by Mark Robinson
There should be no question as to the priority of the Church in the absence of her Head. Jesus made this very clear in His final thoughts, yea command, to those who belong to Him. His last words were, “. . .ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.”1
The message of the Gospel is the foremost need of the world and the greatest priority of the Church. It should be the thrust of a Christian’s life, the heartbeat of his activities, the basic purpose of his influences. Whatever a Christian does he should do “to the glory of God,” but evangelism – sharing Jesus with others- should be our prime desire during our time on earth.
The Love of God
The greatest need of individuals, salvation through Jesus Christ, drove Paul incessantly in the pursuit of sharing Jesus. Persecution for the sake of Christ was Paul’s reality. He was beaten, stoned, thrown in prison, shipwrecked, and endured a myriad of other deprivations all because the love of Christ constrained him.
When he went to Rome Paul wrote, “So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also. 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.”2 He realized that the Gospel alone was the power of God to save and thus was not ashamed to proclaim this truth.
Priority Within the Priority
The first part of Romans 1:16 is familiar to most Christians. It is regularly preached and written about. The second part of this verse, “To the Jew first, and also to the Greek,” is oftentimes ignored or dealt with only fleetingly.
Arnold Fruchtenbaum states, “The gospel is the power of God, and the proper procedure is for it to go to the Jew first. The governing verb, is, is in both the present tense, which emphasizes continuous action and controls both clauses: the gospel is the power of God and the gospel is to the Jew first… Consistent exegesis would demand that if the gospel is always the power of God to save, then it is always to the Jew first… Applying this verse to the Great Commission, the gospel, wherever and by whatever means it goes out from the local church, must go to the Jew first.”3
Romans 1:16 should be understood as one of priority; a command that is incumbent on all churches and Christians to this day. It is God’s order of priority in the proclamation of the Gospel. This command is the priority within the priority. Within the focus of missions, the Gospel should first go to the Jew.
Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles
A strong argument for the gospel’s priority to the Jew first can be made from the life of the Apostle Paul. He was called to be the apostle to the Gentiles. In Romans 11:13 Paul addressing the Gentile Roman believers says “…I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles…” This is an important point to note as we consider the ministry and methodology of Paul as he embarks on his missionary journeys. God called Paul to be the apostle to the Gentiles. That was to be the primary focus and emphasis of his ministry.
Paul, after his conversion, immediately started to share his faith. In his initial effort Paul “…preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the son of God.”4 His efforts were consistent with the priority that he would later pen under inspiration of God… that is, the gospel is to the Jew first. This priority of evangelism would be the pattern of the beloved Apostle Paul’s life.
Paul’s first Missionary Journey
Paul’s first missionary journey took place approximately 8 years after his life-transforming encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road. Accompanied by Barnabas, the first city they preached in was Salamis on the island of Cyprus. The initial action of Paul and Barnabas was that they “. . . preached the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews.”5 In each city Paul visited during this first missionary journey he consistently ministered “to the Jew first.”
Paul’s Second Missionary Journey
Paul and Silas followed the pattern that had been established in the first missionary journey of Paul. “And on the Sabbath we went out of the city by a river side, where prayer was wont to be made; and we sat down, and spake unto the women which resorted thither.”6 The result of this preaching to these Jewish women is that Lydia, a Jewess, accepted Jesus as her Messiah. The priority of Romans 1:16 was followed in Philippi.
The next city Paul and Silas stopped in was Thessalonica. The text of Acts 17:1-2 demonstrates again Paul’s pattern for ministry. “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.” Notice verse two states “as his manner was.” Paul’s manner, methodology, priority was always to share the gospel first with the Jewish people. This Apostle to the Gentiles always started his ministry by sharing with the Jewish people. It seems clear that the understanding of Romans 1:16 in the mind of the one who penned it was that it was a command of priority.
Paul’s Third Missionary Journey
Paul’s third missionary journey took him back to Ephesus for a period of 3 years. The first three months were spent following the priority of evangelism that was foundational to his ministry. “And he went into the synagogue, and spake boldly for the space of three months, disputing and persuading the things concerning the kingdom of God.”7
Paul’s subsequent travels continued his emphasis of “to the Jew first.” Paul finished his ministry with a visit to the city of Rome. As he began, he now finished his course. Paul gathered the Jewish people of the city of Rome together and preached to them that Jesus is the Messiah.8
His methodology was consistent throughout his ministry. The gospel is to the Jew first and then to the Gentiles.
Worldwide Blessing Through the Jew
God’s promise of blessing through the Jew is traced back to the initial promise of Genesis 12:3, “…in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” One can only understand Paul’s reason for the admonition “to the Jew first” in light of this promise.
Paul expounded on the blessing inherent in bringing the gospel to the Jewish people in his treatise on Israel in Romans 9-11. It is in the eleventh chapter that he shares the connection between Jewish evangelism and the blessing that accompanies Jewish people coming to the Messiah.
Romans 11:14 stresses the necessity of Gentiles taking the gospel to the Jewish people. Paul tells us, “If by any means I may provoke to emulation (jealousy) them which are my flesh, and might save some of them.” Please don’t miss the urgency in his appeal. “If by any means…” Whatever it takes, whatever needs to be done, whatever re-prioritizing needs to be undertaken, we must get some Jewish people saved. The stress on Jewish evangelism shouldn’t be missed and can’t, I believe, be overemphasized.
Why this emphasis? Why the urgency of sharing the gospel with Jewish people? The answer is found in Romans 11:12 and 15. “Now if the fall of them be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fulness?” And verse 15, “For if the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead?”
First, notice the result of the rejection of Jesus. Israel would “fall” and be “cast(ing) away.” This setting aside of Israel was not permanent. It can not be understood from these verses that Israel would be permanently cast aside as their “fulness” and the “receiving of them” are promised. This exile of Israel would be more than the banishment from the land. It would be a temporary setting aside in God’s plan to reach the world. For the time being God would build His church and use her as His instrument of blessing in reaching the world.
Notice how the text speaks to the greater inclusion of Gentiles as a result of what happened to Israel. The “fall” and “diminishing” of Israel would result in “the riches of the world” and the “riches of the Gentiles.” “The casting away” of Israel would be the “reconciling of the world”.
The promise of Genesis 12:3 would see its greatest fulfillment since its writing. In almost 2000 years of church history multiplied millions of people, mostly Gentile, have found forgiveness of sin and eternal life through the crucified and resurrected Messiah of Israel. The impetus for this? Israel’s rejection of her Messiah, Divinely planned, that Gentiles might be saved in great numbers. The setting aside of Israel brought untold blessings and riches to the Gentiles of the world.
As great as this blessing has been to untold numbers of Gentiles what would happen if Israel received her Messiah? The results will mushroom. As the Scripture states, “. . .if the fall of them be.. .the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fulness?” If this magnified blessing came upon the world when Israel rejected her Messiah we can expect much greater blessing when the Jewish people accept their Messiah. Verse 15 puts it this way, “. . .what shall the receiving of them be but life from the dead.” When Jewish people are received by God, and this happens only when individual Jews accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior, greater blessings will flow to the world.
The teaching of this Scripture seems to be that when more Jewish people are brought into the family of God we will then see more Gentile people also being brought into God’s family. There seems to be a correlation between Jewish evangelism and the evangelization of the world.
The Necessity of Jewish Evangelism
The ultimate fulfillment of Romans 11:12 and 15 will be at the end of the tribulation period when “all Israel shall be saved.” This receiving of Jesus by the nation of Israel will usher in the Millennial reign of our Lord and during this 1000 year reign the majority of people, though not all, will put their faith in Jesus. What brings in this period of unparalleled blessing on the earth since the Garden of Eden? Jewish people responding to the gospel and receiving Jesus as their Messiah.
We should not limit our understanding of this truth to only the end of the Tribulation period and the reign of Jesus. The blessing of Gen. 12:3,”I will bless them that bless thee…” is true at any time in history. When the church has reached out to the Jewish people with love and the message of their Messiah God has blessed not only the efforts to reach Jewish people but efforts to reach the world.
Church history corroborates this truth. The infant church made Jewish evangelism the priority of their outreach. The result was “they turned the world upside down.”9 When was the last time the church has turned the world upside down for our Lord? Could it be that our priority in missions is not that of the infant church nor what God commanded in Rom. 1:16, “…to the Jew first.”
Dr. Joseph Cohn summed up God’s blessing accompanying Jewish evangelism very well.
“Now it is only reasonable to expect that just as national Israel, when restored to God, will bring blessings to the entire Gentile world, so when individual Jews are brought into the Church, blessings will redound to those who bring them in. That is, we have a right to expect that individual Jewish conversions now must bring individual blessings to the Gentiles in the Church.
With convincing recurrence, this is exactly what has happened throughout the history of the Church, and is still happening. This is also what Scripture teaches; for Paul tells us, in speaking of the possibilities of Jewish conversion, in Romans 11:15, ‘What shall their receiving (conversion) be, but life from the dead?’ . . .Abundant proof of the argument here presented is to be found in even a superficial glance over the pages of Church history.”10
Biblically, world evangelism seems to be based on Jewish evangelism. If this is the teaching of the Word of God, and I believe it is, the church has missed out on one of God’s primary methods for seeing people saved. Our neglect has been to the detriment of the salvation of people. Isn’t it time we got back to God’s mandate?
The gospel is to all people, yes, but “to the Jew first.”
1 Acts 1:8
2 Romans 1:15-16
3 Fruchtenbaum, Arnold G., Israelology: The Missing Link in Systematic Theology, Ariel Ministries Press, 1993, p. 852
4 Acts 9:20
5 Acts 13:5
6 Acts 16:13
7 Acts 19:8
8 Acts 28:17, 23
9 Acts 17:6
10 Cohn, Joseph Hoffman, Beginning at Jerusalem, (New York: American Board of Missions to the Jews,
1948), page 251