has to be done to be healthy.”

I nodded. “And if we believe in God, and if God is telling us that we are dying of a disease called sin, then we need to believe what he’s telling us to do about this disease. I believe he’s telling us that our sins have separated us from him. He’s telling us the only way to have our sins forgiven is to place our faith in Yeshua. If this is what God is telling us, then we should believe what he says.”

“If…if,” Rafi speculated. “But how do we know?”

“From the Scriptures,” I said. I pointed him to Isaiah 53 in a Jewish Bible I had brought along. As he read, I saw in his face the effect the Word of God was having on his heart.

But it was late. Rafi had to get to work, and I had to work on details for the Rosh Hashanah service. We arranged to meet again.

We were not able to meet, however, until the day of Rosh Hashanah. Because of all the last-minute items needing my attention before the service, I had thought about calling Rafi to reschedule our appointment. I was glad I never made that call!

L’shanah tovah,” I said as once again we shook hands. “Happy New Year.”

“L’shanah tovah,” he responded. ‘I’ve been thinking about what you said, Avi. Saying you believe in God is one thing. Believing what he tells you .s something else. What you said—it makes a lot of sense.”

As we talked, it became clear that Rafi wanted to do more than believe in God. He wanted to know him personally through the Messiah Jesus.

“Rafi,” I said, “I think you know Jesus is the Messiah. And I think you know he paid the debt that all of us owe to God because of our sins.”

“Yes,” he agreed.

“You’ve told yourself, and you’ve told me. Would you like to tell him?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I would.”

So we prayed. First I, then Rafi. When we finished, the waitress came by and asked if we’d like more coffee.

“What a way for you to start the New Year,” I said.

Rafi smiled and nodded yes.

Last year’s Rosh Hashanah service went just fine. I am looking forward to special blessings again this year.