For better or for worse, some passages of Scripture are just confusing. I’m sure you’ve all had times where you’ve mulled over the meaning of some Bible verse, wondering why in the world the Good Lord couldn’t have had the inspired author write more clearly.
One of those passages is 1 Corinthians 15:24, 25, & 28, verses which are frequently employed by those who don’t believe in the Divinity of Christ: “He must reign until He has put all enemies under His feet…then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to [God the Father] … When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself will be subjected to the one who put all things beneath Him, that God may be all in all” (NASB).
Does this not sound like the Son will reign for a time, and then stop reigning, give everything to the Father, and undergo voluntary subjection to the Father? Doesn’t it imply, almost, an inferiority of the Son? Well, it seems to. But there’s a lot to be unpacked here, so let’s take it piece by piece.
We’ll start with the issue of the Son “handing over the kingdom”, then go into the issue of His subjection to the Father, and finally, we’ll address the problem of Him “reigning until” He has subjected all things. In the first respect (that of Christ handing the Kingdom over to Father), it’s helpful to turn to three particular verses from the Gospel of John. Early on in there, John the Baptist says (3:35), “The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand.” Then in John 16:15, Christ Himself says to the Apostles, “All things that the Father has are Mine”; and finally, in His prayer to the Father, He says, “All that is Yours is Mine, and all that is Mine is Yours” (17:10).
We need to bear this principle in mind: all that is the Son’s is the Father’s, and all that is the Father’s is the Son’s. What does this mean with regard to the Son “handing over the Kingdom”? It means that, although the Son gives it to the Father, the Father, having “given all things into Son’s hand” out of love for the Son, does not seize it for Himself, however much He would have a right to do so, but instead gives it back to the Son, due to the infinite and selfless love between the two. Furthermore, because “all things that the Father has” are the Son’s, then even though the Son gives the heavenly Kingdom to the Father, He does not lose it Himself, because as long as the Father has it, the Son has it in equal measure. Either way, the Son does not lose the Kingdom or cease to rule over it by giving it to the Father.
Now, let’s look at the issue of the Son “being subjected”, shall we?
There are several ways to answer this, but for the moment, we’ll stick with the most commonly-used one. Many who comment on difficult Christ-centered passages of Scripture use the following principle to interpret them. Some of you are probably familiar with it already, but it’s good to bear in mind whether you’ve heard it or not. As mentioned by St. Augustine in his work On the Trinity, “[T]he Son of God is both understood to be equal to Father according to the form of God … and less than the Father according to the form of a servant which He took” (Book II, Chapter I). Now, we do want to be careful here, so that we avoid Nestorianism. The Son is not two persons, one divine, one human. He is one divine Person, who has taken to Himself a human nature. Although He is a divine Person, however, He still has, in His human nature, all the “attributes” of humanity (except sin), attributes which include inferiority to God.
With this principle in mind, that the Son is equal to the Father as God, but less than the Father as man, let’s consider it more deeply. St. Paul writes that Christ “became obedient” in His “humbled” nature (Phil. 2:8). So one of the primary arguments you’ll find to explain the Son “subjecting Himself” is that He is subjected as man, and that’s what the passage is getting at. This might seem too simple at first glance, but with further inspection, it actually makes a lot of sense, as we’ll see, and it isn’t just a weak attempt to explain the verse. So how does this work?
St. Paul says in the context of the verse above that Christ humbled Himself and became obedient in that form He took “as a servant” (2:7). Well, we know that Christ kept His human nature, His “servant” and “obedient” nature, even after the Resurrection, and has it even now in Heaven. So it actually makes perfect sense to say that He would still be obedient and subservient in this form, for as long as He has it (which will be forever). Yes, He is equal to God. Yes, the Father’s kingdom is going to be the Son’s, since the Father gives it to the Son as much as the Son gives it to the Father, as I hopefully demonstrated above. Thus, there should be no question for us about the inferiority of one Divine Person to another, and we shouldn’t think that one Divine Person possesses the Kingdom of Heaven while another is without it. And yet, precisely because He is permanently man, and thus permanently obedient, the Son will always be subservient as man (though not as God), and will always be “subjected” to the Father according to that subservient nature.
St Augustine had somewhat similar explanation for this issue. He said it’s possible that the passage was written this way in order to show that the Son does not give up His “subjected” nature of humanity, that it does not go away at the end of time, but that He is now, forever, man as well as God, inferior as well as equal, to the Heavenly Father (De Trinitate, Book I, Ch. 8).
Finally, there comes the issue of what seems to be the “temporary” nature of the Son’s reign, thanks to the word “until” (“He must reign until He has put all enemies under His feet”). The first thing I’d like to do is point out something that the infallible voice of God the Father says to the Son, according to St. Paul: “But to the Son, God says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; the scepter of Your kingdom is a scepter of justice'” (Hebrews 1:8, emphasis mine). If God Himself says the Son will reign forever, that should give us pause in interpreting any verses that seem to run contrary to this idea. Something to remember here is that, many times in Scripture, the word “until” will be used in such a way that it doesn’t mean “up to a certain point, but not after that”. For example, in Genesis 28:15, God says to Jacob, “I will be with you and protect you wherever you go, and I will bring you into this land, for I will not leave you until I have done as I have said” (emphasis mine). Would anyone say in this case that God is going to depart Jacob after He has done as He promised? Or, from the New Testament, there is the statement concerning Joseph that he did not “know Mary” (i.e., engage in marital relations with her) until she gave birth to Jesus (Matt. 1:25). But this does not by any means imply that Joseph and Mary did anything of the sort after the birth of Christ. Indeed, the stance of the Catholic Church in this regard, as well as that of John Calvin and Martin Luther, has been to interpret the word “until” in such a way that it doesn’t imply that the consummation of their marriage occurred later (you can read Calvin’s commentary here, and many sources from Luther on the matter are quoted here). In any case, the use of the word “until” concerning the reign of the Son does not, by any means, imply that His reign is going to end.
With all this said, I hope I’ve been helpful in some way with regard to this passage. God bless and keep you as we approach Christmas.