Of all the titles commonly used of Jesus in the New Testament, ‘Son of man’ was the one most used by Jesus himself and least used by others. It hardly occurs at all outside the Gospels ( Acts 7:56; Revelation 1:13; Revelation 14:14), and inside the Gospels is used almost solely by Jesus. Jesus is referred to as the “Son of Man” 88 times in the New Testament.
The title ‘son of man’ comes from a vision recorded in the Old Testament book of Daniel. In this vision a person like a son of man came into the heavenly presence of God and received from him a universal and everlasting kingdom ( Daniel 7:13-14). The idea of the son of man was tied up with that of the kingdom of God, and this provided the background to Jesus’ reference to himself as the Son of man.
Two typical instances may be given of our Lord’s preference for this name. One is found in the Gospel of St. John, where the title least frequently occurs—that of Christ’s answer to Nathanael, who had just acknowledged Him as Son of God. Jesus, accepting Nathanael’s confession, replied thus: “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:50-51). The other is His reply to the adjuration of the high priest, who asked Him whether He was the Christ the Son of God, in which again, immediately after acknowledging that such was His claim, He spoke of Himself as Son of Man, and that in connection with a prophecy of His appearing on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven (Matthew 26:63-64 || Mark 14:61-62 || Luke 22:67-70).
With regard to the question as to the sense in which Jesus used the title ‘Son of Man,’ the answer is suggested by the connection in which at various times He so described Himself. It may be briefly stated in this way: God manifesting Himself to man in a form which man as man can understand.
Comparing the passages in which the title is used by Christ, the first thing that strikes us is that He uses it in connection both with His humiliation and with His exaltation.
We find it associated with thoughts of the privations and sufferings of Jesus,—as where He says: ‘Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head’ (Matthew 8:20 || Luke 9:58).
It occurs repeatedly in connection with His sufferings and death, as where He tells His disciples that as John was slain by Herod, so shall it be done to the Son of Man (Matthew 17:12 || Mark 9:12). Again, that the Son of Man must ‘be delivered into the hands of men’ (Luke 9:44 || Matthew 17:22, cf. Matthew 20:18 || Mark 10:33 || Luke 18:31-33, Matthew 26:45 || Mark 14:41), ‘and suffer many things’ (Mark 8:31 || Luke 9:22).
Thus also Jesus states this as the mission of the Son of Man, that He ‘came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many’ (Matthew 20:28 || Mark 10:45). Again, the title is used where the thought expressed is that of the sympathy of Jesus with human joys as with human sorrows, in the contrast drawn between the asceticism of John and the sociable disposition of our Lord (Matthew 11:18-19 || Luke 7:33-34); while the same thought appears in another form, where Jesus, justifying His acceptance of the hospitality of Zacchaeus, says: ‘The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost’ (Luke 19:10).
In other passages the use of the name suggests the coexistence of Messianic authority with the lowliness of Christ’s human nature, as in the narrative of the healing of the paralytic, in connection with which Jesus says that ‘the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins’ (Matthew 9:6 || Mark 2:10 || Luke 5:24); and St. Matthew notes the impression produced upon the multitude, as that ‘they marveled, and glorified God which had given such power unto men.’ To this class of passages may be referred also our Lord’s saying concerning blasphemy against the Son of Man and that against the Holy Ghost (Matthew 12:32). The Son of Man, in His humiliation, veiling His Divine nature, appearing to men like one of themselves, may not be recognized for what He is. Blasphemy against Him, therefore, as resulting only from ignorance and unbelief, admits of forgiveness; whereas blasphemy against the Spirit of God, a presumptuous offence against the Deity, cannot be forgiven.
Again, the title is used of Jesus in respect of His representative character, where He asserts His right as Son of Man to interpret the Sabbath law (Matthew 12:8 || Mark 2:27-28). ‘Jesus regarded the institution from a philanthropic point of view, and He claimed lordship over it for the Son of Man on the ground of His sympathy with mankind, which He deemed a far more reliable interpreter of the Divine purpose and guide in observance, than the merciless rigour of the Rabbis’ (Brnce, Kingdom of God, p. 174).
A connecting link between these uses of the title and those which specially refer to Christ’s Exaltation is found in those passages in which Jesus so calls Himself with reference to His mission as Founder of the Kingdom of God. So in the parable of the Tares. ‘He that soweth the good seed is the Son of Man’ (Matthew 13:37). ‘The Son of Man shall send forth his angels’ (Matthew 13:41). Here Jesus identifies the Founder of the Kingdom of God in the world with the Judge of the world, using the same title in both connections. He who as Son of Man seeks with all patience and forbearance to establish His Kingdom by manifestation of the grace of God, is He who must judge mankind according as they have accepted or rejected His message of salvation.
But undoubtedly the most remarkable use of the name Son of Man is that which is directly and specially connected with the thought of Jesus in His Exaltation. We see this in all His predictions of His Second Coming. Thus, speaking of the suddenness and unexpectedness of His appearing, He says: ‘At an hour when ye think not the Son of Man cometh’ (Matthew 24:44 || Luke 12:40). The Son of Man is to appear with the suddenness of lightning (Matthew 24:27 || Luke 17:24), and the circumstances of His appearing are compared to those of the world in the days of Noah and of Lot (Matthew 24:37 || Luke 17:26-32). He is to come after the great tribulation (Matthew 24:30 || Mark 13:26 || Luke 21:27). His advent is to be announced by ‘the sign of the Son of Man appearing in the heavens’ (Matthew 24:30). He is to sit as a King upon the throne of His glory (Matthew 25:31), when His Apostles shall be associated with Him, judging the tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28, cf. Luke 22:29-30).
In the Fourth Gospel the name ‘Son of Man’ is used in connexion with the pre-existence of Christ: ‘No man hath ascended up to heaven but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man which is in heaven’ (John 3:13; cf. John 6:62). As Son of Man He is Mediator between Heaven and Earth (John 1:51). Judgment is committed to the Son of Man as such (John 5:27). Special emphasis is laid upon associations of this title with the coming judgment (cf. besides the passages just noted, Matthew 26:64 || Mark 14:62 || Luke 22:69). Again, Jesus concludes one of His discourses on ‘The Last Things’ with an emphatic warning to His own disciples to watch and pray that they ‘may be accounted worthy … to stand before the Son of Man’ (Luke 21:36). The meaning of all this is plain. The Son of Man as such is the Judge of man. Man is, as it were, to be ‘tried by his peers.’ The Son of Man, as bearing the nature of man, capable of understanding and sympathizing with him, is to appear at last as the Judge of the human race.
It is clear that the meaning of the title cannot be limited to any of those conceptions which have been suggested of Christ as the ideal of humanity, still less to the thought of the humanity as distinguished from the Divinity of our Lord. It was rather used very much ‘to raise problems and to incite,’ among Christ’s hearers, ‘reflection and the use of their own judgment.’ ‘It contained, in nuce, through reference to the testimony of OT Scripture,’ ‘a solution of the paradox of the coexistence’ in Jesus ‘of lowly humanity with lofty Messianic dignity’ (Wendt, Teaching of Jesus, ii. p. 148).
- Names And Titles Of Christ from Hastings’ Dictionary of the New Testament