Why did Jesus call Himself the “Son of Man”?
Jesus often referred to Himself in the third person. And the title He used most often was the “Son of Man”. But what does this title mean and why did He use it?
Sometimes authors use pen names (or a pseudonym, or nom de plume) instead of their real name. For example, Samuel Clemens wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn under the name of Mark Twain. Eric Blair wrote Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four under the name George Orwell. Charles Dodgson wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass under the name Lewis Carroll. And Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express and Then There Were None under the name Mary Westmacott. Many women authors have used a nom de plume to get their work published due to bias against women writers. For example, Emily Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights under the name Ellis Bell. And Mary Evans wrote Middlemarch under the name George Eliot. Was the “Son of Man” Jesus’ pen name?
On the other hand, entertainers can use stage names instead of their real name. For example, Reginald Dwight is Elton John. Robert Zimmerman is Bob Dylan. Declan MacManus is Elvis Costello. Paul Hewson is Bono. Gordon Thomas is Sting. Stanley Burrell is Hammer. Stefani Germanotta is Lady Gaga. Robyn Rihanna Fenty is Rihanna. Norma Mortenson is Marilyn Monroe. Caryn Johnson is Whoopi Goldberg. And Alecia Moore is Pink. Was the “Son of Man” Jesus’ stage name?
A patronym is a component of a personal name based on the given name of an earlier male ancestor, usually by the addition of a prefix or suffix. For example, Johnson means son of John, Wilson means son of William, and Andersen means son of Anders. In Gaelic, “mac” means “son of” and so MacDonald means “son of Donald” and “MacAdam” means “son of Adam”. In Aramaic, “bar” means “son” and so Peter is called “Simon Bar-Jonah” (Mt. 16:17). Similarly, in Hebrew, “ben” means “son” or “descendant of”. Was the “Son of Man” Jesus’ patronym?
In the ancient world, most people had only one name. Mary’s son was named “Jesus” (the Greek form of Joshua), which means “God saves” (Mt.1:21). His title “the Christ” means “the anointed one” (Mt. 16:16).
Jesus was a Jew and His ministry was directed to Jews. So it’s best to look in the Old Testament to discover the background to the title “Son of Man”.
“Son of man” in the Old Testament
The phrase “son of man” occurs 107 times in the Old Testament, with 93 in the book of Ezekiel (ESV Bible). In most of these instances “son of man” means “human being”. It denotes mankind generally in contrast to deity. For example, consider the synonymous parallelism of Psalm 8:
“what is man that you [God] are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?” (ESV).
Here “son of man” is synonymous with “man” or “human being”.
God referred to Ezekiel as “son of man” (2:1, 3, 6, 8). This emphasized Ezekiel’s humanity when he was being addressed by God. Daniel was also addressed this way (Dan. 8:17).
But there is an occurrence of “son of man” in the book of Daniel, which has a different meaning.
“Son of man” in Daniel 7
The book of Daniel was written in about AD 530. In Daniel 2 and 7, five kingdoms are described: Babylonia, Medo-Persia, Greece, Rome, and God’s eternal kingdom. Daniel used the title “son of man” when he described a vision of God’s eternal kingdom:
“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 [God the Father] and was presented before Him.
And to him [the son of man] 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.” (Dan. 7:13-14ESV).
This part of Daniel was written in Aramaic. According to the NIV Study Bible, “The Aramaic phrase bar enash means human being. The phrase son of man is retained here because of its use in the New Testament as a title of Jesus, probably based largely on this verse.”
And according to the NET Bible, “This text is probably the main Old Testament background for Jesus’ use of the term son of man. In both Jewish and Christian circles, the reference in the book of Daniel has traditionally been understood to refer to an individual, usually in a messianic sense. Many modern scholars, however, understand the reference to have a corporate identity. In this view, the son of man is to be equated with the “holy ones” (v. 18, 21, 22, 25) or the “people of the holy ones” (v. 27) and understood as a reference to the Jewish people. Others understand Daniel’s reference to be to the angel Michael.” But the rest of the Daniel doesn’t support the application to angels (see Appendix A).
The person in Daniel 7:13 is said to be “like a son of man”. It’s an individual who is like a human being, but it is not just a human being. And it’s not a group of people. The “holy ones” (saints; ESV) are a group of people who are the beneficiaries of His kingdom. So they and the “one like a son of man” are both related to the eternal kingdom. But just because the son of man and the holy ones are both related to the eternal kingdom doesn’t mean that they are identical.
The son of man is said to be associated with “the clouds of heaven”. This is the only instance of this phrase in the Old Testament, but it is quoted in Matthew 24:30; 26:64 and Mark 14:62. And alluded to in Mark 13:26, Luke 21:27. The Hebrew term shamayim (Strongs #8065) may be translated “heaven” or “sky” depending on the context. The NET Bible says, “the clouds of the sky”. In the Old Testament, riding on clouds indicates divinity (Ps. 68:4; 104:3; Isa. 19:1; Nah. 1:3). The New Testament portrays Jesus as coming in the clouds to defeat the forces of evil (Mt 24:30; Mark 13:26; Lk. 21:17; Rev. 1:7). The Second Coming of Christ will resolve all the problems with national entities in the world. He will come to judge the nations of the world.
The son of man depicted by Daniel was a powerful figure from heaven who would establish an eternal kingdom that would encompass all peoples. And the rest of Scripture indicates that this is a prophecy of when Christ returns to earth to establish His millennial kingdom. This kingdom supersedes all earthly kingdoms.
“Son of man” in the gospels
The phrase “son of man” occurs 87 times in the New Testament, with 29 in Matthew, and 26 in Luke (ESV Bible). Jesus applied this title to Himself throughout His ministry:
– From Matthew 8:28 to 25:31,
– From Mark 2:10 to 14:62,
– From Luke 5:24 to 22:69, and
– From John 1:51 to 13:31
After Jesus predicted His death, the crowd couldn’t reconcile this with their understanding of the Old Testament (Jn. 12:34). They thought the Messiah would conquer the world and establish an eternal kingdom (like in Daniel 7:13-14). Because the crowd couldn’t reconcile a conquering Messiah (Son of Man) with a dying one, they asked “Who is this Son of Man?”.
“Son of man” in the rest of the New Testament
When Stephen was martyred, he saw “heaven open and the Son of Man [Jesus] standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). This is the only instance in Scripture of someone calling Jesus the Son of Man.
Hebrews 2:6 quotes Psalm 8:4 where “son of man” means human beings.
When John had a vision of the Christ, he described Him as “one like a son of man” (Rev. 1:13). And in a vision of the second advent (appearing) of Christ, John sees “one like a son of man” (Rev. 14:14). So the apostle John associates the phrase “one like a son of man” with Jesus Christ.
What does “Son of Man” mean?
Although Ezekiel was addressed as “son of man”, there is no record in the Gospels of Jesus being addressed like this. And although Jesus referred to Himself as the “son of man”, there is no record of Ezekiel referring to himself like this.
Jesus always used the definite article “the” before “Son of Man”. So the title referred to only Himself and not to any other person or people. We will look at the context of its occurrence in the Gospels in order to determine what the title meant.
Jesus said that:
– “the Son of Man” existed prior to His human birth (Jn. 3:13; 6:62). He was pre-existent, so He wasn’t an ordinary human being.
– “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mt. 9:6). Only God can do that.
– “the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (Mt. 12:8). God established the Sabbath for Israel to keep. So, only God is lord of the Sabbath.
– the Son of Man “descended from heaven” (Jn. 3:13; 6:62). He came from God as in this context heaven is the dwelling place of God (Jn. 3:27, 31). So He was a heavenly being.
– The Son of Man came “to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). He was the supreme example of humility and service. And He would die to release humanity from bondage to sin and death.
– The Son of Man has the authority to judge humanity (Jn. 5:27). Only God can do that.
These passages show that the “Son of Man” (Jesus) had the characteristics, power and authority of God. This is consistent with Daniel 7 where “like a son of man” means a powerful figure from heaven who would establish an eternal kingdom that would encompass all peoples.
At His trial Jesus stated that “Son of Man” was synonymous with “Son of God” and “Messiah” (Christ) (Mt.26:63-66), which are divine titles. Clearly Jesus thought He was the divine Son of Man, the second person of the Godhead (or trinity).
So “Son of Man” was a divine title along with others used to describe Jesus such as God, Lord, Messiah (or Christ), Son, and Son of God (Jn. 20:28; Mt. 11:27; Mk. 1:1). It is also called a Messianic title because Daniel 7:13-14 describes the coming Messiah (at the second advent of Christ) (Appendix B). He will be revealed as the “Son of Man” with power and glory when He returns on the clouds as the triumphant Messiah.
Why did Jesus use the title “Son of Man”?
The Jews living in Judea during the first century were ruled by the Roman empire. Some of them wanted a Messiah-like king to rise up and deliver them from the Roman Empire. The Zealots were an aggressive political party who objected to Roman rule and even despised Jews who sought peace and conciliation with the Roman authorities. Although Jesus was a Messiah-like king He didn’t operate like that during His first visit to earth.
After Jesus healed a blind man, He told him not to tell others in his village about it (Mk. 8:26). After Jesus raised a dead girl, He told those that were present not to tell anyone else about it (Mk. 5:43). After Jesus healed a man of leprosy, He told him not to tell anyone about it (Mt. 8:4). After Jesus healed two blind men, He told them not to tell anybody about it (Mt. 9:30). After Jesus healed many people, He told them not to tell anybody about it (Mt. 12:16). And when Jesus drove out demons, He would not let them speak because they knew He was the Son of God (Mk. 1:34; Lk. 4:41).
Jesus told His disciples not to tell anyone that He was the Messiah (Mt. 16:20). And Jesus told Peter, James and John not to tell anyone about His glorious transfiguration until after His resurrection (Mt. 17:9).
Miracles would usually attract attention. News of a Messiah would usually attract attention. And a glorious transfiguration would usually attract attention. But during most of His ministry, Jesus didn’t want such attention. He didn’t want to draw the attention of crowds of people. And He didn’t want to draw the attention of the political leaders or the religious leaders. He didn’t publicize His identity.
Jesus preferred to identify Himself as “the Son of Man” in order to avoid the idea that the Messiah’s role was primarily that of a political liberator. Son of Man was a name that no one would criticize. Jesus could not call Himself the Son of God or the Messiah as the Jews would say that He was making himself divine. For example, He was accused of blasphemy when He forgave the sins of a paralyzed man (Mk. 2:5-7). But they did not object to the term “Son of Man”. Instead, when Jesus predicted His death (which was foreign to their ideas of the Messiah), they asked “Who is this Son of Man?”.
Jesus didn’t want people to cause a crisis before He had completed His ministry. He probably wanted to show by word and deed the kind of Messiah He was before He clearly declared Himself. That time came at His trial before the Jewish religious council. After He agreed that He was “the Messiah, the Son of God”, He said that He would come as the Son of Man to judge the world (Mt. 26:63-66). Consequently, He was accused of blasphemy (for claiming the attributes of a deity) and sentenced to death by crucifixion. So He only revealed His identity when He knew He would be crucified for doing so.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that coronavirus infection among health care workers is flying under the radar. The infections appear to go undetected, often because they have mild or no symptoms and workplace testing isn’t sufficient. Similarly, Jesus was also flying under the radar during most of His ministry.
Pen name or stage name or patronym?
A pen name is used to hide one’s real identity (or to be anonymous), while a stage name is used to attract attention and increase one’s popularity. A pen name is like flying under the radar, while a stage name is like being in the limelight. So the title, “Son of Man”, that Jesus used was like a pen name, and not like a stage name.
And the title “Son of Man” wasn’t a patronym because it wasn’t linked to an ancestor of Jesus. “Son of David” was His patronym, which is mentioned 15 times in the gospels (Mt. 1:1 to Lk. 18:39). This refers back to king David.
Finally, is the title “Son of Man” like a job title such as: President, Prime Minister, Chief Executive, Governor, Chairperson, King, or Queen? I think it could be if we consider that Jesus’ job is to be the Messiah! And that the job description is given in the Bible, because the words don’t have that meaning outside Scripture. What do you think?
This interpretation of the “Son of Man” shows the importance of context. As in all uses of words, the context must determine the meaning. Context is king when interpreting the Bible. All meaning is contextual. The literary and historical context is primary in determining the meaning of the text. The sections immediately before and after the text bear greater weight than distant contexts (whether elsewhere in the Bible and especially historically or culturally).
Jesus used the title “Son of Man” in order to not attract too much attention to Himself. Although it sounds like an ordinary name, “Son of Man” was a divine Messianic title drawn from Daniel 7:13-14. So “Son of Man” was like a pen name or a nom de plume.
Appendix A: The “holy ones” in Daniel
The Hebrew adjective qaddish (Strongs #6922) in Daniel 7 (v.18, 21, 22 twice, 25, 27) is translated “holy ones” (CSB, NET), “holy people” (NIV), or “saints” (ESV). Based on its association in Daniel 7:27 with the noun am (Strongs #5972), which means “people”, these translators understand that the “holy people” are believing Jews who enter into God’s eternal kingdom.
The Hebrew adjective qaddish (Strongs #6922) occurs 13 times in the book of Daniel, with seven of these outside chapter 7. The word seems to have two meanings in these instances. One describes angels, “a messenger, coming down from heaven” (NIV) (Dan. 4: 13, 17, 23). In each of these verses gaddish is linked to the Hebrew noun ir (Strongs #5894), which means watcher, watchman, or messenger. The NET Bible says, “In Aramaic ‘a watcher and a holy one.’ The expression is a hendiadys (a figure of speech where two nouns are connected with ‘and’ to express an idea). This ‘watcher’ is apparently an angel. The Greek OT (LXX) in fact has ἄγγελος (angelos, ‘angel’) here. Theodotion simply transliterates the Aramaic word (ir). The term is sometimes rendered ‘sentinel’ (NAB) or ‘messenger’ (NIV, NLT).”
As the instances of gaddish in Daniel 7 are not associated with ir, they are probably not referring to angels.
The other instances of gaddish in Daniel describe “the spirit of the holy gods” that the pagan king and queen of Babylon said was within Daniel (Dan. 4:8-9, 18; 5:11). These are all associated with the Hebrew words for “god” (Strongs #426) and “spirit” (Strongs #7308). In this instance, “spirit” probably means Daniel’s human spirit that made possible divine revelation. And holy refers to a god.
Four of the six instances of qaddish in Daniel 7 are associated with the adjective elyon (Strongs #5946), which means “high” (or highest) and is used as a name of God. And Daniel 7:27 is associated with the noun am (Strongs #5972), which means “people”. So in Daniel 7 the meaning of qaddish is different to the rest of Daniel. It means holy people that are associated with God, and not angels or holy gods. As the context is Jewish, the best explanation is that they are believing Jews who enter into God’s eternal kingdom (the Millennium and the eternal state). Christian believers will also reign with Christ (Rom. 5:17; 2 Tim. 2:12).
Appendix B: The Messiah
Jewish kings were anointed with oil when they commenced their rule (1 Sam. 9:16; 16:3; 2 Sam. 12:7; 1 Ki. 1:34). They were said to be “anointed” or “the Lord’s anointed”. And they are referred to as “the anointed one”. The term came to refer to a future Jewish king from the Davidic line (Jer. 30:9; Hos. 3:5), who will be “anointed” with holy anointing oil, to be king of God’s kingdom, and rule the Jewish people during the Messianic Age. The promise of an everlasting kingdom for the line of David was behind the Messianic hope in Israel (2 Sam. 7:13, 16). A Messiah is a savior or liberator of a group of people.
In the Old Testament, the word “anointed” applies to people set apart by God for His purposes. It can refer to anyone with a divinely appointed mission. For example, God anointed kings, priests and high priests.
The Hebrew noun mashiach (Strongs #4899) means “anointed one”. The Messiah (or the Anointed One” is mentioned in Daniel 9:25-26 and described in Jeremiah 23:5-6. Daniel says:
– “an anointed one, a prince” would come (9:25ESV). This means that the anointed one is a ruler.
– “an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing” (9:26). “Cut off” refers to death. The idea of “cut off” in the Hebrew is that of executing a death penalty on a criminal, implying the crucifixion. The NET Bible says, “The expression have nothing is difficult (to interpret). Presumably it refers to an absence of support or assistance for the anointed one at the time of his “cutting off.”
– the anointed one would come “to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness” (9:24).
Christians believe that some of the messianic prophecies in the Bible were fulfilled in the mission, death, and resurrection of Jesus and that He will return to fulfill the rest of the messianic prophecies. They believe that Jesus is the divine Son of God.
Written, December 2020
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