In wondering amazement the sorrowing group follow the footsteps of the Saviour. "Behold how He loved him," whisper the Jews to one another as they witness His fast falling tears. Can His repairing thus to the tomb be anything more than to pay a mournful tribute to an honoured friendship, and behold the silent home of the loved dead? Nay; He is about, as the Lord of Life, to wrench away the swaddling-bands of corruption, to vindicate His name and prerogative as the "Abolisher of death" -- to have the first-fruits of that vast triumph which, ages before the birth of time, He had anticipated with longing earnestness -- "I will ransom them from the power of the grave, I will redeem them from death. O death, I will be thy plagues; O grave, I will be thy destruction."
Does He proceed forthwith to speak the word, and to accomplish the giant deed? He breaks silence. But we listen, in the first instance, not to the omnipotent summons, but to an address to the bystanders -- "Jesus said, Take ye away the stone!"
What need of this parenthesis in His mighty work? Why this summoning in any feeble human agency when His own independent fiat could have effected the whole? Would it not have been a more startling manifestation of Omnipotence, by a mandate similar to that which chained the tempests of Tiberias, or the demoniac of Gadara, to have hurled the incumbent stone into fragments? Might not He who has "the keys of the grave and of death" have Himself unlocked the portals preparatory to the vaster prodigy that was to follow?
Nay, there was a mighty lesson to be read in thus delegating human hands to remove the intervening barrier. The Church of the living God may, in every age, gather from it instruction!
What, then, does the Saviour here figuratively, but significantly, teach His people? Is it not the important truth that, though dependent on Him for all they are, and all they have, they are not thereby released and exempted from the use of means? He alone can bring back Lazarus from his death-sleep. Martha and Mary may weep an ocean of tears, but they cannot weep him back. They may linger for days and nights in that lonely graveyard, making it resound with their bitter dirges, but their impassioned entreaties will be mocked with impressive silence. Too well do they know that spirit is fled beyond their recall -- the spark of life extinguished beyond any earthly rekindling!
But though the word of Omnipotence can alone bring back the dead, human hands and human efforts can roll away the interjacent stone, and prepare for the performance of the miracle; and after the miracle is performed, human hands may again be called in to tear off the cerements of the tomb, to ungird the bandages from the restored captive, to "loose him and let him go!"
This simple incident in the Bethany narrative admits of manifold practical applications. Let us look to it with reference to the mightier moral miracle of the Resurrection of the soul "dead in trespasses and sins." Jesus, and Jesus alone, can awake that soul from the deep slumber of its spiritual death, and invest it with the glories of a new resurrection-life. In vain can it awake of itself; no human skill can put animation into the moral skeleton. No power of human eloquence, no "excellency of man's wisdom," can open these rayless eyes, and pour life, and light, and hope into the dull caverns of the spiritual sepulchre. "Prophesy to the dry bones!" -- We may prophesy for ever -- we may wake the valley of vision by ceaseless invocations, but the dead will hear not. No bone of the spiritual skeleton will stir, for it is "not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts."
But though it be a Divine work from first to last which effects the spiritual regeneration of man, are we from this presumptuously to disregard the use of means? Are prayer, and preaching, and human effort, and strenuous earnestness in the work of our high calling, are these all to be superseded, and pronounced unavailing and unnecessary?
Nay, though man cannot wake to life his dormant spiritual energies -- though these lie slumbering in the deep sleep of the sheeted dead, and nothing but Lazarus' Lord can break the moral trance -- yet he can use the appointed means. He dare not be guilty of the monstrous inconsistency and crime of willingly allowing impediments to stand in the way of his spiritual revival which his own efforts may remove! He cannot expect his Lord to sound over his soul the gladdening accents of peace, and reconciliation, and joy, if some known sin be still lying, like the superincumbent grave-stone, which it is in his power to roll away, and at his peril if he suffer to remain!
Christ is alone the "abolisher of death," and the "giver of life;" but notwithstanding this, "Roll ye away the stone!" -- neglect not the means He has appointed and prescribed. If ye neglect prayer, and despise ordinances, and trifle with temptation, or venture on forbidden ground, ye are only making the intervening obstacle firmer and faster, and wilfully denuding yourselves of the gift of life. Naaman must plunge seven times in Jordan, else he cannot be made clean. To cleanse himself of his leprosy he cannot, but to wash in Jordan he can. The Israelite must gaze on the brazen serpent; he cannot of himself heal one fevered wound, but to gaze on the appointed symbol of cure he can. In vain can the engines of war effect a breach on the walls of Jericho; but the hosts of Joshua can sound the appointed trumpet, and raise the prescribed shout, and the battlements in a moment are in the dust. Martha and Mary in vain can make their voices be heard in the "dull, cold ear of death," but at their Lord's bidding they can hurl back the outer portals where their dead is laid. They cannot unbind one fetter, but they can open with human hand the prison-door to admit the Divine Liberator.
Let it not be supposed that in this we detract in any wise from the omnipotence of the Saviour's grace. God forbid! All is of grace, from first to last -- free, sovereign grace. Man has no more merit in salvation than the beggar has merit in reaching forth his hand for alms, or in stooping down to drink of the wayside fountain. But neither must we ignore the great truth which God strives throughout His Word to impress upon us, that He works by means, and that for the neglect of these means we are ourselves responsible. Paul had the assurance given him by an angel from heaven, when tossed in the storm in Adria, that not one life in his vessel was to be lost; that though the ship was to be wrecked, all her crew were to come safe to land. But was there on this account any effort on his part relaxed to secure their safety? No! he toiled and laboured at the pumps and rigging and anchors as unremittingly as before; and when some of the sailors made the cowardly attempt, by lowering a small boat, to effect their own escape, the voice of the apostle was heard proclaiming, amid the storm, that unless they abode in the ship none could be saved!
The true philosophy of the Gospel system is this, to feel as if much depended on ourselves; but at the same time entertaining the loftier conviction that all depends upon God. Jesus, when He invites to the strait gate, does not inculcate remaining outside, in a state of passive and listless inaction, until the portals be seen to move by the Divine hand. His exhortation and command rather is, "Strive" -- "knock" -- agonise to "enter in!" We are not to ascend to heaven, seated, like Elijah, in a chariot of fire, without toil or effort, but rather to "fight the good fight of faith." The saying of the great Apostle is a vivid portraiture of what the Christian's feelings ought to be regarding personal holiness -- "I laboured, ... yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me."
As the Lord of Bethany gives the summons, "Roll ye away the stone," His words seem paraphrased in this other Scripture, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure." You may feel assured that He will not impose upon you one needless burden; He will not exact more than He knows your strength will bear; He will ask no Peter to come to Him on the water, unless He impart at the same time strength and support on the unstable wave; He will not demand of you the endurance of providences, and trials, and temptations you are unable to cope with; He will not ask you to draw water if the well is too deep, or withdraw the stone if too heavy. But neither, at the same time, will He admit as an impossibility that which, as a free and responsible agent, it is in your power to avert. He will not regard as your misfortune what is your crime. "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me."
Oh! let life be, more than it ever has been, one constant effort to roll away the stone from the moral sepulchre -- carefully to remove every barrier between our souls and Jesus -- looking forward to that glorious day when the voice of the Restorer shall be heard uttering the omnipotent "Come forth!" and to His angel assessors the mandate shall be given regarding the thronging myriads of risen dead, "Loose them and let them go!"