To the Jew First—Doctrine of Favoritism?

Q: Dear Kevin, it seems to me there is an issue that Messianics need to resolve before it makes us crazy. On one hand, Scripture tells us that we are one in Messiah (Romans 12:5, Galatians 3:28), joint heirs (Ephesians 3:6), et cetera. On the other hand, there is the maxim, “to the Jew first, then to the Gentiles.” On the one hand, a doctrine of unity, on the other a doctrine of first- and second-class citizens. Does the maxim “to the Jew first” have any Scriptural basis? If so, how are we to understand it? What place is it to hold in the Messianic mindset? How do we reconcile these two apparently incompatible views?

A: The misperception and perpetuation of first- and second-class citizenship in the Messianic Jewish movement has resulted not only in its tragic fragmentation and the rise of aberrant theological offshoots, but in our near-complete ineffectiveness to fulfill our collective calling in Messiah. This is, therefore, an issue of monumental importance, and—I agree—needs to be resolved. The good news is that Scripture has our answer.

So, let’s start with the question of “to the Jew first”—does it have any Scriptural basis? Indeed, it does. In fact, the “maxim” comes straight from Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the Good News of the Messiah, for it is the power of God to salvation to everyone who is believing, both to Jew first, and to Greek.”

By itself, the statement doesn’t give us a full understanding of what Paul means, so considering the context will help. We know Paul is writing to the Roman community of believers (Romans 1:7), which is apparently an ethnically-diverse group. We also know that both the Jewish and Gentile members of the Roman community were having some serious issues with judgmentalism and pride (on the Jewish side, see Romans 2; on the Gentile side, see Romans 11), each thinking he had some specially-favored status with God. This is essentially the core issue of Paul’s entire letter to the believers in Rome—resolving the Jewish/Gentile conflict in that community.

So, perhaps, in stating that “salvation [is]… both to Jew first, and to Greek,” Paul is intending to convey a type of equality among Jews and Gentiles—that as far as salvation is concerned, there is no difference between us. And yet, Paul stuck that nasty little word “first” into his declaration, which apparently screams of inequality. If one group of people is “first,” the other one (we think),  must be “second,” and therefore, the two are unequal. Let’s see if this line of thinking plays out.

Paul goes on to use this same phrase regarding Jew and Greek in two other places in his letter. Truncated and taken out of context, Romans 2:10 appears to make the Jew/Gentile divide even worse, saying there will be “glory, and honor, and peace to everyone who is working the good… to Jew first…” Again, there seems to be a confusing inference of inequality, with the Jew receiving preferential treatment; receiving all the glory, honor, and peace for himself.

But it’s actually the previous verse that I think helps clear everything up. In chapter 2, Paul has started laying into the Jewish believers (the “Circumcision”) for their haughtiness toward the Gentile believers—he lets them know in no uncertain terms that their judgmentalism will result in their own judgment! Then in Romans 2:8-9 Paul says, “But, indeed, to those [who are] self-seeking, and disobedient to the truth, and obeying the unrighteousness, [there will be] rage and wrath, tribulation and distress, upon every soul of man that is working the evil, both of Jew first, and of Greek…”

In light of Romans 2:9, it should now be clear to us that Paul is indeed speaking of a certain type of equality between Jew and Greek—both receive salvation (1:16), both receive glory, honor and peace (2:10)… and both receive “rage and wrath, tribulation and distress”! There is no inequality here; indeed, Paul completes his thought, saying, “For there is no acceptance of faces [i.e. favoritism] with God” (2:11).

How, then, should we understand the concept of the Jew being “first”? It seems that the Jew’s firstness, according to Paul, does put the Jew in a unique position. However, attached to that unique position is an even more unique responsibility. Try looking at it this way: rather than envisioning all the Jews getting to go to the front of the line, receiving not just the first, but the best blessings (which would be favoritism), think of it as God having placed the Jew on the front line (position) of a battle on behalf of all the nations (responsibility). Then, if the Jew fights the good fight and wins, as he takes that ground, he will be first to receive salvation, glory, honor and peace—making a way for the nations to follow. But should he falter in his fight, he will be first to receive rage, wrath, tribulation and distress from God, leaving the nations in a state of confusion and vulnerability.

In choosing Israel, “the least of all the peoples” (De.7:7), to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex.19:6), Adonai made the Jew responsible for officiating the nations’ reconciliation to God (Genesis 12:1-3, Isaiah 49:6). Indeed, the Master Himself teaches us that “salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). Being first, then, is not an issue of favoritism, but of seniority and obligation—like an elder brother is responsible to look out for and take care of his younger siblings.

Paul puts a fine point on the matter in Romans 3:1-2 when he writes, “What, then, is the advantage of the Jew? Or what [is] the profit of the circumcision? Much in every way…” And yet, it is the Gentile who most benefits from the Jew’s advantage, since “if their rejection [of Messiah] is a reconciliation of the world, what will their reception [of Messiah] be if not life out of the dead” (Romans 11:15). This is not favoritism, but God’s plan of reconciliation and salvation for all: as goes the Jew, so goes the world… life from the dead. Paul’s teaching of “to the Jew first,” then, is neither an expression of superiority, nor a suggestion of evangelistic priority (though the salvation of Jewish people is of timely importance!)—rather, it is a statement of the Jew’s unique position and responsibility in God’s plan for world salvation.

What place, then, is all this to hold in our collective mindset? That the plan has been derailed… and we are the ones who have derailed it. The pride and identity-disorders that Paul was dealing with among the Jewish and Gentile believers in Rome haunts us to this day… and shows little sign of stopping. As long as 1) we Jewish believers consider ourselves more favored by God, while failing to humble ourselves and accept the responsibility of our distinctive position, and 2) Gentile believers seek to divert the imaginary, more-favored status from Jews, either through Replacement Theology (supercessionism), or by appropriating Jewish distinctions, we will continue in our collective ineffectiveness, further deteriorating as the lingering, dismembered Body we have become. We need to “be submitted to… one another; [clothed] with humble-mindedness” (1Keifa 5:5), accepting that whatever distinctives there may be, it is only our shared identity in Messiah which makes us residents in the household of God.

What do you think? Weigh in with your comments below.

This “Gentile Chronicles” article was originally published in condensed form in Messianic Jewish Issues. The Gentile Chronicles is a recurring feature in Messianic Jewish Issues, and is part of Perfect Word’s developing “Gentile Initiative” designed to explicitly build up Gentile believers in Yeshua.

8 replies
  1. Philip McLain
    Philip McLain says:

    Kevin, would you be willing to allow me to share some of your articles with friends and family on-line? I receive your “Issues” in hard copy here at home, but would like to be able to send some of the articles on to friends who struggle with with some of the very things you talk about in your articles. I especially liked the “A Word from Kevin” and “To The Jew First” in the May issue. There are several Christian friends in the Harrisburg area that are”Reformed” and many in this area also think that the church has replaced Israel in God’s plan for us. I know it is deeply entrenched in our thinking in this country, and it saddens me that so many of us are so shallow in our understanding of God’s Word.
    Thank you for your consideration in this matter.
    Philip McLain

  2. Jerry Haney
    Jerry Haney says:

    I just want to say again Kevin how much I have been blessed with your gift of interpretaiton of the scripture. I read a devtional each day from your books and I find as I pray that the Holy Spirit has allowed you to share the heart of God with us. Thank you.

    I have felt for sometime that we need an awakening ,that the Tree and the wild branches should grow together in the Body of Messiah. Messiah prayed that we would all be one as He and the Father are One. I think we will see the Bride be one soon. I pray!!! God Bless and Keep Israel.

  3. Regina Ford
    Regina Ford says:

    Good morning Kevin: I too have been blessed by the clarification of “Jew first” I am a lover of God’s word and I have come to understand through the power of the Holy Spirit, that God sent Himself through Jesus Christ for the whole world and LOVE is the commandment. GOD’s word says over and over again, he has no favorites; we must remain in the beloved and grow to accept the grace of God given to us through the shed blood of Jesus the Christ which brings both Jew and Gentile together- Christ is the Savior of all mankind if they accept and believe in the perfect work of the atonement. I purposely read the book of Romans and Ephesians yearly. Thank you so much for making it clear “to whom much is given much is required. ” I am a Gentile that has been grafted in and I am so grateful. We worship the same ALL Mighty YHWH, thru the Messiah Jesus Christ

  4. Patrick Williamson
    Patrick Williamson says:

    Kevin, May his continued grace and spirit embrace you and your loved ones. Your presentation of the Romans Issue of Jew first, that Paul teaches was wonderful. It has been and continues to be a cause within the believing community, that Ha Satan has successfully used though out the century’s to cause divisional strife.

    The historical fact that our Lord presented salvation to the Hebrew community, as a community first, should be with out question. I understand Paul’s teaching to be just that, “to the Jew first and then to the Gentile.” In Messiah Yeshua there is one new creation. History is just that ;”history.” Our need is to reside in His Spirit by walking by faith not by sight. ( flesh )

  5. Nancy Santiago
    Nancy Santiago says:

    I love what you said about the “responsiblity” part of being Jewish There is great accountability that goes with being the “chosen” people among the nations. When Gentiles tell me they wish they were Jewish like me, I sometimes wonder if they would still feel that way if another Hitler rose to power. Would they still pray the Jewish prayers, attend Messianic congregations, celebrate the Jewish festivals, wear kepas and prayer shawls, and identify with the Jewish people?
    I often point Gentile believers to the scriptures in Matthew 15 where the Caananite woman pleads with Yeshua to heal her daughter. Because at the end of that difficult exchange between Yeshua and the woman, she ended up with more than the crumbs she was willing to take, but the whole feast! What she did was she acknowledged the “order of blessing”…to the Jew first, and ALSO to the Gentile. She didn’t become offended by it, but benefited greatly because the blessings of Abraham overtook her and the Jewish Messiah told her she was a woman of GREAT faith! It takes great faith for a Gentile believer to humbly submit, as this woman did, to the order God has chosen to bring blessing to the nations. And it is humbling for the Jewish people to receive the mercy through the Gentiles that God purposed for them and gave as His reason He chose to pour out His mercy on the Gentiles in the first place. We read that in Romans 11:30 &32–30 “Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their {the Jews} disobedience, 31 so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. 32 For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” (brackets mine) Thank You, Father, for your great mercy! We are ALL, Jew and Gentile, in desperate need of it!

  6. Aggie Henley
    Aggie Henley says:

    I don’t see a conflict at all. Even if “to the Jew first” did mean some kind of favoritism, it would not bother me as a Gentile believer. In fact, are we not to be concerned for the welfare of “others” above ourselves? Are we not taught that we ought to esteem our brothers more than ourselves? So here we have the opportunity.
    Did not Yeshua make Himself of no reputation? The reality is, the Israelites are indeed God’s chosen people- and what a huge responsibility. We ought to shore them up and give the Jews support. Why the need to be in the limelight? We are grafted in, with the same opportunity for salvation, so what is the big deal? It all boils down to sibling rivalry-think Cain and Able, think Ismael- which stems from PRIDE. Time to eat humble pie. Be humble, or be humiliated.

    • Rodney Howell
      Rodney Howell says:

      Aggie Henley
      I agree with you 100 percent.We as gentiles should be honored to be adopted as children and not be spoil brats who whine and cry because they want the best all the time.
      To be the greatest you must be the least.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *