We noted that the title ‘the Son of Man’ was Jesus’ favourite self-designation. The expression ‘son of man’ was not unfamiliar it would seem in C1 Palestine. It simply meant ‘human’ with the stress being on the weakness and humility of such a position. In the words of Psalm 8, addressing God the psalmist asks, ‘ what is man that you have regard for him?‘ Perhaps the humble connotations of this title is why Jesus adopted it. This, and other associations it carried which were not so up front but were nevertheless present in its OT use.
We saw last time that Jesus clearly meant more by the expression than merely a general idiom for ‘human’. He used it in a more prescribed way. He was not merely ‘a son of man’ he was ‘the Son of Man’. The definite article implied uniqueness. In fact, he used it as a messianic title. When Jesus asks his disciples who they think he, the Son of Man, is, and Peter unambiguously replies that he is ‘Messiah, Son of the living God,’ Jesus approves his confession (Matt 16:13-20) and proceeds to teach that ‘the Son of Man’ must suffer many things… be rejected… be killed and after three days rise again‘ (Mk 8:31). ‘The Son of Man’ is clearly code for Messiah.
Immediately after Peter identifies Jesus as Messiah, Jesus makes clear the career of this messianic ‘Son of Man’, contrary to the expectations of all, the disciples included, is first suffering then glory, humiliation precedes exaltation (cf. Mk 9:31; 10:34). The Son of Man must be ‘lifted up‘ (Jn 3:14) where ‘lifted up’ refers to crucifixion (exaltation in an unexpected way). The ‘must’ of suffering as a prelude to glory seems to be at least in part an imperative derived from the OT (Matt 26:24), no doubt largely from Isaiah’s suffering servant motif (Isa 53) but also from other threads of revelation such as the rejected stone (Ps 118:22). Indeed, one of the most significant texts in the OT concerning the ‘son of man’ motif hints at such an order.
Daniel 7, in visions that reveal the conflict between the kingdoms of the world and the heavenly kingdom, records,
As I looked,
“thrones were set in place,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat.
His clothing was as white as snow;
the hair of his head was white like wool.
His throne was flaming with fire,
and its wheels were all ablaze.
A river of fire was flowing,
coming out from before him.
Thousands upon thousands attended him;
ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.
The court was seated,
and the books were opened.
“Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking. I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire. (The other beasts had been stripped of their authority, but were allowed to live for a period of time.)
“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 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.
“I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me. I approached one of those standing there and asked him the meaning of all this.
“So he told me and gave me the interpretation of these things: ‘The four great beasts are four kings that will rise from the earth. But the holy people of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever—yes, for ever and ever.’
“Then I wanted to know the meaning of the fourth beast, which was different from all the others and most terrifying, with its iron teeth and bronze claws—the beast that crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. I also wanted to know about the ten horns on its head and about the other horn that came up, before which three of them fell—the horn that looked more imposing than the others and that had eyes and a mouth that spoke boastfully. As I watched, this horn was waging war against the holy people and defeating them, until the Ancient of Days came and pronounced judgment in favor of the holy people of the Most High, and the time came when they possessed the kingdom.
“He gave me this explanation: ‘The fourth beast is a fourth kingdom that will appear on earth. It will be different from all the other kingdoms and will devour the whole earth, trampling it down and crushing it. The ten horns are ten kings who will come from this kingdom. After them another king will arise, different from the earlier ones; he will subdue three kings. He will speak against the Most High and oppress his holy people and try to change the set times and the laws. The holy people will be delivered into his hands for a time, times and half a time.
“‘But the court will sit, and his power will be taken away and completely destroyed forever. Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.’
“This is the end of the matter. I, Daniel, was deeply troubled by my thoughts, and my face turned pale, but I kept the matter to myself.”
This is a rather lengthy quotation but I have cited it in full for so much that Jesus invests in the messianic Son of Man motif is sourced here.
the son of man as a messianic title
It seems to be principally from this text that Jesus derives ‘the Son of Man’ as a messianic title. This mysterious and august figure is given by God a kingdom that will last forever and never be destroyed; these are messianic announcements.
the son of man and his people are organically one
While the vision focuses on an individual, a son of man, the interpretation speaks of the kingdom being given to ‘the holy people‘. It is tempting to identify the ‘son of man’ as merely the ‘holy people’ but this is unlikely for a number of reasons. Firstly, the ‘son of man’ has divine characteristics and receives divine honours that no ordinary human beings possess (7:13,14). More of this later. Secondly, Jesus clearly sees this figure as messianic applying as he does his career to himself (cf Matt 24:30; Mk 13:26). Thirdly, anyone familiar with the old and new Testaments recognises this dynamic between the individual and collective in messianic prophecy, the solidarity between messiah and his people (for example, OT sonship and servant motifs, NT body and building motifs). Indeed, solidarity is not limited to the messianic, the various ‘beasts’ mentioned in Dan 7 were both actual kings and a nation. Solidarity, organic unity, between a ruler and his subjects is a norm although it is taken to a higher level in the union between messiah and his people. The reality and intimacy of this union is clear in the gospels.
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.
A more vivid sense of corporate identity and relationship is hard to imagine.
the son of man must first suffer before entering his glory
While the suffering motif is developed elsewhere more fully as we observed, nevertheless it is implicit in Dan 7. It is clear that before the ‘holy people’ triumph they must suffer (Dan 7:19, 21, 23, 25). Given the organic connection between the Son of Man and the holy people it is not unreasonable to see a hint too of messianic suffering, a hint amply developed in other OT images and texts. The suffering Servant of Isaiah is a clear example of messianic suffering. Jesus clearly links both strands of revelation (son of man and Isaianic servant) when he says, ‘the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Matt 20:28).
Indeed, as ‘lifted up’ (cited earlier)suggests, the cross is not simply the prelude to glory but is in its own way the beginning of glory for in it ‘the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him’ (Jn 13:31). The supreme self-disclosure of Messiah and God takes place at the cross (Jn 8:28). That Messiah should die, and die the shameful death of a state execution as a criminal was unthinkable to the Jewish mind. A messianic ‘son of Man’ such as Jesus depicts they cannot envisage… ‘who is the Son of man’ (Jn 12:34). They did not grasp their need as sinners and that only through his death could a messianic community be born, a people organically one with ‘the Son of Man’ sharing in the identity of his new humanity. He must be ‘lifted up’ that who he truly is be revealed (Jn 8:28), that ‘whoever believes in him may have life’ (Jn 3:14), and that he might draw all to him (Jn 12:32). The Son of Man had expressly come to seek and save the lost (Matt 19:10) and it is his death (as a corn of wheat) that accomplishes this (Jn 12:23,24).
the son of man will triumph and reign
While as a title ‘the Son of Man’ is self -effacing nevertheless Jesus invests it with unambiguous authority. It is here Dan 7 comes into its own. It speaks of a son of man coming into the immediate presence of God clothed in the clouds of heaven and receiving an everlasting kingdom, the kingdom of ‘the Most High’ himself. Undoubtedly it is to this text that Jesus alludes when he says to the High Priest when questioned about his messianic entitlement,
Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven’
Notice jesus does here what he often does, he conflates two texts. The Son of man ‘coming on the clouds of heaven’ references Dan 7 while ‘sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One’ is drawn from Psalm 110, a psalm celebrating the triumph of messiah. Despite his rejection he affirms a day of vindication drawn from and confirmed by these OT texts. Indeed, there is a warning of judgement to those hostile to him to whom he speaks… ‘you will see‘. This is one with other son of man statements he makes such as , ‘Whoever is ashamed of him the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels, (Mk 8:38). The Son of Man among many other things has been given authority to judge (John 5:27).
It was always God’s plan to delegate to man ruling authority in creation (Gen 1:26-28; Ps 8:5-8). The fall stalled but did not finally stymie this purpose. Rather faith sees in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus that this purpose realised ( Hebs 2:5-8). Christ is the first of a new humanity that will reign in ‘the world to come‘ (Hebs 2:5); Hebrews treats Ps 8 as messianic. Christ was made a little lower than the angels that he may taste death (that which destroys all human flourishing) and through death, deliver his people.
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham.
Hebrews expresses this corporate unity between Christ (messiah) and his people that we have seen implied in Dan 7. He destroys Satan and all evil, delivers his people, the new humanity, the new ‘holy people’ of Dan 7, the true offspring of Abraham and shares with them his victory. Thus we read
‘Jesus said to them (his disciples), “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.’
If those who deny the Son of Man are banished from his everlasting kingdom and destroyed (Matt 12:8; 13:41; 24:30, 37-39; 25:31-40) then those who acknowledge him, who receive his word, will receive eternal reward (Matt12:8; 13:37,38; 16:27; 25:31-40). All this will be realised when the Son of Man returns.
For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.
Matt 16:27 (cf. Matt 24:27-31, 37-39).
There is an important application of all of this to our hearts but this must wait for the final post on this subject as I have already said more than enough in this one. Note, however, how well suited the son of man motif is to bring together so many subtle strands of revelation. We would expect nothing less than such wisdom from One who claims as the Son of Man to speak only those words which his Father had taught him (Jn 8:28).