Jesus talks about being the “Son of Man” eighty-one times in the New Testament. The term is Jesus’ favorite designation for Himself in the Gospels. So, what is the deal with this “Son of Man” stuff anyway?
“Son of Man = Messiah = Divinity of Christ“. For years, I merely assumed this to be true, simply out of reflex of being a Christian. But if it is true, why is it true? I never really thought about it that much. Recently, our small group Bible study has been looking at the Gospel of Luke, and every now and then there are puzzled looks whenever Jesus speaks of this Son of Man. As I observe everyone scrambling to read their study bible notes, I know that I am not alone in my why question.
A number of critics complain that Christians read way, way too much into this phrase. The Son of Man as the Messiah? Mmmm. How so? Furthermore, the Bible never explicitly equates Son of Man with “divinity”. Are followers of Jesus getting ahead of the Bible when asserting the messianic, divine meaning of Son of Man? Can a believer in Christ reasonably defend such a claim?
Interestingly enough, if you search the entire New Testament outside of the Gospels and Stephen’s last statement before being stoned to death (Acts 7:56) , Jesus is never, ever referred to as being Son of Man. Paul never uses the term in his letters. Furthermore, no one in the Gospels calls Jesus Son of Man, except that the people do ask Him about it in John 12:34. Jesus is the only one to use the phrase. I mean, is this not rather odd?
So, Who is This Son of Man?
But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. (Mark 13:24-26)
The student of the Old Testament will recognize this as pointing back to Daniel 7:
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed (Daniel 7:13-14 NIV).
Generally speaking, son of man simply means a “human being”. But in approaching the Ancient of Days, who is God, this one like a son of man is invested by God with things like authority, worship, and dominion. This is really peculiar, isn’t it? How is it that this one like a human being is attributed with characteristics typically reserved for God alone? However, many scholars of ancient Judaism urge caution at this point. There is very little evidence of one like a son of man as being equated with God, much less as the Messiah, in pre-Christian Judaism in the period when Daniel was written. After all, all Jews know that there is only one God and all human beings are subject to Him.
The message of Daniel is important because the prophetic context for the book is set within ancient Babylon, where the people of Israel had been sent off into exile. Daniel’s radical message is that the currently marginalized Israel will be vindicated in the future. The Jews have been beat up pretty badly but the day is coming when their sufferings will be over. The Jews have hope now since God intends to fully restore Israel and defeat all of Israel’s enemies. One like a son of man is tied to fulfilling this hope.
When we get to the Gospels, there is a dramatic shift in the usage of son of man. In Daniel, the indefinite article is used, but Jesus uses it with the definite article. For Jesus, “the” Son of Man now assumes the form of a title.
What makes the Son of Man subject even more challenging is all of the peculiar images associated with Son of Man in both Daniel and the sayings of Jesus, such as a darkened sun, falling stars, and clouds of heaven. The technical term Bible scholars use for this type of language is apocalyptic, which is something we will look at in another Veracity blog post. The main idea suggested here is that Jesus is using this loaded term “the” Son of Man partly in a generic way. But partly also He uses it to reveal something about Himself, His mission, and the restoration of Israel that has remained hidden from the people until that present time in first century Palestine. Yes, Jesus is a human being, but there is definitely more to the story … a whole lot more!
Are you scratching your head a little bit? That’s OK. Bible scholars of all stripes have been debating the topic of Son of Man for centuries. If there is a consensus about Son of Man it is that this enigmatic phrase gets your attention. Jesus never simply jumps out and says, “Hey, yall! I am the Messiah and the Second Person of the Godhead. Get it?” No, instead He uses this veiled language to keep people guessing as to who He really is. As the bystanders and followers of Jesus watch Him heal the sick, forgive sins, and talk about his impending death, they are drawn into the mystery of His story. As you look for Son of Man in the Gospels yourself and ask God to reveal Himself, you will be drawn into that mystery, too.
Some of you are probably thinking, “Now wait just a minute! Clarke, you have a lot of things going on here. Christians do believe that Jesus as ‘Son of Man’ is also the Messiah, along with being the Second Divine Person within the Godhead. Assuming that this all fits together somehow, how then do you get from ‘Son of Man’ to ‘Messiah’, much less to the Triune God?” That is a great question. I am glad you asked. I have hinted at the answer already, but stay tuned for more Veracity blog posts in the future to explore these issues in greater depth.
The Common English Bible (CEB) is a fairly new English translation that substitutes the phrase “Son of Man” with “Human One”. Explore the controversy behind this translation decision here.
Do you want a quick “deep dive” into the “Son of Man”? Mark Goodacre is a British New Testament scholar teaching at Duke University. Goodacre does not have an evangelical theology as best as I can tell, being more of a moderate on the theological spectrum. But he has a podcast that covers New Testament issues from a historical perspective that a number of evangelicals find helpful. Here is an 11-minute survey of issues surrounding “Son of Man” in the Bible: