Take Away the Stone
February 28th, 1988 @ 10:50 AM
TAKE AWAY THE STONE
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2‑28‑88 10:50 a.m.
Once again, a thousand times welcome to the throngs of you who share this hour on radio and on television. This is the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and I am the pastor delivering the morning message entitled Roll Away the Stone. In our preaching through the Gospel of John, we are in chapter 11. And in chapter 11, that records the most marvelous miracle in the Bible, we begin reading at verse 38. John 11:38:
Jesus therefore again groaning in Himself cometh to the grave—
where Lazarus was buried—
It was a cave, and a stone lay upon it. Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto Him, Lord, by this time, he is decayed: for he hath been dead four days.
In that hot country and unembalmed, even in one day, the cadaver had disintegrated:
Jesus saith unto her, Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldst believe, thou shall see the glory of God?
Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead was laid.
This, before the most marvelous miracle wrought by the hand of our omnipotent Lord; but before the miracle was wrought, there was a stone that had to be rolled away [John 11:39].
What an amazing thing! Unbelievable thing! Could He who created the worlds above us [John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:16], and now preparing to raise the dead before us, could He not move that stone away? [John 11:39, 41]. Had there been rocks of mountains piled upon Lazarus, He could have removed them. Had there been ten thousand demons there to defend the laying and staying of that rock, He could have overwhelmed them. Yet He pauses before this small hindrance [John 11:39]. Why? There are two reasons: one, to call attention to it. I have stood there as many of you have. And I have looked at that stone as many of you have. And when I think of that standing in the way between the miracle of the omnipotent Christ and the miracle to be wrought, such a small obstacle, hard to believe He calls attention to it. And the second reason lies in us; until our hands move, His do not.
Do you want to see Lazarus raised from the dead? Do you want to see death rebuked and life brought in? Do you want to see the miraculous intervention of God from heaven in your life? And for us in this dear church, would you like to see whole families regenerated, souls born into the kingdom? Would you? If you do, then bend your back and lift! Not till God sees us in the commitment of our lives to His work and in dead earnestness, taking a two-fisted, two-handed seizure of all of our obstacles, will God bare His arm to do His incomparably glorious work. “God is not deceived, much less mocked: what we sow, we reap” [Galatians 6:7]. And if we sow cheap sentimentalism and wishful thinking and half-hearted response, there will be no miraculous intervention from heaven. The hand of God will not move.
So, the Lord says, as He stands at the tomb of the dead Lazarus, four days decay, ”Roll away the stone, take away the stone” [John 11:39]. It stands between him and that marvelous resurrection and gift of eternal life. I think of several that need to be rolled away in our lives if we propose to see the hand and the glory of God. The first one is the stone of unbelief. “Martha saith unto Him, Lord, by now,” after four days—by now, he has disintegrated—the King James Version uses a descriptive term, “by now he stinketh” [John 11:39]. “This is my beloved brother. And to have him open to view in his disintegration and decay is more than my heart can stand. Lord, no!” Beyond that stone is a riot of death, a multiplicity of corruption, and not even the hand of God, says Martha, is able to rebuke the sin and the death and the hell that has brought this corruption and disaster and death. The stone of unbelief: “I don’t believe even God can do it” [John 11:39]. That is one of the most blinding and binding and deadening of all the things in this earth, “I don’t believe it can be done.”
When Israel came to Kadesh-Paran [Numbers 13:26]—having been delivered miraculously out of Egypt [Exodus 6:6], having passed through the Red Sea as though it were dry land [Exodus 14:21-31], having followed the pillar of fire by night and the pillar of a cloud by day [Exodus 13:21-22]—through the desert of Mount Sinai and standing now at the edge of the Promised Land, they sent twelve spies to see the thing that God had placed as a gift: their earthly home [Numbers 13:1-3, 17-21]. And those spies came back, and ten of them said, “In that land, there are walled cities” [Numbers 13:28]. They had never seen a walled city in Egypt. “In that land are walled cities, and on the inside of those walled cities are giants [Numbers 13:32]. And we were like grasshoppers in their sight [Numbers 13:33]. We couldn’t begin to take it or to conquer it or to seize it or to possess it.”
But God had said, “It is yours [Exodus 6:8]. The sin of the Amorite is filled, and I am judging them and casting them out” [Genesis 15:16], and in their stead, a people who will love and praise the Lord. Only two of them said, “We can do it, God is with us! God has promised it.”
Joshua and Caleb said, “Let us move!” [Numbers 13:30, 14:6-9]. The whole throng cried and wept and lamented in unbelief and rejection [Numbers 14:1-4]. And God looked down from heaven and said, “Not one of you will enter in, not one—only Caleb and Joshua” [Numbers 14:28-35]. And the rest of them were remanded to the desert and the wilderness and died there, away from the promise of God [Numbers 32:11-13]. What an astonishing interdiction is unbelief, “I don’t believe God can do it.”
There’s a remarkable and dramatic story in the seventh chapter of 2 Kings. Ben-Hadad, the king of Syria, has shut up Samaria. King Hadad, the king of Syria, has shut up Samaria as in a vise. The people in the capital city are starving to death. And Jehoram, the son of Ahab, the king of Israel, comes to Elisha, the prophet, the man of God. And Elisha says to him, “This time tomorrow, food in this city will be so aboundingly abundant you can buy a bushel of wheat for a quarter and buy a whole lamb for fifty cents” [2 Kings 7:1]. And the lord on whose arm the king was leaning, that nobleman scoffed at the man of God and said, “Incredible! If God Himself were to open the windows of heaven, such a thing could not be.” And Elisha the prophet said to him, “This time tomorrow, you will see it, but you will not eat of it” [2 Kings 7:2]. And at that time the next day, the throngs trampled that lord to death [2 Kings 7:17-20]. The Syrian army had fled. God had sent them a noise as of a great attack, and they thought the Hittites and the Egyptians had come. And the entire store of that vast army was in the hands of that starving Samaritan citizenship [2 Kings 7:5-16].
Oh, the deadening thing of unbelief! [John 11:39]. In the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, out of which we just read—that chapter closes with this: and the Lord came into His own country and into His own town of Nazareth where He grew up, “And He did not do any mighty work there because of their unbelief” [Matthew 13:58].
“It can’t be done!” That’s a remarkable reaction. In the day when the first steamer was invented, the pseudoscientist worked it out by mathematical formulae saying, “No steamer could cross the ocean. The amount of coal it would take to propel it across the sea would sink it to the bottom.” And the first trans-Atlantic passage of that first steamer carried that boat to the other side. “It can’t be done!”
Those pseudoscientists in the days of Columbus said, “You can’t go west. For out there in the middle of that sea is a great abyss, and you’ll fall over it!” But other pseudoscientists said, “Out there in the middle of that sea is a great monster, breathing! And when he exhales, that’s the tides, and when he inhales, that’s the recession of the waters. You can’t sail west,” to Columbus. That’s a remarkable thing, the deadening effect of unbelief; “It can’t be done.”
In the Panama Canal Zone here we’re having such trouble now with drug traders and a vicious dictator, in that very place, nation after nation after nation tried to build that canal. And the United States sent engineers down there, and they did it. And when they got through with it, they sang a song. And it went like this:
Don’t send us back to a life that’s tame again.
We who have shattered a continent spine.
Easy work, oh, we couldn’t do that again.
Haven’t you something that’s more in our line?
Got any rivers you say are not crossable?
Got any mountains you can’t tunnel through?
We specialize in the wholly impossible
Doing what nobody ever could do.
[adapted by builders from hymn, “Got Any Rivers,” Oscar Eliason, 1928]
That’s the spirit of America! “I can do it. It can be done, and we’re the ones chosen to do it.” And that is the spirit triumphant and dynamic in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. “It can be done, and we can do it, just bend your back and lift, roll the stone away” [John 11:39].
“Said I not unto thee, that, if thou would believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God?” [John 11:40]. No dressing of cadavers and corpses, no digging of graves, no dirges of despair, but life, and resurrection, and the ableness and power and intervention of God. “We can do it!” Rolling that stone away [John 11:39].
I speak now of the stone of indolence, of apathy, of slothfulness, laziness. I heard—I read the beatenness thing the other day that I think I ever read in my life—there was a group of people, a certain type of a people, who were praying for the gift of tongues because they wanted to be missionaries. And rather than learning the language, they were praying for the gift of tongues so that they could just go without any effort and preach the gospel to the savage. Man alive! If it would work, it sure would be nice wouldn’t it? Think of all the effort and toil of learning a language and all you got to do is just pray for the gift of tongues. Wouldn’t that be nice? Laziness, slothfulness, indolence—oh, it’s a curse! And inexplicable to someone who had really given and dedicated his life.
It reminds me of that lover. He wrote his sweetheart a letter and said, “I love you for you. I would cross the deepest river. And I would swim the widest ocean. And I’d climb the highest mountain. I love you!” Signed, Jim—P. S. “I’ll see you Saturday night if it ain’t raining.”
There was an old farmer who had a mule, and the thing was lazy and lethargic—wouldn’t move. And he went to the veterinarian, and the veterinarian said, “You jam this white pill down his throat, and then if he doesn’t move, you push this red pill down his throat, and he’ll be on the way.” The farmer saw the veterinarian, and the veterinarian said, “Well, how did you come out?” And the farmer said, “You know, I pushed that white pill down his throat, and away he took off! And I don’t know what would’ve happened; I’d never caught him had I not thought to take that red pill myself!”
The stone of lethargy, of laziness, of indolence—God says, “Move!” There’s no exception to that in the Bible, absolutely none. From beginning to end, there is no exception to it. God first depends upon us. We have to respond. The Lord said to Noah in the days of the Flood, “You build an ark” [Genesis 6:13-14]. And Noah’s task and assignment was to hammer, hammer, hammer! When Moses stood at the Red Sea with the Egyptian army behind him and deserts and mountains on either side of them and the ocean formed in front of him, and Moses began to cry and lament before the Lord. And the Lord God says, “Why do you cry unto Me? Bid the children of Israel to move! And the moment you step in that water and walk into that sea, it will open like dry land. Move!” God said, “Move!” [Exodus 14:15-16].
In the story of Joshua and the city of Jericho, the Lord said to Joshua and the people around him, “March!” And when they marched, the walls of the city fell down. But you must march! [Joshua 6:1-20]. In that amazing story of little young, teenage David standing before Goliath, it says in the Bible that David ran to the giant, swinging that slingshot [1 Samuel 17:48-51]. But you have to run! God says, “Run!” [1 Samuel 17:48].
And in that amazing story of Elijah on top of Mount Carmel and the prophets of Baal [1 Kings 18:19-20]; the Book says he rebuilt the altar of burnt sacrifice and got down on his knees and prayed. “O, Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” pray, pray, pray! [1 Kings 18:31-38]. God doesn’t move until we do: March! Run! Bow down! Pray! Move! There’s no exception to that in the whole Word of God. You first must move, roll that stone away and see the marvelous intervention of heaven [John 11:39].
Not only the stone of unbelief, not only the stone of lethargy and laziness and indolence and slothfulness, but the stone of acquiescence and accommodation, condonation; you become accustomed to nothingness, and you’ll accommodate yourself to however the situation might be, no dynamic to change or to move—just acquiescence.
That famous English poet Pope wrote, “Vice is a monster of such frightful mien,” m-i-e-n, visage:
Vice is a monster of such frightful mien.
As to be hated needs but to be seen,
But seen too often, familiar with her face;
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
[“Essay on Man,” Alexander Pope]
I have a brilliant example of that in my own life. I never saw a saloon growing up. When I was pastor for those years in Oklahoma, it was dry. When I came down here to the city of Dallas, it was full of saloons. One of them was right there; St. Paul’s Saloon, right there, within thirty feet of our door. Sensitive, wherever I walked, I saw those damnable shops of death, and destruction, and drunkenness, and drugs. One of the most inexplicable features of modern American life is we go to war against drugs, and then have these dispensaries of drugs on every corner, selling what damns the lives of people, orphans their children, breaks up their homes, destroys their minds and their lives. I can’t understand it. I came down here; saw that—sensitive to it. Did you know in the passing of the years, I got to the place myself? Pass it by, pay no attention to it whatsoever, an accommodation; condonation, we just accept it.
How easy to do that in the work of the Lord. We have a Sunday school class, small—and there are thousands and thousands out there untaught—we’re very content to have a small group. Few people come down the aisle accepting the Lord as their Savior, and there are uncounted thousands of them out there that are lost; we accommodate ourselves to a small response.
Great God in heaven! Roll the stone of indifference and acquiescence away! May I speak of the stone of indifference? First cousin of acquiescence, “What does it matter to me? I don’t care, couldn’t care less.” The thing that is so oft repeated until it is trite; the stone of indifference, “I don’t care. It’s nothing to me.”
You know, I live in this kind of a world. I went to the hospital to visit a young mother, giving birth to a little baby, and just to pray and rejoice with her. Well, as I stood there by her bed, rejoicing, happy, in the room was another bed with another young mother. And she was just right there. And from the minute that I introduced myself to this young mother, she began to cry and to sob just pitifully. I bowed down where she couldn’t hear, and I said to the mother that I was visiting, “Why does she cry so? Has she lost her baby?” And the young mother here, belonged to our sweet church, she said to me, “She’s been there four or five days. And her husband has never come to see her. And he’s never seen the baby. He doesn’t come.”
Well, I prayed with her and went outside—stopped, and I turned around, walked back in, stood over the bed where she was sobbing, so heartbroken. And I said to her, “Why do you cry so?” I just wanted her to tell me. And she replied, “My husband, since the birth of our precious baby, hasn’t even come to see the child and hasn’t come to be with me, and my heart is broken.” Not anything so devastating as to be uncaring, “It’s nothing to me, nothing to me.”
Like the lament of the weeping prophet, Jeremiah, “Is it nothing to you, all you who have pass by? Behold, and see if there is any sorrow like unto my sorrow” [Lamentations 1:12]. Lord, roll away the stone of indifference, uncaring. It is something to us, whether you’re saved or lost, whether you know God or not, whether you die in the hope of heaven or you perish in the blackness of a despairing midnight: it matters to us, we care!
‘Tis a wondrous thing how the smallest, dedicatory gesture toward God opens the windows of heaven and brings to us the incomparable miracle. The little slave girl in the fifth chapter of 2 Kings [2 Kings 5:1-2]—the little slave girl said to the wife of Naaman, “In Israel, in Israel there is a prophet who can heal this great man of his leprosy” [2 Kings 5:3]. And out of the testimony of that humble, sweet little slave girl came one of the beautiful miraculous healings of all the Bible [2 Kings 5:9-14]. Or Ezekiel, standing up under the hand of God, preaching to a valley of dry bones: bones, a congregation of bones; and under the hand of the Lord, after he did it, obeying God, there arose a great army for the Lord [Ezekiel 37:1-10]. Or in the life of our Savior: this little lad with his lunch of five little pieces of bread, little biscuits, and two little fish. And with that given to Jesus, He fed five thousand [John 6:8-13].
Or Simon Peter with this man born crippled, laid every day at the Gate Beautiful to beg, Simon Peter took him by the hand with which he was reaching forth for just a pence—Simon Peter, big giant of a fisherman, took him by that extended hand and said, “Silver and gold have I none; but what I have give I thee.” And he raised him up, and the power of God made him whole and well again [Acts 3:2-8]. Just the dedication of the smallest thing to the Lord; and God is moved to do marvelous miracles.
I have stood as many of you have in Kettering, England, where Andrew Fuller said to William Carey, “You go down in the well, and I’ll hold the ropes.” I have stood in Serampore, outside Calcutta, India, where William Carey began his preaching of the gospel in that lost and darkened nation. And out of that simple commitment, came the whole worldwide modern missionary movement.
I have been in Boston; stood there in the heart of that great city. The store building torn down, but in its place, a bronze plaque saying, “In this place, Sunday school teacher Kimball stopped and won D. L. Moody to the Lord, a young shoe salesman. And thus began the greatest revival that America has ever known.” Just waiting, God is, for somebody to believe, somebody to move, somebody to do, somebody to respond; somebody to believe; somebody to commit, to consecrate, and then God does the rest, moving the stone [John 11:39], and the miracle then is in the hands of the Lord.
And that’s what it is to be saved. I have to do something to be saved. Christ died for my sins [1 Corinthians 15:3], bless His name, was raised for my justification [Romans 4:25], standing in the presence of God in heaven, pleading my cause [Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25]—that’s what you mean by justification [Romans 4:25]. He lives to see that I make it to heaven. All of that, He has done for me, but it avails not if I don’t do something first. I have to respond. I have to accept. I have to believe. I have to receive [Romans 10:9-13; Ephesians 2:8; 2 Timothy 1:12]. I have to come down that aisle. I have, openly and publicly, to confess my faith in the Lord. And if I do it, God stands in His omnipotent power to do the rest. He washes my sins away [Revelation 1:5]. He writes my name in the Book of Life [Luke 10:20; Revelation 3:5, 20:12, 15, 21:27]. He stands at my side, the Friend for the pilgrimage [Matthew 28:20], and He opens the doors of heaven [John 10:27-30, 14:1-3]. God does that, but I first must respond [John 7:37; Revelation 22:17].
And that’s our appeal to the thousands of you who watch and listen to this service on television and on radio. Wherever you are is a good place and a good where to give your heart to Jesus [Romans 10:9-13]. Just to bow in His presence, just to accept Him in your deepest soul [Ephesians 2:8], to ask Him to forgive your sins [1 John 1:9], to write your name in the Book of Life [Revelation 20:12, 15, 21:27; Luke 10:20], to open the doors of heaven for you [John 14:1-3], to be your best friend and guide through the years of this pilgrimage [Matthew 28:20], and I’ll see you someday in glory. He will not fail.
On the screen, you’ll see a telephone number, call; or my name and address, write. What a benediction to welcome you into the kingdom of God. And to the great throngs who make this service possible in the sanctuary of the Lord, in a moment when we stand to sing our hymn of appeal, “Pastor, this is God’s day for me, and I have decided for Christ.” “I’m putting my life in this dear church; my whole family is coming today.” Or, “I’m answering a call of the Spirit of God in my heart.” Or, “I am reconsecrating my life to the work of Jesus.” Or, “I’m accepting Him as my Savior” [Romans 10:9-13; Ephesians 2:8]. On the first note of the first stanza, come, God bless you in the way. May we pray?
Our Lord, make this a great day of salvation. May there be a marvelous response to the appeal of the Spirit that I move, that I accept, that I believe, that I turn, that I look, that I receive, that I—O God, that I follow Jesus. Do it, Lord, and we’ll love Thee for the harvest You give us, in Thy precious and saving name, amen. While we stand and while we sing.
A. Before the marvelous
miracle, a stone had to be rolled away
B. Why did Christ pause
before this hindrance?
1. To call
attention to it
2. Until our
hands move, His do not
C. God must see
commitment and earnestness before He bares His arm
II. The stone of rational unbelief
binding, deadening thing of unbelief (2 Kings 7:1-2, 19, Matthew 13:54-58)
said it can’t be done?
your back and lift
III. The stone of spiritual slothfulness,
A. We must move first
B. Theme consistent in
IV. The stone of acquiescence,
A. Vice is a monster
B. Accepting the