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Jesus Is the Son of Man (3)

  

This is the third part of a three part series on “The Son of Man.” Click here to read part one or here to read part two.

Son of Man in the Gospels

Jesus lived in a politically tumultuous time. Rome had occupied the land of Israel for nearly a century and tensions were mounting. A little more than thirty years after Jesus’ death the Jewish Revolt began, which culminated in the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the second temple, which had stood for almost six centuries. Because of the Jewish holy days, which emphasized deliverance from Pharaoh of Egypt, Haman of Persia, and Antiochus of Syria the Jews were constantly remembering year-by-year how God had delivered them from oppressive foreign empires. This coupled with the Abrahamic promises wherein God gave the land to Abraham and his descendants caused many in Judea to look for deliverance. There had been several messianic movements before the time of Jesus and there would be more after him. The people were hungry for liberation for home rule for divine intervention and there were serious hopes that the Messiah would come. In such a tinderbox, it would have been suicide to claim to be the Messiah outright. In fact, when people found out that Jesus was the Messiah, he generally told them to keep it quiet. (Obviously, this policy changed after his death and resurrection when Christ followers began proclaiming Jesus’ identity to all the nations.) Before thinking more about why Jesus preferred calling himself the Son of Man over the Messiah, we need to overview the biblical data.

Out of the eighty-eight instances of “Son of Man” in the New Testament, eighty-four of them are found in the Gospels, all on the lips of Jesus. The majority of instances of “Son of Man” are used reflexively by Jesus simply as a substitute for “I.” Here are a couple of examples:

Mark 2.10-11
10 “But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins “– He said to the paralytic,
11 “I say to you, get up, pick up your pallet and go home.”

Luke 19.9-10
9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham.
10 “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

In each of the four Gospels most of the Son of Man sayings are of this type. The definition is similar to the examples from the Hebrew Scriptures where son of man merely means a human being, not that anyone ever doubted Jesus was a human being (at least not until much later). However, none of the occurrences of “son of man” in the Old Testament are reflexive—no one ever calls himself a son of man. Apparently this way of speaking developed after the close of the Hebrew Bible. Still, I think the two are related. Since a son of man is calling attention to one’s humanity in contrast to God, angels, or demons, Jesus probably used the title as a humble self-reference. At least, this would be one way for his hearers to understand it. Either this was just a common way of speaking at the time of Jesus or else it was Jesus’ own unique self-designation. If the latter was the case then probably most people who heard him call himself the son of man would just conclude that he was rather humble to always call attention to his humanity and the fact that his life was a mere vapor which lasts for a moment and then disappears or a flower which blooms gloriously but before long withers away. In fact, Jesus’ own brother, James warns against speaking presumptively as if we have more control over our futures than we really do:

James 4.13-15
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.”
14 Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.
15 Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.”

So this is the first layer of meaning. Jesus is the son of man because he is a human being and one that humbly recognizes his limitations. In fact, quite a few of the son of man sayings are uttered in the context of Jesus’ impending suffering and death. In order to grasp the second layer of meaning, and pick up where we left our discussion of extra-biblical Jewish literature, consider these texts:

Mat. 24.29-31
29 “But immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
30 “And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory.
31 “And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.

Mark 14.61-62
61 But He kept silent and did not answer. Again the high priest was questioning Him, and saying to Him, “Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?”
62 And Jesus said, “I am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”

Luke 17.26-30
26 “And just as it happened in the days of Noah, so it will be also in the days of the Son of Man:
27 they were eating, they were drinking, they were marrying, they were being given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.
28 “It was the same as happened in the days of Lot: they were eating, they were drinking, they were buying, they were selling, they were planting, they were building;
29 but on the day that Lot went out from Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all.
30 “It will be just the same on the day that the Son of Man is revealed.

John 5.26-29
26 “For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself;
27 and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man.
28 “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice,
29 and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.

These sayings and others like them in the Gospels clearly show that Jesus understood the Son of Man to be much more than just a humble title expressing his finitude as a human being. The Son of Man is a title for God’s cosmic agent through whom he will judge his enemies and reward his people at the end of time. This second layer of meaning is rarer than the first layer, but it is highly significant. Furthermore, Son of Man can be used as a synonym for Messiah or Christ. Notice the high priest’s question in Mark 14.61 above. He asks if Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Jesus replied affirmatively by quoting from Daniel 7.13 calling himself the Son of Man. Thus, the Son of Man is the Messiah, the Son of God, the one through whom God will set the world right. Even so, this higher more narrow meaning of Son of Man would not be readily assumed by his hearers.

The genius of Jesus adopting this title for himself was that it allowed for both meanings. We have already seen by observing some extra-biblical texts that Jews knew of a cosmic figure called the Son of Man who would establish God’s kingdom. However, we have also seen how in the Jewish Scriptures the phrase always just means a human being. Thus, Jesus’ hearers would have to decide for themselves who they believed him to be. However, if Jesus went around calling himself the Messiah, the Roman authorities would immediately identify him and his movement as a threat and take quick decisive action to eliminate him. Jesus knew this and did not want to cut his ministry short. So, when someone first met Jesus he or she probably did not immediately think that he was the one who would come with the clouds to subdue all the world governments and bring all people under God’s reign. But, after hearing him speak, or watching him heal the sick, or witnessing him cast out demons, some would surely wonder. They may begin to wonder if this rabbi really was the Son of Man rather than just a son of man. Was he the one they longed for? Was he the Messiah? This was the heart of the question Jesus asked his disciples at Caesarea Philippi:

Mat. 16.13-16
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”
15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

In conclusion, the title “Son of Man” did not automatically mean Messiah or Son of God. Though all of the usages in the Old Testament refer to an ordinary human being in contrast to God or other spiritual beings, by Jesus’ times “Son of Man” had become the title for God’s agent who would usher in the age to come in power and glory. Thus, both meanings were true of Jesus and he knew that very well. He is the humble son of man who suffered and died as the representative of all humanity. Even so, the good news is that the story did not end with a dead Messiah in Joseph of Arimathea’s cold dark tomb. God vindicated him raising him from death to immortality and exalted ascending him to his own right hand—the highest place of authority in the universe. This humble representative man, this son of Adam and son of God, will come and accomplish his full role as the Son of Man when he is “revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution” (2 Thes. 1.7-8) on the day “when he comes to be glorified in his saints…and to be marveled at among all who have believed” (2 Thes. 1.10). Maranatha—Come Lord Jesus!

4 Responses to “Jesus Is the Son of Man (3)”

  1. on 03 Nov 2010 at 9:13 pmDoubting Thomas

    Sean,
    You said, “If Jesus went around calling himself the Messiah, the Roman authorities would immediately identify him and his movement as a threat and take quick decisive action to eliminate him.”

    I think that this makes a lot of sense. The Roman authorities knew about the trouble that had arose in the past from people who had claimed to be the Messiah. It definately would have been seen as a threat to the political stability of Israel, and also seen as a threat to their own authority. It seemed Yeshua/Jesus always avoided any type of political activity that would arouse the authorities. At least until the day he overturned the tables of the money changers, which I’m sure attracted a lot of attention…

  2. on 04 Nov 2010 at 1:45 pmrobert

    Mat. 16.13-16
    13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
    14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”

    Sean
    Using these verses I would say that the Title “Son of Man” to the first century jew was in refernce to a Prophet like Moses.
    When Jesus ask this Question it wasnt “Who do the people say I am” it was “Who do people say that the Son of Man is” and they answered that some say John was the Son of Man,Elijah,Jeremiah and Other Prophets. I think those at that time knew for sure that Jesus wasnt John the Baptist which should put these verses into a better context
    So then he asked then “Who do they think he Is” and Peter answers that He is more than that because He is the Annointed Son of God, the one that the Spirit rest on spoke of in the prophets.

  3. on 04 Nov 2010 at 4:36 pmXavier

    Sean

    Since a son of man is calling attention to one’s humanity in contrast to God, angels, or demons, Jesus probably used the title as a humble self-reference.

    I have always thought that the way the author of the Gospel of John uses the title in reference to Jesus is somehow connected to the OT “theophanies” of YHWH Himself. (It
    goes without saying the clear connections with Daniel’s prophetic visions of “one like a son of man”.)

    For example, John 1.51; 3.13 [note some mss: “the one who is from/in heaven”; cp. 6.62] connects it to Jacob’s vision in Gen 28.11-19.

    The verb ascended is a perfect tense in Greek (ἀναβέβηκεν, anabebhken) which seems to look at a past, completed event.

    Note, however, the lexical similarities with 1:51: “ascending,” “descending,” and “son of man.” Here, though, the ascent and descent is accomplished by the Son himself, not the angels as in 1:51. There is no need to limit this saying to Jesus’ ascent following the resurrection…Although Jesus could be referring to a prior ascent, after an appearance as the preincarnate Son of Man… NET Bible online

    This emphasis by the author on the Son of Man being “lifted up/glorified” [3.14; 8.28; 12.12, 23-24; 13.31], having within it both a past and present happening, could also explain the enigmatic saying at Jn 12.41 [cp. Isa 6.1-6]. Where the prophet Isaiah is said to have seen “Jesus’ glory” [NIV, TNIV]. Directly equating it with YHWH’s.

    So, could it be that prophetic visions of YHWH, such as the one in Eze 1.20-29 [cp. Isa 6.1], were actually visions of the “lifted up/exalted/glorified” Messiah Jesus?

  4. on 06 Nov 2010 at 2:37 pmBrian K

    Wondered what you thought of the following posted over at Evangellion a couple of weeks ago:

    Monday, October 25, 2010
    Mondays with J. Ramsay Michaels
    Michael’s commentary on Jn 1:51 (a verse near and dear to the heart of my former student David Kirk) says this:

    “In simplest terms, ‘the angels of God going up and coming down over the Son of man’ represent the ‘glory’ (doxa) to be displayed in Jesus’ ministry (compare v. 14), from the wedding at Cana (2:11) to the raising of Lazarus fro the dead (11:4, 40) – all of it preliminary to the Son of man’s final ‘glorification’ in the passion narratives … As to the term ‘Son of man’ … [i]n its strategic context here, it trumps all the other [titles] – even ‘Son of God’ – as the defining title for Jesus in this Gospel. This is appropriate because, unlike the others, ‘Son of man’ is not a title someone else gives to Jesus, but one that he claims for himself, just as in he other Gospels. (137-38).

  

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