Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Everlasting Subservience of Jesus Christ

     There are basically four views on the Son’s subjection to the Father: (1) Eternal Sonship – Jesus has always been and always will be subservient to the Father; (2) Everlasting Sonship – Jesus became subservient to the Father at the incarnation and forever remains in this role; (3) Epochal Sonship – Jesus temporarily became subservient to the Father at the incarnation but resumed full equality when he returned to heaven; (4) Extended Epochal Sonship – Jesus became subservient to the Father at the incarnation and remains in this position until the scheme of redemption is complete at the final judgment, then he returns to full equality.

Eternal Sonship?

     The Nicene Creed (AD 325) affirms that Jesus Christ is “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father …” This concept rests on scriptural affirmations of the Father having sent the Son (John 20:21; Gal. 4:4; 1 John 4:10, 14; cf. John 3:16), the Son having been manifested (1 John 3:8), and the Son’s involvement in creation (Col. 1:13-16;1 Heb. 1:2). These passages, it is argued, seem to imply that the Father-Son relationship existed long before the incarnation.
     An initial response is one of consistency. The Bible also speaks of “Jesus Christ” having been sent (John 17:3; cf. 6:29; 7:28, 33; 8:42; Luke 9:47-48) and manifested (2 Tim. 1:9-10; cf. Rom. 16:25-26; Heb. 9:24-28; 1 Pet. 1:19-20; 1 John 1:2-3). Yet, predictive prophecy notwithstanding, he was not known as either “Jesus” or “the Christ” prior to his incarnation (cf. Matt. 1:16, 17, 18, 21, 25). These are simply instances of prolepsis – representing something as existing before it actually does. For example, if a history teacher were to say, “President Lincoln was born in Kentucky,” no one would infer from this statement that baby Abraham was already president of the United States at the time of his birth. Because he is currently remembered as President Lincoln, it is natural to speak of him this way, even when describing events before his presidency. If the designation “Jesus Christ” were substituted for “the Son” in the scriptures cited above, the meaning would be the same.

Incarnational Sonship

     The Father-Son relationship has not always been. It began when Jesus became human, and the Son has been subject to the Father since the incarnation. In Luke’s account of the birth narrative, the angel Gabriel proclaims to Mary: “he will be great and will be called Son of [the] Highest …. the holy [one] being born will be called Son of God” (Luke 1:31-35).2 The future tense indicates that the Lord was recognized as “Son” in conjunction with his human conception and birth, not before. There are only three references to Jesus as “Son” in the Old Testament (Psa. 2:7, 12; Dan. 7:13), and all of these are prophetic. Though existing in the form of God, Jesus humbled himself by taking on human flesh (John 1:1, 14; Phil. 2:5-8). Jesus as “the Son of God” implies both equality (of nature) and subordination (of role) <see Son of God>.

Everlasting Sonship

     In the context of discussing Christ’s return and the general resurrection, the apostle Paul writes: “But when all things shall have been put into subjection to him [God], then also the Son himself will be put into subjection to the [one] having put all things in subjection to him, that God might be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). This seems to indicate that Jesus’ subordinate status, which began at his conception and birth, continues through eternity.
     Using Philippians 2:5-11 as an outline, let’s recap what has been covered in previous studies in this series and carry through to a reasonable conclusion. Note the following about Jesus: (a) “existing in the form of God” (vv. 5-6); (b) “emptied [kenóō] himself” (vv. 7-8); (c) “God has highly exalted him” (vv. 9-11).
     First, Christ “existing in the form of God” (Phil. 2:5-6) affirms his divine essence (John 1:1-3; 20:26-29; Col. 1:15-19; 2:9; Rev. 1:7-8, 17-18; 22:12-13), and thus his equality with God (John 5:17-18; 8:23-24, 58; 10:30-33; 17:5). His inherent nature cannot change (cf. Heb. 13:8).
     Second, he “emptied [kenóō] himself” (Phil. 2:7-8), which is an allusion to becoming a flesh-and-blood human being (John 1:14; Heb. 5:7; 10:5, 20), subject to every emotion, discomfort, temptation, trial, etc., as we are. In Heb. 2:9-18, which highlights his oneness with mankind, we are told in v. 17 that he became like us katá pánta, “in all things” or “in every respect.” In other words, he had no undue advantage over the rest of humanity. Jesus did not cease being God; he could not discontinue being who he inherently was (John 10:30-33; 20:28). But in becoming a man he did “empty” [kenóō] himself of something. As a human, Jesus gave up the rights, privileges, advantages, prerogatives, and powers of deity <see Son of Man>. His miraculous ability was not inherently his own; it was given to him by the Father through the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:38; cf. Matt. 9:8; 12:28; Luke 3:22; 4:1, 14-19; John 3:2; 5:36; Acts 2:22). Whatever Jesus needed to confirm his identity and message was supplied to him by the Father, but in his everyday life as a human being Jesus had no unfair advantage over the rest of us. His sinless perfection as a human was not attributable to his divine nature but to his complete submission to the will of the Father (John 5:30; 6:38; 8:29).
     Finally, Paul says, “God has highly exalted him” (Phil. 2:9-11); i.e., Christ has been exalted to a position higher than his earthly role but not to his former state of full equality with God. Note that God has exalted him and given him the lofty name; everyone will confess that “Jesus Christ [is] Lord” (his human name); and all of this is “to the glory of God the Father.” The Father-Son relationship continues and Christ’s submission to the Father remains.
     Note Matthew 28:18 affirms that all authority has been given to Christ; it is derived, not inherent. His oneness with humanity and the consequent subservience to God the Father has not changed. After his death and resurrection, Jesus did not stop being a “flesh and bones” human (Luke 24:39-40). After his ascension into heaven and in view of the coming judgment, Jesus is still referred to as a “man” (Acts 7:55-56; 13:38; 17:30-31; 1 Tim. 2:5). Whatever Jesus is now, we will be like him some day, after the judgment (1 John 3:2); his brotherhood with humanity has not ceased nor will it ever cease.
     At the end of time Jesus will continue to be subject to God the Father (1 Cor. 15:24-28). The sacrifice Jesus made for us began at his incarnation but did not end at the cross – it is everlasting. Jesus forever gave up complete equality with God (including the rights, privileges, and powers of deity), never to take it up again. [Note: his divine essence remains intact, but so does his subservience]. The penalty for sin is forever (Matt. 25:46), so the price that Jesus paid for our sins has no end.3

But What About Christ’s Exaltation and Glorification?

     Those who take the Epochal View of Christ’s Sonship (his having returned to full equality) argue their case based primarily on John 17:5 and Phil. 2:9. In Gethsemane Jesus prayed, “and now glorify me, Father, with yourself, with the glory [dóxa] that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5). Then Paul affirms, “God has highly exalted him” (Phil. 2:9).
     As to Jesus’ request to regain his former “glory,” the fundamental question is: what does “glory” [dóxa] actually mean, and does it cancel out subservience to the Father? Gordon Fee has likened the attempt to define dóxa to trying to pick up mercury between one’s fingers. In the same context, Jesus says that the “glory” [dóxa] the Father gave him was also given to the apostles (John 17:22). In fact, all faithful disciples will share in this glory (Rom. 2:7, 10; 8:18, 21; 9:23; 1 Cor. 2:7; 2 Cor. 3:18; 4:17; Eph. 1:18; 3:13; Phil. 3:21; Col. 1:27; 3:4; 1 Thess. 2:12; 2 Thess. 2:14; 2 Tim. 2:10; Heb. 2:10; 1 Pet. 1:7; 5:1, 4, 10).4 There are numerous other passages wherein dóxa does not and cannot mean equality with God (Matt. 6:29; Luke 2:32; 4:6; 12:27; 14:10; 7:18; Rom. 9:4; 1 Cor. 11:7, 15; 15:40-43; 2 Cor. 3:7-11; Phil. 3:19; 1 Thess. 2:20; Heb. 2:7; 1 Pet. 1:24). Whatever Jesus meant in his John 17 prayer, and however the request was answered, do not change the ongoing Father-Son relationship and the subordinate status it entails.
     As to being “highly exalted” (Phil. 2:9), I would suggest this refers to his exalted position higher than his earthly role but doesn’t necessarily mean a return to his pre-incarnate status. The Father-Son relationship remains. The subordination of Christ is not ontological (as per essence or being) but functional (as per the scheme of redemption).

That God May Be All in All

     What, then, is meant by the concluding statement of 1 Cor. 15:28, “that God may be all in all”? Similar terminology is used by Paul in other passages, although he is addressing different audiences in different circumstances grappling with different issues, pertaining to God (Rom. 11:33-36), Christ (Col. 3:11), and the church (Eph. 1:22-23) respectively. If the reference to “God” in 1 Cor. 15:28 is synonymous with “the Father” (cf. v. 24), this would indicate that Christ’s subservience continues through eternity for the Father’s glory. If, however, this is a broader reference to the entire Godhead, perhaps the meaning is that Christ’s subservience ends, and then complete equality within the triune Godhead resumes (the Extended Epochal View of Sonship). While it is unlikely that anyone on earth today has the final answer, here are my thoughts.

The Corinthian Context

     Within the immediate context, both before and after the statement in question, there is a clear distinction between “God” and “Christ” (1 Cor. 15:15, 57); the same occurs throughout the epistle (1:1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 24, 30; etc.). Within this particular discourse, “the kingdom of God the Father” (15:24) is synonymous with “the kingdom of God” (15:50). Earlier in the epistle Paul has reminded his readers of the functional hierarchy within the Godhead: “you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (3:23); “… and God is head of Christ” (11:3). In stark contrast to the polytheistic environment of first-century Corinth, Paul has reminded his readers that there is “no other God but one …. one God, the Father, of whom [are] all things, and we for him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom [are] all things …” (8:4-6). Paul has also stated, “but all things are from God” (11:12).
     There doesn’t appear to have been a problem among the Corinthians concerning their allegiance to Christ (cf. 1:6, 9, 12; 3:10-11, 23; 4:15). Yet for some reason Paul places great emphasis on “God” throughout 1 Corinthians (84x): the will of God (1:1), the church[es] of God (1:2; 10:32; 11:16, 22; 15:9), the grace of God (1:4; 3:10; 15:10), the power of God (1:18, 24; 2:5), the wisdom of God (1:21, 24, 30; 2:7), the Spirit of God (2:10-14; 3:16; 6:11, 19; 7:40; 12:3), the deep things of God (2:10, 11; 4:1), the gifts of God (2:12; 3:6, 7; 7:7, 17), the field of God (3:9), the building of God (3:9), the temple of God (3:16, 17; 6:19, 20), the kingdom of God (4:20; 6:9, 10; 15:24, 50), the commandments of God (7:19), the faithfulness of God (10:13), the glory of God (10:31; 11:7), the word of God (14:36), the knowledge of God (15:34).
     It is possible that the Corinthians were losing sight of God's preeminence, with a lopsided devotion to Christ. The top of the hierarchical arrangement is God, with access granted to him through Christ. Perhaps the Corinthian slogan “I am of Christ” (1:12) was a henotheistic way of exalting Christ as the only God,5 and Paul has to remind them, “… Christ is God’s” (3:23); “… God is head of Christ” (11:3). This would explain the heavy emphasis on God throughout the epistle, the unique discussion in 15:23-28, and the ensuing reprimand, “for some do not have the knowledge of God. I speak to your shame” (15:34). This in no way diminishes the preeminence of Christ (which is the issue that needed to be addressed in Colossians), but simply redirects some of the misguided notions of the Corinthians at the time.


     While God is the First and the Last (Isa. 44:6; Rev. 1:8), this does not exclude Jesus the Son (Rev. 1:17-18; 2:8; 22:12-13, 16). From a metaphysical perspective, God is “all in all” in the sense of one God united in three divine Persons. From a soteriological perspective, God is “all in all” in the sense that each member of the triune Godhead has a role to play in the redemptive plan, including the subordination and sacrifice of the Son. From an eschatological perspective, God is “all in all” in the sense that God ultimately wins in the end. This latter emphasis seems to be the best fit in the immediate argument of 1 Cor. 15.
--Kevin L. Moore

     1 In Colossians 1:13 Paul speaks of “the kingdom of his beloved Son” following multiple allusions to the Lord Jesus Christ (vv. 1, 3, 4, 10). As the apostle goes on to speak of creation, his emphasis is not on “the Son” per se but on the one now regarded as the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
     2 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation, with emphasis added.
     3 For an opposing view, see Earl D. Edwards, “End-Times Teaching in First Corinthians 15” (manuscript for 2017 FHU Lectureship, pp. 5-11). Bro. Edwards concedes the permanence of the incarnation but argues that Jesus is now fully restored in glory and equality with the Father.
     4 Note also the angels (Luke 9:26) and departed saints (Luke 9:31).
     5 See J. Moffatt, First Corinthians 249-52. Henotheism, common in the first-century Greco-Roman world, is a form of polytheism that acknowledges multiple deities, while regarding one of them (e.g. Zeus/Jupiter) as the supreme god.

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