Thursday, December 24, 2009

To the Jew First: An Introduction

Many Christians anticipate the opportunity to witness to their family, friends and others coming from a variety of backgrounds. They study competing world views--atheism, Islam, Buddhism--and Christian counterfeits--Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Unitarianism--in an effort to be better prepared to "exhort in sound doctrine, and to refute those who contradict" (Titus 1:9). It sometimes seems, however, that few Christians make a comparable effort to be similarly prepared to evangelize to Jewish unbelievers (myself included).

My hope in starting this series is primarily to be better prepared myself to witness to, and defend Christianity from, unbelieving Jews. Secondarily, however, I hope to make it possible for other Christians to do the same, and to encourage us all to reach out to Jewish people, families and communities with the truth that Jesus is their Messiah. He is their hope, the fulfillment of their history.

But first, in introducing this series I wish to explain its name:


Paul, near the beginning of his letter to the Romans, repeats a peculiar phrase:

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. (Romans 1:16)

There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Romans 2:9-10)

What does Paul mean when he writes that salvation and tribulation are "to the Jew first?" Some have viewed this phrase as being rather innocuous, as being merely a list in which "the Jew" happens to be mentioned first. According to this view, Paul is merely saying that salvation is to everyone, both Jews and Gentiles, and nothing more should be read into the text. This, however, seems unlikely since the Greek word Paul used, here rendered "first", is prĊton and does not mean merely "first in a list in no particular order." Instead, it refers to chronological order, or to preeminence in rank or in honor. Paul's use of the word suggests something more.

Recognizing this, others view this as teaching simply that salvation was offered first to Israel, and upon being rejected was offered next to Gentiles (though without rescinding the offer to Jews). In his commentaries, Matthew Henry wrote in the early 18th century, "The lost sheep of the house of Israel had the first offer made them, both by Christ and his apostles.You first (Acts 3:26), but upon their refusal the apostles turned to the Gentiles, Acts 13:46." The implication is that the apostles began their ministry witnessing to Jews, but at a definite point in history, after continuous rejection from the Jewish people, the apostles moved on, shifting their focus to the Gentiles. David Guzik, director of Calvary Chapel Bible College, Germany, puts it this way in his Study Guide for Romans 1:

The message of the gospel came for the Jew first and also for the Greek (the non-Jew). This was demonstrated both by the ministry of Jesus (Matthew 15:24) and the initial ministry of the disciples (Matthew 10:5-6)...This means that the gospel was meant to go first to the ethnic and cultural Jew, and then to the cultural Greek.

That Jesus came to reach out to the lost sheep of Israel, rather than to Gentiles, is true. Also true is that the ministry of the apostles was at first virtually exclusively directed toward Jews, whereas later God revealed to Peter that he and the Church was to reach out to Gentiles, too. However, once this point was reached, once the Lord revealed to the Church that they were to evangelize to the Gentiles, what was the pattern of their evangelism?


Matthew Henry, as quoted above, pointed to the following passage in Acts as evidence that there came a point in time at which the apostles shifted focus, no longer witnessing to Jews with special emphasis:

But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began contradicting the things spoken by Paul, and were blaspheming. Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, "It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first; since you repudiate it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles...When the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was being spread through the whole region. But the Jews incited the devout women of prominence and the leading men of the city, and instigated a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. But they shook off the dust of their feet in protest against them and went to Iconium. (Acts 13:45-51)

This passage is often used as evidence that the apostles "moved on" from the Jews, that they had been given a host of opportunities to accept their message, but finally the apostles "shook off the dust of their feet" and turned to the Gentiles. But is this really what happened? Were Paul and Barnabas finally shifting their focus to the Gentiles?

We find our answer a mere two verses later: "In Iconium they entered the synagogue of the Jews together" (Acts 14:1). Yes, in Pisidian Antioch, Paul and Barnabas first witnessed to the Jews (Acts 13:14), and upon being rejected turned to the Gentiles. But then, upon traveling to Iconium, they again first witnessed to the Jews. Later, "they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And according to Paul's custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures" (Acts 17:1-2). Next, "The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews" (Acts 17:10). While waiting for his escorts in Athens, Paul "was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles" (Acts 17:17). Then, upon arriving at Corinth, "he found a Jew" and "stayed with them" and "was reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath" (Acts 18:1-4). Next he "came to Ephesus, and...he himself entered the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews" (Acts 18:19).

Thus, after turning to the Gentiles in Pisidian Antioch, he arrives in Iconium and goes to the Jews first. He repeats this pattern in Thessalonica, and again in Berea, later in Athens, and in Corinth, and in Ephesus. Shaking the dust off his feet and "turning to the Gentiles," therefore, was not a distinct event in time, but rather was his pattern everywhere he went. "To the Jew first" appears to have been, not just a claim that salvation was intended for the Jews first but then was expanded to include the Gentiles, but was Paul's very mode of evangelism.

Does this have any relevance to Gentile Christians today? Should we, like Paul apparently did, make a special effort to evangelize to Jewish unbelievers, regardless of which other groups of people we feel called to reach?


One might object at this point, quoting Paul himself who said, "God is not one to show partiality" (Acts 10:34). In fact, he said this in the very passage where he wrote "to the Jew first", saying, "glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God" (Romans 2:10-11). Peter said God "made no distinction between us [Jews] and them [Gentiles], cleansing their hearts by faith" (Acts 15:9). If God does not show partiality, and if there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, wouldn't an emphasis on Jewish evangelism be a showing of partiality where God shows none? The making of a distinction where no such distinction exists?

Paul gives us a clue in his letter to the Galatians where he wrote, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). Here Paul says that in the same way "there is neither Jew nor Greek...there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus," teaching this same concept of there being no distinctions between people when it comes to salvation. Yet, Paul also wrote to the Corinthians saying, "the man is the head of a woman" (1 Corinthians 11:3). He wrote the same to the Ephesians saying, "the husband is the head of the wife" (Ephesians 5:23). Stranger still, perhaps, are these words from Paul:

The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. (1 Corinthians 14:34-35)

If Paul's having said "there is neither male nor female" means that there is no distinction whatsoever between men and women, then why does he say "the husband is the head of the wife," and "let [women] ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church?" Paul himself is making a distinction between men and women. What does this mean?

The passages that speak of there being no distinction between peoples teach that there is no difference in salvation, no excluding one group in favor of the other. Both men and women find salvation in Christ. Both slave and free. And yes, both Jew and Gentile. However, that does not mean that they are completely without distinction. As men and women serve different roles in the household and in the Church, so, too, might Jews and Gentiles serve different roles in the Church as well.

What distinction might there be, then, between Jews and Gentiles? Why is it that Paul's pattern appears to have been to witness "to the Jew first" in every town to which he traveled? Why might we have a similar calling to place special emphasis on Jewish evangelism?


Paul, the very apostle who repeatedly wrote that there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, wrote this in his epistle to the Romans: "What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous" (Romans 11:7,11). Certainly there are several noteworthy reasons God expanded the recipients of the gospel to include Gentiles, but here we see that at least one specific reason Gentiles were granted salvation is "to make [Jews] jealous."

However, it is not without purpose that God intends to use Gentiles to move Jews to jealousy. Paul also wrote, "I magnify my ministry, if somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them" (Romans 11:13-14). Christians, arguably Gentile Christians in particular, have a purpose, one major one (among several, perhaps) being moving Jews to return to their God. If we have a role to fill, one of moving Jews to repentance, to embracing their Messiah, then it stands to reason that preparedness to witness to Jewish unbelievers ought to be a priority. And this purpose would also explain Paul's pattern of evangelism.

It is for this reason that I begin this series. My analysis may be flawed, but it certainly seems to me that when Christians reach out with passion to atheists, to Muslims, to Buddhists, and to Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and to Unitarians, if we're not making a comparable effort to witess to Jews, we're neglecting part of the very reason we Gentiles were saved to begin with. "Salvation is from the Jews," (John 4:22) Jesus said. As Gentiles, we've been "cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree," (Romans 11:24) which is Israel. And if we put forth the effort, we can have a huge impact, because "how much more will [Jews] who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?"

How great it is when Jewish people turn from their disbelief and embrace the Jewish Savior, "For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?" (Romans 11:15)

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