The equality of Jew and Gentile before God is a key theme in Romans. Both stand or fall before Him on the same basis – Romans 1:15-16.
Paul wrote to the churches of Rome with two purposes in mind. First, to prepare the ground for his planned visit to the city. Second, to deal with conflicts between Jewish and Gentile believers. In the first half of the letter, he presents a detailed explanation of his gospel, and in the second, he deals with questions about the status of the Jewish people and the specific conflicts in the congregation.
Paul planned to take the gospel to the Iberian Peninsula and support by the Roman church was important to this effort. Paul had not been to Rome in his previous missionary activities, and someone else had established the faith there, and this placed limitations on his apostolic authority. Thus, he needed to establish his credentials with believers in the imperial city.
But the church at Rome was experiencing tensions between Jewish and Gentile believers, including, apparently, disagreements over dietary restrictions and calendrical observations. Based on his years of dealing with Jewish and Gentile believers, the Apostle was certainly qualified to address these issues.
- (Romans 1:8-12) – “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is proclaimed throughout the whole world… And I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that often I purposed to come to you that I might have some fruit among you also, even as in the rest of the Gentiles. I am debtor both to Greeks and to Barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you also that are in Rome.”
- (Romans 1:15-16) – “I am ready to preach the gospel to you also that are in Rome. 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.”
Thus, from the outset of his letter, Paul points to the role of the gospel for both Jews and Gentiles. And by “first” he does not mean that Jewish believers have special privileges over Gentiles, as his subsequent stress on their equality with Gentiles demonstrates.
The conflict between Jew and Gentile believers is key to understanding the letter, and it has influenced how Paul presents his gospel. For example, he warned that “tribulation and anguish will befall every man who works evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Greek.” Likewise, there will be glory and honor for everyone who does that which is good – “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” – (Romans 2:9-10).
Israel certainly did receive the privilege offered to no other nation; namely, the possession of the Law, but that also came with special responsibilities and heightened penalties for failure to keep it. It was not the “hearers of the law” who were justified before God, “but the doers of the law.” And, though they may not possess the law of Moses, many Gentiles “by nature do the things required by the law.”
Both “Jews and Greeks are all under sin.” The one God of Israel is also the “God of the Gentiles.” In the end, both men who sin “under the law” (Jews) and “without the law” (Gentiles) find themselves judged by the one God of all, and He will not show partiality on the “day of wrath.” Obedience counts, NOT ethnicity or nationality.
Neither was Paul suggesting that believing Gentiles are better than Jewish saints. “Are we better than they? No, certainly not; for we before charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin.” In this verse, “we” refers to Jewish believers in contrast to Gentile Christians. All have “sinned and lack the glory of God.” Likewise, all will be saved in the same way, whether Jew or Gentile and that “through the faith of Jesus Christ for all that believe, for there is no distinction” – (Romans 3:1-26).
The issue becomes front-and-center in chapters 9 through 11, where Paul deals with the challenge, “Has the word of God failed?” Despite possessing the ordinances and covenant promises, collectively, Israel had rejected her Messiah. So, had God likewise rejected the Jewish people? Most emphatically, Paul declares, “No!” But his explanation includes aspects applicable to both groups, Jews and Gentiles alike.
Not all “Israel are of Israel, neither because they are Abraham’s seed are they all children.” It is not biological descent that determines membership in the covenant people, but the faithful response to the gospel. Paul himself provided clear evidence that God had not rejected the Jewish people, for he was Jewish and a believer in Jesus. And likewise, many other Jews had accepted Jesus as their Messiah.
The many “wild branches” had been “grafted into the olive tree” because of their faith, that is, Gentile believers. But at the same time, many of the “natural branches” had been “cut off” from the ONE olive tree “because of their unbelief,” that is, non-believing Jews. But the “natural branches” may yet be grafted in if they come to faith, just as the “wild branches” previously grafted onto the tree may yet find themselves “cut off” for unbelief. Once again, faith is the determining factor, not nationality or biological descent.
In chapter 14, Paul applies practical lessons to the immediate problems in Rome, especially on matters of food and calendar. When he concludes the presentation of his gospel, the issue of Jew and Gentile is still very much at the center. Jesus was sent to Israel to “confirm the promises to the fathers.” But those promises always envisioned the inclusion of the Gentiles:
- “As it is written, Therefore, will I give praise to you among the Gentiles… Rejoice, you Gentiles, with his people… Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles; and let all the peoples praise him… There shall be the root of Jesse, and he that arises to rule over the Gentiles, on him shall the Gentiles hope” – (Romans 15:8-12).
In all this, Paul refers to only one church and one people of God, now comprised of believing “Jews and Gentiles” put in right standing before God “from the faith of Jesus Christ.” The gospel preached by the Apostle is the “power of God for salvation for everyone who believes, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.”