Jesus’ favorite title for himself is ‘the Son of Man’. In the gospel of Matthew alone we find him using this title 28 times. The other gospels record Jesus using this term for himself as well. Many of them are duplicates of Matthew, but some are unique. But why does Jesus use this term? And what is its significance?
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In the seventh chapter of Daniel, Daniel records a vision that he had. In his vision he saw a series of beasts come up out of the sea. These four beasts are described as being four kings who would arise from the earth. Most Bible scholars I have read associate these beasts with the kingdoms of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. The fourth beast, Rome, had a series of horns that are also described as kings. This beast appears to be similar to the seven headed, 10 horned beast of Revelation (Rev. 17:3).
In Daniel 7:9-10 the scene shifts from the beasts. Now Daniel saw thrones set up. And on one of the thrones the Ancient of Days takes his seat. His throne and its wheels are blazing with fire. He is attended by a multitude, probably angels. The court is seated, and the books are opened. This appears similar to the Great White Throne judgement of Revelation 20:11-15. The scene here is of God taking his place on his throne and judging the four beasts. The fourth beast is destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire while the other three live for a while.
The Son of Man
But then, in Daniel 7:13-14, he saw one like a Son of Man. He was coming with the clouds of heaven and was led into the presence of the Ancient of Days. And “He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (Dan. 7:14).
While I do not specifically read that the one like a Son of Man sat on a throne near the Ancient of Days, I do believe that is assumed. He is given authority, dominion, and kingdom. All of that would imply sitting on a throne.
Jesus As the Son of Man
As mentioned above, the Son of Man is Jesus’ favorite designation for himself. Outside of Daniel 7, this term seems to be synonymous with human. It is used 93 times in Ezekiel to refer to the prophet himself. It is how God addresses him. Daniel is also called Son of Man once (Dan. 8:17). But, as far as I know, Jesus is the only person who uses the term to address himself. And he appears to intentionally be referring to the Son of Man in Daniel 7:13. He is human. But not just any human.
I see two different ways that Jesus uses Son of Man while referring to himself. The first usage connects him tightly to Daniel 7. But the other usage points in just the opposite direction. On the one hand he is referring to one with authority who will reign at God’s right hand. On the other hand, he refers to his suffering and rejection by men.
Son of Man, Pointing Back to Daniel 7
Jesus’ clearest declaration of himself as the Son of Man of Daniel 7 is likely in Matthew 26:63-64 when he is on trial before the Jewish religious leaders. Jesus was asked by the High Priest if he was the Messiah, the Son of God. And Jesus responded by saying, “From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Jesus pictured himself sitting on a throne next to the Ancient of Days. And coming on the clouds of heaven. Both expressions come from Daniel 7:13. He could hardly make a more explicit connection of himself to Daniel’s Son of Man than this. And, based on his reaction, the High Priest clearly understood it this way.
But that is far from being the only allusion to Daniel 7:13-14 that Jesus made. In Matthew 13:41; 16:27-28; 19:28; 24:27, 30; 25:31 Jesus taught his disciples about the Son of Man coming with the angels, coming in his kingdom, and sitting on his throne. The other gospel writers use the same or similar references.
At his trial, Stephen looked to heaven and saw the glory of God with Jesus at God’s right hand. And he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” The response of those listening to him made it clear that they understood this reference to Daniel 7 as referring to Jesus. And Stephen paid for that with his life.
Son of Man, Pointing to Isaiah 53 and the Suffering Servant
The Son of Man in Daniel 7 is a victorious one given authority and rule alongside of God. But Jesus’ use of the Son of Man does not always seem to align with the portrait painted in Daniel. Much of it actually seems more in alignment with Isaiah’s picture of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53.
In Luke 9:22 Jesus told his disciples that “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” He would suffer, be rejected, killed, and raised to life.
This theme is repeated many times in the gospels as Jesus prepares his disciples for what is to come. This was no doubt confusing to the disciples. Not only the thought of Jesus suffering and dying. But also trying to reconcile these words about the Son of Man with those referring to his everlasting dominion. It was only after Jesus’ resurrection that they could begin to understand it. And even then, it was likely not until after Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit that they fully appreciated what Jesus had done and just who he was.
Why Did Jesus Use This Title?
Why did Jesus choose to use this obscure title for himself? Wouldn’t it have been more clear to just call himself the promised son of David? Or the Messiah? There are many self-designations he could have used. So why pick Son of Man?
I confess that I do not know the mind of Christ and all his reasons for choosing this title. But I suspect that it was to stress his humanity and to identify with those he came to redeem. Elsewhere when this title is used it is referring to a human. So, Jesus, in using it, is calling himself ‘the human one’. He is identifying with us. Or rather, what we were created to be.
Jesus, the eternal Son of God, took on flesh and became the Son of Man. And, as the Son of Man, he suffered and died as an atoning sacrifice for our sin. Then, after conquering death, he rose on the clouds of heaven and, coming to the Father, was given authority to rule over the kingdom of God. Jesus, the Son of Man, is the image of God. In his humanity, he is what we were created to be. And all those who come to him are renewed as new humans, truly made into the image of God.
Allusions to Genesis
The Son of Man title clearly points back to Daniel 7. But it seems like it also points back to Genesis 3:15. As a part of God’s curse on the serpent, he is told that he will strike the seed of the woman on the heel. But the woman’s seed would crush his head. The Son of Man was the promised seed of the woman. And the title emphasized his humanity. The serpent struck his heel on the cross. But the result was defeat for the serpent.
Going back even further in Genesis, humanity was created to rule (Gen. 1:26). But when they fell, they were cast from the Garden, from God’s presence. No longer did they rule as God intended. But the Son of Man is the firstborn of a new humanity. And he takes his place on the throne at God’s right hand to rule. Jesus, as the Son of Man, restores us to our intended place in the cosmic order.
The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.
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