By Luke Stamps:
It is commonly recognized that the title “Son of Man” was Jesus’ favorite self-designation. It is also noteworthy that its usage is relatively unique to Jesus himself; in only three other places in the New Testament does a subject other than Jesus use this term as a reference to Jesus (Acts 7:56; Revelation 1:13; 14:14). But what did Jesus mean when he called himself the Son of Man? Jesus’ use of this title is one of the most intriguing aspects of his own Christology—his own understanding of the identity and mission of the Messiah.
Most admit that Daniel 7 lies in the background of Jesus’ usage of the term. There, Daniel describes “one like a son of man” who approaches the Ancient of Days, that is, the Lord himself, and is 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” (Daniel 7:13-14). This enigmatic figure is at once human and evidently divine (the Lord, after all, does not give his glory to another, Isaiah 48:11). The Son of Man functions alongside the Ancient of Days as the ruler and judge of all the earth.
Without leaving behind these transcendent, divine-human overtones of Daniel 7, Jesus, somewhat surprisingly, infuses the term with meaning from another Old Testament messianic figure: Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. When Jesus speaks about the Son of Man, he often does so with reference to his vicarious suffering and death.
“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
“The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him” (Mark 9:31).
“The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners” (Mark 14:41).
Thus, Jesus weaves together two prominent strands of the Old Testament messianic hope: the Danielic Son of Man and the Isaianic Suffering Servant. It appears that no one before Jesus had merged these two images together in quite the same way. Edward Oakes explains the significance of Jesus’ Christological innovation:
For the most part [Jesus] uses the Son of Man in terms that Isaiah uses to describe the Suffering Servant. . . . Why use Son-of-Man language when he is intent on describing not his exaltation, the end of the world, or his dominion, but instead his humiliation and fated execution? Clearly the association of suffering with the Son of Man meant that Jesus was linking his suffering with the definitive inauguration of God’s kingdom.
There is a sense in which the whole mystery of the gospel is contained in this one hermeneutical move by Jesus. The divine-human Son of Man, who possesses glory and dominion alongside the Ancient of Days, comes to rule and reign precisely by undergoing a shameful, vicarious, but ultimately victorious death. The King dies as a ransom for his subjects. This is the heart of the biblical gospel, is it not? Before he comes to judge the nations and consummate his eternal rule (which he will at his Second Coming), the Son of Man mercifully offers a reprieve from the final judgment by dying in place of his people, redeeming them from the curse of sin, and bringing the old order of sin and death to an ignominious end. Surprisingly and gloriously, the Son of Man is also the Suffering Servant.
Luke Stamps is a Ph.D. candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in systematic theology. Luke is a weekly contributor to the Credo blog and is married to Josie, and they have three children, Jack, Claire, and Henry. Luke is a member of Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.