What does ‘To the Jew First’ mean?

Edith Schaeffer in her wonderful book “Christianity is Jewish” cited this poem: “How odd of God to choose the Jew, but not so odd as those who choose The Jewish God and hate the Jew.”

Anti-Semitism is growing in the world and along with it so is persecution against Christians. Why? It is because both are the object of God’s election.

Election is the doctrine from Scripture that teaches that God has sovereignly chosen people apart from anything they deserve and called them for His purposes.

With this calling comes both blessings for obedience and curses or discipline for disobedience.

You might think that is unfair or unrighteous, but Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah when he explains God’s plan for Israel and her election and says “who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?

God took a couple a hundred pounds of clay and created man, and from the man created the woman. They and their children were and are the crown of His creation, made in His image.

And when he created mankind, He gave them the freedom to choose to love and obey Him or not. Our first parents freely chose to believe a lie and so they and all mankind who came from them experienced the consequences of their choice.

But God promised to bring healing through redemption as revealed in Scripture. Two key essential aspects of that plan are God’s election of Israel and the Jewish people and secondly the church (true believers).

The enemy of God, HaSatan, has done all he can to undermine this plan, which is at the root of anti-Semitism and Christian persecution.

Israel failed in her calling to be a light to the nations, so God as prophesied, took a people whom we Jews thought were “not a people”, Gentiles, and raised them to be what Israel failed to be, a light to the world through the Good News of Messiah.

But the church like Israel is also failing in her calling. Jesus first command to His disciples was to follow Me and I will make you to be fishers of men and his last command was to “go and make disciples of all nations beginning in Jerusalem”.

The church sadly, has taken that as an historical command not as a present one. But Paul the Jewish Apostle to the Gentiles understood it as applicable for every generation.

We see this in his preamble in the book of Romans in 1:16 “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.”

In Acts 13-14 we see Paul doing just that. In every city Paul went to He would go to the Jewish people first. And the result was that not only Jewish people came to faith but multitudes of Gentiles.

In Acts 13:46, Paul 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.”

If you read Acts 13:44, as a result of bringing the Gospel to the Jew first not only did Jewish people hear the Gospel but nearly the whole city came to hear the Gospel. Why?

Because the Spirit of God revealed to Paul that to reach the world the gospel must go to the Jew first.

The church however in large measure by their actions demonstrate that the Gospel is to the Gentiles. That Israel and the Jewish people are no longer God’s first born nation.

But after making the statement that since the Jewish people in Pisidian Antioch rejected the message of the Messiah and that they would now go the Gentiles, in the very next town he came to once again Paul goes to the Jew first as we see in Acts 14:1.s

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.

There are significant reasons why the Jewish people are to be a priority in loving and sharing the Good News about Messiah. First of all, Scripture declares that the Jewish people have a priority over Gentiles because of their role as God’s elect or chosen people.

They were chosen not because of any virtue or special value in them, but simply because of God’s free choice:

(Deuteronomy 7:7-8) “The Lord did not set his love on you or choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which he swore to your forefathers”

Secondly The Jews have priority over Gentiles because they were entrusted with God’s Word.

In Romans 3:1, Paul asks the question: “What advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision?” And he answers in verse 2, “Great in every respect.

First, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.” God gave his Word and promises to Israel by Moses and the prophets. This means to me that Both Old and New Covenants were written by Jews.

While Christian tradition says Luke was a Gentile, the author of two books of the New Covenant, there is much evidence to suggest that Luke was Jewish and since both of those books are included in the Oracles of God I believe it is safe to say Luke is Jewish.

Romans 9:4 puts it like this: “[They] are Israelites to whom belong . . . the covenants and the giving of the Law . . . and the promises.”

The promise of the Messiah and the Good News associated with Him were entrusted to the Jewish people. So, the Jewish people have priority because they were entrusted with the Scriptures.

The Jewish people have a priority over the Gentiles in that the Messiah himself, Yeshua, came as a Jew to the Jews. In Romans 9:5, Paul’s list of the privileges entrusted to the Jewish people declares that “From them is the Messiah according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.”

Jesus was a Jew, a Son of David, and his earthly ministry was primarily to the Jews. He lived as a Jew, He died as a Jew, and will return to Jerusalem and reign as King of the Jews.
They Jewish people had a priority in his work on earth. In Matthew 10:5–6. Jesus said to the twelve apostles as he sent them out, “Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

And in Matthew 15:24, Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The Jewish people had priority in his ministry. Should they not be a priority in the church’s ministry?

The Jews have a priority over the Gentiles in that salvation is from the Jews. Which is what Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well, “You worship what you do not know; we [Jews] worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” In John 4:22.

Paul compliments this in Romans 11:17–24 where Paul compares the Jewish people and Israel to an olive tree. Here he says the natural branches are the Jewish people but because of their lack of faith and obedience they were broken off and unnatural branches were grafted in.

Gentiles who believed and obeyed God were made partakers of the Jewish New Covenant by their faith. But this privilege to the Gentiles came with a warning just as Israel was warned in God choosing them as Paul says in Rom. 11:17–18:

If some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, [then] do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you.

Arrogance and pride caused God to turn to the Gentiles to accomplish what Israel failed to do: To be a light and priests to the nations. Here he warned Gentiles that if they behaved as Israel did, they too would be removed from His blessings.

God saves His people based on their faith but blessing or curses are based on obedience to His commands. Galatians 3:7, tells us that “It is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.”

And James, tells us that faith without works is dead. The works God was looking for in Israel are the same works He’s looking for in the Church, who are now partakers in Israel’s New Covenant.

We are experiencing today the same kind of discipline in the church that God placed on Israel. If the church fails to repent of its arrogance and pride, God will remove rebellious gentiles from His blessings as he did Israel.

So, Jews have priority because “salvation is from the Jews.” All salvation is salvation through God’s covenant with Abraham.

The Jews have a priority over the Gentiles in final judgment and final blessing. In Romans 2:9-10, Paul says, “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.”

As Deut. 28 describes that the blessing of their priority comes with a priority in discipline. Israel is God’s first born among the nations and as such were given a double portion of gifts and blessings.

But they were to be used in their role as priests and intercessors and servants to the nations – Ambassadors of the King and His Kingdom. Their rebellion to their calling has resulted in twice the judgment which has always come first to them.
Similarly, we who have been grafted into this New Covenant also will come under God’s judgment if we fail to take seriously our calling as Yeshua reminds us in Luke 12:48. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required”.

We also need to note that we Jews Do Not Have Priority in righteousness or merit. All mankind is equal in that regard. Paul makes this point in his argument as to why Jews have priority in Rom. 3:9-10:

Are we Jews better than they [Gentiles]? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one.’”

He makes the same point in Romans 3:22–23, “There is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

The Jews do not have priority in how they are saved. They are saved exactly the way Gentiles are. This is clear from Romans 3:29–30: “Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also . . . God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.”

And from Romans 10:12: “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on him; for ‘whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”

So, neither Jews nor Gentiles have priority in how they are saved: both are saved by faith in Yeshua the Messiah, not through any ethnic or religious distinctives.

The Jewish people do not have priority in participation in God’s covenant blessings.
The mystery of the Good News that Paul taught was that Gentiles are now full partners in the blessings of Jewish salvation. Listen to Ephesians 2:12–13 and 18–19:

You [Gentiles] were . . . separate from the Messiah, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

But now in Messiah Yeshua you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Messiah . . . for through him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. So, then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household.

And in Ephesians 3:4–6: “When you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Messiah, . . . that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Messiah Jesus through the gospel.”

So, Jews do not have priority in participation in God’s covenant blessings. Gentiles are full fellow heirs of all the promises of God. So Why then Did Paul Mention the Priority of the Jewish people?

Why mention this priority of the Jews in Romans 1:16? “The gospel is the power of God unto salvation, to the Jew first and also to the Greek”? What effect should it have?

Well based on the Olive Tree analogy in Romans 11 Paul wanted to emphasize that God is calling all men to humility. He wants both Jews and Gentiles to become profoundly aware that we depend entirely on mercy, not on ourselves, our traditions or ethnic backgrounds. To the Gentiles he says, salvation is of the Jews.

You are not being saved by your Greek culture — or any other culture. You are being saved by a salvation that comes through the despised Jews.

“You do not support the root [of the Abrahamic covenant], the root supports you.” So don’t boast over the branches (Romans 11:18).
The Gentiles are saved by coming to the God of Israel.

This was written to call the growing Gentile church to humility and strip away any arrogance and boasting. It should remove any presumed superiority. It also should quash anti-Semitism and fill us with zeal for sharing the Good News with God’s first born among the nations.

To we Jews Paul reminds us that our salvation and covenant is not exclusive to us. It is God’s covenant, and he gives it to whom he pleases. He can raise up from stones — even Gentile stones — children of Abraham (Matthew 3:9).

The words “also to the Greek” in Romans 1:16 was as offensive to my first century fathers as the words “to the Jew first” are to Gentiles. What we thought was exclusive Jewish election are, in fact, shared by the lowliest Gentiles who will believe God’s Word.

Both of us are being humbled. Gentiles must humble themselves to be saved through a Jewish Messiah and a Jewish covenant. And we Jews must humble ourselves to receive Gentiles into full membership and blessings in the promises given to our father Abraham.

The whole point is that God is the One who has mercy. There is no merit in ourselves with him. We are all sinners. So, the emphasis returns to the wonderful word “everyone” in Rom. 1:16:

“The gospel is the power of God to everyone who believes.” So, whether Jew or Gentile, believe and obey! And receive the power of God’s Spirit to transform your life.

It is through faith that He saves us all fills us with His Spirit and through His Word conforms us to the image of His Son. Who is not only the second Adam but also the Second Israel.

Israel failed in its sonship, but Yeshua did not. That is why He is the way, the truth and the life. It is through Israel’s King that we and the world will one day soon be totally renewed and restored.