First Things First in World Mission

By John S. Ross

Hudson Taylor, the great pioneer missionary to China, once commented that God's work done in God's way will never lack God's provision. His remark calls us to obey a revealed strategy for world evangelism. We can with full confidence turn to the Bible for a coherent set of principles for world evangelisation. One such principle is in Romans 1.16, "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe, to the Jew first and also to the Greek".

1. The Apostolic Injunction

In the outworking of God's purposes an order is observed and a priority is maintained, "to the Jew first..." In seeking to understand the meaning of these words we need to do justice to two points; a) the meaning of the word "first", and b) the use of the present tense.

a) The meaning of the word translated "first".

In the New Testament "first" (Greek: proton) has a number of possible meanings. It can mean first in a chronological sequence. In other words, it could be said that Paul is merely stating a simple matter of fact, the order in which the gospel came to mankind. In which case we could render the passage, "to the Jew first and after that to the gentile".

Whilst this is a true statement, is this all Paul is saying? Before concluding it is, we should first consider how else the word "first" is used.

Take, for example, Matthew 6.33, "seek first the kingdom..." Clearly, Jesus is not teaching that it is enough to give God the first hour of the day or the first day of the week and then use the rest for our own pursuits. To seek first the kingdom means that the kingdom lies at the heart of the Christian's life. It is the hub around which his whole life revolves, the principle that governs all his affairs.

To understand the words " the Jew first" in this sense means that concern for the salvation of the Jewish people lies at the very heart of the Church's programme of world missions.

b) The use of the present tense.

If what Paul wanted to say was, "the gospel... was for the Jew first and after that for the Greek", he would not have used the present tense exclusively throughout this text. To demonstrate the meaning of the present tense we could expand the translation of v16 as follows:

"...the gospel of and continues to be the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes (lit. is believing), it is and continues to be for the Jew first and also for the Greek".

The argument, then, is as follows: for as long as the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, witness to the Jewish people is to lie at the heart of the Church's missionary task.

This interpretation seems to be borne out by the words of the Saviour in Acts 1:8. Witness in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth is not thought of as a series of steps in world evangelism, as if each step is contingent on the successful completion of the previous one. Rather, the progress of the gospel throughout the world is a movement rippling out from a centre; lying at the heart of a biblical missionary programme must be concern for the salvation of Israel.

2. The Apostolic Practice

The apostolic missionary programme demonstrates the centrality of witness to the Jewish people. This is of great significance because the apostolic practice is as binding as apostolic precept. Paul recognised himself as an authoratative representative of Christ: "be imitators of me" (I Cor 11:1, I Cor 4:15, I Thess 1:6).

Space does not permit us to do more than refer to the important passages in the book of Acts and to draw the necessary conclusion.

The key passages are: first missionary journey, Acts 13:1-5; 13:13ff; 14:1-7; second missionary journey, 16:1-5; 16:11-13; 17:1-3, 10, 16-17; 18:1-4; third missionary journey, 18:24-28; 19:9-10; 20:20; in Jerusalem, 21:37-23:22; and ministry in Rome, 28:17-31.

Of importance are the following considerations:
  1. In Acts 17:2 there is reference to Paul's customary missionaryapproach in finding the synagogue and going there to reason from theScriptures.
  2. In chapter 17, verses 16 and 17 are linked by the conjunction"therefore". Paul saw Athens given over to idolatry and "therefore"reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews. From this we may conclude thatin some way the conversion of the synagogue congregation has a directbearing on pagans turning from idols to serve the true and living God.
  3. In the final chapter we see the apostle in Rome. In his letter(Romans 1:8-15) he had spoken of his deep desire to visit "all who arein Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints". He had prayed for a wayto be opened up for him to visit them (1:10). He longed to see them(1:11). He had often planned to come to them (1:13). His eager desirewas to preach the gospel to them (1:15). Yet, notwithstanding thisgreat love for them, when he arrived in the capital he called to himthe leaders of the Jewish community and preached to them.
To see Paul engage in persistent evangelical ministry to the Jews greatly helps our understanding of world mission. The significance is that Paul was set apart by Christ to be the apostle to the gentiles! (Romans 15:16). Paul's gentile mission was Israel-centric; it regularly started with witness to the Jewish people, proceeded to the gentile community but returned to Israel in that Paul saw the conversion of the gentiles as a precursor of the ultimate salvation of all Israel and the consummation of God's saving purpose for the world (Romans 11:13ff).

In formulating missionary policy on a "theology of harvest", governed largely by sociological considerations as to what may constitute "winnable people", today's church sadly fails to discern the clear outlines of Paul's missionary method, and often concludes that Israel has no continuing strategic significance in winning the world to faith in Jesus Christ.

3. The Apostolic Rationale

In 1839, shortly after his return to Dundee from a mission to the Jews in Palestine, Robert Murray M'Cheyne preached from Romans 1:16 a sermon entitled Our Duty to Israel. In it M'Cheyne outlined why Christians must continue to take the gospel first to the Jews. He reminded his congregation that judgement will begin with Israel (Romans 2.6-10). Then he went on to show that it is God-like to care for the Jews, "Should we not give them the same place in our heart which God gives them in his heart?"

Also in 1839 a remarkable openness to the gospel existed in many Jewish homes. In lands where Protestant witness to gentiles would have brought down the wrath of the authorities, the door to Israel was wide open.

The climax of his argument was: "they will give life to a dead world". M'Cheyne observed the phenomenon of Jewish preservation. Scattered through the world by persecution and intolerance, the Jewish people had an acquaintance with other nations but had maintained their own identity where many others had lost theirs. If ever there was a race specially fitted to be missionaries to the world it would seem to be them. Speculation aside, did Scripture justify such a view?

M'Cheyne drew arguments from the prophets to demonstrate how the Jewish people, restored to faith and under obedience to the Messiah, should be a means of great blessing to the world. He demonstrates this wider blessing in line with the promise of God to Abraham, "Those who bless you, I will bless". In a moving passage he applies this truth: "we must not only be evangelistic, but evangelistic as God would have us be - not only dispense the light on every hand, but dispense it first to the Jew.

"Then shall God revive his work in the midst of the years. Our land shall be refreshed ... The cobwebs of controversy shall be swept out of our sanctuaries, the jarrings and jealousies of our church turned into the harmony of praise, and our own souls become like a well-watered garden."

James Philip has written, "the argument is a fortiori: if Israel's rejection means gain for the world, how much more will their restoration mean to the world." On Romans 11:15 he adds, "So far as the Jews are concerned, even in their rejection and refusal of God's Son and their Messiah, they are still His chosen people; He is make them His instrument of light and salvation to the world (cf, Gen 12:3; Isa. 49:6)."* Just as Christ was rejected for our sakes, bearing the wrath of God in our place, so too he has made Israel "vessels of wrath" that they might become instruments of his mercy to a lost world.

Hudson Taylor illustrated his conviction that God's way was best by sending each year a cheque to the Mildmay Mission to the Jews inscribed "to the Jew first". Wilkinson wrote a cheque in the same sum and promptly returned it marked "and also to the Greek".

Today, we witness more missionary activity than ever before but the blessing is not commensurate with the activity. Why? Could it be that in doing God's work we are not following God's way? Are we willing to accept the challenge to radically rethink our contemporary world missions strategy? Or will we still miss the point and the blessing too?

*James Philip. The Power of God - An exposition of Paul's letter to the Romans. Glasgow. 1987.
This article originally appeared in our Autumn 1994 Herald.

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