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Jesus and the Perplexing Son of Man

In my last post, I noted that Jesus rarely referred to himself as the Son of God. Yet he frequently spoke of himself as the Son of Man. This title, rarely used by Christians today when we speak of Jesus, was by far Jesus’ preferred title for himself. It shows up over seventy times in the gospels, almost always on the lips of Jesus himself.

It’s ironic that Jesus’ favorite self-designation gets so little play among Christians today. It’s also understandable because relatively few believers in Jesus really understand what he meant when he used the phrase “Son of Man.” In fact, none of those who followed the earthly Jesus understood what he meant either, at least not prior to his death and resurrection.

Consider the following scene from the Gospel of John. In the final hours of his ministry, Jesus said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. . . . And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:23, 32). The crowd was perplexed, asking: “How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” (John 12:34). After repeatedly hearing Jesus speak about himself as the Son of Man, the people were still confused. They weren’t even sure what in the world he was talking about. Even more surprisingly, Jesus’ closest followers failed to comprehend his mission as the Son of Man. Peter, James, and John joined the crowds in their puzzlement (Mark 8:27-33; 10:35-45). So if you’re uncertain about all of this “Son of Man” stuff, you’ve got good company. (Photo: Emerson Hall of Harvard University. The inscription of the wall is from Psalm 8: “What is man that thou are mindful of him?”)

What does the expression “Son of Man” actually mean when it is applied to Jesus? We tend to think of it as an affirmation of his humanity. And in one sense, it it. The phrase “son of man” was, at base, an expression that meant “human being” both in Hebrew and in Aramaic, the spoken language of Jesus and his followers. On the most obvious level, one who said “I am a son of man” was simply saying “I am a human being.” You see this in the classic line from Psalm 8, for example:

            What is man,
               that thou art mindful of him?
                   and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
                                  (Psalm 8:4, KJV)

The King James Version follows the Hebrew quite literally here. More recent translations render the sense of the verse in contemporary English, as in the following example:

            What are mortals that you should think of us?
                   mere humans that you should care for us?             (Psalm 8:4, NLT)

Armed with the knowledge that the basic meaning of “son of man” is “human being,” we turn to the sayings of Jesus in the gospels. There we find anything but what we might expect. Jesus talks about one he calls “the Son of Man,” yet his descriptions of the Son of Man suggest that this figure is not an ordinary human being. Consider these two excerpts from the Gospel of Matthew:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (Matt 25:31-32).

Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory (Matt 24:30).

So, according to Jesus, the glorious Son of Man will someday be enthroned in heaven, in the midst of an angelic host. At that time he will exercise the power of judgment over all nations. This is no ordinary human being! Though his title points to his humanity, he functions in a role generally reserved for the Lord alone.

Where did Jesus get this stuff? Why did he use the expression “Son of Man” in such a striking way? In my next post I’ll examine the Jewish background behind Jesus’ usage of “Son of Man,” showing both Jesus’ continuity with Jewish tradition and his astounding break from that tradition.

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The Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a pastor, author, retreat leader, speaker, and blogger. Since October 2007 he has been the Senior Director and Scholar-in-Residence for Laity Lodge, a multifacted ministry in the Hill Country of Texas. Before then, he was for sixteen years the Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church in Irvine, California (a city in Orange County about forty miles south of Los Angeles). Prior to coming to Irvine, Mark served on the staff of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood as Associate Pastor of Education. Mark studied at Harvard University, receiving a B.A. in Philosophy, an M.A. in the Study of Religion, and a Ph.D. in New Testament and Christian Origins. He has taught classes in New Testament for Fuller Theological Seminary and San Francisco Theological Seminary. Used by permission from markdroberts.com.