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 the throwing away of [the Jews by God] is a reconciliation of the world, what [will] the receiving [of the Jews by God 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.