Jesus—His Life and Message: The Son of Man
March 7, 2017
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: The Son of Man
Throughout the four Gospels, the term “Son of Man” is used numerous times by Jesus. Since it is frequently used, it’s helpful to understand its background and meaning, which is the purpose of this article.
The term was used by Jesus to express His heavenly origin, earthly mission, and future return. Other than the name “Jesus,” the term “Son of Man” is the one most frequently used in reference to Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus uses this term 81 times as an indirect way of speaking about Himself (30 times in Matthew, 14 in Mark, 24 in Luke, and 13 in John). It’s also found four other times in the New Testament. In Acts 7:56, Stephen, about to be martyred, says, “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Hebrews 2:61 quotes Psalm 8:4 as applying to Jesus, and Revelation 1:13 and 14:14 tell of someone “like the son of man,” clearly referring to the risen and glorified Jesus.2 Within the Gospels, this saying is found only from the lips of Jesus, with the exceptions of John 12:34, where the people quote Jesus’ phrase back to Him and ask to whom He is referring, and Luke 24:7, where the angel is repeating Jesus’ words.
Biblical scholars have written about this title for Jesus for centuries, and as one author wrote, This is the title that is most intensely investigated, and the resulting literature is immense, to say the least.3 There are varying opinions on the meaning of “the Son of Man,” and in this article I will focus on the definition that many teachers consider to be the most accurate. If you want to learn about the many other opinions, you can research them on the internet and in published literature.
The term “Son of Man” (Greek: huios tou anthropou) is a translation of the Aramaic bar nasha and the Hebrew ben adam. This term is found in the Old Testament in the Psalms, Ezekiel, and Daniel. Psalm 80:17 provides an example of where the term “son of man” is used as a synonym for man:
But let your hand be on the man of your right hand, the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself.
In Ezekiel, the term is used 93 times as a form of address by which God speaks to Ezekiel, such as in this example:
And you, son of man, take a brick and lay it before you, and engrave on it a city, even Jerusalem.4
There is general agreement among scholars that the use of the title in the Gospels is not derived from its usage in Psalms or Ezekiel, but from its usage in the book of Daniel. In Daniel 7:13–14 we read:
I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven 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; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
The term “one like a son of man,” meaning one like a human being, isn’t used as a specific title in this passage. However, these verses form the best background for understanding Jesus’ use of the term as a self-designation and title in the Gospels, since He often said things which had similarities to Daniel 7:13–14, such as:
Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.5
You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.6
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.7
There are other sayings within the Gospels that show Jesus was familiar with Daniel 7. For example, Daniel 7:18 says:
The saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever.
Daniel 7:27 says:
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; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey them.
Echoes of these verses are seen when Jesus said:
Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.8
Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.9
You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.10
While the phrase Son of Man wasn’t used as a title in Daniel 7:13, it seems that Jesus used it as an indirect way of referring to His messiahship. Since it wasn’t used in reference to the Messiah in Daniel, why did Jesus use it in reference to Himself, often in an obscure manner? It may have been because in first-century Palestine, it was very dangerous to claim to be the Messiah. The Jews of Jesus’ day anticipated the coming Messiah as a liberator, someone who would defeat the Romans and free their land. Anyone claiming to be the Messiah would therefore be seen as politically challenging Rome.
Even though Jesus Himself didn’t take a political approach, if He were to publicly state that He was the Messiah, it would be interpreted by both His fellow Jews and the Roman officials as a challenge to their authority. Therefore Jesus kept His messiahship secret from the general populace. When Jesus asked His disciples who they thought He was, Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And [Jesus] strictly charged them to tell no one about him.11 Why? Likely because it was dangerous.
When referring to Himself in public as the Son of Man, it would have been understood by His listeners that He was using it as an indirect way of referring to Himself. For example, when He said, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,12 people would have understood that He was saying, “I have nowhere to lay my head.” Once His disciples came to understand that He was the Messiah, they would additionally understand the Son of Man as a messianic title, because of various things that Jesus said to them in more intimate settings that indicated what He meant by this title. (More on this below.) But for those outside His inner circle, it would have been seen as a circumlocution for “I,” and they would not have seen the relation to Jesus being the Messiah.
It’s interesting that while there were scores of times that Jesus used the term Son of Man as a self-designation,13 only eleven times is the title Christ (Messiah) acknowledged by Jesus as a self-designation. For a few examples:
The high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so.”14
He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”15
This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.16
The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”17
While in the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles the title “Son of Man” is only used a handful of times, in the same books the title Christ is used over 450 times. It’s used so often that it has become part of the name of Jesus—Jesus Christ.18 Since the title “Son of Man” was used exclusively by Jesus as a self-designation, it never became a way for other people to refer to Jesus, and therefore it played no role in the doctrinal statements of the early church, unlike “Christ,” “Lord,” and “Son of God.” With few exceptions, it was only used by Jesus Himself.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus used this title in a variety of ways, and often they were used when He spoke about specific themes, such as the following:
His Present Authority
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus refers to Himself as Son of Man when speaking of His authority to forgive sins and His lordship of the Sabbath:
“But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic…19
“The Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”20
Such authority would normally belong to God or to someone authorized by Him.21
His Suffering and Resurrection
In Mark, we also read of the impending suffering, death, and resurrection of the Son of Man, as Jesus tells what must happen according to Scripture:
He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.22
As they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.23
For he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.”24
See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles.25
The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.26
His Future Return
We find references in Mark to a future coming of the Son of Man, to gather His chosen people and to reject those who were ashamed of Jesus.
Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.27
Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.28
In Matthew, we read of the Son of Man coming unexpectedly, as well as judging each person.
For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.29
They were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.30
Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.31
For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.32
In Luke’s Gospel we find similar Son of Man sayings about Jesus’ coming.
In John, we find references to the passion and resurrection of Jesus similar to those in the other Gospels. John also uses the term in ways that differ from the other Gospel writers. For example, He uses the term in conjunction with “lifted up,” which can be understood as being lifted up on the cross or as being exalted.
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.33
So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.”34
So the crowd answered him, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?”35
John also speaks of the Son of Man being glorified.
Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”36
When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.”37
The Son of Man has the authority to judge and to give eternal life, and has descended from heaven and ascended there once again.
He [the Father] has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.38
Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.39
No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.40
In the Gospel of John, the title “Son of Man” is seen as being equivalent to the title “Son of God.” It speaks about His divinity, preexistence, heavenly origin, and divine authority, as well as His glory.
Jesus used the title Son of Man to refer to Himself until it was time to more publicly reveal that He was the Messiah. It was a term that allowed Him to convey His mission and His exalted position as the Son of God to His followers, while also enabling Him to speak modestly about Himself, rather than constantly calling Himself the Messiah or the Son of God, which could have brought Him trouble much earlier in His ministry. After His resurrection and ascension into heaven, keeping His identity secret was no longer an issue, so there was no need to refer to Him as the Son of Man; instead, His disciples referred to Him as Lord, Christ (Messiah), and Son of God.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996.
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Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
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1 Now it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. It has been testified somewhere, “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.” Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone (Hebrews 2:5–9).
2 James C. DeYoung, in Elwell, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1983–1984.
3 Stein, The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings, 136.
4 Ezekiel 4:1.
5 Mark 13:26.
6 Mark 14:62.
7 Matthew 25:31–32.
8 Luke 12:32.
9 Matthew 19:28.
10 Luke 22:28–30.
11 Mark 8:29–30.
12 Matthew 8:20.
13 Stein, The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings, 148.
14 Matthew 26:63–64. (Also Mark 14:61–62.)
15 Mark 8:29–30. (Also Luke 9:20–21.)
16 John 17:1–3.
17 John 4:25–26. (Other verses include Matthew 23:10; 24:5; Mark 9:41.)
18 Stein, The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings, 148.
19 Mark 2:10.
20 Mark 2:28.
21 I. H. Marshall, “Son of Man,” in Green and McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 775–781.
22 Mark 8:31.
23 Mark 9:9.
24 Mark 9:31.
25 Mark 10:33.
26 Mark 10:45.
27 Mark 13:26.
28 Mark 8:38.
29 Matthew 24:37.
30 Matthew 24:39.
31 Matthew 24:44.
32 Matthew 16:27.
33 John 3:14–15.
34 John 8:28.
35 John 12:34.
36 John 12:23.
37 John 13:31.
38 John 5:27.
39 John 6:27.
40 John 3:13.