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Romans 12:11a

August 15, 2007

“In earnestness, be not lazy”

That’s my translation.  The ESV says, “Do not be slothful in zeal.”  But I’m suspicious of zeal.  Perhaps Paul was too.  He warns in Romans 10:2 that there is a such a thing as ignorant zeal for God.  And I fear that much of what passes for zeal is really “jealousy and selfish ambition” (James 3:14).   Most of the 16 times that the word “zelos” appears in the Greek NT it referrs to sinful human zeal or jealousy.

But the word used here in Romans 12:11 is a different word that I’m translating “earnestness”.   To be earnest is to be serious and intense.  It’s a trait that is urged upon leaders just a few verses earlier in 12:8.  Those who are gifted in leadership are to lead diligently, earnestly.  Other things we are to do earnestly include prayer (Luke 7:4), the study of Scripture (2 Tim 2:15) and care for the poor (Gal 2:10).   We are also to be earnest about preserving the unity of the Spirit in the church (Eph 4:3), which is interesting because false zeal is responsible for much of the disunity in the church (Gal 5:20).

The trouble is that we often give little serious effort to weighty matters and we are in earnest about trivialities.  Let us be not lazy in the matters that call for earnestness.  Note that the opposite of laziness is not busyness, but earnestness about the few things that really matter.  You even can and should be earnest about rest (Heb 4:10-11).  An earnest person will say no to a lot of inconsequential things.

The word used here for lazy also means troublesome or irksome because if you entrust an important matter to a lazy person, there’s going to be trouble and you’re going to get irked. “Whoever is slack in his work is a brother to him who destroys” (Prov 18:9).  The word is used by Jesus in the parable of the talents for the wicked servant who buried his talent in the ground.  Do you remember why he buried his talent?  He had a dishonorable fear of his Master.  He thought he “knew him to be a hard man”.  So our unbelieving, uncharitable thoughts of God can cause us to flag in earnestness.   We need the gospel of God’s grace to free us from disheartening fears and to work in us earnestness in ministering that gospel of grace to one another.

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