|SON OF MAN |
New Testament designation for Jesus as God incarnate in flesh and agent of divine judgment. It occurs some 84 times in the Gospels, all but one being Jesus' self-description.
The Old Testament With the exception of Ezekiel and Daniel, the term Son of man appears in the Old Testament as a synonym for “man,” “humankind” (Isaiah 56:2;
Job 25:6). In the Aramaic language spoken in Palestine in Jesus' day, the expression Son of man was similarly used to mean “the man,” “a man,” or simply “someone.” The term appears in the rabbinic writings with the meaning, “a certain person.”
1. Ezekiel In Ezekiel, God uses the term 90 times to address the prophet. The exact nuance of this usage is widely debated. Is the emphasis on the humanity and frailty of the prophet? It is used, perhaps, as a title to distinguish him from other men. Or, it may reveal the prophet's sense of identity with his people. In any event, the emphasis seems to be on the humanity of the prophet, a meaning which Christians also came to attach to the term when applied to Jesus.
2. Daniel The most distinctive Old Testament use of “Son of man” is in
Daniel 7:13. In one of his night visions, the prophet saw “one like a son of man” (NAS) come on the clouds of heaven to appear before the throne of God. He was given dominion over all peoples and an everlasting kingdom. Scholars are divided over whether the Son of man of Daniel's vision should be seen as an angel, as the Messiah, or as all of Israel. (The latter conclusion is drawn from the fact that in
Daniel 7:27 the “saints of the most High” were granted dominion over an everlasting kingdom.) Later, Jewish interpretation of
Daniel 7:13, however, is at one in seeing the reference as messianic. This is true of the later apocalyptic writings such as Enoch and 2 Esdras as well as the rabbinic writings.
The New Testament The “Son of man” sayings of Jesus fall into three distinct types.
1. Apocalyptic Sayings The largest number of Son of man sayings deal with the final times when the Son of man will descend to earth to gather the elect and to judge. The picture of the Son of man in these passages is strongly reminiscent of
Daniel 7:13 (quoted in
Luke 22:69). The Son of man will come in glory with His angels and take His seat on His throne (Matthew 25:31). His coming will be sudden and unexpected (Matthew 10:23;
Luke 17:22-27). He will come as judge to condemn the unrighteous (Matthew 13:41;
John 5:27) and to take as His own those who have faith and confess Him (Luke 12:8;
Luke 21:36). Faithful disciples are to join the Son of man in this judgment (Matthew 19:28), which perhaps reflects the dual role of the Son of man and saints of the Most High found in
Daniel 7:13,Daniel 7:27. These sayings could be taken as referring to another than Jesus, but the Gospel writers unquestionably saw Jesus as referring to Himself and connected these events with His second coming.
2. Passion Sayings The second largest group of Son of man sayings are connected with the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Three times Jesus predicted that the Son of man would be rejected and killed by the priests and scribes but would rise on the third day (Mark 8:31;
Luke 24:7). Just like John the Baptist, the Son of man would be treated with contempt (Mark 9:12-13;
Matthew 17:12-13). He will be betrayed (Matthew 26:24,Matthew 26:45;
Luke 22:48). Death would be followed by victory, the resurrection from the dead (Matthew 17:9).
In his own way, John highlighted this dual emphasis on the humiliation of the cross and the glory of the resurrection. The Son of man is to be “lifted up” on the cross, but this “lifting up” is in reality His exaltation, leading to His ascension to the Father (John 3:14;
John 12:34). As with a seed, death must first come for there to be new life, and thus Jesus' death became His hour of greatest glory (John 12:23-4;
Nothing in Jewish messianic expectation connected the Son of man with suffering and death. In the Old Testament, one finds that only with the Servant of
Isaiah 53:1. That connection is clearly made in this group of Son of man sayings, and it is explicitly made in
Mark 10:45 (Matthew 20:28). The Son of man, the messianic Judge of the final time, is also the Suffering Servant of God. That connection is unique to the teaching and ministry of Jesus.
3. Sayings Connected with Jesus' Ministry The third group of Son of man sayings is the most heterogeneous, but all refer to some aspect of Jesus' earthly ministry. Many could be understood in the sense of the Hebrew idiom —“a man, this man, I.” Yet, all have a deeper implication than any human I, for all point to some unique quality about Jesus' ministry. Even in these sayings, “Son of man” should be seen as a title pointing to Jesus' special role. He is the One who has authority to forgive sins (Matthew 9:6;
Luke 5:24) and to interpret the meaning of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8;
Luke 6:5). In His preaching, He sowed the seed of God's kingdom (Matthew 13:37), for He came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). Blessed is the disciple who suffers for His sake (Luke 6:22).
Some of these sayings reflect an incarnational emphasis. The Son of man in His earthly humiliation had no place to lay His head (Matthew 8:20;
Luke 9:58). He was misunderstood and rejected (Matthew 11:19;
Luke 7:34), but such personal rejection is forgivable—it is only the rejection of the work of the Spirit that is beyond forgiveness (Matthew 12:32;
Luke 12:10). John's Gospel especially highlights this incarnational emphasis. The Son of man is true flesh and blood. One must accept that humanity to find true life (John 6:53). The Son of man is also Son of God, the One who came from above, the Ladder which links all humanity with God (John 1:51).
4. The Rest of the New Testament “Son of man” occurs only four times in the New Testament outside the Gospels. All four reflect understandings of the title already found in the Gospels. In
Acts 7:56, Stephen beheld the ascended Son of man standing beside the throne of God to receive him. In
Revelation 14:14-16, the Son of man appears as Judge. In
Hebrews 2:6, the reference to Son of man in
Psalms 8:4 which originally applied to humanity in general is specifically applied to Jesus as the unique Son of man and representative of humanity. In the context of
Hebrews 2:1, all the Gospel emphases on Son of man coalesce—a strong incarnational emphasis on His real flesh and blood, a vivid depiction of His representative suffering, and the note that by that suffering He acquires His glory and honor and leads many to glory.
Conclusion Why are there so few references to Son of man outside the Gospels? Perhaps it was not a familiar term in the Gentile churches to which most of the New Testament writings were addressed. In any event, the significance of the term was not lost, for the New Testament writers all attest to the profound teachings which this term embodies—the true humanity of the Word made flesh, the necessity of His suffering and death for salvation, the glory of His reign over an everlasting kingdom, and His final coming to judge the just and the unjust.