Jesus’ self-designated title of Son of Man is a mystery to many. What does Son of Man “represent”?
One of my favorite movies is Elizabeth, starring Cate Blanchett. What strikes me about the Virgin Queen was that she truly personified England as the up and coming European empire in the 16th century. As she matured over her long forty-four year reign, England grew along with her to become a decisive world power. Elizabeth never simply spoke nor acted on her own. She represented England as a nation. She was not just a queen. She was England.
To “represent” some entity has an interesting etymology. It is derived from a Latin phrase meaning “to present”, or “to symbolize, to be the embodiment of”.
Earlier on Veracity, we explored how Jesus as God’s “Son” lives out the same type of life that the nation of Israel was originally supposed to do as God’s “son” in the Old Testament. Israel was disobedient, but Jesus obediently fulfills what God intended Israel to do. Jesus somehow embodies all of what the nation of Israel is meant to be. How do we clarify what it means to say that Jesus represented Israel?
As discussed previously on Veracity, the theme of Son of Man in the Gospels goes back to Daniel 7, what scholars call the apocalyptic “one like a son of man” passage. More than any other part of the Old Testament, Jesus draws on this allusion to the Son of Man in Daniel 7 as the primary way of understanding who He really is. Does Daniel give us some more insight into the idea of son of man?
Look again at Daniel 7:13-14 (ESV), and notice how the language is used about the one like a son of man:
…there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him….
Later in Daniel 7, there are multiple references that show the same language about the one like a son of man as being the same with respect to the “saints of the Most High”. Here is one of those passages:
And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him (Daniel 7:27 ESV).
Who are these saints of the Most High? The kingdom, dominion and greatness given to this one like a son of man is also given to the saints of the Most High. Jewish readers before the time of Christ wrestled with the identity of these “saints”. Were they angels? Some have made this argument, but a reasonable consensus of scholars (for example, see James Dunn here) now argues that the predominant theme in first century Judaism identified these “saints” with the faithful remnant of believers who had not forsaken the worship of the Hebrew God.
In other words, the saints of the Most High are true Israel! Daniel 7 suggests then that the one like a son of man is a representation of Israel. So what is meant in the Gospels when Jesus says that He is the Son of Man? Is He the one and truly unique representation of Israel?
Jesus talks about not abolishing but rather fulfilling the Law of Moses. The Israelite nation understands themselves as a Sabbath-keeping people, and yet the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. Temple-worship is central to the worship life of ancient Judaism and yet Jesus claims to be the master over the Temple. Is this Son of Man taking the authority of the Law and the Temple and identifying that authority within Himself? Is this representation by Jesus including all of the hopes and dreams associated with the Hebrew people that God has called up as descendants of Abraham? Is this what it means to say that “Jesus is Israel”?
Jesus: King of the Jews?
Christians throughout the ages have affirmed that Jesus does truly represent Israel, though some of the details about this affirmation varies across the Christian church, as we will explore in future Veracity posts. But for now, we should be able to see the central idea that Jesus as the Son of Man embodies at least some, if not all, of the prophetic expectations of Israel. It is a key theological underpinning that gets at the heart of Jesus’ identity. By representing Israel, Jesus is claiming something for Himself that only properly belongs to a legitimate representative of the nation…. such as a king. In comparison, despite her greatness, Queen Elizabeth pales in significance to the royal claim of Jesus.
Do you see the connection back to what we know of Jewish expectations for a Messiah? While the Jews were not always clearly unified on what the Messiah would look like, the general theme was that they expected a king, like the renowned King David of years earlier, to come and fulfill that messianic role. Now, here comes Jesus claiming as the unique Son of Man to be the true and proper representative of all of Israel. Surely, some who heard and saw Jesus might have wondered, “Could this be the one we have been waiting for? Could this be the promised King? Could this be …. the Messiah?”
However, Jesus did not stop there. He went further by radically reinterpreting the traditional claim of what the Messiah would come and do. We will examine more of this in future posts on Veracity.
This short clip from a sermon by John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, gets at the heart of the relationship between Jesus and Israel. Here, Piper explains that Jesus is the new “Bethel”, or the “house of God” where God dwells: