“I have lived in two entirely different worlds, first as a Jew, and then as a Christian; first in a limited world of doubt and superstition under the fearful curse of the law; then, by the grace of God, I penetrated from darkness to light — from death to life. Since that time I have been privileged to be a messenger of the Gospel, the good news of the free and joyous grace of God in Messiah Yeshua, proclaiming the reconciliation which is in Yeshua, both to Jews and non-Jews, for I am a debtor to both.”
These words were written by Chaim Gurland, son of a zealous Rabbi in Vilna, Lithuania. Impatiently he waited for his first instruction. Chaim was not yet five years old when his father taught him the word God. Soon he was able to read the Holy Scriptures and he loved the narratives of Elijah so much that one day he ran away from home “because he wanted to go up into heaven like Elijah!” It took days before the half-starved boy was found.
In his youth Chaim had an unfortunate experience. In a biblical narrative he saw a picture of the crucified Messiah which he wished to impress on his mind; he therefore sneaked into the attic and made a copy of the picture. This took many hours and his parents went in search of him. At dusk his father – shaken and disappointed – suddenly stood beside him. In his eyes Chaim had committed a terrible crime. He rebuked his son severely and gave him a good hiding.
Chaim was destined to become a Rabbi. After three years of study at a Rabbinical Seminary he was inducted. Of the day of his induction as Rabbi he wrote: “It was the most terrible, the most unhappy day of my whole life.” He had great doubts as to the divine origin of the Talmud, but in obedience to his parents Chaim took that road, knowing well that it could not satisfy him. His conscience troubled him much; nevertheless he accepted the call as Rabbi at Wilkomir.
However, he could not endure it for long. In the Synagogue he publicly preached against the Talmud and challenged his hearers to a discussion, but nobody accepted his challenge. The Chief Rabbi demanded a revocation but Gurland refused. He remained in office for another two years, but then had to leave.
What now? For some years he made a meager living as a private teacher. Then one day a Jewish peddler brought him a Hebrew New Testament. Now the ex-Rabbi read for the first time the Sermon on the Mount, the epistles of Paul and other passages. His reading led him to new doubts and great sadness came over him.
Soon he heard of and became acquainted with Pastor Faltin who was in contact with many Jewish people in Kishinev. Pastor Faltin called on the Rabbi, who warmly welcomed him. Mr. Faltin remarked: “I am good at drawing and would be pleased to give you drawing lessons and German lessons if you in turn would read with me the Hebrew Bible once a week. I should like to improve my knowledge of the Hebrew language.” The Rabbi agreed to this.
In the course of their reading, they came to the fifty-third chapter of the book of the Prophet Isaiah, which is one of the most wonderful portions of the Bible. The Jews never read that chapter; they are afraid of it, for they know that the Christians say it describes most clearly the manner and meaning of the Messiah’s sufferings, death, and resurrection. Strange to say, the Jews do not wish to hear that. Rabbi Gurland therefore asked Pastor Faltin not to read the fifty-third chapter. Pastor Faltin said: “I shall pray that God may give you courage to be willing to know God’s saving truth.” From that time the Rabbi could not help thinking about that remarkable chapter, and felt that it was cowardly to be afraid to know what God had revealed in it.
When Pastor Faltin went back the following week, Rabbi Gurland expressed his willingness to read the fifth-third chapter with him. Pastor Faltin said: “Let me first read to you the story of Messiah’s sufferings, as contained in the New Testament.” After that was done, they opened and read Isaiah fifty-three which was written more than 700 years before Messiah Yeshua was born. Rabbi Gurland admitted that this chapter was a perfect picture of what Yeshua had suffered and acquired for us on Calvary. The two men had many discussions. Pastor Falkin was in no hurry, but eventually Gurland desired to confess the Lord Messiah Yeshua in immersion, and after ample instruction in the faith the 33 year old Gurland and his wife were immersed.
The excitement and indignation of the Jewish population was terrible when they heard that Rabbi Gurland was going to be immersed in Pastor Faltin’s church, and thus confess publicly his faith in Messiah. Many Jews were so enraged about Rabbi Gurland’s intention that they wrote to him that his immersion would be a disgrace and a calamity to the Jews. They told him that a number of of Jews had sworn that, if he dared to go through with it, they would kill him in the church after his immersion. Pastor Faltin asked the Rabbi whether he would not prefer to be immersed quietly in the manse. The Rabbi answered: “No, Messiah Yeshua is a living, mighty Savior. He can protect me; if He does not, I am willing to suffer, to die for Him.”
When the day for the Rabbi’s immersion came, the Jews were terribly excited. The church was overcrowded with Christians and Jews. The service went on quietly. The minister preached Messiah, who came to seek and to save that which was lost. Before the immersion, Gurland gave a short address, in which he stated how he received the heavenly light through reading the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, and that he believed Messiah Yeshua to be the promised Messiah and Savior. During the act of immersion and the rest of the divine service, everything was quiet. Yeshua once calmed the raging sea; now He pacified raging hearts. After the service an elderly motherly lady told the new Hebrew Christian; “For 18 years I have prayed to God and pleaded with Him to save your soul.”
Now a new training began. Rudolf, as he was called since the day of his immersion, studied theology in Berlin and was later ordained as a Protestant Pastor. That day he preached on Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Messiah Yeshua; for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.”
He became co-Pastor of his friend and spiritual father, Pastor Faltin in Kishinev. This did not cause him to forget his brethren of the house of Israel. He often had talks with them, led many to the Savior and immersed them. His work became well known in Germany and in Russia.
A few years later the Church of Kurland called him as their Missionary to the Jews. In this capacity he held Bible classes for Jewish people, had a large correspondence and was enabled by the Spirit of God to lead many to the Lord. He addressed churches telling them about his work, also Synods, in order to create an interest for Israel in the hearts of his brother Ministers. Once he wrote: “The work among the Jews should not be left to a few individuals: it is a branch of our Church work which concerns us all.”
Three were many disappointments in the work, many tests and struggles – but Gurland was able to sow love for the Jews and for work amongst them in the hearts of many Christians, and to show many Jewish people the way of salvation.
As Gurland became a well-known and beloved figure, he was appointed Chief Pastor of the Church in Mitau. Consequently, and to his sincere regret, the mission work was neglected, for his new office brought with it many duties. Later, however, ill health forced him to lay down this post and to give himself solely to the mission in Riga and Odessa.
Overwork had impaired his health and often he was very sick. Asked how he could continually be so active in spite of his poor physical condition, Gurland would answer: “I preach myself well!” – “Sickness is a hard test, especially permanent sickness; I know that from experience; it is a dark valley. Often God gives only enough light for one step at a time – but to the faithful a glorious end is assured, for God wonderfully leads him from darkness to light.”
The ex-Rabbi lived in two worlds. Time and again he kindled flames of love in the hearts of Christians for God’s ancient people, and for service to them. Time and again he called his Jewish brethren to the Messiah Who has died for all, Jews and non-Jews.
Almost 74 years old, Gurland went to his eternal home and reward, not without first choosing the text, Ps. 122: 1-3 (Lutheran translation), on which his son-in-law, Pastor E. Bielenstein-Sahten, spoke at his funeral: “I rejoice in those who told me: Let us go into the house of the Lord! Our feet stand in thy gates, Jerusalem. Jerusalem is built to be a city where the people should gather.”