Monday, November 13, 2006

Do You Believe in Miracles?

Here is an incredible story taken from the blog of one our team's leaders, Tony Miano...

Ithamar's Miracle of the Dead Sea

My friend, Chris Yarzab, and I have begun a discipleship and mutual accountability relationship. We meet once a week, spending the first hour discussing life and the great truths of Scripture, and the second hour engaging in one-to-one evangelism. Last night Chris and I spent our time at the Valencia Town Center—a mall that is part of the Westfield Corporation, where the gospel is anything but welcome.

Chris has been a follower of Jesus Christ for only four months. Yet he has already shared the Law (the Ten Commandments) and the gospel with more people than most professing Christians will in a lifetime. Although new to the faith, Chris is mature enough to realize that he has much to learn (as every Christian does) about biblically and tactically sharing his faith with others. So, our plan of attack was this. When we identified someone we wanted to talk to, I would make the initial contact, start the conversation, and swing the conversation from the natural to the spiritual. Once I made the transition, Chris would jump in and take the person through the “Good Test,” with the hope of sharing the Law and the gospel with them.

As Chris and I walked through the mall, we came across a kiosk selling a line of skin products called “Miracle of the Dead Sea.” Allegedly, the product line uses minerals and other properties from the Dead Sea in its skin care products. There was a young man working the kiosk—a young man who looked very bored. I pointed to the sign attached to the top of the kiosk and said, “Miracle of the Dead Sea?”

With an accent I could not immediately identify, the young man said, “It’s alive.”

“The Dead Sea is alive?” I asked.

“Yes.” He answered.

“But there are no fish in the Dead Sea.” I said.

“Yes, but there are bacteria and minerals.” He answered.

“Oh, I get it. You’re talking about micro-organisms.” I said. I pointed again at the sign and asked, “Do you believe in miracles?”

The young man quickly answered, with a subtle shake of his head and a smile. “No.”

Chris took this as his cue to ask the young man his name and if he had a Christian background. He said that he had no religious background, but he had read portions of the New Testament.

He said, “My name is difficult to pronounce in English. My name is Ithamar. I’m named after one of the sons of Aaron.”

Aaron, Moses’ brother, had four sons: Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. God killed Nadab and Abihu for sinning against God by offering profane fire in the Lord’s Holy Place (Leviticus 10:1-7). Eleazar became High Priest and it was through him that the unique line for future high priests was designated (Numbers 25:10-13). Ithamar, the youngest and least known of the four brothers, was responsible for overseeing the assembly, dismantling, and maintenance of the Tent of Meeting (Numbers 4:21-33).

Chris effectively took Ithamar through the “Good Test,” helping Ithamar to see his true state before a holy and righteous God. Ithamar said that the thought of being found guilty of breaking God’s Law and sentenced to eternity in hell concerned him. It’s always so beautiful to see a person humbled by the Law of God.

Chris carefully, lovingly, and biblically shared the gospel with Ithamar. He listened intently, like a dry sponge absorbing fresh water. During the conversation, it appeared that Ithamar was confused about the place of good works, in salvation. At the next pregnant pause in the conversation, I asked Chris if I could join the conversation.

When witnessing with a partner, it is always best to allow one person to do the talking, while the other person listens, watches, and prays. This tactic is helpful in avoiding making the person to whom you are witnessing feel as though you are ganging-up on them. It helps to maintain a steady, forward-moving flow in the conversation and it helps to keep the person who is doing the witnessing from losing their train of thought.

I explained to Ithamar, that for the Christian, good works are acts of obedience to God that are performed as a result of one’s salvation, not acts that lead to salvation. I shared Isaiah 64:6 with Ithamar. “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind take us away.”

I shared the “parachute” analogy with Ithamar. When I got to the part where I asked him if simply looking at the parachute under his seat, and believing that the parachute was there, would save him when the plane crashed. No.” He said. “I have to put it on.”

I could tell by the look on his face that Ithamar understood the truth behind the analogy.

Ithamar asked, “Do you believe the Old Testament?”

I explained to Ithamar that together the Old and New Testaments make up the entirety of God’s Word, and that the Old Testament points to Jesus Christ. I explained that the Law of God shows mankind that God’s standard is perfection and that because every person is sinful, it is impossible for anyone to perfectly obey God’s Law. I briefly explained the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, the requirement of a blood sacrifice of a spotless lamb for the remission of sin, and how Jesus Christ is the perfect fulfillment of that system—the Lamb of God who shed his blood to atone for man’s sin and to take upon Himself God’s wrath and our place of punishment.

“Ithamar,” I said, “The wages of sin is death. The just punishment for your sins against God is either going to be your blood or the blood of Jesus Christ, which He shed on the cross. But not only did Jesus die on the cross. He rose again and He is alive today.”

Ithamar’s eyes opened wide. The look on his face was that of a man who just heard something amazing, for the first time. Then he asked, “You mean Jesus is alive? How can that be? He died.”

I was taken aback by Ithamar’s expressions and questions. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Here we were, in Southern California, in the United States of America, talking to a young man who had never heard about the resurrection of Jesus Christ! I thought back to Ithamar’s statement at the beginning of the conversation, in which he denied the existence of miracles.

I leaned forward and whispered, “It’s a miracle.”

I spent the next few moments explaining the resurrection of Christ. Eventually I came to a point where I shared John 14:6. “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.’”

Now it was Ithamar leaning forward and whispering. “Say it again.” He said.

I repeated the verse, a bit slower this time. I was under the impression that Ithamar didn’t understand the verse. I was wrong. Because as I recited the verse again, this time breaking up the verse into phrases, Ithamar repeated each phrase after me. He was trying to memorize the verse! When we finished saying the verse together, Ithamar tried to recite it on his own. When I saw that he was struggling to remember the entirety of the verse, I reached into my pack and removed a copy of “How To Live Forever Without Being Religious,” which contains the Gospel of John.

The book was one of several brand new, never opened copies I had in my pack. I opened the book to John 14:6. (Since my conversation with Ithamar, I’ve tried several times to open other copies of the book directly to John 14:6. I haven’t been able to do it.) Ithamar and I reacted the same way, simultaneously. “Whoa!” We said.

“You opened the book right to the verse!” Ithamar said.

“I know.” I replied. “It amazes me, too.”

Ithamar followed along as I read the verse aloud. He took a step back, nodding his head. When I tried to give Ithamar the book, he lifted his hand in front of him and said, “Oh, no. I can’t take it. It is your book.”

“It’s okay.” I explained. “I have many copies. And I brought it with me so I could give it to people I talk to—people like you, Ithamar. Please take it. It is my gift to you.”

Ithamar took the book from my hand. Handling the little book ever so gently, he placed the book in his shirt pocket. What he did next was beautiful. He slowly placed his hand over the book and his heart. “Thank you.” He said.

I told Ithamar that I might not ever see him again. I told him that Chris and I cared about him and that we cared about where he would spend eternity. Without a hint of sarcasm, Ithamar asked, “Why? Why do the two of you care so much?”

“If I know that God has saved me from the just punishment for my sins against Him,” I said, “and I know that so great a salvation is only received by those who repent of their sin and, by faith, put their trust in Jesus Christ alone for their salvation, then how can I not tell people? If I don’t warn people about what will happen to them if they stand as guilty sinners before God, on the Day of Judgment, and if I don’t share with them the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ alone, then I don’t really care about them.”

Ithamar nodded his head in agreement. “May I ask you something?” He asked.

“Absolutely.” I answered.

“Christianity is the largest religion in the world.” He began. “With so many Christians in the world, why aren’t there more people like the two of you doing this? Why aren’t there more people saying the things you are saying to me?”

I found it difficult to hold back the tears. There were no excuses I could make. There were no excuses I wanted to make. So I told Ithamar the truth. “Sadly, many of the people who claim to be Christians are not Christians. They might be religious, but they do not know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. There’s a difference between knowing about Jesus and knowing Him as Lord.

“In fact, if you read the gospels, you will find that more often than not, when Jesus talked about religion and religious people, He referred to them in a negative way. Many times He referred to them as hypocrites. In fact, Jesus said this, ‘Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you, depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness”’” (Matthew 7:21-23).

I asked Ithamar if he understood everything I had shared with him. He said that he did. I asked him if he believed what I was sharing with him was true. He again answered in the affirmative.

“Ithamar, do you understand if you died in your sins, God will judge you and find you guilty of breaking His Law?” I asked.

“Yes.” He answered.

“Do you understand that if He finds you guilty He will sentence you to eternity in hell?” I asked.

“Yes.” He answered.

“I assume you don’t want to spend eternity in hell.” I said.

Ithamar shook his head.

“Ithamar, is there any reason why you wouldn’t repent of your sin and put your trust in Jesus Christ alone for your salvation?” I asked.

“No.” He answered.

“Is that something you would like to do?” I asked.

“Yes.” He answered.

“Then cry out to God.” I said. “Ask Him to forgive your sins and tell Him that you want to turn away from your sins. Ask Him to be your Lord and Savior. Believe, by faith, that He can and will save you from His wrath to come. Commit your whole life to Him. Serve Him and follow Him all the days of your life.”

Ithamar smiled. Although I could not read his mind or his heart, I believe what I saw in his eyes and in his smile was the miraculous working of the Holy Spirit, drawing a sinner to repentance and faith. “May I ask you one more question?” He asked.

“Sure.” I said.

“What does it mean to be a fisher of men?” He asked.

What a remarkable question from a young man who, only minutes earlier, was amazed at hearing about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, for the first time. “Among Jesus’ disciples were several fishermen—men who worked hard to catch fish, to make a living and feed their families.” I said. “Jesus taught them that more important than meeting their own physical needs was devoting their lives, in obedience to God, to the work of reaching people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s what it means to be a fisher of men. And that’s why Chris and I are here tonight.”

Ithamar shook our hands and thanked us for talking to him. We said our good-byes. Chris and I made our way toward the exit, but we had to sit down on a bench and take a moment to catch our breath and debrief. Before heading home, we spent some time in prayer praising God for what He allowed us to do, and for allowing us to watch Him work. We also prayed that Ithamar would not pass a restful night until he did, in fact, repent before God and put his faith in Jesus Christ alone.

What started out as a conversation with a young man who didn’t believe in miracles, ended with what appeared to be a miracle in the making. It wasn’t the miracle of the Dead Sea. But maybe it was the miracle of a sinner being drawn to repentance and faith. I pray that it was.

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