By Dan Bergman
“Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews: And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three Sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures, Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ.”1
One of the main thrusts of Jewish Awareness Ministries is to proclaim, as Paul did, that Jesus is the long awaited Jewish Messiah promised in the Hebrew Scriptures, taking the gospel to the Jews first as well as to the Gentiles. The above quoted passage is an account from the middle of the first century, as Paul does just that.
“Wait one second!” a critic of Jewish evangelism might interrupt, “That was the first century! The gospel already went to the Jews! They had their chance! Paul eventually left the Jews after they vehemently refused Christ, and took the gospel to someone who appreciated it – the Gentiles!”
We would do well to notice that the account of Paul in the synagogue of Thessalonica was well after he made the declaration that he would now take the gospel to the Gentiles. If we simply even view the instance where Paul makes that statement, we would be amazed to find him in the synagogue again, only 7 verses later!
“But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy, and spake against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming. Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles… And it came to pass in Iconium, that they went both together into the synagogue of the Jews, and so spake, that a great multitude both of the Jews and also of the Greeks believed.”2
Paul actually continued to bring the gospel to the Jew first, going to the synagogue first in Salamis (13:5), Pisidian Antioch (13:14), Iconium (14:1), Thessalonica (17:2), Berea (17:10), Corinth (18:4) and Ephesus (18:19 and 19:8). In fact, when we read Paul’s last recorded words in the book of Acts, we find him once again giving the gospel to the Jews. It was likely nearly a decade later when the Apostle penned the famous passage “…For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” 3
What does “to the Jew first” actually mean?
Even with the truths above stated in mind, there are still critics who hold Romans 1:16 to be speaking of a historical order of the gospel’s distribution rather than a priority of Jewish evangelism. This view sadly, is held by no small number of theologians such as Charles Hodge, C.K. Barret, John Calvin, J.P. McBeth, and William Shedd.
Charles Hodge, the Reformed theologian, claims that “To render prwton (proton) first, here especially, would make the apostle teach that the gospel was peculiarly adapted to the Jews, or specially designed for them. But he frequently asserts that this is not the case, Rom. 3:9, Rom. 3:22, Rom. 3:29; Rom. 10:12.4 prwton, therefore, must have reference to time, ‘to the Jew in the first instance, and then to the Greek.’”5
Hodge most likely was influenced by Calvin’s interpretation of this same passage, as he stated that “they (Israel) were the first partakers of God’s promise and calling.”6
It is of great importance in our determination of whether Romans 1:16 is historical in context, or continual in application, that we also examine Romans 2:9 and 10:
“Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile”
Hodge, Shedd, and Barret for whatever reason, interpret the phrase “the Jew first” in this passage in the opposite way that they interpreted it in Romans 1:16. They claim that although the gospel was given to the Jews first in instance, judgment (good or bad) comes preeminently to the Jew, in a continuing fashion. Calvin at least had the consistency to interpret both passages in the same way (historically).
Dr. Mitch Glasser gives us a succinct statement describing the only logical interpretation of Romans 1:16, stemming from a literal, normal and dispensational view of the Scriptures.
“Romans 1:16 is written in the present tense and applicable to every generation. Follow the logic of the text: if the Gospel is still the power of God to salvation and is still for everyone who believes, then the Gospel is still for the Jew first. …The Greek word used by Paul and translated as ‘first’ …implies priority rather than a sequential order of events.”7
Jesus used the same word, in the same tense, when He said “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God…” in Matthew 6:33!8 (bold added)
This makes even more sense when we read elsewhere in Romans (as well as the entire Old Testament) that the Messiah was to be of the seed of Abraham9, descendant of David10, and to be the “Holy One of Israel!”11 Isaiah was so bold as to assert “…for the transgression of my people was he [Messiah] stricken!”12 (bold added)
If this is true – what are the implications? We would certainly not find ourselves going after a “dual-covenant” theology which some teach!13 The Jew must be given priority in evangelism. Do we then ignore the Gentiles? No, by no means! We find many “Greeks” being saved alongside the Jews in the book of Acts (14:1 is an example). We would see that although the Gospel going to the Jews first historically occurred in the first century, the gospel remains even today “the power of God unto salvation… to the Jew first”! Oh, how we have strayed from this teaching!
What should “to the Jew first” look like today?
Well, let’s just use “first” in Matthew 6:33 as an example, to help us understand how evangelism should be “to the Jew first”. It should be obvious that Jesus is speaking of making the things of God our priority. Worship should be an important part of our lives, as should witnessing, Bible reading and prayer. This is what seeking first the kingdom of God looks like. We should not let any earthly thing or person take precedence over our relationship with our Heavenly Father. Does this mean we cannot own things, or have earthly relationships? No, but there is a balance.
As we put the Lord first in life, so must we put the Jew first in evangelism. Is this going too far? I don’t believe so. Paul was “the Apostle to the Gentiles”, and yet whose salvation was he consumed with? It was the Jew! On many occasions Jesus condemned the religious lifestyle of the Pharisees while showing mercy to faithful Gentiles, but what people moved Him to tears? It was the Jews!
Whether you live in a rural area with a near zero Jewish population, or a bustling metropolis like New York City, you can put the Jew first. Every church should support a Jewish missionary, and every Christian can pray for Jewish missions. Every Christian can give even a little toward a Jewish mission (little is much when God is in it)! If God has called you to go, whether you are Jewish or Gentile, you can and should go! When you see a Jewish person, are you moved? We should be moved for all the lost, but do we realize that the Jews are God’s beloved? We must be moved – to pray, to give, and to go!
“For I Could wish…”
How would it have felt to be Paul? Romans 9:1 gives us the answer. He had “great heaviness and continual sorrow” in his heart.
What was his sorrow? His burden? It was the salvation of his people!
“For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh: Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.”14
Let us refocus on proclaiming the Messiah to the people from whom He came, as well as Gentiles!
1. Acts 17:1-3
2. Acts 13:45,46; 14:1
3. Romans 1:16
4. These verses all deal with the efficacy of the gospel message, not with the identity of the recipients.
5. Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. cf. Romans 1:16
6. Calvin, John. Commentary on Romans. cf. Romans 1:16
7. Darrell Bock, To the Jew First, Kregel Publishing, 2008 p.16
9. Genesis 12:3
10. Psalm 132:11; Isaiah 11:1; Jeremiah 23:5.
11. Isaiah 41:14; 48:17; 49:7
12. Isaiah 53:8
13. This is the belief that Israel can be saved apart from the atoning sacrifice of Christ, and that they have their own way to God through the covenants given to them in the Hebrew Scriptures.
14. Romans 9:2-5