To the Jew first – What did the Apostle Paul mean?

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“To the Jew first” is not just a principle from the words of Scripture. It is the heart of God radiating forth in our generation.

To the Entire World, but… To the Jew First

Does your life have a calling? Trying to think of an answer, you may want to take a moment and pause… We spend a lot of our time working, going to school, staying busy, taking care of our families. And we fill in the free moments with entertainment, hobbies or socializing.

In the midst of this, and with all the usual cares and concerns of life, it can be easy to forget that God has called us. He chose us by name. Not only do we have all our days at our disposal – to manage and to fill. But also, we have a destiny and a purpose!

The book of Ephesians tells us that as believers in Jesus, we were chosen before the foundation of the world. And in love, God predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ in and for Himself (Ephesians 1:4).

All this to say, both Jew and Gentile are chosen and called by God. But (and yes, there is a ‘but’) our callings look a little different. Just as both women and men are equally called and equipped by God, we still have different gifts. And we may serve the Lord in a different but equally important way. There is no one whom God has called whom God has not chosen.

And yet, the Apostle Paul tells us, “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 (emphasis added). This verse, Romans 1:16, reminds us that the Jewish people have a distinct calling and a purpose.

What Does ‘To the Jew First’ Mean?

So, what is that calling and purpose? What does to the Jew first actually mean? Firstly, consider God’s eternal plans and purposes. Remember that He chose Israel to receive His law first and His Son came to the Jewish people first. The Creator planned for the Gospel to come out of Jerusalem.

Isaiah 49:6 speaks of the Jewish people being made a light unto the nations, so that salvation reaches to the end of the earth. Then, Isaiah 56:7 describes a future Jerusalem that will be a house of prayer for all nations. What can we take away from that?

We see that the plan of redemption is not limited to the Jewish people, or to Israel. Instead, it starts in Jerusalem and expands outwards—just as Jesus told the disciples before He ascended to heaven, as described in the book of Acts. The disciples were hungry to know whether Jesus returned to restore the Davidic Kingdom. To which He replied:

“…It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1: 7-8)

We see here again that the Great Commission begins in Judea and Samaria, and then extends to every nation.

From Jerusalem to the Ends of the World

God links the Jewish people with the Church in His Great Commission and to fulfill His Word. The Good News needs to reach both Israel and the nations. It will go “…to the Jew first and also to the Gentile.”

By giving “to the Jew first”, we honor God’s design. We bless the people He chose, and we seek the fulfilment of His promises. Pastor Robert Morris of Gateway Church in Texas said:

“I really believe that one of the greatest blessings Gateway Church has ever experienced is because we take the gospel to the Jew first and we bless Israel, so we took a tithe of the tithe… In other words, 1% of our budget [goes] to ministries reaching the Jews with the Gospel. We give that money to ministries who are blessing Israel.”

Many people know Hudson Taylor for the profound and lasting impact he had on the spread of the gospel in China. But not many know that on January 1st of each year, Taylor wrote a check to a group dedicated to blessing the Jews of Europe. On that check he always wrote four simple words: to the Jew first.

Hudson Taylor understood that there is spiritual power in prioritizing what God said to put first. He believed what the apostle Paul had grasped thousands of years before. That the Word of God links the awakening of the Jewish people to the success of spreading the Good News to the whole world. And this was the original calling of the Jewish people all along!

‘To the Jew first… and also to the Greek’

‘And also’ is not an afterthought—think of it more like a “so that”: salvation is to the Jew first. So that the Jewish people can fulfill their original destiny of bringing the gospel of the Messiah to the nations. In Romans 11:11, Paul gives a beautiful summary of the gentile calling. It is to stoke up jealousy in the Jewish people through their faith in Jesus, the Messiah of Israel.

 So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather, through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.”

Verse 12 continues with a glorious promise:

“Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!”

All of this is a cause for celebration and hope, as we can see that God’s redemptive plan included the nations all along! Even though the revelation was given to the Jewish people first, while the gentile nations were far away and removed from the Messiah. Israel had a means of accessing the Lord, whereas the Gentiles were not even able to enter His presence.

Salvation for Every Nation

Greeks had neither the law, nor the covenants, nor the prophets to guide them. The nations were left to either “seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:27) as Rahab, Ruth, and Naaman did, or to choose to remain in their sin and idolatry.

“But now in Messiah Yeshua you who once were far off (Gentiles) have been brought near by the blood of Messiah. For He Himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments…that He might create in Himself one new man in place of the two.” (Ephesians 2:13-15)

One day the Lord would make His house a place for all nations. This coming reality was prophesied in places like Isaiah 56 and Zechariah 8. In other words, the nations would be able to join themselves to Israel in varying ways in order to draw near to the Lord. Jesus flung open the doors to God’s presence!

Who Preached to the Gentiles?

The Great Commission, alluded to in the Old Testament, was fully spelled out by Jesus. He defied all expectations by teaching and ministering to gentiles, notably the Roman Centurion in Matthew 8:5-13, the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28) and the Samaritan woman. (Samaritans were likened to gentiles because of their mixed race.)

In Matthew 8:11, Jesus says,

“I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”

After His resurrection, Jesus gave the commission to the disciples to preach to the gentiles. At the same time, He commanded them to stay in Jerusalem until the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 2, we read that the Holy Spirit was poured out on three thousand Jewish worshippers.

Later, in Chapters 8 and 10, the gospel goes forth to the gentile. Philip the Apostle leads an Ethiopian Eunuch to faith, and Peter visits Cornelius. Through the Apostle Paul’s ministry, the gospel went out to through the Roman Empire, which included parts of Asia Minor.

‘To the Jew I Became a Jew’

The disciples taught us how to fulfill God’s calling while also keeping His priorities straight. Even in the apostle Paul’s ministry to the gentiles, he always preached to the Jew first. He preached in synagogues first, and, even if he was not well received, he refused to stop.

Paul was expert cultural anthropologist, tailoring the delivery and method of the gospel to his audience. He posited his query as a philosopher go the Athenians. And to the Jewish people, he became a Jew, preaching and teaching in a way that would make sense.

Paul said, to those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.”

“To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:20-22)

How to Apply Romans 1:16 in Our Lives

To the Jew First: is there a way to make this applicable in our lives? We hope that the examples of Hudson Taylor and Robert Morris inspired you. If you tithe regularly, consider giving your first percent to Israel – so that all God’s people can know their Messiah and Savior.

Because as the apostle Paul said, the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

This article originally appeared on FIRM, August 16, 2021, and reposted with permission.