What does the expression “son of man” mean?
This is a title that has various meanings. Generally, we find that this phrase refers simply to a person, a member of the human race. Oftentimes, this term is meant to contrast the weakness and creatureliness of man with the majesty of God. Balaam said;
Num. 23:19God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should change His mind. Does He speak and then not act? Does He promise and not fulfill?
This can be seen in the different ways translators translate the expression “son of man”;
|Ps. 146:3 Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save. 4When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.||Ps. 146:3 Put not your trust in princes, Nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. 4His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; In that very day his thoughts perish.|
God calls Ezekiel by this name many times.
Indeed. God refers to Ezekiel as “son of man” over 90 times . This title might reflect the fact that Ezekiel is a mere mortal man in contrast to God’s own almighty power and majesty. The Jewish encyclopedia denies this and says;
The term “ben adam” [or son of man] is merely a cumbersome but solemn and formal substitute for the personal pronoun, such substitution being due, perhaps, to the influence of Assyro-Babylonian usage.
Why then did Jesus refer to himself using this title? Didn’t He want to show people His divine nature and power?
It is true that Jesus refers to Himself as “son of man” more often than any other title. In fact, this title is rarely used in the rest of the NT except when Jesus uses it to refer to Himself. One explanation as to why Jesus would have adopted this title for Himself is linked to the above idea that “son of man” is a title focusing on a person’s mortality and creatureliness. Some have suggested that Jesus uses this term to refer to His humanity. It was a humble and self-denying way of referring to Himself. Jesus was trying to deflect any idea that He was anything other than a simple human person.
What should we think of this suggestion?
This suggestion seems at once to fly in the face of one important fact. Far from suggesting the idea of simplicity and humility, Jesus uses the title, “son of man,” to make some of His most stupendous claims.
Give an example.
Consider the following texts:
Matt. 9:6But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins….” Then he said to the paralytic, “Get up, take your mat and go home.”
Matt. 12:8For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
Matt. 13:41The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.
Matt. 16:27For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.
Matt.19:28Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
These texts clearly show that Jesus does not adopt this title to remain unnoticed and to show his simple humanity. There must be another reason.
What is this reason?
This reason is that Jesus wants to communicate to His hearers that He is and will be the judge of all men.
How does the title “son of man” communicate the idea that Jesus is and will be the final judge of all men? It seems to directly contradict it.
Because Jesus now uses this title in the sense in which Daniel used it. Daniel prophesied;
7:13In 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. 14He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men 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.
Here Daniel refers to a creature who looked human. He had a human figure. This being, who looks human, is the final and ultimate judge of all men. It is this meaning that Jesus wishes His hearers to grasp.
Where can we see Jesus using the title, “son of man,” in the way Daniel does?
The most clear passage is in Matthew 24 where Jesus says;
30″At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory.
We also see Jesus adopting such a meaning in His explanation of the parable of the weeds;
36Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”
37He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. 38The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.
40″As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.
But Daniel later asks for the interpretation of this vision in which he is told that the “One like a son of man” is “the saints, the people of the Most High” (7:27). How can this refer to the individual person of Jesus?
Here we must understand that the suffering servant is also represented as a community. Dodd explains this by showing that sometimes a community serves God with such singleness of purpose that they are represented as one person. Sometimes a single person comes to represent this community and this is how Jesus adopts this title and the meaning associated with it. Dodd explains;
He is therefore a “double” of the Servant of the Lord, an embodiment of the people of God, first oppressed and then vindicated in glory. It is a vision of the final victory of God’s cause over all powers in the universe; it is also a vision of (expected) historical victory for Israel over its oppressors. We are probably to understand that in recalling this prophecy Jesus also was pointing to the final victory of God’s cause, or in other words the consummation of his kingdom, beyond history, and was affirming his own part in it; but as in Daniel, so here, this victory has its embodiment in history, namely in the impending fate of Jesus himself, who is to pass through suffering and sacrifice to glorious life. The human figure of Daniel’s vision has acquired a new identity. It is this historical Person in whom, as its “inclusive representative,” the new Israel, the people of God, is to emerge from apparently irretrievable disaster–“raised to life with Christ,” as Paul was to express it. This is the coming of the Son of Man on the historical plane. His ultimate “coming” lies beyond history, but the essential pattern of it is already given in the historical Person and the historical event.
How do you know that Jesus is using “son of man” to refer to Himself?
Some passages seem to imply that Jesus thought of the son of man as someone who was yet to come. Luke writes;
Luke 12:8I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God.
Matt. 10:23When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
Nevertheless, these passages do not explicitly assert that Jesus is not the son of man and later passages do make this clearer.
What passages make this clearer?
Note these two, parallel texts from Matthew and Luke. Clearly Matthew’s “…because of Me” and Luke’s “…because of the Son of Man” are synonymous.
Matt. 5:11Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.
Luke 6:22Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.