When we think of the titles ‘son of man’ and ‘son of God’ ascribed to Jesus we normally assume the former stresses his humanity and the latter his deity. And this is true. However, as with many generalisations, and particularly those that refer to Jesus qualification and nuance is often required. For instance, while ‘son of God’ clearly does carry in Jesus the full weight of deity, yet not until Jesus did the expression carry such freight. Adam was a ‘son of God’, as was Israel and each of her Davidic Kings. Clearly none of these is divine. Each was a titular son, a nominal son, an adopted son. Each was no more than a human son of God. Only in Jesus is divine sonship required to take on a deeper and essential meaning. All he says and does demands a unique kind of sonship, one that must carry the full status of deity. He displays such divine qualities that those who observed could only conclude that he was the ‘one and only’ Son of the Father, the Word who was with God and was God, become flesh, become human (Jn 1). Thus a title that formerly pointed to merely human persons in a special relationship with God enjoying a resemblance to God and called to be a representative of God is fulfilled in Jesus in the most ultimate and incredible way compelling the conclusion that in him the title ‘the son of God’ means nothing less than he is God the Son.
We should not be surprised by this for it is often the case that Jesus fulfils an office in ways that surprise and invest it with fresh insight and significance. Tied into this is his intention both to reveal and conceal his identity; to those of faith the unexpected ways Jesus fulfils OT roles both enlighten and confirm his identity while to those blinded by self-serving prejudice they further hide who he is and confirm them in their blindness (this is always the effect of the gospel).
Like ‘son of God’, ‘son of man’ as a title of Jesus carries hidden depths. In the first instance it simply stresses the humanity of Jesus. It is a modest and humble appellation. In Psalm 8, the ‘son of man’ stands in contrast to the greatness of God.
Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory
in the heavens….
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
Man, in comparison to God (and Angels) is insignificant. Indeed, ‘son of man’ is a diminutive of ‘man’ further underlining his lowly status. It is used extensively in Ezekiel by God where it means ‘human’ (a creature) in stark contrast to God (the Creator). Cf. Ezek 2:1-3; Numbs 23:19. It is used as a name for the needy nation of Israel (Ps 80:17). The humble station of man, including his weakness and frailty, is stressed by the designation. It is therefore, perhaps unsurprising, that it is the favourite self-designation of Jesus who said of himself that he was ‘meek and humble of heart’.
And so ‘son of man’ was an unpretentious, unassuming title. At one level it simply meant ‘man’ or ‘human’. Indeed, at a colloquial level, it may at times be hardly a title at all and simply mean ‘I’. Yet, even in these OT references cited, there are more than hints that this man, humble though he is, by God’s providence, is destined for great things. In Psalm 8, he is ‘crowned them with glory and honour,’ and God makes him (them), ‘rulers over the works of your hands’ and has put ‘everything under his feet’ (Ps8). In Psalm 80, he is the son God has raised for himself to sit at his right hand’ (Ps 80:15,17).
It is not surprising therefore when Jesus uses it of himself both elements are present, lowliness and exaltation, elements we shall explore in future posts. Yet, as with the title ‘son of God’ when used by Jesus he injects it with further meaning that significantly raises its capital. To be sure it indicates suffering and subsequent glory but it also it carries with it prerogatives that belong only to God. For example, the first time it is used by Jesus in Mark’s gospel it announces his authority to forgive sins, a prerogative that in Jesus’ time none doubted belonged to God alone (Mk 2:10).
In a word, in reference to Jesus ‘son of man’ is a title that fully grasped identifies him as a divine person. In fact, Jesus’ injection of distinction even deity into this essentially humble title is not aberrant. He is only claiming for ‘son of man’ what the OT previously implicitly taught (cf. Dan 7). But more of this later.
Meantime it is sufficient to observe that while the designation ‘son of God’ was applied in the first place to mere men, the complementary title ‘son of man’ points to a man who is God. Of course, only in Jesus do the human and divine unite. He is unique. This is whe when speaking of himself as ‘son of man’ he never describes himself as ‘son of man’ but always ‘the son of man’. The definite article is always present for while as ‘the Son of man’ he represents a new humanity that will flow from him (again, to be explored later) nevertheless there is about him that which is unique. No other ‘son of man’ could say of himself:
No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man
Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before!
Son of Man may rightly stress his humanity but in his case this humanity belongs to a divine person. He did not come into existence at conception; he was a pre-existent divine person who came from God and returned to God; he does not really belong to earth, he belongs to heaven. The Son of Man is really the Son of God who will return to heaven and the glory that he shared with his Father before the world existed (Jn 17:5).