Franz Delitzsch, the well-known nineteenth-century Old Testament scholar wrote: “For the church to evangelize the world without thinking of the Jews, is like a bird trying to fly with one broken wing.” As the leader of an historic mission to the Jewish people, I believe that Jewish people must accept Jesus in order to have a place in the age to come (John 14:6, Acts 4:12, John 3:16–17).
It might sound simplistic, but this is my clear understanding of Scripture. It is the very basis for missions and our specific mission to the Jewish people. This has not changed in 125 years!
The Great Commission applies to both Jewish and Gentile believers; however, it is important to note that the Scriptures do not present Jewish evangelism as simply one aspect of the Great Commission among many. It is a unique venture that Paul, the Jewish Apostle to the Gentiles, eloquently defended. The special mandate for Jewish evangelism presented by Paul was a God-given revelation based upon several passages throughout the New Testament. Romans 1:16 concisely sums it up.
Exposition of the Text
In Romans 1:16 we see God’s plan for world evangelism. The Gentile world should not be ignored, but to reach Jewish people with the gospel is to reach the world.
Paul wrote in Romans 1:16:
“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.”
The Apostle added in verse 17: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith.’”
I do not believe that a Jewish person or anyone else is capable of satisfying God’s demands for perfect righteousness by human effort, enabling a person to enter heaven on their own merit (Galatians. 2:15–16, 3:23–25, Romans 10:2–4 ff.). Jewish people, like all people, are saved by grace through faith.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9).
The Present Tense
The Romans passage makes it clear that Jewish evangelism is to be a priority even today, although some Christians have a difficult time applying its teaching to their lives and outreach. Romans 1:16 is written in the present tense. Follow the logic of the text: If the gospel is still the power of God for “salvation” and is still for “everyone who believes,” then the gospel is still “to the Jew first.”
The gospel is God’s power (δύναμις, dunamis) unleashed, for the Jewish people and all peoples, as the Apostle wrote, “to everyone who believes.”
The Greek word used by Paul and translated as “first” is proton (πρῶτον). The term implies a priority rather than a sequential order of events.
So, what did the Apostle have in mind in suggesting that the gospel is for the Jewish people first?
Paul was certainly not suggesting that the Roman believers withhold the gospel from the Gentiles until every Jewish person in the world is reached. Neither was he implying that since the gospel had already gone to the Jewish people that it was therefore unnecessary to continue preaching the gospel to the Jewish people—as if this task had been accomplished and the Jewish people had their chance to respond and they rejected it. It is quite the opposite. Paul made this clear by teaching that the gospel is still for the Jewish people and theirs is a key role in God’s ultimate plan of redemption. In fact, Jewish evangelism must be a priority.
The New Testament Pauline Pattern
Perhaps the best way to understand what the Apostle intended in Romans 1:16 is to see his strategy at work in his own ministry recorded in Acts. Wherever Paul went in his ministry among the Gentiles, he first preached the gospel to the Jewish people living in that area (Acts 13:13–52; 14:1–5; 18:7–11; 19:8–10).
What the Apostle did in Iconium in Acts 14 is typical of his divinely inspired strategy.
In Iconium they entered the synagogue of the Jews together, and spoke in such a manner that a large number of people believed, both of Jews and of Greeks. But the Jews who disbelieved stirred up the minds of the Gentiles and embittered them against the brethren. Therefore they spent a long time there speaking boldly with reliance upon the Lord, who was testifying to the word of His grace, granting that signs and wonders be done by their hands. But the people of the city were divided; and some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles. And when an attempt was made by both the Gentiles and the Jews with their rulers, to mistreat and to stone them, they became aware of it and fled to the cities of Lycaonia, Lystra and Derbe, and the surrounding region; and there they continued to preach the gospel. (Acts 14:1–7)
Paul would regularly evangelize the Jewish people before he spoke to the Gentiles. The salvation of the Jewish people was an ever-present concern for him, and his actions in Acts reveal his understanding of what he wrote in Romans 1:16.
A New Way of Looking at the Text
The word “first” suggests that the Jewish people are still to be viewed as a priority in world evangelism. In what way and for what reason? What does God have in mind? What does it mean for the gospel to be preached to the Jewish people first?
The Greek word proton is also used in Matthew 6:33, where the Lord Jesus reminds us to “seek first His kingdom…” (Matthew 6:33). The Kingdom of God should always be sought as a priority in our lives, even as we seek for other things. In a similar way, reaching Jewish people with the gospel must be a priority of concern for all who know the Lord Jesus as their Savior.
It is a priority founded upon God’s heart. It is His plan for the Jewish people and the world He loves for whom He sent His Son to die!
A Priority Based Upon God’s Promise
This is consistent with God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3, especially 12:3, which reads: “And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Reaching the Jewish people will ultimately lead to His blessings being poured out upon the whole earth.
A Priority Based Upon God’s Future Plan
Paul describes the future salvation of the Jewish people and the impact it will have on the rest of the world. I am convinced that this was on his mind when he penned Romans 1:16. Knowing the future plan of God, Paul taught the church to prioritize Jewish evangelism, especially as the great day of His second coming draws near. The salvation of the Jewish people appears to be the lynchpin in fulfilling God’s ultimate purpose for the world.
The Apostle wrote in Romans 11:12, “Now if their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be!” And again in verse 15 “For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?”
Bringing the gospel to the Jewish people first is not a priority of privilege, but rather a priority based on the Lord’s strategic plan to heal and restore the world.
The Lord chose the children of Israel to reach the Gentiles, but His chosen people fell short of the task. Therefore, He sent His Son, Yeshua, to complete the holy assignment. Now He calls upon gospel-believing Gentiles to bring the message back to the original messengers!
The Apostle assures us of the day when the Jewish people will turn to the One who was pierced and repent, receiving Him as Messiah. This fulfills Jesus’ prophecy, when He told the Jewish leaders that one day the Jewish people will embrace Him as their true and only Savior.
For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is HE who comes in the name of the Lord!’’ (Matthew 23:39)
The 21st Century
Let us apply Romans 1:16 to the Great Commission and make Jewish evangelism a priority in the 21st century! Paul clarified his strategy in Romans 11:11, where he emphasized the holy mandate for Gentiles in the Body of Messiah to reach Jewish people with the gospel message. In fact, according to Paul’s statement in Romans 11:11, the Gentiles are called to make the Jewish people jealous of the Lord Jesus living within them:
“I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous.”
The Lord calls upon Gentile believers to reach out to their Jewish friends and neighbors making them want the Jewish Messiah who lives in their hearts!
It is through your prayers, generosity, and loving witness to your Jewish friends and family, making them jealous, that the plan of God will go forward in power!
Partners in the Gospel: The Understanding of J. Hudson Taylor
There is a wonderful story about the relationship between John Wilkinson, a Gentile missionary who founded the Mildmay Mission to the Jews, and J. Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission (now OMF). Every January, Taylor would send Wilkinson a check for a sum of money with a note attached, “To the Jew first.” Wilkinson would then send the same amount back to Taylor with a note that read “And also to the Gentiles.”
We must prioritize reaching Jewish people because of God’s choice of Abraham’s seed according to the flesh and also reach the entire world as commanded by our Messiah prior to His ascension. We cannot allow Jewish evangelism to become the great omission of the Great Commission. This is beginning to change as some church bodies are taking Jewish evangelism more seriously. It is my hope that this will continue, but it begins with you and me.
This is why we are calling upon ourselves and the greater Body of Christ to embrace the biblical pattern of bringing the gospel to the Jewish people. It is the key to world evangelism!
On pages four and five, I have given you a brief overview of the strategic initiatives for Jewish evangelism that make up our To the Jew First Campaign. I will describe these opportunities in greater detail in our newsletters in the months ahead.
During the next twelve months, we hope to raise more than 3.4 million dollars to continue focusing on three special areas of ministry. Now let me tell you our plans for reaching Jewish people in the 21st century!