To the Jew First
After boldly declaring that the gospel is powerful and effective for all who have faith in Jesus, Paul clarifies that it is: “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
This is a part of our series of Perspective Papers. These papers are not official statements or positions from Gateway Church, but are our thoughtful perspectives on complex issues related to Israel.
“I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek”
The first part of Romans 1:16 is a popular preaching text, yet the final few words of the verse are frequently left out. After boldly declaring that the gospel is powerful and effective for all who have faith in Jesus, Paul clarifies that it is: “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” The following paper will aim to articulate the “to the Jew first” principle within biblical theology and to subsequently demonstrate its significance for the Church today.
“To the Jew First” in Romans
The phrase “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” only appears three times in the New Testament, and all three appear in the first two chapters of Romans. Since the book of Romans is the longest, most theologically dense, and one of the last of the extant letters Paul wrote, many scholars consider it to be his greatest crowning achievement. It is not a coincidence that within the introduction to this magnificent letter, one of the clearest pictures of a possible theme or “thesis statement” is Rom 1:16-17. This fact should not be understated. Far from being a random or frivolous byline, the “to the Jew first” principle serves a foundational role in one of the most theologically significant books of the Bible.
In addition to the thesis statement of Rom 1:16-17, Paul uses the same phrase twice in Rom 2:9-10 when speaking of future judgment and reward: “There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, to the Jew first and also to the Greek; but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” The threefold repetition of the “to the Jew first” formula within the first two chapters of Romans signals its importance. But what exactly does Paul mean?
At the outset, it is key to recognize that the Apostle Paul uses the word “Greek” synonymously with the word “Gentile” to refer to any non-Jewish ethnicity. Why Paul makes this distinction in the first place relates more broadly to the importance of ethnic identity in the New Testament. In any consideration of the phrase “to the Jew first and also to the Greek,” the most fundamental and crucial question to answer is: What does Paul mean when he uses the word “first?”
The Greek word for “first” is proton (πρῶτον), which has a meaning similar to its usage in English. The BDAG Greek lexicon notes that it typically communicates either “sequence” or “prominence.” Although the majority of English Bible translations literally render the phrase, “to the Jew first and also to the Greek,” some dynamic translations take more liberty with the text. Building upon the work of David Rudolph who argues for six categories [Rudolph 2020], we will outline various views and translations below, suggesting that there are at least seven possible approaches for interpreting the word “first” (proton) in both Rom 1:16 and 2:9-10.
- Revise or delete
- Appeal to mystery
- Interpret as historical
- Interpret as sequential
- Interpret as strategic
- Interpret as covenantal
Although many believers might be appalled at the thought of revising or deleting words from the Bible, this is precisely what the second-century heretic Marcion did by removing the word “first” from his translation of Rom 1:16. Shockingly, the same kind of deletion is still happening today. The modern CEV translation renders the verse as: “I am proud of the good news! It is God’s powerful way of saving all people who have faith, whether they are Jews or Gentiles.” The editors of the CEV might be correct to point out that Paul repeatedly argues that “there is no distinction” between Jews and Gentiles in regard to salvation (Rom 3:22; 10:12; Col 3:11), but their translation completely distorts the meaning of Rom 1:16 by deleting the word “first” (proton) and assuming that this is what Paul meant. Furthermore, if Paul did not mean anything by using the particular word proton, then why did he repeat the same word in Rom 2:9-10? This kind of deletion simply does not do justice to the original text.
Second, a similar approach is found in biblical commentators who disregard the word “first” altogether. As Rudolph notes, F.F. Bruce is one such scholar who wrote a prominent commentary on Romans but did not even discuss the possible meaning of proton in Rom 1:16. [Rudolph 2020, 5] The CEV translation above is also a result of this kind of avoidance—whether it may be intentional or not. Silence on the matter does not change the fact that the Bible says it.
Some teachers and theologians use a third approach of appealing to mystery when they are not sure how to solve an interpretive conundrum. As people of faith, this approach is certainly never to be ridiculed. But in the end, it similarly amounts to the second category of disregarding the word proton by relegating its fullest understanding to a distant point in the future, rather than offering a present, tangible explanation. Rudolph cites the theologian Luke Timothy Johnson as a contemporary scholar who takes this approach. [Rudolph 2020, 5]
A fourth category of interpreters understand the word “first” in Rom 1:16 historically as referring to the past events of the gospel going first to the Jewish people and then to the Gentiles. The popular NIV translation moves in this direction by adding the word “then” into the text: “First to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” More explicitly, the ERV says, “To save the Jews first, and now to save those who are not Jews.” This kind of chronological interpretation does indeed make logical sense, but it ultimately lacks grounding. First of all, if Rom 1:16 only refers to the past, then why does Paul use present-tense verbs in the Greek? Second, the same phrase repeated twice in Rom 2:9-10 is clearly speaking about a time in the future and not a time in the past.
As a variation of the historical chronological interpretation, the fifth approach emphasizes the sequential nature of the chronology, regardless of whether it’s in the past, present, or future. In a present-tense application, the gospel must always be preached first to the Jewish people before any other ethnic group. The NIRV comes close to this idea in its translation of Rom 1:16, “It is meant first for the Jews. It is meant also for the Gentiles.” The addition of the words “is meant” have a prescriptive weight to them—as if Paul were articulating the ideal model for all Christian evangelism to always sequentially go to the Jews first. However, Bill Bjoraker rightly suggests that this “mechanical” approach arguably cannot be followed in every circumstance and therefore should not be adopted as a rule. [Bjoraker 2004, 112] From a Jewish-Christian relations perspective, especially considering the Catholic Church’s stance as expressed through Nostra Aetate, the prescriptive model of systematically always going to Jewish people first has too great of a potential for abuse.
In the context of Rom 2:9-10, the future-tense application of the sequential interpretation would suggest that the Jewish people will be judged and rewarded first in order before any other ethnicity. One might imagine a long line stretching from the judgment seat of Christ where Jewish people are arranged first in line. However, Scripture does not explicitly state that there will be a particular order or sequence in judgment. Jesus simply remarks that he will gather all people to himself and separate “the sheep from the goats,” wherein the distinguishing factor will be a person’s deeds (Matt 24:31-46). In the case of Rom 2:9-10, it is more likely that “first” (proton) has an intensifying force more akin to the translation “especially,” which we will soon discuss further below. Thus, the sequential view ultimately lacks substance for the interpretation of both Rom 1:16 and 2:9-10.
In a sixth interpretive category, there are some scholars who argue that going “to the Jew first” was Paul’s missional strategy for spreading the gospel the quickest and most effective way possible. The Jewish people would have naturally been more receptive than any other people group because the gospel was birthed out of the Hebrew Scriptures and the history of Israel. Therefore, the early pattern of taking the gospel “to the Jew first” was more of a pragmatic decision based upon that time period than one grounded in a certain biblical rule or principle. If the Gentiles had been more receptive, then perhaps Paul would have changed his phrasing to say, “To the Gentile first, and also to the Jew.” However, the main weakness with this view is that Paul repeatedly expresses throughout Romans that the gospel was not achieving much success among the Jewish people (Rom 3:3; 9:1-6, 9:30–10:4; 11:7, 25). This kind of inconsistency cannot be ignored. Additionally, the “strategic” view cannot consistently be applied to the “to the Jew first” formula found one chapter later in Rom 2:9-10, since these verses have nothing to do with missional strategies.
At last, there is only one viable option left to discuss. We at GCFI argue that beyond mere historical fact or missional pragmatism there is a biblical principle tied to the Jewish people’s eternal covenantal priority. The CJB version comes closest to communicating this idea in its translation of Rom 1:16, “To the Jew especially, but equally to the Gentile.” In agreeing that the gospel belongs especially to the Jewish people, we are saying something quite different from the “strategic” interpretation above. Ethnic Jews are not just well-suited for the gospel message by virtue of their being the “natural” branches (Rom 11:24). In fact, to a certain extent, the opposite is true in modern times. The gospel message as it is often preached today is not the same kind of “good news” that it once was for Jewish people. Rather, the Church has too often suppressed the free expression of Jewish identity in its endorsement of replacement theology throughout history. Despite this fact—and in response to it—we argue that the gospel being “to the Jew first” signals Israel’s covenantal status as first among equals. Loaded within Paul’s phrasing in Rom 1:16 is an affirmation of the eternality and irrevocability of the Jewish people’s divine election.
This interpretation of “first” (proton) works equally as well in both Rom 1:16 and 2:9-10, unlike the majority of the other approaches discussed. When read in this way, the point of Rom 2:9-10 is that divine judgment and reward is more significant for the Jewish people because of their past history and ongoing covenantal relationship with God. This parallels the teaching of Jesus in Luke 12:48, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” In Rom 3:2, Paul explicitly argues for Israel’s special status based upon their being “entrusted with the oracles of God.” It is also not a coincidence that the word “first” (proton) occurs in Rom 3:2. On the heels of his comment that circumcision is “of the heart,” Paul asks in Rom 3:1, “What advantage has the Jew? Or what benefit is circumcision?” He then responds in Rom 3:2, “Much in every way! Chiefly [proton] because to them were entrusted the oracles of God” (NKJV). The question, “What advantage has the Jew?” followed by Paul’s emphatic answer, “Much in every way!” supports the “to the Jew first” principle in the most explicit way possible.
Finally, Paul explains in Rom 15:25-27 that the Jewish people especially deserve material and financial support from the Gentiles, “For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.” This principle was greatly impressed on the heart of Pastor Robert Morris many years ago, and for this reason, Gateway Church continues to give “to the Jew first” by ensuring that the church’s first donation every month goes to blessing Israel and the Jewish people. It doesn’t get any more practical than that! If Gentiles are truly indebted to Israel, then a certain priority should be placed on efforts to bless and support the Jewish people. This priority is not merely a mental or verbal recognition of God’s prior covenants, but it is an actionable and tangible prioritization that affirms God’s ongoing covenant with Israel.
Furthermore, it is interesting to note that the financial gift Paul references in Rom 15 is likely the very same contribution mentioned in 2 Cor 8, which he was tasked to collect in Acts 11:27-30. When standing trial before Felix in Acts 24:17, Paul also mentions this financial donation he desired to bring to “his people” in Jerusalem. These types of details are often left unnoticed, but if the book of Acts describes the history of the early Church, it is not surprising to see the principle of “to the Jew first” repeatedly play an important role throughout the entire book.
“To the Jew First” in Acts
Jesus’s final words to the disciples in Luke 24:47 were that they should be his witnesses “beginning in Jerusalem.” This is precisely the geographic location where the first seven chapters of Acts take place. Beginning in Acts 8, the mission expands to Samaria, but the first Gentile to hear the gospel is Cornelius in Acts 10. Following this event, the community in Jerusalem agrees, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18). Their response suggests that before this moment—even after the ascension of Jesus—the disciples had not reached a decision concerning the inclusion of the Gentiles! Certainly, Jesus characterized his own ministry as being primarily “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24) and even commanded the disciples at first to not go “into the way of the Gentiles nor into any city of the Samaritans” (Matt 10:5-6).
The Jewish congregation in Jerusalem serves a key role throughout Acts. Just as the first seven chapters take place solely in Jerusalem, the city remains central again in Acts 11 when Peter goes up to consult the leaders of the congregation, and in Acts 15 when Paul is summoned there for the first Jerusalem council. Although Paul begins his missionary journeys in Acts 13, his desire to return to Jerusalem to observe the Feast of Shavuot (Pentecost) occupies chapters 20–21, and the events of chapters 21–23 also take place in Jerusalem. Therefore, almost half of the twenty-eight chapters of Acts are set in the geographic location of Jerusalem. This centripetal motion back to Jerusalem throughout Acts is crucial to recognize for a biblical book that is often characterized as having a centrifugal motion away from Jerusalem and the Jewish people.
When the Jerusalem leaders task Paul and Barnabas with their first missionary journey to Cyprus, their mission is to take the gospel to the Gentiles. This was, in fact, Paul’s primary mission in life, since Jesus first tasked him with being “an apostle to the Gentiles” on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:15; 26:16-18). However, in what seems like a contradiction, Acts 13:5 records that the first places Paul and Barnabas travelled to were “the Jewish synagogues.” Without any further explanation, the pattern of first going to the local synagogue repeats itself wherever Paul travels throughout the book of Acts 13:14; 14:1; 17:1, 10, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8; 28:17. Acts 17:1-2 makes this clear by stating, “Paul went into the Jewish synagogue, as was his custom.” Even at the end of his ministry, nearing his execution, what is the first thing that Paul does once he arrives in Rome? Acts 28:17 says, “He called together the local Jewish leadership.”
Interpreters sometimes focus on these final verses of Acts, because Paul actually rebukes the Jewish leaders for their unbelief and says, “Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen” (Acts 28:28). This harsh note on the last page of Acts seems to imply Paul’s official turning away from ministering to his Jewish brothers and sisters. However, Paul had already declared twice previously that he would turn to the Gentiles, in Acts 13:44-48 and 18:5-6. Yet, immediately following each of these episodes, Acts records that he went again first to the synagogues (Acts 14:1; 19:9)! Therefore, Paul’s words in each of these passages should be understood as hyperbole and limited to their particular local contexts. His practice of continually going to the synagogues first, even after saying he would only go to the Gentiles, proves that his comments were directed only toward those particular groups in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:44-48), those in Corinth (Acts 18:5-6), and those in Rome (Acts 28:28) and do not reflect a purposeful change in the early Church’s relationship with the synagogue.
The Past, Present, and Future Importance of Israel
As seen in the above biblical passages, the covenantal priority of Israel permeates the theology and practice of the early Church. To suggest that God’s particular love for Israel has been transformed and replaced by a universal love for the entire Church would be a form of Replacement Theology. Likewise, to argue that all Christians everywhere are now God’s “spiritual Israel” would be to collapse ethnic distinction and to inevitably deny the unique, irrevocable calling of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Jewish people remain special and set apart to God now and forever. This is a fundamental truth that, once accepted, has vast theological ramifications.
In Romans 9–11, Paul seeks to answer why all of Israel did not believe in Messiah. If the gospel is especially to the Jew first, then why have Jewish people especially not believed? After previously having explained that Israel stumbled over Jesus, who is the “stumbling stone” of Isaiah 28:16 (Rom 9:32-33), Paul continues:
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. Now if their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be! But I am speaking to you who are Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead (Rom 11:11-15)?
Paul here builds upon his foundational statement in Rom 1:16—that the gospel is especially to the Jew first—by the introduction of a “how much more” argument. The significance of “to the Jew first” is heightened to a new level. Paul is not only talking about the need to recognize the past importance of Israel in salvation history; he is simultaneously arguing for the present and future importance of Israel for salvation history. The point is not to create a divide between the past, present, and future, as some forms of “separation theology” or dispensationalism have suggested. Paul’s point is to motivate Gentiles to recognize the special role that the Jewish people continue to play in God’s plan for world redemption.
God’s faithfulness to Israel cannot be overlooked. Paul identified himself as “the apostle to the Gentiles” (Gal 2:8), but his upbringing as a Pharisee also instilled in him a prophetic burden for the restoration of Israel. David Rudolph explains this fact well in his description of first-century Pharisaism as a proselytizing movement committed not to the evangelism of Gentiles (as is commonly assumed), but to winning over fellow Jews, in order to hasten the day of Israel’s consolation (Matt 23:15). [Rudolph 2020, 13–14] Paul shares this inexpressible burden for his fellow Jewish brothers and sisters halfway through his letter to the Romans:
I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorry and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen (Rom 9:1-5).
Significantly, Paul does not use the past tense, saying: “to whom belonged.” Rather, in the present tense: the adoption, the covenants, the Law, the promises, the manifest glory, and even Messiah Yeshua himself belong particularly and especially to the Jewish people due to their beloved and covenantal relationship with God. The gospel will always remain “to the Jew first” not only because of the past significance of the faithfulness of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but because of the continually present-tense gifts and calling that belong especially to the Jewish people.
All of the factors listed in the discussion above combine to confirm that the New Testament undoubtedly teaches the principle of “to the Jew first.” The gospel’s promise of salvation by faith in Jesus has meaning to the Jew first especially, and also to the Gentile. However, it is important to consider some wrong ways this principle can be applied, in order to more fully grasp what a healthy understanding of “to the Jew first” looks like.
Although GCFI endorses the significance of “to the Jew first” for the wider body of Messiah, it also recognizes that there are possible interpretive pitfalls. If the principle is taken to its extreme, a number of troubling applications can emerge.
First, emphasizing the “how much more” argument in Rom 11:11-15 can lead to an anti-relational or “utilitarian” approach to Israel. In Matt 23:39, Jesus laments over Jerusalem, “For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” Whenever a priority for Jewish evangelism is coupled with Matt 23:39, the Jewish people can merely become a stepping stone for ushering in the return of Jesus. Rather than seeking to understand God’s heart and develop a love for Israel, the focus becomes converting the Jewish people in order to hasten the day of the Lord. This kind of thinking is misguided.
A second issue surfaces when interpreters adopt the “sequential” category of interpretation mentioned above in a prescriptive way by arguing that reaching Jewish people is always more important than reaching non-Jewish people. If the salvation of a Jewish person equals “life from the dead” (Rom 11:15), then is the salvation of a Jewish person more valuable than the salvation of a non-Jewish person? This would fly directly in the face of Paul’s emphasis on equality throughout Romans. In the surrounding context, it is clear that the emphasis does not rest on any notion of inequality. Rather, the emphasis is upon what is natural versus what is unnatural. Ironically, the situation has reversed in our present day. Many modern Christian traditions have evolved into something that might seem quite foreign and unnatural for someone raised in a Jewish home. But the situation was the opposite for the first-century audience to whom Paul was writing. For a Gentile to turn his back on the gods of Rome would have been equivalent to social and political suicide. Jewish monotheism was far more unnatural for the Gentile. Therefore, Rom 11 emphasizes that since the Jews are the “natural” branches, and the gospel is “especially” for them, the repercussions of their belief in Messiah should produce a greater result than their unbelief.
Lastly, when reading the olive tree metaphor of Rom 11, the question often arises: who is the “root” of the tree? Some well-intentioned interpreters have perhaps overly emphasized that Israel is the root. A close reading of Rom 11 reveals that it is not that simple, since Paul speaks of both Jews and Gentiles as “branches” who equally receive their nourishment from the root. It is crucial to recognize that Paul considers the root to be ancient Israel—specifically the covenants and promises God made with the patriarchs. This is precisely what Paul means when he reminds his readers, “But as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs” (Rom 11:28). The emphasis rests on God’s intrinsic faithfulness to his ancient promises, not on some intrinsic merit that the people of Israel have (Rom 9:11)—just as God said at Moab, “It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors” (Deut 7:7-8). While Paul stresses that the people of Israel are the “natural” branches, a major thrust of the olive tree metaphor is to remind both Jew and Gentile of their equality in Messiah and to warn them not to boast in their status as mere branches. Any theology that leads to one group boasting over the other group is ultimately lacking.
At the same time, every believer must equally recognize that Messiah, the perfect representative of Israel, is also the “root” of Rom 11. In Rom 15:7-12, Paul argues that Jesus is the “root of Jesse” who confirms the promises God gave to the patriarchs. Likewise, Gal 3:16 calls Jesus the “seed” of Abraham to whom the promises were spoken. He who is the firstborn of all creation (Col 1:15) and who fills all in all (Eph 1:23) is the very same one into whom all—whether Jew or Gentile—are grafted in by faith. Even with the vital aim of restoring the practice of “to the Jew first,” the Church must not lose sight of the fact that Jesus is the first Jew to whom all loyalty and allegiance is due.
As witnessed in the discussion above, the principle of “to the Jew first” can be found throughout the pages of Scripture but most explicitly in the letter of Romans and the book of Acts. The CJB translation of Rom 1:16 is perhaps the closest to the mark in saying, “To the Jew especially, but equally to the Gentile.” A fine balance exists between emphasizing the Jewish priority on the one hand and upholding the equality of Jew and Gentile on the other. GCFI suggests that the distinction between “natural” and “grafted-in” in the olive tree metaphor of Rom 11 is one helpful way forward, but we also recognize the inherent mystery in the tension between universality and particularity—the very tension of unity in diversity that exists within the Triune God.
In the end, notwithstanding our inability to grasp the “unsearchable judgments” and “inscrutable ways” of God (Rom 11:33), we humbly recognize and affirm what Scripture says and what God himself has said concerning the unique and irrevocable calling of Israel. Paul’s pattern in Acts of going “to the synagogue first” serves as a practical model to challenge the way the Church thinks about missions. If the early Church placed such a high priority on Jewish outreach, is this something that the modern Church should try to replicate? As discussed above, there are dangers in adopting any kind of “prescriptive” approach. More than subscribing to a particular method or doctrine, Gentile believers should seek to have a revelation of God’s heart for the Jewish people. GCFI is committed first and foremost to promoting a biblically informed, sincere love for Israel and the Jewish people. Only from this heart-based and revelation-based starting point can a healthy understanding of “to the Jew first” blossom.
- To the Jew First: The Case for Jewish Evangelism in Scripture and History, edited by Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser. Kregal Publishers, 2008.
- “‘To the Jew First’ (Romans 1:16): Paul’s Vision for the Priority of Israel in the Life of the Church Rudolph,” David J. Rudolph. Kesher, 37. 2020.
- “‘To the Jew first…’ The Meaning of Jewish Priority in World Evangelism,” Bill Bjoraker. International Journal of Frontier Missions, 21:3. 2004.
- “The Blessings and Mission of Those Grafted In,” Craig Keener. Chapter found in: Awakening the One New Man, edited by Robert F. Wolff. Destiny Image Publishers, 2011.
- “The Relationship between Israel and the Church,” William S. Campbell. Chapter found in: Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations, edited by David J. Rudolph and Joel Willits. Zondervan, 2013.