I’ve been meditating on why Jesus described himself as the son of man. It’s the simplest and most profound self-designation. It redefines us all.
Linguistically, the phrase means nothing more than a human being — a descendant of humanity. Calling himself human doesn’t make Jesus special; it makes him one of us.
What is special about a human identity? Ah, that question takes us to the heart of the God revealed in Christ.
What does it mean to be human? (Psalm 8)
The story starts with the heavenly sovereign appointing creatures to image his character, to implement heaven’s dominion in the earthly realm (Genesis 1:26-28).
What’s our humanness? Hebrew poetry answers:
What is mankind that you are mindful of him,the son of man that you care for him?You have made him a little lower than Godand crowned him with glory and honour.You have given him dominion over the works of your handsyou have put all things under his feet.
This meditation is buttressed by psalms where enemies try to take the kingdom (Psalms 7, 9). Psalm 8 says nothing of that human struggle except to declare that divine strength has been established through the powerless (babies/infants). Their little voices overturn demands for blood (enemy/avenger, verse 2). Little lives voice divine authority in a violent world. That’s how the Genesis story plays out: Cain takes a life (4:8), but God gives life (4:25), and that’s how humanity retains the image (5:3).
Israel served as a microcosm of divine authority, but Psalm 8 makes a bigger claim. Like the voice of a little child among the kingdoms of the world, David declared, YHWH, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! Like the human story it contains, the Psalm ends as it began (verses 1, 9).
The human descendant images God, embodies God’s reign, makes God known. But as the story of divine sovereignty unfolded, the servant of YHWH (Israel) fell to the nations. Has divine authority fallen if there’s no one left to reflect God to the nations? Isaiah 41–66 addresses this question, promising the restoration of divine authority over the earth.
What if God’s people fall? (Ezekiel)
Ezekiel was among the first to be exiled when God’s nation fell. He was under foreign rule when God called him:
Ezekiel 2:1–3 (NIV)
1 He said to me, “Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you.” … 3 He said to me, “Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel …”
Son of man? Effectively God calls Ezekiel, Hey human! More than 90 times.
In Exodus, God’s people were called the children of Israel (descendants of Jacob). In Ezekiel, God doesn’t refer to him as, Descendant of Jacob or Descendant of Levi (Ezekiel’s tribe). God calls him, Human descendant.
In exile, in Babylon, Ezekiel is the human serving Master YHWH. That’s Ezekiel’s name for God. More than 200 times, Ezekiel calls God, Aḏō·nāy YHWH, (Lord Lord). The nation and the Davidic kings are gone, but even when Babylon seems to have taken over God’s world, a human descendant speaks for and serves the sovereign Lord of all the earth.
How is God’s reign restored? (Daniel 7)
Centuries later, God’s people were still waiting. Babylon fell to Persia. Persia fell to Greece. It was unclear when or how God would free them from rulers who make war to control God’s world. In Daniel’s vision, these rulers seemed like horned beasts, goring each other for dominance. To restore divine authority to earth, God would need to take power from these animals and give it to someone like a human descendant.
Daniel 7 declared that divine reign would not come through the usual process of conquest based on the might of earthly armies. It would arrive by a decree of the Ancient of Days and his heavenly hosts. The Ancient of Days who had given dominion to the human in the beginning would depose the bloodthirsty animals and restore his inheritance to someone like a human descendant.
That’s how Jesus understood Daniel 7. Jesus never built an army to take power from the beasts and restore God’s reign. He would not permit his servants — or even angels — to fight those who threatened him (Matthew 26:51-53), though he would call on angels to help gather his people under his reign when the Father had raised him up (24:31).
But the crucial move in Daniel 7 is the scope of divine authority restored in the son of man. Jesus was the son of David, inheriting the dynasty God promised David (Psalm 89:49), but he’s so much more! The son of man inherits the dominion God gave humanity in the beginning — all of us, the whole creation:
Daniel 7:13–14 (NIV)
13 “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. 14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
Son of man? It’s the lowliest statement any human could make. It includes every human descendant.
The son of man is the antithesis of the inhuman power claims people make when they sweep weaker people aside.
It’s precisely because Jesus is one of us — the human descendant claiming nothing more — that God could trust the kingdom to him. He’s the only ruler worthy of the name.
In him, we become human again. Everything God decreed for humanity in the beginning is inherited in the son of man. That’s the grandeur of his name.
What others are saying
Larry W. Hurtado, “Summary and Concluding Observations,” in “Who Is This Son of Man?”: The Latest Scholarship on a Puzzling Expression of the Historical Jesus, (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2011), 175:
The obvious next question is what might have prompted Jesus to formulate and deploy so regularly this apparently unusual expression with its particularizing implication. We have already noted the proposal that ‘the son of man’ originated through Jesus identifying himself with the human-like figure of Dan. 7:13–14, and I have indicated why this seems to me unlikely. I propose, instead, that the expression simply reflected Jesus’ sense that he had a particular, even unique, vocation in God’s redemptive purposes. That is, I suggest that Jesus saw himself as having a special role and mission, and that he used the expression for ‘the son of man’ self-referentially to express this conviction. It did not indicate what that mission was, and did not lay claim to any office or previously defined status. Instead, ‘the son of man’ functioned to express his sense of being chosen for a special purpose before God.
Richard Bauckham, “Son of Man”: Early Jewish Literature, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2023), 1:374–375:
Thus Daniel 7:13–14 was not, as has often been supposed, the source of a form of messianic expectation quite different from the Davidic hope: a heavenly (angelic or divine) figure coming from heaven, as opposed to an earthly, human king, born on earth. In the interpretations of Daniel 7 we have studied, the Messiah has been born on earth in the past and will come in the future from heaven. This is remarkably close to the way early Christians read Daniel 7, a comparison that will be explored in part 3 of this work.
By now it is surely needless to say that, on the evidence of the extant Jewish literature in which we find interpretations of Daniel 7, there was no Son of Man tradition or Son of Man concept in Second Temple Judaism. Daniel 7:13–14 was always interpreted in close connection with other messianic prophecies, often those that expected an ideal king in the line of David.
- How majestic! (Psalm 8)
- Son of Man in Ezekiel
- Son of Man in Daniel
- Son of Man in Enoch
- Son of man: suffering king (Mt 16–17)
- The church’s role in the world (podcast)
Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia View all posts by Allen Browne
Republished with permission from Blogs.crossmap.com, featuring inspiring Bible verses about “Son of man” — the backstory of Jesus’ authority.