Romans is said to be Paul’s masterpiece letter in which he explains the gospel. Romans 1:16 is said to be the key verse of the letter: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek”. What a great verse! But what does that last bit mean? How is the gospel “to the Jew first”?
I have to admit to being Jewish. Yes I am a Christian too. Sometimes folk correct me at this point. They say: “Don’t you mean you were Jewish?” No, I am Jewish. Paul makes it clear in Galatians that Gentiles don’t need to become Jewish in order to be saved. They are saved as they are – as Gentiles – by faith in Jesus. A reverse Galatians heresy would be to say that Jews must become Gentiles in order to be saved. But no – Jews are saved as they are – as Jews – by faith in Jesus. I am male, Australian, and Jewish. I was born that way! And I am Christian by faith in Jesus.
So what does it mean that the gospel is “to the Jew first”? Does it mean that Jews are superior to Gentiles (trying to keep a straight face at this point, being Jewish…). No. Jew and Gentile are one in Christ, equal in status before God (Gal 3:28; Eph 2:14-16).
Paul, as described in Acts, went to the synagogue first to preach the gospel. Some Jews believed, many did not. When the latter rejected the gospel, Paul would go to the Gentiles. Is that what “to the Jew first” means? Is it merely a statement of past history with no relevance to us today?
Romans 11 makes it clear that God has not finished with the Jews. There is a believing remnant (11:1-10). Furthermore, the Jews are the “natural branches” (v24). They have been broken off their own Jewish olive tree because of unbelief (v17, 19). But they can be grafted back in by faith (v23). The Jews are the “natural branches” in that they have God’s original promises and privileges: “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ” (9:4-5). Gentiles on the other hand were cut off from God and without hope (Eph 2:12). However the Gentiles can be grafted into the Jewish olive tree by faith. Yet this is “contrary to nature” (11:24). This should not make Gentiles feel inferior (unless they felt superior in the first place: 11:18!). Gentile Christians have inherited Israel’s blessings and should be humble and deeply grateful to God. But the Jews are the natural heirs and recipients of the gospel.
Thus the gospel is “to the Jew first” not just historically, but also theologically. The Jews are the natural heirs and recipients of the gospel. It is their gospel first and foremost as the “natural branches”. And the gospel is also for the Gentiles.
The word Gentiles by definition means “the nations”. The Jews are not part of the nations. Many Christians think of world mission therefore in an unbiblical way: the Jews are seen as one tiny ethnic group among the nations. But the Jews are not part of the nations, and the gospel is not only for the nations. The gospel is to the Jew first. Mission should be thought of as going to two groups (Gal 2:7): to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile. Is that how you think of world mission? Do you pray for two groups of world mission? Do you pray for mission to the Jews and give to that end? Is the gospel to the Jew first in your thinking and practice?