God is faithful and unchanging and His good news of salvation remains the same; for the Jew first and also for the Greek. There remains no partiality with Him (Romans. 2:11) and God did not choose Israel because they were more numerous or deserving, but because He chose to love them and He keeps His covenants (Deuteronomy. 7:7-9). We have been given a command to preach the gospel to every creature. That is our privilege and also a sobering responsibility.
Romans 1:16 is as applicable today as it was two millennia ago. The Lord commissioned Saul to bear His name before Gentiles, kings and the children of Israel (Acts 9:15). But notice the order of events that follows in that chapter after the scales fell from his eyes and being strengthened with food and spending some days with the disciples. He immediately preached about Messiah in the synagogues and proved to the Jewish people in Damascus that Jesus is the Messiah (Acts 9:20, 22).
Some reason that being witnesses for the Lord in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria and all the ends of the earth was purely a matter of geographical logistics and that is what it means for the gospel to the Jew first and then the Gentile. Others state that the sense of the Jew first and then the Greek was limited to that time. Therefore, we should seek out the lost in our locality and branch out from there. Whilst we would be wise to reach out to those near to us, we cannot ignore the fact that in Romans 1:16, both the verbs ‘to be ashamed’ and ‘is’ are written in the present tense, emphasizing continuous action and control the three clauses contained in that verse. [i] Whilst there are wide meanings relating to the word ‘first’ in regard to, time, place and rank[ii], we need to be consistent within the context of this verse and must allow the text to speak clearly for itself.
Furthermore, Paul consistently went into the synagogues first, when he ministered in a new area. That was evident in Cyprus (Acts 13:5), Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:14), Iconium (Acts 14:1), Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-3), Berea (Acts 17:10-11), Athens (Acts 17:17), Corinth (Acts 18:4) and Ephesus (Acts 19:8). Even when Paul and Barnabus turned to the Gentiles since their message was rejected in Antioch (Acts 13:46), afterwards they went to the synagogue at Iconium (Acts 14:1).
I was heartened to discover that Hudson Taylor sent his first tithe of the year to Wilkinson with an accompanying note saying ‘To the Jew, first’, though equally encouraged by Wilkinson’s gift in response ‘To the Gentile, second’. Scriptures and the history of Jewish outreach testify that we need to retain a measured balance of recognising that God has not cast away His people (Romans 11:1) or annulled His covenants (Genesis 17:8-9) whilst recognising God has always had a wide plan of salvation to include the Gentiles (Isaiah 56:3-8) and that we are equal under Jesus (Yeshua) our Messiah (Ephesians 2:11-18).
[i] Arnold G. Fructenbaum ‘To the Jew First in the New Millennium’ in ‘To the Jew First’ Edited by Darrell L. Block and Mitch Glaser (Kregel, 2008; Grand Rapids), p189
[ii] Ibid, p206