Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.
Now, at last, we go back to verse 11. We have been pondering verse 12 for a long time: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” I tried to show that Christ has come into the world of sin and sickness and Satan and sabotage and taken all this on himself and died to deliver us from it partly now and completely at the resurrection. This is the foundation of our hope. In this we rejoice. In this joy we endure tribulation. With this endurance we love when it is hard to love, and with this love we glorify God.
Then we posed the question: if hope is that foundational to all of Christian life, how do you waken and sustain hope? We answered: “Be constant in prayer” (Ephesians 1:18) and meditate on the Scriptures (Romans 15:4). Now we go back to verse 11, and we will find that these two strategies of spiritual warfare are foundational for this verse as well. Verse 11 says, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit,serve the Lord.” He has already struck this note once in this chapter. Remember verse 8: “Let the one who leads, lead with zeal.” Now he says to all of us: “Don’t be slothful in zeal.”
So one way to think of the relationship between the command to rejoice and endure and pray in verse 12 and the commands in verse 11 is that verse 11 simply says: Do it all passionately. Verse 11 gives intensity and focus. The intensity is: Not slothful but fervent. And the focus is the Lord, Jesus Christ. Let it all be in service of him.
1) Intensity: Don’t Be Slothful in Zeal; Be Fervent in Spirit
“Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit.” It seems to me that this is a negative and positive way of saying one thing: Negatively, Don’t be slothful in zeal. Positively, be fervent in spirit. The one thing Paul is saying is: Do lots of work for Christ passionately.
Each of these two statements clarifies and protects the other from misunderstanding. “Do not be slothful in zeal”—do not be lazy in zeal—could be taken to mean: be pragmatic. Work, work, work, and don’t worry about your emotions or how you feel. Getting things done is what matters. Be eager and earnest and zealous to get things done. Laziness is the great vice. The great virtue is efficiency and hard work.
But we can see how lopsided that is when we take the positive, clarifying counterpart, namely, “be fervent in spirit.” The word “fervent” comes from the Latin fervens which means “boiling.” That is exactly what this word means in the original Greek (zeontes): boiling—in spirit. So the idea is clearly not one of mere hard work or efficiency. The spirit is in view, not just the body. Feeling is in view, not just doing. So the point of both clauses together is: Don’t just do lots, feel lots.
And it works the other way around. If you read only the second exhortation: “Be fervent in spirit,” you might conclude: The Christian life is one of heart passion. Doing and efficiency are not crucial. Feeling—fervency, boiling in spirit—that is what matters. But that will not do. The first exhortation keeps us from that lopsided view: Not just feel lots, but also do lots.
The warning about being “slothful” makes it clear that Paul wants us to be hard workers. One of the clearest statements on this is what he says in 1 Corinthians 15:58. He has just written a whole chapter on the resurrection of Christ as the ground of our own resurrection, and now he draws out the implication for the kind of life we should live, since we have such a rock-solid spectacular hope: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
Abounding in the work of the Lord means: Do lots and lots of work for the Lord. That is what Romans 12:11 means: “Do not be slothful in zeal.” So when you put the first two parts of verse 11 together they say something like: Do lot’s of work for Christ passionately. Work for Christ with feeling. Feel lots in doing. Be as pragmatic as a businessman. And be as passionate as a poet—or a lover. Don’t say: I’m practical, not passionate. Aim to be more passionate. Don’t say: I’m passionate, not practical. Aim to be more practical.
When Jonathan Edwards was still a young man he wrote seventy resolutions. I think the sixth resolution captures the meaning of Paul’s words, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit.” Edwards wrote: “Resolved: To live with all my might while I live.”
Jesus speaks terrible words of warning to those who settle in with lukewarm affections for him. Revelation 3:15-16, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”
The great commandment is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27). And God promises to be found by us when we seek him with earnestness rather than half-heartedness. Jeremiah 29:13-14, “You will seek me and find me. When you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 29:13-14).
Over and over the Bible says: intensity matters. Zeal matters. Wholeheartedness matters. Don’t settle for anything less. We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God. You can’t spread what you don’t have. Ask God for it in constant prayer and ransack the Word of God for wonders that make you boil for Christ. That’s the intensity part of verse 11.
2) The Focus: Serve the Lord
Now for the focus part.
I said that verse 11 gives intensity and focus to the call for hope and joy and endurance and love in verse 12. The intensity is “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit.” Live with all your might while you live. The focus part is: “Serve the Lord.” All this intensity has a focus. Serving Christ. This is what the passion is for.
Paul is not saying that there is a general personality trait of passion that has value in itself. He is saying: when it comes to serving Christ, half-heartedness, lukewarmness, laziness, sluggishness, slothfulness are utterly inappropriate. Being saved by Jesus Christ is the greatest thing in the world. It means having eternal life. You cannot die. You will live forever in overwhelming joy. Nothing can separate you from Christ. Everything works for your good. All your troubles and sorrows produce an eternal weight of glory. Not to be passionate about this is a sign of serious blindness or emotional disability.
Serving Christ is the highest privilege in the universe for human beings. So let’s ponder what it means. We’ll do this by comparing the serving of Christ with the service of three other things. In comparing serving Jesus with serving these three things, we will see what serving Jesus is and why it’s the greatest privilege in the world.
2.1. Serve Jesus Not the Belly
First, Paul says, serve Jesus not the belly. Romans 16:17-18, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. 18 For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites.” Literally, they serve their own belly.
So serving Christ is contrasted with serving your belly, which is shorthand for serving your appetites. You serve your appetites when you treat them as the most compelling offer of pleasure. If Christ calls you to self-control and chastity and purity of mind, and your appetites call you to self-indulgence and sexual license and impure thoughts, and you follow your appetites instead of Christ, you are serving them and not serving Christ. You are saying that they are a more compelling offer of pleasure. Serving Christ does not measure up to what these appetites offer. That is a very serious thing to say.
This contrast between serving our appetites and serving the Lord draws our attention to the fact that serving Christ is better than eating food and serving Christ is better than sex (sexual intercourse, or pornography, or sexual fantasies, or masturbation), and serving Christ is better than the pleasures of laziness. So one thing we can say about serving Christ is that it means experiencing his worth and beauty and fellowship as more compelling and more desirable than what the appetites offer.
2.2. Serve Jesus Not People
Second, Paul says, serve Jesus not people. Now, of course, there is a sense in which we should serve people. Galatians 5:13 says, “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” We are to serve each other in the sense of doing good to each other, and meeting each others’ needs.
But there is another way that we serve people sometimes which is dead wrong, and Paul says that the way not to do it is to serve Christ instead. For example, in Ephesians 6:6-7 Paul tells servants to work “not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as servantsof Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man.”
The wrong way to serve man is to be the slave to his approval. This is a great evil and a great bondage for many people. Many are servants of the opinions of others. Many people live with an eye to what others are thinking of them. Their happiness rises and falls with what other think and say. But that kind of service belongs ultimately to one person: Jesus Christ. One audience matters ultimately.
So the service of Jesus in this sense is a great liberty. We are freed from the fickle opinions of men. We care for one thing: Does the Jesus Christ, the Lord of heaven and earth, approve of what I am saying and doing?
So this contrast between serving man and serving the Lord draws our attention to the fact that serving Christ is better than the approval of men. Pleasing Christ is infinitely more important than pleasing people. In fact, serving Christ can be defined as seeing Christ’s approval as more valuable than the approval of man, and then acting on that conviction.
2.3. Serve Jesus Not the Law
Third, Paul says, serve Jesus not the law. Romans 7:6, “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.” Paul contrasts serving under the old written code with serving in the new life of the Spirit. Once we focused on the demands of the law for justification, and our service was deadly. No one is justified by works of the law (Romans 3:20). But now that Christ has come we have died to this focus on the law and its demands and we focus on Christ and his life-giving Spirit (Romans 7:4).
What this means is that serving Christ is not mainly following a new law. Rather now a Person, Jesus Christ, stands where once the law stood. And that divine Person is first and foremost a Law-fulfiller not a law demander. And in that way he is utterly unlike Moses. “It is fitting for us,” Jesus said, “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). He fulfills the law perfectly and bears its curse perfectly. Therefore serving this Christ is radically different from serving law. Serving a demand and serving a divine person who meets the demand before he makes the demand is radically different.
So serving Christ, not the law, means believing who he is, the Messiah and Son of God, and believing what he has done, provided my perfect pardon and perfect righteousness, and then seeking with all our might to become in practice what we are in him. This service is a great liberty. This slavery to Christ our righteousness is freedom and joy.
So we have seen that serving the Lord means 1) seeing the Lord as worth more than what the appetites offer; and serving the Lord means 2) seeing the Lord’s approval as more valuable than the approval of man and acting on it; and serving the Lord means 3) believing that he has died for us and fulfilled the law for us so that all our serving is now receiving as a gift what he accomplished and what he bought.
Three times, at least, Paul shows us how we work with zeal and intensity and passion in the service of Christ, but that in all our working—all our serving—Christ is really giving to us what he bought and is the one serving us. For example, Romans 15:18, “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed.” Paul has served. Indeed he has served with all his might and suffered greatly. But, he says, Christ has accomplished it all by working through me. My serving has been a receiving of Christ’s serving me. My life is one constant trusting, and depending, and receiving.
He says it again in Colossians 1:28-29. “[Christ] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” Paul serves. Paul toils. Paul struggles and fights. But deep down all his serving and toiling and struggling and fighting are gifts from the one he serves. Serving Christ is a continual trusting and depending and receiving.
And finally Paul says it again in 1 Corinthians 15:10, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” Paul works hard, he is not slothful. But all his working and serving is the effect of Christ serving him.
I said at the beginning that serving Christ is the greatest privilege in the world. Now it is more clear why that is true. It’s true because the greatest Person in the universe has not just called us into his service, but has become our Servant so that all our serving is trusting and depending and receiving.
And the reason he has done this is that the giver gets the glory. If we served him because he needed something from us, we would get the glory. But if, as 1 Peter 4:11 says, we serve him “in the strength that he supplies,” then he gets the glory. In our serving Christ, we get the help, he gets the glory.
This is the greatest life. Therefore do not be slothful in zeal, but boil in the spirit as you serve the Lord.