“To the Jew first…”

The apostle Paul is typically remembered as “the apostle to the Gentiles.” That’s an accurate description — to a point. Paul was indeed known for his dedicated ministry of evangelism to Gentiles and his insistence that they too were to be included in the family of God, even when such insistence earned him the wrath of his fellow Jews.

Ruins of an ancient synagogue in Ostia, near Rome

But it should never be forgotten that Paul longed for the salvation of his own people, too. Whenever he visited a new city, he typically went first to the synagogue to reason with the Jews there, to try to demonstrate from the Scriptures that Jesus was their long-awaited Messiah. Some believed; most did not. But he kept trying, even when he made it sound like he was ready to give up the effort.

The Rome Paul came to was a complicated place to be a Jew. The previous emperor, Claudius, had earlier expelled some or all of the Jews from the city (Acts 18:2). Roughly five years later, Emperor Nero ended the ban, and the Jews began trickling back.

Not long after that, Paul wrote his final epistle, the letter to the church in Rome. In it, he proclaimed right up front that the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16, NRSV).

To the Jew first. He never gave up hope that his people would believe; he even saw his preaching to the Gentiles as an opportunity to provoke Jews to jealousy, so that they might turn and be saved (Rom 11:14).

A few years after the epistle, Paul arrived bodily in Rome. Under house arrest, he couldn’t visit the local synagogues, so called for the local Jewish leaders to come to him. They did. He was apparently eager to clear the air with them:

Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our ancestors, yet I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans. When they had examined me, the Romans wanted to release me, because there was no reason for the death penalty in my case. But when the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to the emperor—even though I had no charge to bring against my nation. For this reason therefore I have asked to see you and speak with you, since it is for the sake of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.

Acts 28:17-20

Had the Jews in Rome heard anything about Paul? What might they have been thinking when he arrived in the city? Was there the possibility of more trouble?

At one level, Paul was making yet another defense. I’ve always been a faithful Jew, he wanted them to know. The leaders in Jerusalem handed me over to the Romans, but the Romans don’t think I’ve done anything wrong. Still, because the folks in Jerusalem wanted my blood, and because I suspected that Governor Festus might just let them have it, I appealed to the emperor. That’s why I’m here. I want you to know that everything I’ve done, everything I’ve preached, is for the sake of the hope of Israel.

But note that he also says, “I had no charge to bring against my nation.” Paul, apparently, was worried that someone might think he had come to Rome to file a countersuit against the Jerusalem leadership — what we today would call a wrongful prosecution lawsuit. Paul, of course, would never have done such a thing (see, for example, his choice words to the Corinthians who were suing each other; 1 Cor 6:1-8).

But the Jews in Rome didn’t know that. For all Paul knew, they might have thought him a traitor to Israel, in a time and place where Jewish identity was problematic. Proactively, then, he gathered the Jewish leaders of Rome and told them straight out: I’m not here to cause trouble. I’m here for the hope of Israel. I’m a prisoner for the sake of the good news about our Messiah.

Apparently, he needn’t have worried. “Actually,” they responded, “we haven’t heard a peep from Jerusalem about you. Nobody’s said anything bad about you personally. But while we’re at it, we have a question for you. There is a lot of talk about this new sect — some call them Nazarenes — and all of it is bad. We want to know what you think” (Acts 28:21-22).

Talk about an opportunity for evangelism. I imagine Paul saying to himself, Thank you, Jesus. That’s why I’m here!

Without so much as setting a foot out of doors, Paul would again give the good news to the Jew first. We’ll see their response in the next post.

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