In a powerful discourse recorded for us by the Apostle John, our Lord indicates how, as the Son of man, He would be glorified by the Father through being lifted up upon a cross, John 12. 23-36. This disclosure totally perplexed the crowd around Him who responded by stating that their understanding from the law was that Christ would be an eternal figure and not die in this way. In fact, it was quite alien to their Jewish tradition. What then accounted for this ‘Son of man’, v. 34, and why was Jesus so different from Jewish expectations as the ‘Son of man’?
The title ‘Son of God’ is used in the New Testament by both the Lord Himself and other third parties. The title ‘Lord’ is used of Christ by His followers, but the title ‘Son of man’ is used exclusively by the Lord about Himself in the Gospel narratives. However, this comment needs to be qualified because there are occurrences in those narratives where someone else uses the phrase ‘Son of man’ as in the text above, but the difference is that they are simply posing a question, they are not making a direct assertion that Jesus is the ‘Son of man’.
Outside the Gospels, the phrase ‘the Son of man’ with the definite article occurs only in Stephen’s apology in Acts chapter 7 verse 56, where he refers to Christ as ‘the Son of man’. This would have resonated with the Jewish authorities present at the time, because they undoubtedly made the link with the person referred to in Daniel chapter 7 verses 13 and 14 - we will consider the implications of this passage from Daniel chapter 7 later. The other two occurrences are in Hebrews chapter 2 verse 6, which is a direct quote from the Septuagint (LXX) translation of Psalm 8 verse 4. That text has a primary reference to Adam as humanity in its innocency, but the main testimony, as the writer develops his argument, concerns Christ as the true Son of man, impervious to sin.
There are two other references in the book of Revelation to this title. In Revelation chapter 1 verse 13, there is a reference to ‘one like the Son of man’ in John’s vision in which we are clearly obliged to identify this title with the risen Christ. He is seen as Lord of the church with the attributes of a judge. Here again, the vision draws down heavily on Daniel chapter 7, but is also supplemented by allusions drawn from Daniel chapter 10, in particular verse 6. Later, in chapter 14 verse 14, we read that John saw, ‘a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like unto the Son of man, having on his head a golden crown’ lit., which again draws on the imagery of Daniel chapter 7. In this latter context, only the judicial aspect of the Son of man’s role is in mind as He dispenses judgement, because the sins of humanity have reached their full measure.
We turn, then, to the usage of the phrase/title ‘Son of man’ elsewhere in the Bible, and, as a start, we will look at various occurrences of the phrase in the Old Testament. This climaxes in Daniel’s prophecy in chapter 7 of his book, which is the central point or the coherent force that drives the usage of the title in the New Testament.
In the Old Testament, the usual Hebrew phrase for ‘Son of man’ is ben adam. In the Aramaic portions of the Old Testament, such as parts of the prophecy of Daniel, the singular bar enash occurs once only in Daniel chapter 7 verse 13 and the plural twice. Basically, the phrase, whether it is used in Hebrew or Aramaic languages, is a typical Semitic locution or a style of speaking or phraseology denoting a member of a class, and in this case a human being. For instance, we read in Numbers chapter 23 verse 19, the following, ‘God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind’ ESV. When the plural of the term is used, it often denotes human beings without regard to gender. For example, in Genesis chapter 11 verse 5, we read, ‘And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded’. But sometimes the singular is often collective and refers to humanity at large, as for example, in Psalm 8 verse 4, referred to earlier.
One of the most notable usages of this title occurs in the prophecy of Ezekiel where ‘Son of man’ is a designation of the prophet himself, always in address by God Himself - this occurs on ninety-three occasions. Ezekiel speaks as a representative of the people or a spokesman to the people. This can also be seen in the prophecy of Daniel, chapter 8 verse 17, when Daniel sought an interpretation of the vision that he had received about a ram and a goat. Gabriel is despatched by God to provide an interpretive answer to the vision because of his lack of understanding and says to Daniel, ‘Understand, O son of man: for at the time of the end shall be the vision’. In both Ezekiel’s prophecy and Daniel chapter 8 verse 17, it is simply the address of a heavenly being to an earthly being, the opposite of the address ‘Lord’. What this phrase invariably alludes to is the weakness and incompetence of man as a creature on earth. Man’s uselessness and sinfulness are the themes of the two verses that appear in the book of Job. In chapter 25 verse 6, we read, ‘How much less man, who is a maggot, and a son of man, who is a worm?’ NKJV. Again, in chapter 35 verse 8, we read the comments, ‘Your wickedness affects a man such as you, and your righteousness a son of man’ NKJV. So, in most instances in the Old Testament, the title ‘son of man’ is man on earth exhibiting his fragility and showing his complete dependence upon the grace and power of God.
When we turn, however, to Daniel chapter 7 verses 13 to 14, we are in a completely different setting. Consequent upon the judgement of the fourth beast, Daniel sees a vision of the one who is like a Son of man presenting himself before the Ancient of Days to receive everlasting dominion and an indestructible kingdom. This heavenly being comes with or in the clouds of heaven to establish His universal kingdom. It is the fulfilment of Psalm 8, because all things will then be put under the feet of the Son of man. Jewish interpreters of Daniel chapter 7 have clearly understood this person to be the Messiah. A messianic use of the title ‘Son of man’, and the influence of Daniel chapter 7 is found in post-biblical Jewish texts.1
In terms then, what we find in the Old Testament is that:
Now, turning to the New Testament, we find that the title ‘Son of man’ occurs eighty-four times in all four Gospel narratives. Whilst in the Old Testament the majority of uses simply reflect humankind, we should not think that the title ‘Son of man’ in the New Testament simply points out our Lord’s human nature in contrast to His divine nature. ‘Son of man’ is not simply the counterweight to ‘Son of God’, as if each point to a different ‘side’ of Christ’s nature - the human and the divine.
Both images are far more complex than that. It is interesting to note in passing that our Lord never explains this title ‘Son of man’ so it must be assumed, therefore, that its meaning was available to His hearers from normal currency. Put another way, the ‘Son of man’ was a title of the Messiah in New Testament times. And if we take that idea from Daniel chapter 7 then when our Lord speaks of Himself as ‘Son of man’, He is invoking an image that bears with it a story of conflict and kingship. It is no accident, therefore, that our Lord’s ministry, and by that we mean the gospel, is one of conflict and a proclamation of the presence and future fullness of the kingdom of God. So, it comes as no surprise to us that when we read the Gospel narratives, we find that this title functions as a self-reference by our Lord in the majority of the eighty-four occurrences.
I.e., the literature of the Second Temple period. For example, there is a model for the setting up of the celestial kingdom based on Daniel chapter 7 in 1 Enoch, and the vision of Daniel chapter 7 verse 13 forms the basis of two visions in 2 Esdras.
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