To the Jew first…
(Here's another go at posting this post, this time without frills. Will those who let me know they couldn't see it, please let me know if they can see this?)
I was recently asked ‘Do you believe that the gospel is to the Jews first?’ It’s a bit like being asked ‘Do you believe in the baptism of the Holy Spirit?’ or ‘Do you believe that a Christian can fall from grace?’ The answer to both those questions is ‘Yes, of course, because the Scriptures speaks of both’ (for example, Matthew 3:11, Galatians 5:4). But a fuller answer to those questions may well be ‘But I probably don’t think those phrases mean what you think they do!’
Do I believe the gospel is ‘first for the Jew’? Yes, the Scripture says so - once:
Romans 1:16 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.
But a fuller answer would be ‘But I may well not think the phrase means what you think it does!’
There are two other uses of the phrase ‘first for the Jew’, and they’re both in the same passage:
Romans 2:9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile;
Romans 2:10 but glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.
If we take all three uses of the phrase together – which is not unreasonable since they’re in the same letter – it seems most natural that ‘first’ in this context means little (if anything) more than ‘both’: the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, both for the Jew and for the Gentile; there will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil, both for the Jew and for the Gentile; there is glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good: both for the Jew and for the Gentile.
Why do I say that? Because context is king. What is Paul doing in the early chapters of Romans? He is establishing that both Jews and Gentiles are sinners, and both Jews and Gentiles are to be saved by Christ. He is far from arguing that the Jews have a priority; he is arguing that they are in the same boat!
‘Well,’ says someone, ‘The Jews are the covenant people of God’ (see for example the excellent Peter Parkinson: ‘The Jews are still the elect of God; he hasn’t withdrawn his covenant.’ (Accessed at http://www.cwi.org.uk/Heralds/Archives/HAGP.htm on January 20th 2009). But who says God has not withdrawn his covenant? Certainly not God: ‘By calling this covenant ‘new’ he has made the first one obsolete, and what is obsolete and ageing will soon disappear,’ (Hebrews 8:13). How can 'obsolete' mean 'still in force'?
I don’t want to be too dogmatic on any of this: I realise that there are godly men on ‘the other side’ here. I am aware that the Scriptures can be read as if the Jews have a priority, a superior right. Peter Parkinson again in the same article says ‘The Jewish people have the greatest right to hear and receive the gospel because Christianity is uniquely theirs.’ But it is wrong, altogether, to talk about a ‘right’ to hear and receive the gospel. No-one has a right to it, not Jew, not Gentile. The gospel is always free grace. If God in his mercy arranges that one community shall hear the gospel, that is God’s free and amazing grace to that community. If a neighbouring community never gets to hear the gospel, God has not violated their rights. Remember, Jesus compared the privileges of Capernaum with the lack of privilege enjoyed by Sodom: ‘And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day,’ (Mt. 11:23). Has Sodom a right to complain? No. Why not? For none of us have a right to the free grace of God.
But: though I am aware that the Scriptures can be read as if the Jews have a priority, I am increasingly persuaded that (like infant baptism, for example) it is something that is being read into the Scripture, not derived from it.
Perhaps the difference looks like this. Those who believe that Jews have a priority speak as if salvation is for Israel, and God also welcomes Gentiles. I believe, on the other hand, that salvation is for the world, and God used Israel to bring it. So God said to Abraham when he was still Abram ‘All peoples on earth will be blessed through you,’ (Genesis 12.3). God’s choice of Abram, and then of Israel, was in order to bring blessing to the world. He did not bring blessing to the world in order to exalt Abram, or Israel. In fact, that idea would put Abram/Israel in the place that belongs to Jesus Christ: for God brought salvation to the world in order that ‘at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.’
Is Jewish evangelism important today?
Of course it is. They are a people group. They are a uniquely knowledgeable people group, and privileged in that sense. And there are promises still to be fulfilled about the salvation of Israel. (Unfinished; comments welcome)