Usually we quote Bible verses in their entirety, but I’ve noticed an exception: Romans 1:16. You’ve heard the words: For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes.” But how often do you hear the last nine words of this strong biblical admonition: “for the Jew first and also for the Greek [Gentile]”?
When we omit part of any Bible verse we are in danger of forgetting it and impoverishing our understanding of God’s Word and His plans. As we begin this new year, I want to underscore those often omitted words from Romans 1:16, because I believe they illuminate God’s ongoing plan for evangelism.
I recently returned from the most amazing missions conference I have ever attended. It was the third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, held in Cape Town, South Africa. Four thousand Christian leaders from 198 countries met to discuss global challenges facing the church’s mission to evangelize in the 21st century. Only ten percent of those attending were from the U.S., so it was a truly international gathering—including simultaneous translation into eight different languages.
I was especially heartened to see the continuing need for Jewish evangelism recognized; that’s something you don’t always see at today’s missions conferences, especially those as diverse as this one. Even so, on two occasions I heard Romans 1:16 only partially quoted from the platform.
Sometimes people leave out those last nine words for convenience sake. But I think, more often than not, it happens when people choose to interpret the last phrase as a past event—not part of the present or future plan of God—and therefore, not important.
Most likely, this interpretation reflects the discomfort many people would feel if the priority “to the Jew first” were still in effect today. I can understand the discomfort, but I believe it stems from misunderstanding.
For example, some people suppose that “to the Jew first,” refers to a kind of ethnic preference by God, suggesting that He favors Jewish people over all the other people of the earth. They rightly reason that to imply ethnic favoritism on God’s part would be very wrong indeed. But if ethnic favoritism is not congruent with God’s character today, it would have been just as incongruent in Paul’s day. And yet he said, “to the Jew first.” Therefore, it must mean something other than ethnic favoritism.
Nevertheless, a group of theologians submitted this mistaken reasoning to the organizers of the recent Lausanne Congress in the form of a paper that included the following statement: “The one Church that God has called into being in Christ is drawn from every nation, tribe, people and language, with the result that no single ethnic identity can claim to be ‘God’s chosen people.’
This statement that “no single ethnic identity can claim to be God’s chosen people” is a shot at the Jewish people, who frankly never asked to be chosen. It is also an unwitting shot at God, who did the choosing. Nor did His choice begin with the Jewish people. He first chose Abraham, then Isaac, and then Jacob. God preserves the “chosenness” of the Jewish people not because of any superiority to other people, but because He chooses to remain true to His promises (Deuteronomy 7:7-8).
God’s priority “to the Jew first” remains intact because His faithfulness doesn’t waver. He keeps His promises despite the failings of those to whom He makes those promises. That is very good news for everyone in the church because just as He keeps His promises to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, so He will also remain faithful to all the promises He’s made to every person who is a child of Abraham by faith in Messiah Jesus. None of us is saved because we are superior people, yet God has blessed us with all the spiritual blessings in the heavenly places in Christ (Ephesians 1:3). Hallelujah!
This leads to the second reason some might be uncomfortable with the final phrase in Romans 1:16: “and also to the Gentile.” To some that sounds as if the Gentiles were some kind of an afterthought in God’s plan. Yet nothing could be further from the truth! When God first chose Abraham, the climax of the promises God made to Him was that, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). All along, God’s intention (and His priority) was to bring the good news to all the nations.
In choosing Abraham and his physical descendants, God was selecting Jewish people, not to be superior but to be servants of His purposes and servants of the good news to the nations. After all, that is exactly what that Hebrew word “Gentiles” means: nations. One might say, “For God so loved the world that He first chose Abraham and his descendants.” And of course the ultimate fulfillment of that choice and that love was in Jesus, the Jew from Nazareth. (John 3:16)
“And also” is no afterthought. Paul is saying the gospel is to the Jew first so that it might be for all the people. God chose the Jews because He loves you and everyone else and wants us all to be reconciled to Himself. What amazing love it is!
That missions conference provided real demonstrations of His reconciling love. Here were believers in the Messiah of Israel from 198 different nations, all praising God together in different languages! People who might otherwise be natural enemies were united in love and the desire to see the gospel proclaimed around the world. It was thrilling!
One morning the program featured a Palestinian Arab woman named Shaadia who serves with a ministry called Musalaha (Reconciliation). Standing side by side to share the platform with Shaadia was Dan Sered, an Israeli Jew who leads our Jews for Jesus work in Israel. It was a powerful moment and a beautiful image for all the 4000 people who witnessed it. I will never forget one statement Dan shared: “When Arabs and Jews can say to one another, ‘I love you in Jesus’ name,’ the whole world will see the power of the gospel to bring about reconciliation.”
These were not merely words spoken from the platform. Each night after the main session, rooms were reserved for people who wanted to pray for specific nations and people groups. On the night some of us were going to pray especially for Israel, we noticed the room next door was assigned for people gathering to pray for Palestine. After a brief discussion, we combined our two prayer meetings. Israeli and Palestinian delegates crowded into one room to pray together and to pray for one another. Only in Christ could such a thing happen. And it is continuing to happen as we remember it is God’s priority to reconcile Jews and Gentiles together through the gospel. You see, God’s priorities in saving people are never either/or, they are always both/and; or as the Apostle Paul put it: “for the Jew first and also for the Gentile.”