We know we need to share the gospel with all people but does that include our Jewish friends and neighbors? Do Jewish people need to hear the message of Messiah Yeshua? Or do Jewish people get a pass from needing to know about the Messiah of Israel?
For the first few weeks of this new year, I’ve been trying to get our 2020 vision clear. We’ve looked at several passages that use the word “first” to examine what our priorities should be for the upcoming year. We’ve seen that our ultimate priority is to seek God’s rule and righteousness in our lives and that our most important message is the Good News, that Jesus died for us and rose again. But when it comes to communicating the good news of Yeshua to Jewish people, should this be a priority?
Romans 1:16 says, “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 I want to focus on is that crucial phrase, “to the Jew first” because it indicates God’s priority in the message of the gospel. What do these words mean?
Many interpreters have taken the words “to the Jew first” to refer to the historical priority of the good news. They believe that this is saying that the gospel went to the Jewish people first, but now it’s for the Gentiles. They take the word “first” to refer to historical progression. But there are several problems with this idea. To begin, the entire verse is governed by a present tense verb. If the gospel still is the power of God for salvation, then it also is to the Jew first. Another problem is that Paul used the word “proton” but had he meant historical priority, he probably would have used “proteron” a different Greek word that means “formerly.” Another difficulty is that the same expression is used in Romans 2:9-10, promising “affliction and distress” for those who do evil, “to the Jew first” and “glory, honor and peace” to those who do good “to the Jew first.” Obviously Paul is talking about priorities in this parallel passage not chronological order. So to say that in Romans 1:16 Paul was asserting that the good news went to the Jews first but is now for the Gentiles misses the point.
The second way this verse has been misunderstood is to understand it to refer to a ministry priority, meaning that wherever the good news is proclaimed, it should go to Jewish people first. Only after reaching the Jewish people in a given area, can the good news be brought to others. This view is held by people who deeply care for the Jewish people and have the best motives. Nevertheless, it also sees the word “first” in a chronological sense, as referring to the order in which we give the gospel. So it has the same difficulties that the first interpretation does—the passage doesn’t seem to be talking about an order of events, first Jews, then Gentiles. Moreover, the verse is about the nature of the good news not the way it’s to be proclaimed.
This leads me to what I believe is the best interpretation of the phrase “to the Jew first” a reference to elective priority. By this I mean that the verse is saying that the good news is always an especially Jewish message. This fits with what most Greek lexicons and word books say about the use of the word “proton” here—that it means “preeminently” or “especially.” The good news, which is for all people, is an especially Jewish message. The great theologian from Westminster seminary, John Murray, said it this way: “the Jew had been chosen by God to be the recipient of the promise of the gospel and that to him were committed the oracles of God. Salvation was of the Jews (John 4:22, cf. Acts 2:39; Romans 3:1-2; 9:4-5). The lines of preparation for the full revelation of the gospel were laid in Israel and for that reason the gospel is preeminently the gospel for the Jew.” The point of this is that the good news that Yeshua the Messiah died for our sins and was raised from the dead is not only for the Gentiles, but this message is especially designed for the Jewish people and is preeminently for them. The good news is an especially Jewish message.
So what should we do about this? In Romans, Paul gives four ways we can apply this principle. First, we can have compassion for the Jewish people. In Romans 9:2-3, he writes, “I have intense sorrow and continual anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from the Messiah for the benefit of my brothers, my countrymen by physical descent.” Paul’s compassion for the Jewish people was so great, he was willing to be separated from the Messiah forever, if it could mean that his own people could know him. Of course that’s impossible, but it shows his great love for the Jewish people—a love and concern that we should follow.
Second, we should pray for the Jewish people. Romans 10:1 says, “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God concerning them (the Jewish people) is for their salvation!” This is the only verse in the whole Bible that describes praying for lost people, and Paul specifically refers to the Jewish people. We need to include prayers for reaching Jewish people when we pray for people to come to know the Lord.
Third, we can communicate the good news to the Jewish people. Romans 11:11 says, “salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel jealous.” I call this verse “the Gentile great commission.” God has given the Jewish message of salvation to the Gentiles so that Jewish people would desire to have it back. God wants Gentiles who know Him, to present Messiah Yeshua to Jewish people. Yes, we have to proclaim this message in a loving and tactful way because that’s God’s plan to reach Jewish people.
Finally, we should support Jewish ministry financially. In Romans 15:26-27, Paul describes the Gentiles making a contribution to the Jewish believers in Jerusalem. He says, “For if the Gentiles have shared in their spiritual benefits, then they are obligated to minister to Jews in material needs.” His point is that Gentiles have been saved by sharing in the Jewish Messiah, so they are indebted to give back financially. So many churches have missions programs that give to reach the world but neglect to include Jewish ministry. People also give personally to world outreach but often forget to include Jewish outreach in their giving.
The point of all of this is that the good news is an especially Jewish message, therefore we should have a passion for the Jewish people, pray for the Jewish people, proclaim this message to the Jewish people, and provide financially for reaching Jewish people.
The great gentile Hebrew scholar of the last century, Franz Delitzsch, once wrote: “For the church to evangelize the world without thinking of the Jewish people is like a bird trying to fly with one wing broken.” As part of our 2020 vision, let’s proclaim the good news with both of our wings.