How is Romans 1:16 to be understood? What does it mean when Paul says "I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe, to the Jew first, and also to the gentile?" Does it mean simply that in the course of history the Jewish people were simply the first people Jesus came to, and that's all? Or does it mean that somehow taking the gospel is to be the most important task of the New Covenant Community?
How should New Covenant believers regard the Jewish people? This is a hotly debated issue among Christian thinkers. Within the Evangelical community there are some, at one end of the spectrum, who understand the Jewish people as simply one people among many. They admit that, certainly the Jewish people were created in the course of redemption history in order to give birth to the Messiah, but, given God's universal purpose to overturn the curse of the Fall and bring the good news to all people, ethic Israel has no special significance, though they should unquestionably be included among the nations who need to have the gospel proclaimed to them. At the other end of the spectrum there are those who regard the Jewish people as so significant that God even has a separate plan for the Jewish people, a plan understood as temporarily having been set aside while the gospel goes out to the gentile nations, only later to be re-instituted. To put in other terms, on one extreme are those who regard the Jewish people as no longer being in any sort of covenantal relationship to the God of Abraham, while the opposite extreme sees the Jewish people as having a basis for relating to God in addition to, or perhaps even apart from specific faith in Messiah Jesus. Some even go so far as to suggest Jews can be saved through the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, apart from any direct faith in Jesus Christ.
The problem with both extremes is a lack of unity and continuity in their understanding of how the redemptive plan of God organically unfolds and how the gospel fulfills the promises given to Abraham and the Patriarchs. In order to answer the question of how to understand "to the Jew first" we must first settle a prior one: "What is the relationship of the Jewish people, as a people, to God's covenants today? Is ethnic Israel, as a people, still in a covenant relationship with God? Do the promises given to Abraham and his seed still belong to the Jewish people? "
A Covenantal Priority
I've wrestled with this issue theologically for many years. One thing becomes quite clear in the New Covenant: every believer in Jesus, by virtue of being united to Jesus, becomes an heir of all the promises given to Abraham. This is the case because in Messiah Himself all the promises of God have their 'yes' (2 Cor. 1:20). Jesus is the ultimate seed of Abraham and the only truly worthy heir of all the promises: "Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, 'And to offsprings,' referring to many; but, referring to one, 'And to your offspring,' which is Messiah (Gal. 3:16). According to this verse Jesus himself uniquely and supremely has all the inheritance rights. If Messiah has this supreme right, and because he is their covenant head (Romans 5:14-15 and 1 Corinthians 15:22 and 45), all in Him also have that right, since they are joint heirs with Him (Rom. 8:17) and heirs of the promises given to Abraham. As Paul wrote: "And if you are Messiah's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise" (Gal.3:29). Indeed this is what Jesus gained in Redemption, "that the blessings given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles" (see Gal. 3:14). God can even raise up sons of Abraham from the stones, if He wills (Mt. 3:9). And what else can Ephesians 2:11-22 mean? We are clearly told that Gentile Christians who formerly had been excluded from citizenship in Israel (v. 12) now, through the Messiah, are fellow citizens (v. 19). If Gentile believers are no longer excluded from citizenship in Israel, that means they are included in citizenship in Israel, and so there is a remnant of Israel made up of both Jews and gentiles.
But what about the ethnic descendants of the Patriarchs, the Jewish people? Does the fact that the promises can only be received by virtue of being united to Messiah through faith nullify the idea of there still being any relationship to the covenants of redemption for ethnic Israel? Not at all. If we truly understand Romans 9-11 there should be no question about the fact that God still has a claim on the Jewish people and that there is still a bond of covenant between God and the Jewish people. The natural children of Abraham, even in unbelief, are still in some way chosen because of the patriarchs. Romans 11:28 clearly tells us "As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account, but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs." We must understand this difficult verse and wrestle with its implications. How can enemies of the gospel simultaneously be loved, as far as election is concerned, for the sake of the Patriarchs? How can such a thing be possible?
How are we to understand the relationship of the Jewish people to the covenant promises? How do we escape the errors, mentioned above, in either extreme? How can we keep from, on one side seeing something to be had apart from or in addition to faith in the Messiah, or on the other hand saying God has no ongoing relationship to the Jewish people? How do we avoid theological shipwreck on either Scylla or Charybdis and safely navigate the deep channel of Biblical truth? We are told something striking in Romans 9:4-5 which I believe is key to unlocking this dilemma:
They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Messiah, God who is over all be blessed for ever. Amen.
Paul clearly says: "to them belong...the covenants." Notice, the use of the present tense and the plural form covenants. He doesn't say "they were Israelites and to them belonged the covenants," he says "they are Israelites, and to them belong the covenants." The covenants still belong to ethnic Israelites, the Jewish people. Paul uses the plural "covenants," to denote all the covenants that had gone before. This is parallel to Paul's use of the plural form covenants in Ephesians 2:12-13 where he says the Gentiles were at one time "strangers to the covenants of promise... But now in Messiah Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Messiah." If one comes into the New Covenant, then one comes into the "covenants" says Ephesians 2:12-13. All the covenants have come to their fullest expression, and only valid expression, in the New Covenant. Interpreting scripture with scripture we must conclude that the same covenants that the gentiles have been brought into through faith still belong to Ethnic Israel.
Jeremiah 31:3-34 tells us that the New Covenant is made with "the house of Judah and the house of Judah." But what does it mean that the New Covenant is made with the houses of Judah and Israel? If we understand the scriptures correctly, we know that being in the covenant is a redemptive category. Being in the covenant means being saved by God. So does this mean the Jewish people are all saved? Certainly not. There has always been such a thing as being in the covenant externally as well as being in it internally. Collectively a people can be in covenant externally, but being in the covenant internally is an individual thing. Both Moses and Jeremiah warned Israelites to be circumcised in their hearts as well as in their flesh (Deuteronomy 10:16 and Jeremiah 4:4). Physical circumcision alone never saved anyone. Only when there is the corresponding internal reality of heart circumcision can a person truly experience the Abrahamic promise of blessing. Paul uses the examples of Jacob vs. Esau and Isaac vs. Ishmael to distinguish between a merely external relationship with the covenant as opposed to an internal, saving relationship to the covenant. Not every Israelite, says Paul, belongs to Israel. (See Romans 9:6-7, Phillipians 3:3, Colossians 2:11-12, and Galatians 4:28 and 6:15.)
So what can we conclude? The New Covenant is still given to the Jewish people, but they are covenant breakers apart from faith in Jesus. It is a parallel situation to the problem of the unbelieving children within Christian families. Children of believers have an external and formal relationship to the covenant and the promises of God, but it does them no good apart from faith. They have been taught the promises all their lives, and have been either baptized or dedicated to God by their parents before the covenant community, but they are covenant breakers as long as they remain in unbelief. So, too, are non-believing Jewish people. Yes, they do have a covenant relationship with God, by virtue of being children of the Patriarchs, but they, too, are covenant breakers in their unbelief. What covenant do they break? The New Covenant, which is culmination of all the covenants. (To say that ethnic Israel has a covenant relation through the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants apart from the New Covenant is an extremely problematic position, because these covenants only exist today in a fulfilled form, in the New Covenant, which has brought the full realization of all that went before in Messiah. He is the covenant head, the new Adam, the new David, the new Moses, the true seed of Abraham and the singular heir of all the promises.)
So how should we understand Romans 1:16 "For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek"? How are we to understand the phrase "to the Jew first"? Some argue that "to the Jew first" only referred to a historical priority, that is, going to the Jew first had to do only with the historical situation of the first century, as it was necessary to go only "to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 10:6 and 16:24) and then to begin at Jerusalem as the gospel went forward to the world (Luke 24:7 and Acts 1:8).
Arguably the finest commentaries on Romans are the ones by Douglas Moo and John Murray. They both argue that "to the Jew first" must mean more than mere historical fact.
But Paul must intend more than simple historical fact in light of the theological context here. If we ask what precedence Paul accords Israel elsewhere in Romans, we find that his emphasis is on the special applicability of the promise of God to that people whom he chose (3:2; 9-11). However much the church may seem to be dominated by Gentiles, Paul insists that the promises of God realizes in the gospel are "first of all" for the Jew. To Israel the promises were first given, and to the Jews they still particularly apply. Without in any way subtracting from the equal access that all people now have to the gospel, then, Paul insists that the gospel, "promised beforehand"... in the Holy Scriptures" (1:2), has a special relevance to the Jew. (Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,©1996, pp. 68-69)
To the Jew first, and also to the Greek...It does not appear sufficient to regard this priority as that merely of time. In this text there is no suggestion to the effect that the priority is merely that of time. The implication appears to be rather that the power of God unto salvation through faith has primary relevance to the Jew, and the analogy of Scripture would indicate that this peculiar relevance to the Jew arises from the fact that the Jew had been chosen by God to be the recipient of the promise of the gospel and that to him were committed the oracles of God...the gospel is pre-eminently the gospel for the Jew. (John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., ©1984, Vol. I, p. 28)
What must be said further, I contend, is that those who argue that "to the Jew first" is mere historical fact fail to understand the ongoing relationship of ethnic Israel to the covenants that Paul speaks of. Their position cannot explain Paul's extreme anguish over his lost Jewish brothers to whom still belong the covenants (Romans 9:1-5) or the striking statement that the very same Israelites who are enemies of the gospel "as regards election are beloved for the sake of their forefathers" with an "irrevocable" gifts and calling of God. (Romans 11:28-29). No. "To the Jew first" is a matter of relationship to the covenants, not mere historical fact.
What Sort of Priority?
But then what sort of priority, what sort of "primary relevance," using Murray's language, does the gospel have for the Jewish people? What are the implications for the mission of the church? Romans 9:4 is the key: It is a covenantal priority to take the gospel to the Jewish people, just as it is a covenantal priority to take the gospel to the children of believers, for that is what the overwhelming majority of the Jewish people who are in unbelief, by and large, are! How is it to be applied? Think of that closest parallel. No one would advocate that until a church has completely evangelized the children of the church should anyone else hear the gospel. Ministry toward the children of believers should always a key priority of any local church, but it goes side by side with outreach to the local community and to the world. Something would be wrong with that sort of approach. But certainly something would also be wrong with neglecting the children of the church while focusing only on local and foreign missions. Ministering to those who have an external relationship to the covenant must always be a key priority as the gospel goes out to the others beyond the community. "To the Jew first" isn't a temporal priority, or even a missiological priority, it is simply a covenantal priority.
What this means in a practical way is that the church must always have concern for the children of the patriarchs and it must carry out this concern in practical ways. The church must not neglect to bring the gospel to the Jewish people, as has too often been the case. Jewish ministry is too frequently neglected, under funded, and not adequately prayed for. Why? Perhaps because of fear of rejection, not knowing how to effectively communicate with Jewish friends and neighbors, unbelief that there will be any fruit, the anti-Semitism of thinking God has rejected the Jews, or ignorance that reaching out to the Jewish people is a cross-cultural enterprise. But perhaps a lack of understanding of the implications of Romans 1:16 is also a root cause. The church must not fail to include Jewish ministry in its prayers, its missions budget, or its local outreach planning.
Being Faithful to the Covenant
The bottom line is this: If the New Covenant community wishes to be faithful to the covenant, it must not abandon or neglect outreach to the ethnic decedents of the Patriarchs any more than it can neglect ministering to the children of Christian believers. Neither should it ever give any hint of false assurance that there is even a remote possibility of salvation apart from faith in Messiah Jesus and embracing the New Covenant promises. Let those who have been grafted in to the tree of believing Israel always stand in awe of God's mercy and never boast over the natural branches (Romans 11:17-21). Let Christians believe the covenant promises that the natural branches can be indeed be grafted back into the tree of faith once again. Jewish evangelism must always be an important part of the mission of the church. It must never be neglected.
Church History professor Clair Davis (Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia) has expressed to me his personal observation that revival in the church is always somehow connected with revival of the Jewish people toward the gospel and revival of the church's interest in Jewish evangelism. Taking the gospel to the Jewish people ultimately benefits the church and serves toward the advancement of Messiah's kingdom in the world (Romans 11:12). Let us continually affirm, and give practical expression to the affirmation: "...I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the gentile."