Tuesday 2 August 2011

The Son of Man

Why does Jesus call himself the “Son of Man”? Again and again, the “Son of Man” is Jesus’ favourite and most common way of referring to himself - some 80-plus times - as recorded in the gospel accounts.

If you have ever felt puzzled by this, you might take some comfort in knowing that Jesus’ closest friends didn’t initially understand what he meant either. No-one else ever called Jesus the “Son of Man” (with the one single exception of Stephen in Acts 7). Rather, many addressed him as Son of David or even, Son of God.

In the Old Testament, “son of man” can simply mean “human being”. As in Psalm 8:4:

What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?
Psalm 8:4

Here, “man” and “son of man” are used synonymously. The context of Psalm 8 is the relationship between creation and the first man, Adam. God has made the descendants of Adam - his sons (“son of man” translates Ben ‘Adam) - stewards over creation. In other words, God has placed the responsibility of caring for the earth on the shoulders of humanity.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament, God calls his prophet Ezekiel, “son of man”, thus identifying Ezekiel as a representative of sinful humanity; yet at the same time, distancing Ezekiel as a created being - a son of man - before an eternal sovereign creator God. So readers of the Old Testament would have heard echoes from Scripture in Jesus’ use of the term “son of man”. 

However, we know from Matthew’s gospel that Jesus had one particular Old Testament reference in mind. In Chapter 26, Jesus is brought to face charges before the Sanhedrin, an assembly of religious leaders and scribes led by the high priest. 

The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”
Matthew 26:63

Notice that the accusation made against Jesus was whether he claimed to be the Christ. Jesus replies, “Yes”. He does not deny that he came to fulfill the long-awaited expectations of the Messiah (a Hebrew name which has exactly the same meaning as the Greek word “Christ”), who was to be God’s appointed King to bring salvation to his people Israel.

However, Jesus goes on to clarify that he would not simply be an earthly king come to establish an earthly kingdom. 

“Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Matthew 26:64

Here we see the full purpose of Jesus’ use of the term “Son of Man”. It is a reference to a vision recorded in Daniel Chapter 7.

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
Daniel 7:13-14

God as the Ancient of Days hands over his authority, glory and power to this one individual; one whom Daniel says, looked like “a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven”. The moment Jesus made this connection with the vision from Daniel 7, the high priest tore his clothes, cried out, “Blasphemy!” and sentenced Jesus to death (Matthew 26:65-66). Why? Because the religious leaders finally understood that through his use of the term “Son of Man”, Jesus was equating himself with God.

Here we also see that it wasn’t enough for Jesus to be called Son of God. In fact, throughout his ministry, he distanced himself from that name. Not because it wasn’t true. But because it was often misunderstood.

Muslims today find the term offensive because it implies that God impregnated Mary in order for Jesus to be born the Son of God. Hence, the beginning of Mark’s gospel needs careful clarification when evangelising Muslim friends, as the book opens with the words, “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Yet within the context of the New Testament gospels, even the Jewish people of God misunderstood what it meant for Jesus to be called Son of God. Like “Son of David”, the average Israelite used “Son of God” to mean God’s chosen king. That was all they saw Jesus as: a political revolutionary sent by God to overthrow the Roman oppressors and bring independence to Israel.

Conversely, Jesus’ use of the Son of Man was ambiguous enough, strange enough and memorable enough for him to make fresh connections to Old Testament promises, such that after the event of his death and resurrection, Jesus’ followers could look back at these words to understand who he truly was as the Christ and what he truly did on the cross.

“What is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
You made him a little lower than the angels;
you crowned him with glory and honor
and put everything under his feet.”

In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
Hebrews 2:6-9

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