Jesus’ favorite way of referring to himself was as the “Son of Man”. This term is used of Jesus 88 times in the New Testament, and Jesus refers to himself as the “Son of Man” more often than as the “Son of God”.
I am often asked why this is, and why Jesus preferred this term over the term Son of God. Here are some thoughts on what that term means and why Jesus may have preferred it:
Son of Man is a Messianic title from the Old Testament
The title: “Son of Man” was a reference to a prophecy found in Daniel 7:13-14:
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.
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.
This description of the “Son of Man” matches that descriptions of the Messiah found elsewhere in the Old Testament. What is particularly interesting is that the Son of Man is exalted, divine, and is sent from Heaven – and yet, is distinct from “the Ancient of Days”. This is in line with Trinitarian theology, which states that the Son and the Father are distinct persons within the Godhead.
The Son of Man according to this prophecy is both human and exalted. He does the work which only God can do, indicating that he is God, and yet he is distinct from the “Ancient of Days” who sends him. This tells us that the Messiah would be human, but he would also be God at the same time, while a distinct person from the “Ancient of Days”, AKA the Father.
As I discussed in a previous post – Why Did Jesus Tell Some People to Keep Quiet About His Miracles and Identity? – although Jesus was sometimes very explicit about his identity, other times Jesus was more subtle and implicit in how he revealed his identity. In that post I delve into some reasons why that was, but here it suffices to say that by using the term “Son of Man”, Jesus was using a term by which those who had ears to hear would pick up what he was putting down.
Son of Man speaks to Jesus’ humanity
The term Son of Man emphasizes the fact that Jesus was truly and fully human. Although he was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin, he is nevertheless fully human.
Why are you telling me this?
Remember that the Gospels were written by humans under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. What that means is that there is a particular telos or objective inherent to what they have written and how they have written it. This is true of any historical account: any time anyone tells a story, they include certain details and leave out other details depending on what they want to emphasize for their audience. This is true of the Gospels as well. So what is the telos or objective of the Gospel writers in making sure we know that Jesus often used the title “Son of Man” in referring to himself (other than the fact that he actually did)? Probably it is to emphasize that Jesus was truly and fully human.
We know from early church history, that there was a tendency amongst some Christians to emphasize the deity of Christ to the negation of His humanity. The converse was also true, and these discussions and debates culminated with the codifying of the doctrine of the Trinity at Nicaea and in the Athanasian Creed. Even to this day, there are some Christians, e.g. Coptic Christians, who are “monophysites”, which means that they believe that Jesus only had one nature: a divine one, and that he was not fully human. The use of the term “Son of Man” emphasized Jesus’ true humanity.
Son of Man actually had more significance in that context than Son of God
To the Jewish mind, the term Son of God might be used to refer to any person without too much controversy, because they would agree that we are all created by God, and therefore could be called “sons” of God. For example, Psalm 82:6 says, “You are all sons of the Most High.”
The same could be said of “Son of Man” for that matter, in the sense that all humans are sons or daughters of men. The difference is that in the Jewish context, the term “Son of Man” actually carried more significance because of Daniel’s prophecy.
Remember that Jesus actually did call himself the Son of God on several occasions, as John’s gospel in particular records. Again, this gets to the point of the telos of John’s gospel, which is to emphasize Jesus’ deity – whereas other gospels aim to emphasize his humanity.
But it is not only in John’s gospel that we see Jesus being called “Son of God”, which reminds us of the importance of his two-fold nature as both fully God and fully man, a nature that was necessary in order for him to be the perfect Savior that we need.
A case study
I will leave you with these words from Mark’s gospel:
Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Living God?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death. (Mark 14:61-64)
Notice in this text:
- Jesus said he is the Son of God
- Jesus called himself the Son of Man – and connected that term with the imagery directly from Daniel 7:13-14
- This was understood by the Jewish people to be a claim of deity, which is why they accused him of blasphemy and condemned him to death.