What did Paul mean when he said that at the end "the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all" (1 Cor. 15:28)?*
In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul is responding to those who maintained that there is no resurrection from the dead. His central argument is that "if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins," and the dead Christians are lost (verses 17, 18). In verses 20-28, the apostle discusses the theological consequences and implication of that conclusion.
1. The Resurrection of Jesus as Firstfruits: Paul affirms, "Christ has indeed been raised from the dead" and calls that event "the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep" (verse 20). The resurrection of Jesus is a harbinger of a future resurrection-harvest and makes that harvest possible. To illustrate, Paul contrasts the experience of Adam with that of Jesus. Death came through Adam; life through Christ. The phrase "in Adam all die" not only means that his descendants received through him, as their representative, the results of his sin, but also that they aligned themselves with him (Rom. 5:12). Those who are "in Christ" are those who have chosen Him. While the whole human race is by nature and personal choice in Adam, only those who chose salvation through Christ are in Him and "will be made alive" (1 Cor. 15:22).
2. Order of End-time Events: Christ's resurrection assured the resurrection of believers. The next event is the resurrection of "those who belong to him" (verse 23). This is an interpretation of the previous phrase, "in Christ all [those who belong to him] will be made alive" (verse 22). They are the harvest of which Christ is the firstfruits. This event will occur "when he comes."
That resurrection is followed by the "end," the consummation of God's plan, when Christ's victory over evil is consummated. The Messianic kingdom will last until Christ totally defeats those powers. The phrase "to put . . . under his feet" is a military phrase, referring to Christ's victory over the enemy. Paul does not detail how and when this will happen-whether in conjunction with or some time after the return of Christ. John's scenario fits well into Paul's summary. In that case the "end" will include the millennial reign of Christ (Messianic kingdom) followed by the total extermination of the wicked and of death itself (Rev. 20).
3. "That God May Be All in All": At the close of the cosmic conflict everything will be brought into subjection to the Son of God; the saved as well as the wicked will acknowledge the love and justice of God (Phil. 2:10, 11). Cosmic harmony will be a reality, the goal of the plan of salvation will be achieved, and the Son will hand over the kingdom to the Father. God had entrusted to Him the responsibility to restore the human race to its original state of perfection; and the Son, through the redemptive power of His blood, accomplished the task (cf. Col. 1:19, 20). Everyone will be under submission to the Son. It is this redeemed world that Jesus gives back to the Father. Now even the Son is subjected to Him.
The kingdom of the Son, so to speak, merges into the cosmic kingdom of God . This subordination of the Son refers to a functional submission and not a description of inner-Trinitarian relationships (cf. John 1:14; 17:5). As God-incarnate the Son voluntarily submitted Himself to the Father (cf. Matt. 26:39), He was enthroned in the heavenly temple as Savior and King, and He is mediating for us in the heavenly sanctuary (1 Tim. 2:5). At the end of the cosmic conflict the exalted Lord will place Himself under the Father. God will be the sovereign Lord of the universe. Notice that the passage does not say, "that the Father may be all in all," but "that God may be all in all." As part of the Godhead Christ participates in the absolute sovereignty of God, but as the incarnate God He continues to voluntarily submit to the Father. This means that throughout eternity Jesus will remain human. Redeemed humanity voluntarily submitted to God, and now Jesus, who belongs to that humanity, will do the same. That submission is part of His eternal sacrifice on our behalf.
*Texts in this column are quoted from the New International Version.