For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. –Romans 1:16
This is an interesting verse. Paul writes that he reaches Jews first, then after that, he’ll reach Gentiles (the Greek). In Romans 10:12 he says, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.”
Does God have Favorites?
At first glance, the statement raises more questions than it answers. Which is it, Paul? Does God want the Jews to be first in line before the Gentiles? Are Jews favored? Many theologians have developed a theology around what Paul writes in chapter one of Romans to say that the Jews have priority as the chosen of God. Yet there are so many other verses in the Bible that say God has no favorites. So, which is it?
While Romans is a very theologically rich letter, maybe Paul wasn’t only teaching theology. Perhaps Paul was being pragmatic and strategic while identifying his own role within God’s epic metanarrative. Paul was looking for his own story within God’s on-going backstory. The Apostle Paul didn’t think that his call to take the gospel to the Gentiles was an idea that originated with him at his radical conversion (see Acts 9). Paul knew it was a plan that has its genesis in Genesis.
Paul is finding his place in a project God started in Genesis with Abraham and continued in the nation of Israel. Even when God was chastising Israel during seasons of national and personal disobedience, He was casting seeds across the ancient world that would be harvested by the early church.
“The dispersion of the Jewish people was the greatest single factor in preparing the world for the coming of Messiah and the preaching of the gospel,” writes J. Herbert Kane in his book, A Concise History of the Christian World Mission. “Wherever the Jews went they carried the knowledge and the worship of the one true God, the expectation of a coming Messiah and the Holy Scriptures in the universal Greek language. Wherever possible they organized synagogues, which became the religious and cultural centers of their communities. Attracted to the synagogues were many Gentiles – proselytes and other lesser adherents known as ‘God-fearing men.’”
Paul had a strategy for missions that was deeply rooted in the historical work God was doing through Israel. As a result of the dispersion of Jewish people throughout the ancient world, beachheads were established in cities and far-flung regions at the edges of ancient empires. The early church used these as bases of ministry and outreach. It just made sense to Paul to start with “the Jews first, and then the Greeks.” It was a no-brainer.
Old Testament Cross-cultural Missions
In his book Mission in the Old Testament, Walter C. Kaiser documents the theology of cross-cultural missions throughout the Old Testament. It’s not a modern movement. It’s God’s plan from the beginning.
Many look at Jewish involvement in the spread of the knowledge of God as a failed “Plan A” that ended with the incarnation of Christ and Him launching “Plan B,” the church. The story of Jonah is a perfect metaphor for Jewish attitudes (although similar attitudes and prejudices can be observed in the modern times). In his book, Kaiser helps us step back and look at the big picture. He demonstrates the missionary heart of God as He calls Jonah to bring a message of repentance to Nineveh. “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” God asks Jonah.
God is concerned about all cities, great and small. Indeed, He is concerned for every soul.
Inward and Outward
There are two types of motion that describe the direction energy travels as an object spins: centripetal and centrifugal.
Centripetal – “Inward-moving.” A term used to describe the more passive attitude many think they observe in the Old Testament obligation to witness to Gentiles. The burden rested on the unreached to take the initiative to become converts to the faith according to this view.
Centrifugal – “Outward-moving.” This is the word used to describe the active work of Old Testament believers to aggressively take the message of the Good News about the coming Man of Promise to the Gentile world around them.
Paul was a centrifugal force constantly moving outward looking for the direction to focus the energy that was flowing through him by the Holy Spirit. He intelligently processed through everything he had ever learned about God, his own Jewish heritage, and Old Testament scriptures. He circumspectly filtered his daily experiences and opportunities through these to determine the direction God was calling him in. He trusted God to go before him and blaze the trail. God brought a harvest everywhere Paul went. If this is what God did, then this is what God is still doing.
Here are some questions for you to consider:
• How are you filtering your daily opportunities through your experiences, opportunities, knowledge of God’s Word, and leading of the Holy Spirit?
• What are the most practical next steps you can take in the ministry God has called you to?
• What areas of your life are you bearing fruit?
• Don’t rule out geography. Where in God’s world have you experienced a harvest?
Commit these questions to prayer. Thinking and praying through these and writing down your thoughts in a journal will be helpful. The practice will help you discern where in the world you’re called to do God’s work. As you prayerfully commit your dreams and plans to His will and leading, He will definitely go before you to prepare the way.