Jesus often used the phrase Son of Man to reference Himself. In total, the four gospels will use the term Son of Man eighty-four times. All but two of these occurrences are found in Jesus’s own word. One exception is from Mark 9:9 where the writer summarizes directives that Jesus gave to three of His disciples. The other is in John 12:34, where the crowd repeats the phrase Jesus just used to describe Himself. So, every occurrence of Son of Man in the gospels is either directly or indirectly attributed and applied to Jesus.
What does Jesus mean by this regularly repeated phrase?
The phrase Son of Man comes from the poetic and prophetic books of the Old Testament. Outside of the exiled prophets of Ezekiel and Daniel, the phrase is largely a synonym for “man” or “mankind” (Job 25:6, Psalm 8:4, 146:3, Isaiah 56:2, Jeremiah 50:40). This generic meaning was also thought to be employed in the Aramaic language of Jesus’s day as a term meaning “the man” or “someone.”
The phrase Son of Man appears in the book of Ezekiel ninety times. In that book, it refers to the prophet Ezekiel. It might emphasize Ezekiel’s frailty and humanity, or perhaps it is Ezekiel’s way of identifying himself with his people.
The book of Daniel uses the phrase Son of Man with potent Messianic overtones in chapter 7. The prophet’s vision and interpretation of his vision in this chapter are both apocalyptic and messianic. The phrase itself occurs at the end of Daniel’s vision about the four beasts and the Ancient of Days. It is in verse 13:
“I kept looking in the night visions,
And behold, with the clouds of heaven
One like a Son of Man was coming,
And He came up to the Ancient of Days
And was presented before Him.
And to Him was given dominion,
Glory and a kingdom,
That all the peoples, nations and men of every language
Might serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
Which will not pass away;
And His kingdom is one
Which will not be destroyed.”
Daniel says that the Ancient of Days (God Almighty) will present everlasting dominion over all peoples to “One” who is “like a Son of Man.” It appears that the prophet is struggling for vocabulary to describe that this awesome Being who approaches the Ancient of Days is somehow also human. Daniel’s vision is of the victorious, glorified, and Incarnate Lord who has come to claim His own. Daniel’s use of Son of Man in this instance describes the humanity of the conquering, divine Messiah. An angel explains to Daniel what the vision means:
“Then the sovereignty, the dominion and the greatness of all the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be given to the people of the saints of the Highest One; His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all the dominions will serve and obey Him.”
This interpretation refers to “One who is like a Son of Man” in verse 13 as “the Highest One” in verse 27. We know this because both descriptions are used to describe the One who receives all dominion, service, and an everlasting kingdom which will not be destroyed. In using the title “the Highest One” Daniel identifies the “One like the Son of Man” as God. This is a prophecy that the Messiah will somehow be both God and human. It is a prophecy that Jesus fulfilled. Moreover as the Messiah, Jesus’s kingdom message in Matthew’s gospel (and especially in the Sermon on the Mount) is an unpacking of Daniel’s prophecy that “the sovereignty, the dominion and the greatness of all the kingdoms under the whole of heaven will be given to the people of the saints of the Highest One” (Daniel 7:27).
Throughout the Old Testament and in Jesus’s day, the phrase Son of Man could mean any of three things. It could mean a man or an expression for “somebody;” it could be an expression to emphasize humanity and to identify with the experience of his nation in exile, as used by Ezekiel; and it could be a messianic term associated with God who would one day be given all power and authority as a human.
Describing Himself with this term, Jesus probably meant all three usages. As a common expression it would not necessarily attract unwanted attention when He said this of Himself. Jesus was careful not to fully reveal His divine identity, which allowed people the opportunity to know Him by faith. In so doing, it was a general phrase meaning that He was a human, tempted like other humans (Hebrews 2:17-28), while also meaning that He was the divine Messiah. At the same time, Jesus also uses it like Ezekiel, as a way of identifying with both His frail humanity and with those He had come to save in the suffering in the exile of their sin and the political oppression of earthly tyrants.
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