Why is Jesus Called the "Son of Man"?

In what seems a rather cumbersome self-reference, Jesus often calls himself “the son of man.” In my experience of popular preaching and teaching, a vague impression is often conveyed, if not explicitly stated, that “son of man” is a way of emphasizing Jesus’ humanity, highlighting the fact that Jesus is a real flesh and blood human. Jesus is a son of “man” in addition to the son of “God,” in a kind of proto two-nature Christology.

Well, I don’t think that’s the point. After all, first, “son of man” is what Jesus called himself during his earthly ministry, during which time no one had trouble believing that he was human. Second, it doesn’t make much biblical sense to construe the contrast between “son of man” and “son of God” as equivalent to that between “human” and “divine.” This is because plenty of regular old humans (not to mention angels) are called “sons of God”: Adam, kings of Judah, Christians, the Sethites or fallen angels (take your pick) of Genesis 6, etc.

Making Biblical Sense: Generic Uses

Consider that as a mere title, “Son of God” doesn’t necessarily imply a divine nature. To be God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, is more than to be simply a son of God. In the same way, we shouldn’t think that “son of man” is simply or primarily a way of speaking about Jesus’ humanity. So if we want to understand what Jesus really meant by it, we should look at how the title “son of man” was used in Jesus’ Scripture, the Old Testament. So here are some basic observations about how the title is used:

(1) The title “son of man” appears several times in the Old Testament as a way of highlighting weakness. In Job 16:21; 25:6; and 35:8 it appears to have that connotation, and also in Isaiah 51:12. Similarly, in Numbers 23:19, the God who does not lie or repent is contrasted with the “son of man” who does both.

(2) There is one occasion in Isaiah (56:2) and two in Jeremiah (50:40; 51:43) where the term doesn’t really appear to imply weakness particularly, but to simply be a euphemism for human. A handful of uses in the Psalms fall into these two categories.

Now, if these passages are the background for Jesus’ use of “son of man” for himself, perhaps a case could be made that he means it as a title of humility, or a way of highlighting his weak incarnational condition. More humble than any man who ever walked the face of the earth Jesus certainly was, but I doubt this was his meaning. As I pointed out above, during his earthly ministry, Jesus was not having to combat unduly lofty perceptions of himself by others.

(3) Moving on then, thirdly, there is one occasion in the Psalms where the title is used in a context that implies not weakness but strength: Psalm 80:16-18 says this:

They have burned it with fire; they have cut it down;   
may they perish at the rebuke of your face!
But let your hand be on the man of your right hand,
the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself!
Then we shall not turn back from you;
give us life, and we will call upon your name!

The reference here is most likely to the king of Judah. He is the man at God’s right hand. In Psalm 8:4-8 as well, even though the psalmist marvels that the God who made the heavens has regard for the “son of man,” he recognizes that God has crowned the son of man with glory and honor, and set him over all God’s works. So “son of man” can refer to a powerful or at least an honored person. It’s worth noting as well, with Psalm 8 brought into the picture, that the Hebrew term is ben-adam, son of “Adam”—which is the generic word for “mankind” or “human,” but points to the original man Adam of whom every human is a son or daughter. Of course, Psalm 8 itself clearly alludes to the original Adam when it sings of how the “son of man” is entrusted with dominion over creation.

These three categories of use leave us with the understanding that “son of man” as a generic title can highlight the frailty of mankind in contrast with God, but it can also be used to conjure up the recollection of humanitys high status as the image of God and ruler of creation. It’s a title that is capable of both humbling and exalting, as the case may require. Like Aslan told Prince Caspian before crowning him king of Narnia: to be a son of Adam is “both honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth.”[1]

But Theres More!

There are two other more specific uses of “son of man” in the Old Testament. First, in Ezekiel it is used tons. In fact, Ezekiel is called “son of man” more frequently than Jesus is in all four gospels combined (93x for Ezekiel vs. 82x for Jesus). Second, Daniel has an apocalyptic vision in which he sees “one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven” and receiving a kingdom which will never pass away. Daniel is then himself called “son of man” soon after (8:17). Jesus’ own use of the term is often connected with statements about his “coming with the clouds of heaven,” so Daniel serves as the most promising immediate background. But the shear volume of usage in Ezekiel suggests that we shouldn’t ignore that either, especially considering that Ezekiel and Daniel were near contemporaries, with Daniel being a bit younger and in all likelihood perfectly familiar with the fact that Ezekiel had been known as “son of man.” When Daniel saw “one like a son of man,” perhaps he meant “one like Ezekiel.” Worth considering.

One other point before looking at the gospels. “Son of Man” is a title used almost entirely by Jesus himself to refer to himself. After the gospels, it disappears completely. It did not pass into normal Christian usage or worship. Stephen did see “the son of man” standing at the right hand of God. In the Revelation also it appears twice: the son of man is standing in the midst of the lampstands, and is seated on a cloud with a sickle in his hand. But that’s it. This fact has to be significant. Is there something about the specific context of Jesus’ ministry that makes the title uniquely appropriate for that time period?

Son of Man in the Gospels

There is no particular gospel in which the title dominates. It appears 29x in Matthew, 14x in Mark, 26x in Luke, and 13x in John. This reflects the Gospels’ respective lengths more than anything else. By the way, this is important evidence that the Gospels (including the supposedly late and mythologized John) record Jesus as he actually spoke. Liberal scholars have often thought that Jesus’ words in the gospels are simply early church theology put into Jesus’ mouth. But if that were the case, why would they have Jesus continually call himself something that he is never called in other Christian writing? The only reason why the Gospels would record Jesus calling himself something that the church did not go on to call him is that he really called himself that.

If you take the time to skim the lists of references in each of the gospels above, something that will strike you is that there doesn’t seem to be any particular association between the title “son of man” and any one aspect of Jesus’ ministry or teaching. It’s just what he calls himself. It’s his way of saying “I” or “me”—whether he is talking about his miracles, preaching, his impending death, kingdom-bringing power, authority to forgive sin, or his lordship of the Sabbath. So, why would he call himself that? I would suggest, in light of all this background, that Jesus’ self-reference as “son of man” is owing primarily to two considerations:

  1. The similarity of his ministry to Ezekiel’s.
  2. Jesus as the fulfillment of Daniel’s vision, as the one who receives and rules over the kingdom of God.

Ezekiel & the Son of Man

Ezekiel, the son of man, was appointed as a prophet to Israel, at thirty years old, by a river, like Jesus. Here is his commission:

Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day . . . And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them (Ezekiel 2:3-5).

Jesus, the Son of Man and the greater Ezekiel, was like Ezekiel and the other prophets sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. He spoke to them only what he heard from the Father. In Ezekiel 8:6, the prophet saw abominations in the temple:

Son of man, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations that the house of Israel are committing here, to drive me far from my sanctuary?

Jesus also saw abominations in the temple, and drove them out with a whip of cords. Jesus spoke in parables so that Israel in their rebellionwouldn’t understand him. Ezekiel, too, was a speaker of parables (17:2). Ezekiel announced the destruction of Jerusalem (9:1-11), as did Jesus in the Olivet Discourse. Ezekiel even symbolically bore Israel’s punishment (4:4-8), which Jesus would do in reality. There are more similarities than these. Of course, one can find plenty of similar parallels between Jesus and Jeremiah, etc. So this point probably shouldn’t be pressed too much. And in any case, the more commonly accepted background for the name “son of man” is in fact Daniel 7, to which we now turn . . .

Daniel & The Son of Man

Soon after Ezekiel, Daniel has a vision of “one like a son of man” receiving a kingdom, “that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” He comes with the clouds of heaven, as Jesus repeatedly said he himself would do (and this is a “coming” into heavenly glory and authority, not a coming down to earth as is so often assumed by end-times enthusiasts). As noted above, it’s possible that Daniel alludes here to Ezekiel. If so, it would be to Ezekiel as representative of a faithful remnant, because in Daniel’s vision the “son of man” is later equated with “the saints of the most high” (7:27).

It’s also noteworthy that the “son of man” receives dominion specifically over the kingdoms which were shown to Daniel as beasts: a lion, a bear, a leopard, and a dragon. The scene recalls Adam’s original mandate to rule over the beasts of the earth. Daniel’s son of man is one who is fulfilling the commission to Adam to “rule” as the image of God. This is precisely Jesus’ role: The last Adam, the faithful Israelite, the chief representative of the saints, the perfect image of God, the one who inherits the kingdoms of the world and subdues the creation. That’s what it means for Jesus to be the son of man. He is the son of Adam in the fullest sense. The second son who receives the inheritance in preference to the first son – like Isaac, like Jacob.

But now this post waxeth long. Hopefully this is a pointer and prod to further reflection. As a final word of application, it’s worth considering that those who are in Christ share in his inheritance and will share in Adam’s rule of creation with Jesus. If that thought and that faith don’t spur us to the kind of maturity and righteousness befitting kings, I don’t know what will.

[1] Of course, when Aslan says that being a son of Adam is cause for shame, he is referring to the inherited sin and corruption that Adam’s offspring carry, not to Adam as created. God’s creation is good, and “son of man” in the Bible doesn’t seem to have anything to do with man as a sinner, just with man as man. But I make a point of using every Narnia illustration I can.