In the midst of the practical applications flowing out of the doctrine that was so clearly lain out in the book, Romans 12:11 presents us with a command in the form of an exhortation,
“Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.”
There are four key terms that should catch our attention from this passage and examining those will be the purpose of this post. First, we see the command to not be slothful. This word conveys the idea of being sluggish or as the NASB translates it, lagging behind. We might think of it as not keeping up with or neglect of. It only occurs 2 other times in Scripture, once in Philippians 3:1, translated there as trouble, and the other in Matthew 25:26, which has a nearer use to ours found here in Romans.
In that passage, we find ourselves in the midst of what is often referred to as The Parable of the Talents. A man going on a journey calls his servants (doulas – slaves/bondservants) and gives talents or money to each. To one he gives 5 talents, to another 2, and to another 1, “each according to his ability.” The first servant traded with the talents and made 5 more. The second made two talents more, while the third buried his single talent. At the master’s return, each reported what they had done with their money. The first two reported doubling their talents and were rewarded with commendations and the familiar, “enter the joy of your master.” The third servant reported to the master saying, “‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’” Which leads us to the use of our word, slothful, in the response from the master “You wicked and slothful servant!” The servant that failed to use or invest the talents that he had been given was rebuked for being slothful, i.e. failing to utilize or make profit from what he had been given. That is the idea behind slothful in our passage.
The command not to be slothful is specifically applied to zeal, our next word under consideration. A slightly more commonly used word in the Greek New Testament, can also mean, “in diligence” or we might say earnestness and it implies effort. Interestingly, one of it’s uses occurs at the end of the third warning passage in the book of Hebrews and is contrasted with sluggishness (though a different word than ours above), “And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” Hebrews 6:11-12
Prior to this use in Romans 12:11, zeal was referenced in verse 8, “the one who leads [or gives aid], with zeal”. Combining our two words thus far and we find that our exhortation is to not be sluggish or lazy in our efforts. What exactly these efforts are, we will get to shortly.
Moving from the prohibition, do not, to the positively stated contrast, do, we are told to be fervent in spirit. Another infrequently used word primarily means to be hot to the point of boiling over, as with water in a pan or a hot spring bubbling over. It’s only other use is a reference to Apollos from Acts 17, who was fervent in spirit, teaching “accurately the things concerning Jesus.” With this, it may even help us to conclude that the opposite of fervency would be lukewarmness, even cold, which may lead us to better understand the idea of slothful used above.
So then we have “do not lag behind or be slothful in your efforts, rather be boiling over in spirit.”
In case we would be left wondering how one expresses such a boiling over, the mystery is resolved by the final statement of our passage, serve the Lord. The same word used here for serve is the verb form of the word servant used above in the Parable of the Talents. More appropriately, it can be translated as a slave or bond-servant, though synonymous, it is different from diakonos, from which we have (incorrectly) transliterated deacon.
As should go without saying, the servant is to yield in submission and obedience to their Master, this is service. Elsewhere, we know that we are not our own and have been bought with a price, placing us in a joyful servant-hood of our Master Jesus Christ. But we may ask, how are we to serve? Certainly it would be inferred to serve, boiling over with effort, but what would that look like on a practical level?
Service, in this sense, would imply obedience to the commands of the Master, but we mustn’t stare blankly at lists of do’s and don’ts. Simply put, it is love, flowing from a love for Christ, that works towards the spiritual and physical well-being of others, prioritizing believers, with the goal of entering the joy of the Master.
Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.