by Rev. Ken Symes
The challenge to the Church today is the implementation of the great commission. The most often quoted passage used to define the Great Commission is Matthew 28:19-20. Dr. H. A. Ironside correctly states that: “The great Commission to evangelize the world is not given as a whole in any of the Gospels, but we need to take all related passages in the three synoptics and in Acts 1 to get it in its entirety.”1 Though each has its unique emphasis all state that the gospel be proclaimed to all peoples of the world. Matthew declares that we are to “Go ye therefore and teach all nations…” Mark gave us the most basic statement: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16:15). Luke states: “that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning in Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:47). Luke, in Acts 1:8 puts the command to share the Gospel in the imperative: “Ye shall”. Thus understanding and carrying out the Great Commission is to be, for the believer, a priority (Matthew 6:33). All accounts agree that this message is to be carried to “all people” the world over. Thus it is clear that the gospel is to be shared with both Jew and Gentile.
According to Matthew the gospel includes both evangelism and discipleship. Mark emphasizes evangelism. Luke emphasizes the content of the gospel. Paul gives us the clearest statement of the content of the gospel when he wrote: “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). This is the message we are commanded to carry to the world, to all people.
GOD’S PROGRAM FOR WORLD EVANGELISM
God’s Word gives us clear instruction as to His program for world evangelization. First He makes the message clear. It is a message of repentance and remission of sins (Luke 24:47). It is a message of God’s love (John 3:16). The gospel is the death, burial and resurrection of Israel’s Messiah and its purpose that Christ died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:4). It is the good news of redemption that, if one believes and receives Jesus, brings one into a right relationship with his Creator (Romans 10:9-13; John 1:12).
Second, God makes clear who is to deliver this message. Paul states in 2 Corinthians 5:18: “And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation.” In verse 19 he restates it. In verse 20 he confirms our calling: “Now then we are ambassadors for Christ.” All believers are commanded to be the messengers of this good news (Acts 1:8).
Third, God clearly states in Romans 1:16 the method to be used. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” The key to understanding the latter part of this verse is found in defining the word: “first” (proton). William R. Newell states the generally accepted view. “In expressing to the Jew first, Paul is not at all prescribing an order of presentation of the gospel throughout this dispensation. He is simply recognizing the fact that to the Jew, who had the law and divine privileges, the gospel offer had first been presented, and then to the Gentile.”2 So he defines, as do most, the word “first” to simply mean historical sequence.
The Greek word “proton” is often used in that sense (cf. Matthew 5:24; 7:5; 13:30; Romans 15: 24). But it is also used by Jesus to denote both priority and sequence (cf. Matthew 6:33). So we must look to the contextual evidence to determine how it is used by Paul. Paul also uses the term in Romans 2:9-10. The use of the word “first” here cannot denote historical sequence. It simply states that both Jew and Gentile will be judged for bad or good. Charles Hodge, in his commentary on Romans states: “The Jew shall not only be punished as certainly as others, but more severely, because he has been more highly favoured. ‘The Jew first’ is equivalent then to the Jew especially.”2 There will be a greater judgment upon the Jew (cf. Leviticus 26:18-28). The Bible teaches that to whom much is given much will be required (Luke 12:48). Much was given to the Jew. Paul said: “What advantage then hath the Jew? Or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God” (Romans 2:1-2; cf. Psalms 103:7; 147:19-20). Thus Paul uses the term “proton” to indicate both priority and historical sequence. Also, as one reads of Paul’s travels, in every instance, though God called him as the “apostle to the Gentiles”, he went first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles setting the example and confirming God’s method for world evangelization. “To the Jew first” in Romans 1:16 teaches both priority and sequence.
One other word to consider in our text is the word “also” (kai). To understand “first” to indicate priority does not mean priority to the exclusion of the Greek. “Also” shows that Gentiles are included. Thus Paul states that, though we have a divinely stated special responsibility to the Jew (cf. Romans 11:11, 30-31), we are to take the gospel to both Jew and Gentile. Today, we must recognize a special responsibility to carry the gospel to the Jew while also including the Gentile.
THEOLOGY AND MISSIONS
The problem that confronts us in the twenty-first century is that many, who interpret Romans 1:16 in the sense that it is only stating an historical truth, see it as reason not to take the gospel to the Jew today. Reformed Theology teaches, because Israel nationally rejected the Messiah when He came, that God has turned His back on Israel (the Jew) and that the Church today is the Israel of the Bible. One need look no further than Romans 11:1 which states: “Hath God cast away his people? God forbid…” The writer goes on to give several reasons to prove his point. Some years ago, I was asked to speak at a Hebrew/Christian Fellowship. My message title caught everyone’s attention: “How to Destroy the Jew”. My text was Jeremiah 31:35-37. God promises to turn His back on Israel if we can do one of two things: destroy the sun, moon and stars, or measure the universe. As neither can be done, He goes on to state that His relationship with Israel will last forever. After all it is based on the unconditional Abrahamic Covenant. Reformed theologians attempt to get around this by stating that today the church is Israel. They claim the New Covenant found in Jeremiah 31:31-34 was made with the church. Yet, in verse 31 God states: “I will make a new covenant with house of Israel, and with the house of Judah.” These two “houses” denote the northern and southern kingdoms (physical Israeland Judah), not a spiritual entity. Some dispensationalists make the same error by suggesting that, because we are living in the dispensation of the church, God has set the Jew aside. This is based upon a misunderstanding that Israel and Jew are synonymous. They are not. In this dispensation God is not dealing with the Jew nationally to be His witness to the world, but individually, just as with Gentiles. Other dispensationalists teach that all Jews will be saved at the time of Christ’s second coming to establish the Kingdom. Yet the Bible teaches that only those who receive by faith God’s redemption will be saved in any generation. All others will be eternally lost. Others teach that the Jew, even in this dispensation, is saved today by keeping the law. Jesus, speaking to Jews stated: “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the father but by me” (John 14:6). These are flawed reasons that are given for not evangelizing the Jewish people.
ISRAEL‘S UNIQUE RELATIONSHIP TO GOD
Another indicator of how Romans 1:16 is to be understood is found in the unique relationship Israel has with God. In Deuteronomy 7:6 it is recorded: For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.” This is restated in Deuteronomy 10:14-15 and has never been rescinded by God. Isaiah describes this unique relationship. “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee. Behold I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me” (Isaiah 49:15-16). Neither covenants nor dispensations negate this great truth.
The Great Commission is the command to carry the gospel to both Jew and Gentile. Romans 1:16 states unambiguously what God’s program is for world evangelization. Paul’s missionary journeys clearly establish the priority to the Jew while yet taking the gospel to the Gentiles. The reasons given by those for not evangelizing the Jew do not stand the test of a sound biblical exegesis. No matter the time frame, we are responsible for taking the gospel to both Jew and Gentile. God’s unique relationship with Israel and the Jew demands that Romans 1:16 be understood to be speaking of priority. God said to Abraham, regarding his seed: “I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee” (Genesis 12:3). To share the gospel with the Jew is to receive a special blessing. How can we better bless the Jew than to share with him the gospel or curse him than by withholding the gospel from him?
1 H.A. Ironside, Expository Notes on the Gospel of Matthew, 1948, Loizeaux Brothers, New York, p. 402
2 William R. Newell, Romans Verse By Verse, 1938, Moody Press, Chicago, p. 22
3 Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 1964, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, p. 52