The question with which we are dealing is this: who are the proper objects of mission work? To whom or to which peoples ought the church direct the preaching of the gospel? In our last contribution we considered whether or not the church should perform mission work among the Jews. This is the question of what is sometimes called “the priority of the Jews.” In that connection we presented a rather lengthy quotation of the late Dr. J.H. Bavinck (cf. Bavinck’s Introduction To The Science of Missions pp. 69-72).
In that book Bavinck takes the position that Scripture makes no distinctions other than that the mission had to “begin at Jerusalem.” In support of his contention Bavinck cites Luke 24:47 and Acts 1:8. In the former passage Christ opened the minds of the disciples so that they understand how the Old Testament Scriptures teach “that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his (Christ’s) name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” In the Acts passage we find Christ saying: “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” Bavinck argues that the Jews enjoyed atemporal priority in that the gospel began at Jerusalem, but this priority holds no longer. The reason for this according to Bavinck is twofold. Israel, because she rejected Christ, forfeited all her rights and privileges with respect to the gospel. Moreover, all the promises to Israel are in principle fulfilled in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Hence, in Bavinck’s opinion, there is no special urgency to do mission work among the Jews.
With this position we must take issue. In Romans chapter eleven the Apostle Paul uses the figure of the olive tree and its branches as an illustration of the church and its members taken from both Jew (the natural branches) and Gentile (the wild branches). In verses seventeen through twenty-six we read, “And if some of the branches be broken off (Israel), and thou, being a wild olive tree (Gentiles), wert graffed in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree; Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be graffed in. Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off. And they also, if they abide not in unbelief, shall be graffed in: for God is able to graff them in again. For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert graffed contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be graffed into their own olive tree? For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened unto Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins.” This passage teaches that the natural branches (Jews), once cut off because of their unbelief, may be graffed into their own good olive tree again. God is able to do that. They may become part of the church once more. This is the special position and privilege of the Jews who are the natural branches of the good olive tree. The wild branches, once cut off because of unbelief, remain cut off. Hence mission work among the Jews ought never be ignored.
As a matter of fact the Apostolic Church certainly did not ignore the Jews, their “kinsmen according to the flesh.” Almost agonizing over their unbelief and rejection of Christ the Apostle Paul ardently desired their salvation. This is what he writes in Romans 9:1-5: “I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh: Who are the Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, Who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.” This is strong language! The Apostle had “great heaviness and continual sorrow” in his heart. He even went so far as to say, “I could wish myself accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.”
This same Apostle, in a beautiful confession in this same letter to the Romans, characterizes the gospel this way: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek (Romans 1:16). It is always to the Jew first and then the Greek. For centuries the gospel was limited to the Israelites, with only a very few exceptions. The ministry of Christ was almost exclusively to the Jews, “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In obedience to Christ’s command and after the pouring out of the Holy Spirit the Apostles began at Jerusalem, proceeded to Samaria and then to the uttermost parts of the world. Even in their going to the uttermost parts of the world the Apostles preached to the Jew first and then the Gentile. The great Apostle Paul who is known in the church as the apostle to the Gentiles followed that procedure in his missionary journeys. Having been ordained by the church at Antioch, Barnabas and Paul embark on their first missionary journey. Concerning the first stop on that journey we read: “And when they were at Salamis, they preached the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews: and they had John also to their minister” (Acts 13:5). The same is true of Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:14). Here Paul preached a rather lengthy sermon to the Jews, showing from the law and the prophets that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ of God. After this sermon we read, “And when the Jews-were gone out of the synagogue, the Gentiles besought that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath” (Acts 13:42). When on the next Sabbath day the unbelieving, envious Jews began contradicting Paul’s preaching, Paul and Barnabas in the boldness of faith had this to say to them: “It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles. For so hath the Lord commanded us saying, I have set thee to be a light of the Gentiles, that thou shouldest be for salvation unto the ends of the earth” (Acts 13:46, 47). Notice how the apostles put that: ‘It was necessary that the ‘word of God should first have been spoken to you.” That was necessary because the gospel is “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” When the gospel was rejected by the Jews the apostles preached to the Gentiles. The fruit of that preaching was this: “And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was published throughout all the region. And the disciples were filled with joy, and with the Holy Ghost” (Acts 13:48, 49, 52). Thus the apostles continued from place to place in spite of the repeated rejection of the gospel and persecution by the Jews. They went first to the synagogues (cf. Acts 14).
It may be said, therefore, that the Jews did enjoy a certain priority as the natural branches of the good olive tree. The gospel came first to them and then to the Gentiles. Indeed it was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to them. Through the Jews’ rejection of the gospel the Word of the Lord goes to the Gentiles. It may also be said that the Jews, still- enjoy a certain priority in that as natural branches of the good olive tree they may be graffed in again. For this very reason, should the Holy Spirit open the door and show the church the way for work among the Jews, the church ought to preach to those people of whom according to the flesh Christ came. This in brief is the Bible’s teaching concerning the Jews and their relationship to and position in the church of all ages.
This does not mean there will be a mass conversion of Jews near the end of the ages as many erroneously teach citing Romans 11. In this connection the restoration of the Jewish state in Palestine has no particular significance from a Biblical point of view. The fact is that God has His elect in every nation under heaven, both Jew and Gentile. These the Son of God will gather by His Spirit through the preaching of the Word. In this great work the church must not and need not be ashamed of the gospel for: “. . .it is the power of God unto salvation, to everyone that believeth, the Jew first and also the Greek.”