To my mind, the most interesting thing of all is the way Jesus referred to Daniel 7:13–14 in his teachings and applied the title “Son of Man” to himself. There are many titles for Jesus in the New Testament. He is the “Lord,” “Christ” (Messiah), the “Good Shepherd,” the “bridegroom.” He is “the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.” He is “the first and the last.” Many titles of God the Father are given to him. He is the great “I Am.” But Jesus never used these titles for himself. Others gave them to him. He did not even use the word “Messiah,” except on one occasion when he was speaking to the Samaritan woman (John 4:26). The only biblical title that Jesus did use, and that almost exclusively, was the title “Son of Man,” which he got from Daniel. It is used sixty-nine times in the Synoptics and twelve times in John.
This has fascinated scholars. One of the most useful books I have read on the Jewish expectations of the Messiah is by the great Norwegian scholar Sigmund Mowinckel, entitled He That Cometh. This is a major study running to more than five hundred pages, but it devotes one hundred of these pages to a study of Jesus’ use of the words “Son of Man.” This is because it was Jesus’ own term for himself, as I indicated, and also because Mowinckel wanted to answer the question why Jesus used this term rather than one of the other much more common and more readily understood titles. According to Mowinckel, there are two reasons Jesus used it.
First, it was an ideal title for combining the two chief things that needed to be said about his person: namely, that he was fully man and that at the same time he was fully God.
The truth that he was fully man is conveyed by the term itself, for the words “son of man” in Aramaic or Hebrew idiom simply mean “man” or “a human being.” For example, if an Aramaic- or Hebrew-speaking person wanted to refer to a person as a sinner, it would be natural for him to speak of that one as a “son of sin.” Or similarly, if he wanted to call a person wealthy, he might have referred to him as a “son of wealth.” When our Lord referred to himself as a “Son of Man,” he was merely calling himself a man, so far as the literal meaning of the term goes. That alone is significant, for it reveals the delight the Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, had in identifying with us. He could have used terms that stressed his deity, but instead he stressed his humanity. It is as if he were saying, “I am one of you, and I am happy with that identification.”
But there is more to it than this. For Jesus did not merely refer to himself as “a son of man,” which would have expressed only his humanity. He referred to himself as “the Son of Man,” which means “the son of man referred to in Daniel”—that is, the son of man who came on the clouds of heaven and to whom the Ancient of Days gave authority, glory, and sovereign power. He did this at his trial. When asked by Caiaphas whether he was “Christ, the Son of God,” Jesus replied, “Yes, it is as you say. … But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64). This is a clear reference to Daniel 7:13–14. It is a way of saying, “I am the divine King prophesied by Daniel.” And, of course, this is precisely how the Jewish rulers understood it. For after he had said this, Caiaphas cried out, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses?” (v. 65), and they condemned him to death.
The second reason Jesus used the title “Son of Man” rather than one of the other more familiar and more explicit messianic titles current in Judaism, according to Mowinckel—the chief reason in his opinion—is precisely because it was less explicit and because Jesus could then infuse it with his own meaning instead of picking up on the earnest but nevertheless very wrong expectations of his contemporaries.
There were tremendous expectations of a messianic deliverer in Christ’s day. The country was under Rome’s rule, and all patriotic Jews earnestly waited for the deliverer who had been prophesied in the Old Testament. Who was he? Whenever anybody the least bit above average came along, there were always hundreds and even thousands of people who were ready to look to him and follow him in hopes he might be the one expected. They even had a certain checklist of questions they would ask such charismatic figures. John the Baptist was asked this list of questions (John 1:19–28). He had a dramatic and effective ministry. So the authorities sent a delegation to ask him whether he was the Messiah.
“I am not the Christ,” he answered.
“Are you Elijah then?” They knew that Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, had prophesied that Elijah would come as Christ’s forerunner (Malachi 4:5).
“I am not,” John responded.
There was only one other messianic-type figure they could think of, and that was the “prophet” mentioned by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15, 18. “Are you the Prophet?” they asked.
Again John said, “No” (cf. John 1:19–21). That exhausted their questions, and they went back to the authorities in Jerusalem with their report. They did not give much attention to John’s claim to be the “voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord’ ” (John 1:23), and they certainly did not believe him when he identified Jesus of Nazareth as the one whose way he had prepared. The incident shows how intense the Jewish expectations for a political deliverer were at this time. If Jesus had said, “Yes, I am the Messiah,” or if he had used any one of the other titles usually identified with this figure, the Jews would have thought of him in simple political terms. And they would have followed him in the belief that he was a mere man, like David, whom God had sent to drive out the Romans and restore the Davidic throne.
By rejecting these titles and instead choosing the less explicit but intriguing title “Son of Man,” Jesus was able to identify himself in his own way and avoid misunderstandings.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org