The humanity of Jesus Christ remains a fundamental part of our Christian understanding. Jesus, as Paul puts it, was "born of a woman, born under the law", fully human. In the Gospels often we latch on to Jesus’ favorite self-designation "Son of Man" as key proof of his humanness.
On the surface this would seem entirely justified. This Jewish expression (it is quite foreign as a Greek idiom) often means "human being". God regularly addresses Ezekiel, the prophet, as "son of man", i.e. you human being. In Psalm 8:4 the parallel expression to the word "man" is the phrase "son of man". So when Jesus chooses to describe himself as "Son of Man", the natural understanding would be that Jesus is calling himself "human being". It is the Old Testament, however, that suggests such a reading it simplistic. Jesus too, as his teaching ministry continues, drops some clear hints that there is more to this expression.
Daniel 7 records one of the most significant visions that Daniel, the prophet, sees. God gives him a glimpse of His plan for the world, including the victory of God’s people. Daniel sees four successive human empires emerge and decline, characterized in his vision as strange, animalistic creatures that emerge from the sea. It is the fifth figure, however, that stirs our hearts – one "like the son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven" (7:13). The angelic interpreter reveals to Daniel that this figure, while having his own significance, also represents in himself "the saints of the Most High", i.e. God’s people (7:27). This figure comes from heaven, is pre-existent, and God gives him "dominion and glory and a kingdom" which shall not be destroyed" (7:14).
As Jesus employs this title later in Mark’s Gospel account he prophecies that the Son of Man "comes in the clouds with great power and glory" (13:26; 14:62). He purposely identifies himself as the Son of Man in Daniel 7. Even though much of his teaching about the Son of Man relates to suffering (8:31; 9:31; 10:33), Jesus still insists that he, as the fulfillment of the Daniel Son of Man, shares the divine characteristics of this figure. He forgives sins (2:10), he is "Lord of the Sabbath" (2:28); he comes in the "glory of His Father" (8:38); he rises from the dead (9:9); he will sit at God’s right hand (14:62).
I think we can only conclude that Jesus intentionally chooses this title Son of Man because it has such strong connection to God’s kingdom work in Daniel 7. Although it may in first century idiom mean primarily "a human being", for Jesus it signifies his exalted role as the heavenly figure whom God ordains and sends to gather the "saints of the Most High" into His kingdom and to whom God gives glory, power, honor and all dominion. He will judge the nations and rule God’s people with justice.
Jesus is The Man, fulfilling Daniel’s prophetic vision. It is in the Easter setting that we see these various elements of the Son of Man coming together – human suffering, God-empowered resurrection, and divine enthronement. Perhaps no other title blends within it the various significant dimensions of Jesus’ person so wondrously and effectively.
- Consider how Paul’s teaching that Jesus is the Second Adam (Romans 5) integrates with Jesus’ use of the title "Son of Man";
- Paul never uses the title Son of Man. Why? How can we make the meaning of this title more plain and clear to Christians and non-believers today?