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This article continues an on-going, verse-by-verse series on the exhortations in Romans 12.
11Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.
In verses 9 and 10, Paul described the primary characteristic of the those who serve, which is "sincere love". He also enumerated aspects of sincere love, such as devotion, humility and hatred of evil. In verses 11 and 12, he enumerates six more characteristics of God's servants: zeal, spiritual fervor, an attitude of service, joy, patience in affliction, and faithfulness in prayer.
First Paul exhorts: "Never be lacking in zeal". The word that Paul uses for "zeal" suggests haste, diligence, eagerness, earnestness, and professionalism. In the King James Version, this phrase is translated that one should be "not slothful in business". So, we should not, when we serve, be lackadaisical, but eager; we should not be careless, but businesslike; not apathetic, but diligent. We should carry on our service just like the most ambitious of businessmen, bent on success. Success in business depends on such an attitude; in a large part, success in Christian service does also. Some would shun an organized, business-like attitude in service and say "I will just let the Spirit lead me". However, the "let-the-Spirit-lead-me" attitude can be taken too far and is often used as an excuse for laziness in diligent preparation. Yes, it is necessary for the Spirit of God to lead us, but He does so in an organized, not haphazard, fashion, for "God is not a God of disorder" (I Cor. 14:33).
In addition to this, Paul exhorts us to "keep your spiritual fervor". "Fervor" suggests fire, passion, and enthusiasm. We should enjoy our service, and have a passion in our spirit for it. We should have fervor in our spirit, fervor kindled by the Spirit of God. Fervor is important in service, especially for spiritual leaders, because such an attitude is contagious. The heat of one's fervency naturally lights others on fire, giving them the same passion. On the other hand, a lazy, apathetic attitude is also contagious, quenching the spirit of others.
Our example, once again, is Christ. He was never lacking in fervor, never tiring when an opportunity to serve His Father presented itself. Christ saw that there would be a decline in our fervor in times of evil: "Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved" (Matt. 24:12,13). Naturally, the fire of our spirit wanes at times, blown cold by distractions of the world. The fuel for our spiritual fervor is the Spirit of God. As the fire of our spirit wanes, we should ask the Spirit of God to rekindle the flames in order to renew our fervor. Even in times when our fire burns bright, we should ask the Spirit to keep it burning strong.
Now, the zeal and fervor should be in "serving the Lord". Many are fervent and spiritual, but not in serving the Lord. All these characteristics--sincere love, devotion, humility, zeal, fervor, etc.-- have no ultimate value unless you are serving the Lord. So many have zeal and fervor about the wrongs things: about hobbies, business, and other idols. In the end, what benefit does zeal and fervor about such things bring? However, the benefits of zeal and fervor in serving the Lord are eternal.
Not only must we serve the Lord, but we must have an attitude of service. Many serve the Lord, but grudgingly. This is a shame! It would be better for them not to serve the Lord than to serve grudgingly because when they serve grudgingly, they are a poor witness to the world, misrepresenting the love of God. We must always have a realization of what a great privilege it is to serve the Lord. Consider this: that the Creator of the universe would have something for us to do, would enlist us personally into His service. If the president called you to service, you would no doubt feel honored (despite your political affiliations!). How much more should we feel honored that God prepares us, calls us and uses us for His work!
Moreover, the great in the eyes of God are those who serve. This is opposite to the way of the world. Those of the world value the rulers, those with power. The Lord values those who serve. Jesus Himself told His disciples: "Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave" (Matt. 20:27).
Next Paul exhorts: "Be joyful in hope." Christians should be joyful as they serve. So many Christians are bitter in their spirit, because of the goings-on in the world around them. However, our joy should not come from the goings-on of the world, but from our "hope". So, despite the wickedness of the world, Christians should be joyful because we have hope. Early Christians, to whom this exhortation was directly addressed, lived in a world that was at least as wicked as the one in which we live. It was a world full of pagan rites, corrupt governments, slavery, oppression of women, and persecution of Christians; yet, they were exhorted to be joyful. We (at least those of us in America) have it much easier, so why are we so sorrowful? If we do not have joy, then we are lacking in faith concerning the "hope" that we have: the return of Christ and the inheritance that has been set aside for us. Yes, if our joy is based on the hope that we have in this world, there is much reason to be sorrowful. But our hope is based on the promise of the eternal, all-powerful God. God has promised us our inheritance, and indeed, has sworn to it with an oath in His Word, as the writer of Hebrews points out: "God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure" (Heb. 6:18-19).
And so, as we live in this world, we are to be greatly encouraged because of the "hope" that we have. Given this hope, we are also exhorted to be "patient in affliction". Now, when Paul speaks of "affliction", he is not speaking of minor annoyances, but major trials. Again, many Christians nowadays become anxious and claim "persecution" over minor annoyances. They should look at Paul's life and reconsider. From prison, Paul was able to write: "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!...Do not be anxious about anything...I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances" (Phil. 4:4,6,11). If anyone had reason to be anxious and frustrated over the afflictions in his life, Paul did. He testified: "Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked" (II Cor. 11:24-27). How many times have you received thirty-nine lashes? How many times have you been beaten with rods, or been shipwrecked, or been thrown into prison for the sake of Christ? All this happened to Paul, yet he was able to exhort us to be "patient in affliction".
Finally, Paul exhorts us to be "faithful in prayer". It is so easy to get caught up in our service, and then run out of time or, worse yet, forget to pray. We must always remember to pray first before we serve. We need to enter service with the help of the Spirit, in the strength of God and with our eyes focussed on the Lord Jesus Christ. As we serve, we must be persistent and unfailing in prayer. Those who serve can testify to the great difference between serving without prayer and serving while all "prayed-up". Without prayer, we feel powerless, our service is a chore; with prayer, we are excited to serve, we can feel the help of the Spirit and see evidence that His work is being accomplished through our service.
Now, these last three characteristics--joy in hope, patience in affliction and faithfulness in prayer--are intimately related. Our afflictions actually strengthen our hope, as Paul says: "But we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope" (Rom. 5:3,4). Our afflictions make us appreciate the greatness and blessedness of our hope. Also, our afflictions cause us to be "faithful in prayer", by driving us to the prayer closet. Who forgets to pray when they are suffering affliction? Suddenly, we find time to pray, where before, in times of blessings, there was no time. Then, through our prayers, we are filled with joy from the Holy Spirit. Read the psalms of David. Many of them are prayers in the midst of affliction. He begins them with the sorrow of affliction, but ends them rejoicing in the glory of God.[Footnote #5]
And so, Lord, guide us as we serve You. Give us zeal and fervor, kindling the fire of others as we ourselves serve with enthusiasm. Make us aware of the glorious hope that we have and, through this hope, give us joy unsurpassable. We praise You that we are able to serve the living God, that You would call us personally into Your service. Help us by Your Spirit to live up to this great privilege by serving with the attitudes expressed in these verses. In Jesus' name we pray these things, Amen.
(In the next issue, we will continue our study in Romans 12)
5. See Psalms 4, 5, 7, 10, 11, 13, 16, 17, 22, 26, etc.
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