Among Protestants, there are those who hold that in the New Testament Israel always means the Christian church, and there is nothing remaining in God’s sovereign plan specifically for ethnic Jews. At the other extreme are the classic dispensationalists who view the church age as something of an unforeseen diversion in God’s dealing with the Jews.
I believe that the Bible teaches that none of these extreme views is correct. God, in His sovereignty does have a plan for the ethnic Jews. They are not saved apart from Christ. Israel, in the New Testament often but not always refers to the church. And there is nothing in scripture supporting the idea that God will remove the parenthetic church and install a Jewish theocracy.
In my opinion, a large part of the confusion stems from looking for answers in all the wrong places. It is not the classic prophetic books such as Daniel and Revelation to which one should turn to seek answers, at least not at first, for each of us has a tendency to conform biblical prophecy to fit our own doctrine. No, the place to start is in the book of Romans, specifically Romans 11. In preparation for a Sunday School lesson in this area, I will spend a few days looking at this text.
Let us begin with the first ten verses of chapter 11:
1, has God cast away His people? Certainly not! For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. 2God has not cast away His people whom He foreknew. Or do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel, saying, 3"LORD, they have killed Your prophets and torn down Your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life"? 4But what does the divine response say to him? "I have reserved for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal." 5Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace. 6And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.This passage describes the Jewish "remnant". Has God totally rejected His people? May it never be! Just like in Elijah’s time, there is a remnant preserved—how?-- by the election of grace. Paul could hardly be more direct: the elect includes not only the Gentiles but also Jews, which almost seems like a silly lesson given that it is coming from the Apostle Paul, himself a Jew, and an extremely rebellious one at that.
7What then? Israel has not obtained what it seeks; but the elect have obtained it, and the rest were blinded. 8Just as it is written:
"God has given them a spirit of stupor,
Eyes that they should not see
And ears that they should not hear,
To this very day."
9And David says:
"Let their table become a snare and a trap,
A stumbling block and a recompense to them.
10Let their eyes be darkened, so that they do not see,
And bow down their back always." (Rom 11:1-10, NKJV)
Later in the chapter Paul will go to even greater rhetorical extremes to warn the Gentiles not to assume that they have supplanted the Jews, but to acknowledge with humility that they have been invited to join the faithful.
So we see that, like Paul, Jews are among the elect. When placed in context with the rest of the New Testament, such as: Jesus said to him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. (John 14:16) the most straightforward conclusion is that these (the remnant) are Jews who convert to Christianity. (Given that my maternal grandfather was a (Russian) Jew, I like to think of myself as part of this remnant!)
Those who would say that Jews can still be saved apart from Christ, as long as they are faithful, would have to conclude, it seems to me, that Paul would have secured eternal life had he remained the "faithful" Saul and never experienced his Damascus Road conversion.
In verse 6 we read: And if [saved] by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work. Here Paul says the remnant is saved by grace, not works, and goes on to point out that the two are mutually exclusive. It’s grace, so it cannot be works, otherwise it’s not grace. We sometimes may dress them up as "works of grace", but those are not works at all, but rather grace working itself out, justifying to the world our otherwise invisible justification before God, which is based on the righteousness of Christ alone.
Paul is not criticizing the Jews for proclaiming they are saved merely because they are Jews. He is not scolding them for relying on their special favor before God. In other places Jews are criticized for this error, and are rebuked by John the Baptist: and do not think to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our father.' For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. (Matt. 3:9). No, Paul is criticizing them for a works based salvation.
Paul writes in verse 7: What then? Israel has not obtained what it seeks; but the elect have obtained it, and the rest were blinded. Here we have a trivial example of a New Testament use of Israel that obviously does not mean the church: it refers to the ethnic nation of Israel. Paul tells us that the nation of Israel has been blinded, although the elect (by which we can assume he is referring specifically to the remnant, although it applies to all the elect) have obtained it (salvation). This conclusion holds whether you take elect to mean the predestined elect or the foreknown elect.