I saw in the night-visions, and, behold, there came with the clouds of heaven one like unto a son of man, and he came even to the ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed (Daniel 7:13-14).
“Son of Man” is one of those phrases that everyone has read and regarding which most just keep on reading. We get the understanding as we read that Jesus speaks of Himself as the Son of Man (e.g. Matthew 16:13-16, 16:21, 17:22-23). It might strike us as odd for Him to do so; why all of these references to the “Son of Man” if He is indeed the Son of Man? Why describe Himself as such? What difference does it make?
“Son of man” is an interesting way of describing Jesus considering that it has a long history of being used to refer to all different types of people. “Son of man” is sometimes used in parallelism with “man” (e.g. Numbers 23:19, Job 16:21, 35:8, Psalm 8:4, 80:17, Isaiah 51:12, Jeremiah 49:18). It is almost exclusively the means by which God addresses the prophet Ezekiel (e.g. Ezekiel 2:1, 3). Daniel the prophet is also described as a “son of man” (Daniel 8:17).
The phrase may seem a bit odd to us, but it makes complete sense in Hebrew. A “son of man” is a human being. There are many times in Hebrew when a person or persons are spoken of as “sons of” someone or something. A wicked person is sometimes described as a “son of Belial” [e.g. Judges 19:22, often translated “base fellows” (ASV), “worthless fellows” (ESV)]. The Ammonites are almost always spoken of as the “sons of Ammon”; for that matter, the Israelites themselves are time and time again referred to as the “sons of Israel.” A “son of man,” then, is a human being.
So why the constant emphasis on this phrase, especially in the life of Jesus? How can Jesus refer to Himself as the Son of Man if Ezekiel and Daniel before Him were “sons of men”?
Jesus is reckoned as the Son of Man on account of the prophecy in Daniel 7:13-14, in which “one like a son of man” came before the Ancient of Days and received dominion, glory, and a kingdom. This “one like a son of man” seemed awfully like the same One who would be the rock destroying the kingdoms in Daniel 2:41-44, and consonant with the Branch from David described in Isaiah 9, 11, and in many other passages. Thus, this “one like a son of man” is the Messiah, the Christ, and it was so understood in Jesus’ day.
But why that description? Why does Jesus own it so? Perhaps part of the reason involves the language used. The “man” of “son of man” is frequently the Hebrew word ‘adam, which also refers to dirt or land in many contexts; it is also the name/description of the first man Adam. Thus, in a sense, the Son of Man is the Son of Adam, the Son of the ground. Perhaps God calls Ezekiel the “son of man” to remind him that he is but mortal and dust while God remains immortal and spirit. Yet Jesus is God in the flesh (John 1:1, 14, 18, Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:3). And that is precisely why He refers to Himself as the Son of Man so frequently!
It was as easy then as it is now to get so caught up with Jesus’ divinity and spiritual power that His humanity is forgotten. Daniel quite clearly sees one like a human being receiving dominion, glory, and a kingdom that does not end– it is not a disembodied spirit or some immanent entity beyond our comprehension, but Someone who experienced the same types of things we have experienced (cf. Daniel 7:13-14, Hebrews 4:15, 5:8). God the Son condescended to the point of taking on the form of dirt, being the Son of Man– the Creator taking on the form of His creation (John 1:3, Philippians 2:5-7). As “the” Son of Man, He was just like the other humans around Him– the humans for whom He lived and died to redeem.
Gnosticism– the overemphasis of the spiritual, theoretical, and the abstract so as to reject the physical, practical, and the concrete– has been a challenge in the church since the beginning. But the idea of Jesus as the “Son of Man” entirely does away with this. Flesh cannot be entirely bad; God the Son took on the form of flesh. The body is not necessarily the enemy; God took on a body in Christ, had it transformed for immortality in the resurrection, and in that form “like a son of man” received all power and authority (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, 42-57). We cannot just give up on the creation since God refused to do so and continues to refuse to do so (Romans 8:17-24, Hebrews 1:3).
Does it make a lot of sense to us that God would become man and live as man? No, of course not! Yet whereas every other religion exalts men to the position of God, it is only in Christ do we see God descending to become a Son of Man. It is a great mystery, but one for which we ought to be most thankful. Jesus reminds us through His words that He is not just the Son of God but also the Son of Man; let us praise Him for suffering with us and for us and redeeming us for the hope of the resurrection in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry