Romans 1:16 reads as follows in the American Standard Version: For I am not ashamed of the gospel: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.
The verse has two verbs. The first verb, epaischunomai, meaning “to be ashamed,” controls the first clause. It is in the Greek present tense, emphasizing continuous action; Paul is continuously not ashamed of the gospel.
The second verb is estin, meaning “is,” also in the Greek present tense, emphasizing continuous action. The exegetical question concerns whether the verb controls only the second clause or the second and third clauses. The second clause tells us that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and as the Greek present tense emphasizes, this is always true. Thus far, there is no debate among the commentaries. The real question is whether the verb “is” also controls the last clause: to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. If it does, then it would also teach that the gospel is continuously to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. If it does not, then Paul is making nothing more than a historical statement that the gospel came to the Jew first and has no ongoing relevance.
Important to this same discussion is Paul’s use of the phrase two more times in Romans 2:9–10: . . . tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that worketh evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Greek; but glory and honor and peace to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek (ASV).
The question also is, of course, Do these two verses speak of an ongoing situation or a purely historical situation? Are these two verses describing a principle that is always true? Or was it only true at one time, but no more? How one concludes the meaning of these two verses will, in turn, help to properly interpret Romans 1:16. The final question of this current study is, What is the exact meaning of the word, first (proton)?
The Various Views
A survey of some exegetical commentaries, from both past and present, indicates more than one view among the commentators. The view of Charles Hodge is, To the Jew first, and also to the Greek. To render first, here especially, would make the apostle teach that the gospel was peculiarly adapted to the Jews, or specially designed for them. But he frequently asserts that this is not the case, chap. iii. 9, 22, 29; x. 12.
[First,] therefore, must have reference to time, “To the Jew in the first instance, and then to the Greek.” Salvation, as our Saviour said to the woman of Samaria, is of the Jews. Of them the Messiah came, to them the gospel was first preached, and by them preached to the Gentiles. The apostle often, as in the present instance, says Jews and Greeks, for Jews and Gentiles, because the Greeks were the Gentiles with whom, at that period, the Jews were most familiar.
In his first quote, Charles Hodge rejects the view that the word proton is to be taken as “especially,” which he defines that “the gospel was peculiarly adapted to the Jews, or specially designed for them,” because he feels that would contradict other passages that teach against the gospel being particularly designed for the Jews. His conclusion, then, is that in this case proton should be taken as a “reference to time,” and therefore concludes with a historical view of Romans 1:16. The Messiah came from the Jews, and the gospel was first preached to the Jews before it was preached to the Gentiles. It should be noted that he does not draw his conclusion exegetically from the text, nor the meaning of the word. It is based purely on his belief that other passages negate any ongoing validity of the principle to the Jew first. But he takes the exact opposite view on Romans 2:9–10: Of the Jew first, and also of the Greek. It becomes now apparent that the apostle, in laying down these general principles of justice, had the Jews specially in view. God, he says, will render to every man according to his works, to the good, eternal life; to the evil, tribulation and anguish. And lest the every man should fail to arrest attention, he adds expressly, that the Jew as well as the Greek is to be thus judged. The word [first] may express either order or preëminence.
If the former, . . . The judgment shall begin with the Jews, and extend to the Gentiles. If the latter, the sense is, The Jew shall not only be punished as certainly as others, but more severely, because he has been more highly favoured. “The Jew first,” is equivalent then to the Jew especially. The same remark applies to the following verse. If the Jew is faithful, he shall be specially rewarded. What is true of all men, is specially true of those to whom God has revealed himself in a peculiar manner.
In this case he does take the meaning to be “specially.” Therefore, the Jew will be either specially rewarded or specially judged. While John Calvin took this verse as historical in the sense that judgment begins with the Jews and extends to the Gentiles, Hodge himself takes it as an ongoing principle and not a purely historical situation. As to why this should differ from Romans 1:16, Hodge does not explain.
William Shedd also takes a historical view on Romans 1:16: . . . first in the order in which the gospel was to be preached; because “salvation is of the Jews,” John iv. 22, and Jerusalem was the natural point of departure. But on Romans 2:9–10, Shedd states, . . . first in order, as in Acts iii. 26, and first in degree: pre-eminence in privileges, if abused, carries pre-eminence in condemnation.
Shedd’s view is the same as Hodge’s: Romans 1:16 is taken to be purely historical, while Romans 2:9–10 is taken to be perpetual. The view of John Murray on Romans 1:16 is expressed as follows: “To the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” Since Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles and since the church at Rome was preponderantly Gentile (cf. vs. 13), it is the more significant that he should have intimated so expressly the priority of the Jew. But it was the divine economy that the gospel should have been preached first of all to the Jew (cf. Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4, 8; 13:46). 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. Salvation was of the Jews (John 4:22; cf. Acts 2:39; Rom. 3:1, 2; 9:4, 5).
The lines of preparation for the full revelation of the gospel were laid in Israel and for that reason the gospel is pre-eminently the gospel for the Jew. How totally contrary to the current attitude of Jewry that Christianity is for the Gentile but not for the Jew. This priority that belongs to the Jew does not make the gospel less relevant to the Gentile—“and also to the Greek.” The Gentile as fully as the Jew is the recipient of salvation and so, in respect of the favour enjoyed, there is no discrimination. Although Murray shares the same postmillennial eschatology of Shedd and Hodge, he differs with both of them on the issue of Romans 1:16. He emphasizes that this verse does teach “the priority of the Jew.” While it includes the historical concept that the gospel was “preached first of all to the Jew,” he does not feel that history exhausts the meaning of the verse and denies that this priority “is merely that of time.” Murray concludes that the meaning of the verse is that the gospel “has primary relevance to the Jew” because the Jews are the chosen people of God. And so “the gospel is preeminently the gospel for the Jew.” What Murray does not clearly state is how this involves the practical realm of evangelism; and does it give priority to the Jew first in the realm of evangelism? He comes closer to that view than the previous authors quoted. But since he has denied that the gospel is preeminently for the Jew only in terms of time, in this case it is an ongoing priority and, therefore, in practice it opens the door to the fact that evangelism throughout this age is also to the Jew first. On Romans 2:9–10, Murray states, “Of the Jew first, and also of the Greek” (cf. 1:16). The priority of the Jew applies to condemnation and damnation as well as to salvation. As the gospel applies to him not only with a priority of time but of relevance, so the enhancement of his privilege and responsibility magnifies correspondingly the weight of his retribution, a clear proof that the priority that belongs to the Jew by reason of the dispensation of grace will be taken into account and applied in the adjudications of the final judgment. . . . “To the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” The repetition of this formula indicates that the priority of relevance which belongs to the gospel in reference to the Jew is carried through in the final administration of reward—the Jew will have priority in the bestowal of glory itself. The final judgment will take account of the priority of the Jew not only in the dispensing of retribution (vs. 9) but also in the dispensing of bliss.
Murray is more consistent than either Hodge or Shedd and makes all three appearances of the phrase as ongoing reality that will continue with the final dispensing of judgment and reward. J. P. McBeth’s view of Romans 1:16 is purely historical. “Greeks” includes all Gentiles, and “Jew and Greek” includes all mankind. (And), a co-ordinate conjunction, denotes the equality of the Gentiles with the Jews in gospel privileges and grace. The gospel was divinely appointed to be first preached to the Jews, and then to be given equally to the Gentiles. The Messiah was promised as the seed of Abraham and to be the Son of David, and to sit upon His father’s throne. From the very nature of the promise of the Messiah, it was only natural that the gospel should be first preached to the Jews. Not that the Jews had any pre-eminence in privilege or grace; but of inevitable necessity, the Messianic message must first be proclaimed by and to those who first have the Messiah. And yet the emphasis is not upon the point of time, but rather upon the responsibility of leadership in the proclamation of the gospel. Paul is glad to refer the priority of responsibility to the Jews in the form of a compliment, in order that this might be a shield in warding off later attacks from the Jews upon certain doctrines in the Epistle. In McBeth’s presentation, not only is Romans 1:16 merely expressing a historical view, it seems to be just an accident ofhistory or, in his term, an “inevitable necessity,” since the Messiah came from the Jews and would naturally proclaim it first to those for whom he came. McBeth’s view on Romans 2:9–10 is, (“to the Jews first”). Wrath and indignation together with tribulation and anguish will
punish every soul that works evil. Certainly the Gentile will have his rightful place in the judgment, but the Jew will precede the Gentile. In 1:16, Paul accorded the Jew first place in leadership and responsibility. Who shall be first in the judgment but he who defaulted in his responsibility? The person most responsible is most guilty when unfaithful to a trust. Ability brings added responsibility. The Jew is accountable for all that he could have been and is not. The Jew gladly accepted the honor, as Paul accorded first place to him in 1:16. It is self-evident that his being first in leadership and responsibility gives him first place also in the judgment by reason of his failure to discharge known duty.
Paul startled every Jew by the horror of a worse judgment for them than even the Gentiles deserve. But this verse holds out hope to them and seeks to allure them into duty by stating that the first place in rewards is yet reserved for the Jew, if only he will be faithful in his place of responsibility. This verse indicates that first place in the reward of glory, honor, and peace will just as easily go to the Gentile, when he outstrips the Jew in the righteousness of God.
The Jew has no monopoly on first honors in reward, and the Gentile is not underprivileged. This place is for either Jew or Gentile who can meet the requirements(Matt. 20:23).
It is hard to escape the feeling that McBeth is trying to conclude the opposite of what Paul is saying. McBeth is content to see that the judgments of verse 9 will fall upon the Jew first. He is reluctant to say the same thing for the blessings of verse 10. Therefore, blessings “will just as easily go to the Gentile, . . .” and “[t]he Jew has no monopoly on first honors in reward, . . .” In other words, judgment upon the Jew first: Yes! Rewards: No! In the case of F. F. Bruce, in his commentary10 he limits his comments only to the first phrase, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.” He totally skips commenting on the rest of verse 16. This is also true of his treatment of Romans 2:9–10. He comments on verse 8 and then skips over to verse 11, totally bypassing verses 9 through 10.11 This is all rather surprising coming from a Greek scholar of his caliber.
Douglas Moo, in his recent commentary on Romans, has this to say about Romans 1:16: Yet it is typical also of Romans that Paul does not rest content with a reminder of the universalism of the gospel but immediately introduces a note of particularism: “to the Jew first and then to the Greek.”
What is the nature of the Jew’s priority (“first”) over the Gentile? Some scholars, indeed, have sought to remove any sense of priority from the phrase, but without success. Paul clearly accords some kind of priority to the Jew. Some suggest that no more is involved than the historical circumstance of the apostolic preaching, which, according to Acts, began with the Jews and moved to the Gentiles. 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 realized 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.
Moo is a historic premillennialist. He rejects any scholarly attempt to remove the concept of priority from the word “first.” He also rejects the purely historical view—that it means no more than that the gospel first went to the Jews before going to the Gentiles. Rather he sees “to the Jew first” as an ongoing principle, but applies it only in the realm of the promises of God having “a special relevance to the Jew.” These promises of God are primarily for the Jew. Thus, “[t]o Israel the promises were first given, and to the Jews they still particularly apply.” While Moo sees this as an ongoing principle and reality, he does not make any specific application to the issue of evangelism. Moo’s view on 2:9–10 is, .. . In using the phrase “every soul of a person,” Paul apparently wants to emphasize again the utter impartiality of God’s judgment. And, once again, this point is directed particularly to the Jew, as the last phrase of the verse—“for the Jew first and then for the Greek”—indicates. In an ironic twist, Paul uses the same phrase that maintained the priority of the Jew as the recipient of the good news of salvation (1:16) to assert the same priority in judgment.
As the word of the promise has gone “first” to the Jew, so does punishment for failure to respond to that word go “first” to the Jew. In contrast to the Jews’ tendency to regard their election as a guarantee that they would be “first” in salvation and “last” in judgment, Paul insists that their priority be applied equally to both. . . . And, more simply than in v. 7, Paul describes those who inherit these blessings as “everyone who does good.” But he also continues the theme of v. 9 with his addition of the phrase “for the Jew first and then for the Greek.” Here, Moo reasserts the principle of priority, applying it to both judgment and blessing. Alva J. McClain, a dispensational writer, states the following: To add on to the first: “It is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” “The gospel is for everyone.” The word Greek in the text was a term very often used by the Jews to mean all the Gentiles. The gospel has no racial boundaries. It even ignores degrees of goodness or badness. The ignorant and the wise, the high and the low—the gospel is for all. It is like the air we breathe, the rain that falls from heaven—it is for everybody.
One would expect more comment from a dispensational writer concerning the phrase, “to the Jew first.” McClain says nothing more about this verse except that the gospel is for all without “racial boundaries”; he does not comment at all on the key phrase. McClain’s view on 2:9–10 is, When God reveals a certain truth in a certain age, there are two classes that emerge. One class is obedient to the truth, and the other is rebellious. For them that rebel there shall be “wrath and indignation” from God’s side (v. 8); “tribulation and anguish” on man’s side (v. 9). This will be true for “The Jew first, and also the Greek.” That is an awful priority, isn’t it? Did you ever think of it? What was the Jew morally? He said, “I am first.” And he was first, too. But in a larger sense than he ever dreamed of! For if God would render to him first from the standpoint of righteousness, He would also render to him first from the standpoint of responsibility. Revelation of truth determines priority in the mind of God. On the positive side the principle of judgment follows the same order (v. 10). Here, McClain does comment on the phrase and sees it as emphasizing priority in both judgment and blessing.
C. K. Barrett expresses his view of Romans 1:16 as follows: The Gospel means salvation for everyone who has faith, but it was delivered to the Jew first, and then the Gentile too. . . . That the Jews were the first to hear the Gospel is to Paul more than a fact of history; it was due to God’s election (see especially chs. ix–xi). It was inconceivable that God’s Anointed should appear outside the context of Messianic prophecy, where alone there existed a vocabulary suitable for describing him.
Barrett also takes a purely historical view, although he credits the historical view due to God’s national election of Israel. Barrett’s view on 2:9–10 is the opposite: Both for good and ill the Jew retains a certain priority (cf. i. 16)—not necessarily an enviable priority; but inevitably must be added—and the Gentile too.
The Jew does retain a priority “[b]oth for good and ill” and, hence, these verses at least have an ongoing significance. The view of Sanford C. Mills on Romans 1:16 is expressed as follows: We have examined the greater portion of Romans 1:16. Now look at the last phrase of the verse, “. . . to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” This epistle to the church at Rome was written to an established church. The so-called “church age” had been in existence for 25 years. Paul’s proclamation in this letter that the Gospel was “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek,” was, we believe, without qualification and is just as applicable today as it was in Paul’s time. It will not do merely to state that Paul had preached the Gospel to the Jews and then rejected them since they rejected him at Corinth because he said to them, “from henceforth I will go to the Gentiles” (Acts 18:6). It is true that he did say this to the Jews at Corinth, but let us follow Paul as he goes to the next city, and the next city: inevitably and invariably he goes to the Jews.
Mills’s view is that this principle is ongoing rather than purely historical and, in his case, he also applies it to evangelism and, subsequently, uses Paul’s activities in the book of Acts as evidence as he went from city to city, “to the Jew first.”
The View of Joseph Hoffman Cohn
Joseph Hoffman Cohn, for many years the general secretary of the American Board of Missions to the Jews (now Chosen People Ministries), wrote extensively on the mission’s policy of “to the Jew first.” It was his custom every year, in the January issue of The Chosen People, to write an article on Romans 1:16. All his articles from January 1918 until January 1948 were incorporated into a book titled Beginning at Jerusalem. Typical of his position is the view expressed in the January 1919 issue:
What Is God’s Plan? January, 1919
May we urge again God’s plan for the Jews? If the
Bible be true, and if words mean what they say, then
it is inevitably true that every real Christian must give
the Gospel “to the Jew first.” Our Lord’s own parting
words were, “Beginning at Jerusalem.” We resent any
perverted interpretation of this phrase as meaning
“begin in your home field.” It does not mean that,
it means just what it says—begin with the Jewish
people. We resent further, the absurd avoidance of
the issue by the assertion that “the Jews had it first.”
The mere fact that Jews were given the Gospel nineteen
hundred years ago, will never excuse you for
neglecting the Jew of today, of this very hour, of this
very generation. It is outrageously unfair to judge the
Jew of the present day because of what did or did not
happen two thousand years ago.
The truth is, that God’s plan for world evangelization
has never been changed. That plan was,
and is now, that we, as believers in the Lord Jesus
Christ, shall make known His salvation to all the
earth, “To the Jew First.” This means that in every
generation we are to preach the Gospel to the Jew
first. It means, further, that in your church, in your
Sunday school, and in your Missionary Society, you
are faithfully to follow this divine plan, and you are
to set aside unto Him the first part of your offering
for missions, to be used in giving the Gospel literally
“to the Jew first.
In the January 1925 issue, he wrote,
The sainted Scotch preacher, Robert Murray Mc-
Cheyne, became, early in his ministry, profoundly
convinced of the importance of the “To the Jew
first” doctrine, and this conviction influenced his
life activities. We came across, recently, a sermon
of his dealing with this very subject, and we can do
our readers no greater service than to give at least
some important extracts: “Paul glories in the Gospel as the power of God
unto salvation to the Jew first; from which I draw
this Doctrine—that the Gospel should be preached
first to the Jews.
“(1) Because judgment will begin with them—
‘Indignation and wrath to the Jew first,’ Romans
2:6–10. It is an awful thought that the Jew will be
the first to stand forward at the bar of God to be
judged. When the great white throne is set, and He
sits down upon it, from whose face the heavens and
earth flee away, and great and small stand before
God, is it not a striking thought that Israel—poor,
blinded Israel—will be the first to stand in judgment
“Is this not reason, then, why the Gospel should
first be preached to the Jew? They are ready to perish.
The cloud of indignation and wrath that is
even now gathering above the lost will break first
upon the head of unhappy, unbelieving Israel. And
have you none of the bowels of Christ in you, that
you will not run first to them that are in so sad a
Another example comes from the January 1940 article:
With reference to your question as to the doctrine
of “to the Jew first”;—If we are to accept the interpretation
which you give, that in the epistles, “to
the Jew first,” no longer holds, then how are we to
explain such a passage as Romans 1:16? Or Romans
2:9–10? This latter passage deals with future punishment
and has yet to be fulfilled.
You quote Acts 13:46, “Lo, we turn to the
Gentiles,” but you apparently did not notice, in
the chapter immediately following, Acts 14:1, that
when they went into the next town, Iconium, they
went again “to the Jew first.” It is a matter of principle,
for in Acts 13:46, Paul says, “it was necessary
that the word should first have been spoken to you.”
This gives us a clear insight into God’s divine order,
that we owe the Gospel message “to the Jew
first” regardless of whether he will hear or will not
hear. I heard a good answer given by a banker to
a Christian brother who resented the doctrine of
“to the Jew first.” This banker simply turned to him
and asked, “In what age are we living now?” The
other answered immediately, “In the church age, of
course.” The next question the banker asked was,
“In what age did Paul write Romans 1:16?” The
other answered, “In the church age.” “Then there
you have your answer,” said the banker, “for God
never changes His plans in any given dispensation;
whatever was true in the days when Paul wrote the
Epistle to the Romans, is just as true this very moment,
for it is one and the same dispensation.”
You quote Romans 10:12, “For there is no difference
between the Jew and the Greek: for the
same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon
Him”; but are you not misapplying Scripture? Paul
is here speaking specifically concerning the method
by which a person becomes a child of God in the
present age of election; by that method, which is
through individual faith in the Lord Jesus Christ,
the same God is rich unto all that call upon Him;
furthermore this same teaching is given later on in
the epistle when it has to do with the church; in
the church there is neither Jew nor Greek, we are all
one in Christ. If you and I are members of the same
church body, we are both children of God and there
is not the slightest preference to be given to me because
I am a Jewish Christian; we are both one in
Christ. But the Lord does make a very clear distinction
as to the peoples outside of the church, as you
will notice in 1 Corinthians 10:32, “Give none offence,
neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to
the church of God.” Here we have clearly stated that
there are three classes of peoples in the world, Jews,
Gentiles and Christians.
The Christian is given instructions by God how to bring the message of His salvation to the world. Just imagine that the church stands by herself on the mountain top and sees below her the huge masses of peoples; the church, counting herself out from the world, will see only two classes, Jews and Gentiles. Now the Lord’s instruction to the church is to evangelize the whole world, but she must do it by giving the Gospel “to the Jew first” and then to the Gentile. It does not mean that the Jew is better than the Gentile, nor that the Jew even has preference over the Gentile, it simply means that it is God’s order. Perhaps I can illustrate it more clearly by referring to the making of a fire in the kitchen stove: We know that the proper order for making a fire is first to put in the grate some paper, and on top of the paper some light pieces of wood, then a little heavier wood, and then finally coal. This method will produce a fire. But supposing that one were to say, “I do not like this order, putting the paper in first. I think I will put the coal in first, and then the wood and then the paper.” You can readily see that there would be no permanent fire built on that basis.
At the same time nobody claims that the paper is better than the coal, it simply has to be put into the grate first and it has to serve its purpose first.
The same truth applies to the question of “To the Jew first.” There is a peculiar function which the Lord wants the Jew to perform and that is why He has given the command “To the Jew first.” That the church has refused to obey this command for these last two thousand years is a matter of serious loss to herself and of incalculable grief to our Lord Jesus Christ.
To Paul was revealed a glimpse of the importance of this doctrine; so important indeed did he realize it to be, that he was impelled to say in Romans 9:1, 3, “I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost . . . I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren.” When Paul calls upon the things most sacred in life with which to enforce the teaching as to the importance of Jewish evangelization, it is surely sufficient reason for us in these days to follow his example, for as he himself says, this revelation was given to him by God Himself, and is not merely a matter of patriotism.
Finally, I have asked many objectors to this doctrine of “To the Jew first,” among them ministers of wide knowledge, to show me a single passage in the Bible which definitely cancels the instruction that the Gospel should be given “to the Jew first.” I have never found one person who gave me a satisfactory answer to this question. It surely is reasonable to expect that when God gives space in the Bible to such a positive phrase as “to the Jew first” He would give equal space to an equally positive canceling; but all such contrary instruction is lacking, and in the face of this lack I am satisfied in my own mind, and there are thousands of earnest Christians who are likewise satisfied, that the divine method of missions is today as it was two thousand years ago, “to the Jew first.” It will not do to argue that the Jews had the Gospel first, for that argument is specious; I can counter such argument by saying that the Gentiles also had the Gospel, therefore we ought not to go to the Gentiles either. The only logical and fair conclusion is that we owe the Gospel to the Jew first here in our generation; God will not excuse us from our obligation now in the present day and age simply because we point to an incident two thousand years ago when some Jews in some particular town through some particular apostle did have the Gospel “to the Jew first.” That does not help to bring salvation to the Jew of today. The whole summing up of the matter is, simply, that in every generation the church must give the Gospel to the whole world, but in that particular order “to the Jew first,” and then to the Gentile; and then keep repeating this over and over again in each succeeding generation.
To summarize Dr. Cohn’s views, he clearly rejected a purely historical interpretation of the “to the Jew first” phrase. He believed that the phrase of Romans 1:16 should be understood in the same way as the phrase in Romans 2:9–10, meaning it is an ongoing principle. By way of application, Dr. Cohn applied it in two specific ways. First, he applied it to evangelism in that the gospel should be presented to the Jew first. Second, he applied it in the realm of finances in that people should consider supporting a Jewish mission first, and at least the first offering in January of each year should go to a Jewish ministry.
A Dispensational View
One of the functions of the local assembly is to carry out the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18–20: And Jesus came to them and spake unto them, saying, All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth. Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.
The methodology by which this is to be carried out is a matter of procedure, and the procedure is stated in Romans 1:16: For I am not ashamed of the gospel: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.
The gospel is the power of God, and the proper procedure is for it to go to the Jew first. The governing verb, is, is in the present tense, which emphasizes continuous action and controls both clauses: the gospel is the power of God and the gospel is to the Jew first. To interpret this verse historically to mean that the gospel was to the Jew first in the sense that it came to them first and that this is no longer the case, or that it was only true during the apostolic period, is also to say that the gospel was the power of God, but it is no longer that. Consistent exegesis would demand that if the gospel is always the power of God to save, then it is always to the Jew first.
The Greek word that Paul used for the English word first is proton, the neuter form of protos. Among the lexicons, Thayer notes that the Septuagint uses protos for both the Hebrew meaning “first,” as well as for (echad ), meaning “one.” He then gives protos three categories of meaning. The primary category is “first either in time or place, in any succession of things or of persons.” The secondary meaning is “first in rank, influence, honor; chief; principal.” The third category is “first, at the first, in order of time.” It is in this category that Thayer places Romans 1:16. Arndt and Gingrich23 state that protos means “first,” which includes “a. of time first, earliest, earlier . . . b. of number or sequence . . . c. of rank or degree first, foremost, most important, most prominent . . . d. of space outer, anterior.” They put the neuter form, proton, in a separate category, giving it the meaning first, “a. of time first, in the first place, before, earlier, to begin with . . . b. of sequence in enumerations . . . c. of degree in the first place, above all, especially . . .” and it is in the last category that they place Romans 1:16.
Jim Sibley makes the following observation:
Clarifying the Meaning of the Verse: “First”
The standard Greek Lexicon says of the word
translated “first” in this verse, “. . . degree in the first
place, above all, especially.” So, Paul is not using
“first” with reference to time as much as to priority.
He uses the same word in the same sense two additional
times in Romans 2:9–10. The word is also
used in Matthew 6:33 and in Acts 3:26.
Clarifying the Meaning of the Verse: Present Tense
The precise use of the present tense in Romans
1:16 is also very significant. There is a specialized
use of the present tense, both in Greek and in
English, when expressing a universal truth. For example,
when we say, “Honesty is the best policy,” we
mean to say that it is always the best policy. When
Paul says “the gospel is the power of God unto salvation
for all who believe; especially for the Jew, and
also for the Gentile,” he is stating a universal truth.
If we wanted to bring out these two clarifications
based on the meaning of “first” and the significance
of the present tense in this verse, we might say, “As
long as the gospel is the power of God unto salvation,
it is especially so for the Jewish people, and also
for the gentiles.”
In summary, then, proton has the meaning of “first,” and this includes “first in time, in place, in order, and in importance.” Applying this verse to the Great Commission, the gospel, wherever and by whatever means it goes out from the local church, must go to the Jew first. This is the biblical procedure for evangelism regardless of the method (radio, television, street meetings, literature, mass evangelism, door-to-door, etc.). Since most believers and local assemblies participate in the Great Commission mainly through monetary giving, this would require giving to the Jew first. This is true of the individual believer as well as of the local assembly in their missions budget (Rom. 15:25–27). What is true of the local church is also true of the missionary in the field. He must first take the gospel to any Jews who may be in the field where he is working. Regardless of his particular place of calling, his obligation is to seek out the Jews and present them with the gospel. Where there is already a command, no special leading is necessary. Many missionaries may object, but fortunately there is a biblical and an apostolic example in Paul, although he was not called to the Jews:
But I speak to you that are Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I glorify my ministry; if by any means I may provoke to jealousy them that are my flesh, and may save some of them. (Rom. 11:13–14)
On this point, his ministry was different from Peter’s:
. . . but contrariwise, when they saw that I had been intrusted with the gospel of the uncircumcision, even as Peter with the gospel of the circumcision for he that wrought for Peter unto the apostleship of the circumcision wrought for me also unto the Gentiles; and when they perceived the grace that was given unto me, James and Cephas and John,
they who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship, that we should go unto the Gentiles, and they unto the circumcision. (Gal. 2:7–9)
Thus, there are two basic missions: they are not home and foreign missions, but are Jewish and Gentile missions. Hence, there was an apostleship of the circumcision and an apostleship of the uncircumcision. But even the Apostle to the Gentiles always went to the Jew first.
Only if Romans 1:16 is understood in this way can one better understand Paul’s actions in the book of Acts. While one must be careful not to develop theology from historical books like the book of Acts, historical books can be used to illustrate doctrine. The doctrinal statement of Romans 1:16 is that the gospel is to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. The book of Acts contains numerous illustrations of that doctrinal point.
The beginning of his mission to the Gentiles is found in Acts 13:2–3: And as they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.
But Paul proceeds to the Jew first, as in Acts 13:4–5 and 14: So they, being sent forth by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia; and from thence they sailed to Cyprus. And when they were at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews: and they had also John as their attendant. (13:4–5) But they, passing through from Perga, came to Antioch of Pisidia; and they went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and sat down. (13:14)
After presenting the gospel to the church of Antioch, and having a second opportunity to do so, and after its rejection by the majority of the Jewish population of Antioch of Pisidia, Paul and Barnabas state the following in Acts 13:46: And Paul and Barnabas spake out boldly, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first [proton] be spoken to you. . . .
The key phrase that should not be missed is, “It was necessary that the word of God should first be spoken to you.” This was not a matter of preference, but of necessity. The question to be asked is, What kind of necessity was it that the gospel be first presented to the Jews? It would not be a historical necessity simply because it would not fit this passage. The historical presentation of “to the Jew first” would only have been an option on Paul’s part, not a necessity. This is best interpreted as a theological necessity in light of Romans 1:16. Thus, it was a doctrinal, theological necessity that the gospel be presented to the Jews of Antioch of Pisidia first, and then Paul could move on to the Gentiles as he does in this verse.
As the following verses in Acts 14:1 and 16:1–13 show, however, once he left Antioch of Pisidia, he again went back to the Jew first: And it came to pass in Iconium that they entered together into the synagogue of the Jews, and so spake that a great multitude both of Jews and of Greeks believed. (14:1)
Setting sail therefore from Troas, we made a straight course to Samothrace, and the day following to Neapolis; and from thence to Philippi, which is a city of Macedonia, the first of the district, a Roman colony: and we were in this city tarrying certain days. And on the sabbath day we went forth without the gate by a river side, where we supposed there was
a place of prayer; and we sat down, and spake unto the women that were come together. (16:11–13)
Acts 16:11–13 is a good example of how carefully Paul followed the principle of Romans 1:16. This being a Sabbath prayer meeting means that it was a Jewish prayer meeting. Normally, Paul would go immediately to the synagogue, but could not do so in Philippi for the Jewish community in that town was too small to finance a synagogue. By Jewish tradition, if the Jewish community was too small to finance a synagogue, Jews were to congregate by a body of water for the Sabbath service. Paul, knowing this, waited until the Sabbath before he preached elsewhere because he knew that the gospel must go out to the Jew first. There, he found a little Jewish group in order to preach the gospel to them.
Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apolonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews: and Paul, as his custom was, went in unto them, and for three sabbath days reasoned with them from the Scriptures. (17:1–2,emphasis added)
And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who when they were come thither went into the synagogue of the Jews. (17:10)
Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he beheld the city full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with Jews
and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with them that met him. (17:16–17)
Acts 17:16–17 is another good example for showing exactly Paul’s procedure. He came to Athens and saw the city given over to idolatry, and he was provoked to preach to those who worshiped these idols. It was not the Jews who worshiped the idols, because idolatry largely ceased to be a Jewish problem with the Babylonian captivity. Rather, the Gentiles worshiped these idols, and to these Gentiles Paul was provoked to preach. The principle of Romans 1:16, however, had to stand. According to verse 17, so, that is, for that reason, he went to the Jew first (v. 17), and then he went to the Gentiles (v. 18).
After these things he departed from Athens, and came to Corinth. . . . And he reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded Jews and Greeks. (18:1, 4)
And they came to Ephesus, and he left them there: but he himself entered into the synagogue, and reasoned with the Jews. (18:19)
And it came to pass, that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper country came to Ephesus, and found certain disciples:. . . And he entered into the synagogue, and spake boldly for the space of three months, reasoning and persuading as to the things concerning the kingdom of God (19:1, 8)
And when we entered into Rome, Paul was suffered to abide by himself with the soldier that guarded him. And it came to pass, that after three days he called together those that were the chief of the Jews: and when they were come together, he said unto them, I, brethren, though I had done nothing against the people, or the customs of our fathers, yet was delivered prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans: . . . (28:16–17).
In Acts 28:16–17, Paul was a prisoner and could not go to the synagogue of Rome. He, therefore, called the Jewish leaders of Rome to his prison in order to proclaim the gospel to them first. To the very end of the book of Acts, Paul is presenting the gospel to the Jew first. Even after returning to a city where he had already established a church, he first went to the Jews. Everywhere in the book of Acts, the Apostle to the Gentiles, as he went out to the Gentiles, always went to the Jew first. That is because of the doctrinal statement of Romans 1:16. The gospel, whenever it goes out and by whatever means it goes out, is to go to the Jew first. This applies both to active and passive evangelism. Active evangelism entails persons’ doing the work of evangelists; as they go out evangelizing, they are to go to the Jew first.
These examples in the book of Acts are illustrations of active evangelism. The principle also holds in passive evangelism, which is supporting those who do the work of
evangelism. An example of such is found in Romans 15:25–27: . . . but now, I say, I go unto Jerusalem, ministering unto the saints. For it hath been the good pleasure of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor among the saints that are at Jerusalem. Yea, it hath been their good pleasure; and their debtors they are. For if the Gentiles have been made partakers of their spiritual things, they owe it to them also to minister unto them in carnal [material] things.
The collection of funds by Gentile believers for the church of Jerusalem was not due merely to “Christian charity.” Gentile believers are partaking of Jewish spiritual blessings. This has put Gentiles into debt. One means of paying this debt is by sharing with Jewish ministries materially. Sibley makes the following notation: Another important observation regarding to this verse is that Paul is here speaking about the nature of the gospel, rather than setting forth an evangelistic methodology, per se. We cannot but conclude that the nature of the gospel is such that it is particularly and uniquely relevant to the Jewish people. In the New Testament, there are only two kinds of missions—not home missions and foreign missions, but Jewish missions and Gentile missions.
A very small percentage of Christians have been called to Jewish missions, while most Christians live and serve primarily among Gentiles. This is as it should be. Jewish ministry is in no way superior to Gentile ministry. If God has called you to a ministry to Gentiles, who could possibly object? But in that case, you would want to model your ministry after that of the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul of Tarsus.
In fact, when we look at the practice of Paul in the Book of Acts, we see the outworking of the principle he stated in Romans 1:16. While Paul speaks of the nature of the gospel in Romans 1:16, he shows us how this understanding of the gospel affects his evangelistic procedure in the Book of Acts. In Romans, he emphasized the “first” was first in priority, but in Acts, we see that since Jewish evangelism was first in priority, it became his first order of business in terms of chronological sequence.
Since Romans 1:16 is prescriptive, we should make Jewish evangelism our priority today. However, since Paul’s practice in the Book of Acts is descriptive, it may or may not be essential to make Jewish evangelism the first thing one should do when entering a new city or area. Nevertheless, our actions should still reflect the nature of the gospel, as revealed by the inspired Word of God. When Paul was in the areas where there was no Jewish population, he demonstrated the priority of Jewish evangelism by praying for their salvation (as in Romans 10:1) and by raising financial support for Jewish ministry (as in Romans 15:26–27).
God, Himself, chose the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the Jewish people—to be set apart for His specific purposes in history. God’s choice of Israel was to be a blessing, not only to Israel, but to the entire world. To understand (even partially) God’s purposes should lead us to marvel at the wondrous ways of God (see Romans 11:33–36).
Although the Scriptures are very clear about this procedure, it is nevertheless denied by many. A major argument used to refute this doctrine is based on Acts 28:25–28:
And when they agreed not among themselves, they departed after that Paul had spoken one word, Well spake the Holy Spirit through Isaiah the prophet unto your fathers, saying, Go thou unto this people, and say, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall in no wise understand; And seeing ye shall see, and shall in no wise perceive: for this peoples heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest, haply they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should turn again, and I should heal them. Be it known therefore unto you, that this salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles: they will also hear.
Because of these concluding words and Paul’s declaration that the gospel will now go to the Gentiles, the passage is taken to mean that the gospel is no longer to the Jew first and that God has now changed his program of evangelism, superseding Romans 1:16. It is agreed that Romans was written before Acts, but this passage does not mean that the gospel is no longer to the Jew first or that God has changed his program of evangelism. The true meaning is to be found in comparison with two other passages, where these words had been spoken before:
And the next sabbath almost the whole city was gathered together to hear the word of God. But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with jealousy, and contradicted the things which were spoken by Paul, and blasphemed. And Paul and Barnabas spake out boldly, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first be spoken to you. Seeing ye thrust it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles. For so hath the Lord commanded us, saying,
I have set thee for a light of the Gentiles, that thou shouldest be for salvation unto the uttermost part of the earth. And as the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of God: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed. (Acts 13:44–48)
But when Silas and Timothy came down from Macedonia, Paul was constrained by the word, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ. And when they opposed themselves and blasphemed, he shook out his raiment and said unto them, Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean: from henceforth I will go unto the Gentiles. (Acts 18:5–6)
The true interpretation of Acts 28:25–28 is to be seen in these two passages, which show a local change and not an overall change in the program of evangelism. In the first passage, the Jews of Antioch of Pisidia rejected the gospel; so now in Antioch of Pisidia, Paul will go to the Gentiles. In the second passage the Jews of Corinth rejected the gospel; so now Paul will turn to the Gentiles of Corinth. But when he left both Antioch of Pisidia and Corinth for new territory, he went back, as related in chapters 14 and 19, to the Jew first, even after his declaration in the previous chapters that he would go to the Gentiles. What is true of Antioch of Pisidia and Corinth is also true of Rome. The Jews of Rome had rejected the gospel, so Paul went to the Gentiles of Rome. Paul made no shift in the procedure of presenting the gospel. Acts 28 presents only a continuation of the procedure already in progress, that of presenting the gospel to the Jew first and then turning to the Gentiles. If Paul left Rome after two years (and I believe that he did), he continued the same practice; after leaving Rome, he went to the Jew first, as he had after leaving Antioch of Pisidia and Corinth. In relation to missions, then, the gospel must be to the Jew first. This is not a matter of preference, but a matter of procedure. In the outworking of the Abrahamic covenant, the local church can appropriate certain blessings, for in giving the gospel to the Jew first, the church is blessing the Jews. The local church will, of course, always have certain blessings as long as the gospel is preached from the pulpit and the local assembly stands true to the fundamentals of the faith.
Some blessings, however, are based on other conditions. The blessings of the Abrahamic covenant available to the local congregation are conditioned upon the congregation’s blessing the Jews, by presenting the gospel to the Jew first. Then the local church can appropriate the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant, blessings that cannot be obtained any other way.