Jesus’ favorite title for himself was not “Son of God.” Neither was it “Lord” or “Christ.” The title he most frequently used for himself was “Son of Man.” Why is this?
On the one hand, it does emphasize his humanity. By using the title Jesus shows he is a human being. A “son of a human” is a human. Many liberal ‘Christian’ scholars point to this as proof of their idea that Jesus himself—the ‘historic Jesus’ from pieces of Matthew, Mark, Luke (a silly idea)—believed he was merely a human being. He called himself “Son of Man” so much, in their opinion, to show this.
But Jesus was a very skilled teacher. And when you analyze his teachings, it becomes apparent that he did not use this term to show he was a mere man. For example, he’d say things like this:
“The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matthew 9:6). Can a mere man have such divine authority? Jewish Jesus certainly did not believe so. Clearly Jesus wants to show that this “Son of Man” is not a mere man; he can forgive sins.
“The Son of Man came not to be served but to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Why would he say this here? Why not say, “The Suffering Servant” or “The Lamb of God”? Clearly he wants to show that this Son of Man is not merely a man, and not only someone who can forgive sins, but that he also is the way to such forgiveness. The “Son of Man’ is not only the Forgiver, but the way we can be forgiven.
He also said there would be a time “when the Son of Man comes in his glory” (Matthew 25:31).
More examples could be given, especially since it was a title he used so frequently. But the point stands. He did not use this title to show he was a mere man. His humanity was part of it, but there’s much more.
The Specific Old Testament Reference
The famous Old Testament usage of this title comes from Daniel 7:13-14. It is true that Ezekiel frequently was called “son of man” by the Lord. But the famous, mysterious reference to a “son of man” in the mind of Jesus’ listeners certainly brought thought of Daniel 7. There’s two reasons for this.
First, this reference in Daniel 7 comes in a prophetic passage, pointing to the time of Israel’s restoration. Daniel 7 begins the prophetic part of Daniel (from chapters 7-12) which foresee the kingdoms of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and then Rome—ushering in the time of the Messiah. And it all begins with this mysterious “son of man” figure receiving an eternal kingdom from God himself. As the awaiting for the messiah was becoming more prominent, so this mysterious Daniel 7 “son of man” must have been circulating in their minds as well.
Second, Jesus’ usage of the term at times precisely references Daniel 7. When he says the Son of Man will be coming on the clouds (Luke 21:27; Matthew 24:30), this is a specific reference to the “son of man” from Daniel 7:13. Moreover, when Jesus uses the title, he adds the definite article ‘the.’ This is significant. He isn’t just saying he’s a human being (a son of man), he says over and over that he is theSon of Man. The mysterious one from the famous Daniel 7. (The capital letters [Son of Man] are added by us, so we cannot make anything of those. But they are warranted due to the definite article.)
As a result, yes, Jesus when using it was speaking about his true humanity, but he also was referring to this Daniel 7 figure. So who is this Daniel 7 figure?
Jesus’ Global, Forever Reign
This “son of man” from Daniel 7 is the King. He comes before God in Daniel 7:13. And then in one single, jam-packed verse, Daniel 7:14, God describes exactly who he is. In contrast to all the worldly powers in the symbolic Daniel 7:2-8, this “son of man” is described in three details:
First, he is God’s King, in response to all world powers: “And to him was given [by the Ancient of Days, v. 13] dominion and glory and a kingdom.”
Second, he is the global King, in response to all the petty, small earthly kingdoms: “that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.”
Third, he is the everlasting King, in response to all the short, fleeting earthly kingdoms: “his dominions is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”
God’s King, of all the world, forever and ever. Importantly, none of this is shown to be hyperbole. While these petty “beasts” rule certain areas of the earth and then die and vanish, this “son of man” is God’s king who literally will be worshiped by all peoples, and who literally will never stop reigning. We can already see why Jesus loved this title.
But there’s more.
Jesus is God
In Daniel 7:13-14, this “son of man” is said to come to the Ancient of Days; he then recieves his kingdom and rules over all these rulers.. But then when you compare this to verse 9 a few verses earlier, the Ancient of Days is the one sitting and ruling. This is interesting.
But this becomes even more interesting in the second half of Daniel 7. The dream in the first half of Daniel 7 is clearly about God’s King—this “son of man”—coming for his people. But when the dream is interpreted in the second half of Daniel 7, the text says this,
“As I looked, this horn made war with the saints and prevailed over them, until the Ancient of Days came, and judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints possessed the kingdom” (Daniel 7:21-22)
We don’t have space to argue this here, but this certainly refers to the coming of Christ—this Son of Man. Whether it is his first coming during the Roman Empire (and that being the fourth beast), or his second coming during in the future (and the fourth beast being some world kingdom and Antichrist), is up for debate. But may we notice who is coming: the “Ancient of Days”!
This title from Daniel 7, therefore, not only communicates that this “son of man” is a human, but this person is God’s King, over all the nations, forever and ever—and that this King is even God himself.
(For some comparable Old Testament paradoxes which are resolved in the God-Man Jesus, one can see how in Ezekiel 34:15, God says he will be Israel’s shepherd, but then in Ezekiel 34:23, God says he will set up his servant David as the Shepherd. So who is the Shepherd? God and God’s servant David—both. This is perfectly resolved when God/Jesus comes as the good Shepherd. Moreover, in a separate example, one can see that Isaiah prophesies that “the Lord” [Yahweh] will come to his people in Isaiah 40:3. But then when this is quoted by John the Baptist, this “Lord” is Jesus himself [John 1:23]. So who is the Lord? Both Yahweh and Jesus, since Jesus is Yahweh.)
Humble, Yet Bold
We can see, therefore, with clear colors why Jesus loved this title. It communicates a wealth about who he is.
On the one hand, it is a humble, approachable title. As the Son of Man he is a son of man. He’s a human like you a me. He knows what it is like to be hungry, thirsty, tired, and even tempted with sin. We can come to him, feel close to him. He is approachable as a fellow human being.
But then, on the other hand and at the same time, the usage of “Son of Man” communicates that he is this Daniel 7 figure. He is God’s King, the King who will be worshiped by all peoples, the King forever and ever—and even God, the Ancient of Days, himself.
Brilliant, Intentional Usage of Titles
Jesus didn’t just chose at random to use this term more than any other. It’s not that he knew he had a handful of titles he could use—like “Son of God,” or “Lord,” or “Christ,” or “Rabbi,” or “Son of Man”—and that he just randomly used them, or that happened to choose one more than the others. Honestly, sometimes I’ve read the Gospels and approached his teachings like this. I don’t make much of the title he uses for himself in certain places. I (wrongly) assume he just is randomly choosing one. This is a mistake.
Instead, he brilliantly and intentionally chooses when to use his titles. He knew what this “Son of Man” communicated. He knew it revealed how he was approachable; he knew it displayed how he would be exalted from Daniel 7. As was typical of Jesus, he didn’t just announce over and over explicitly that he was God’s forever King of all the nations. He didn’t just announce over and over that he was explicitly God. Sometimes he got close to doing both (using the term ‘Christ,’ or by saying ‘I am’), but his style usually was more subtle. He wanted people to dig, search, and find.
So, he uses “Son of Man” over and over and over. He uses this term that, on the surface, doesn’t seem to mean much, but when you dig, you see that it reveals (in such amazing brevity) the complexity of who Jesus was and is.
Who then is this Son of Man? A human, like you and me. Praise God that God became a human being. But this Son of Man is also God’s forever, global King—and even God himself. We can have a wonderful relationship with the Son of Man, and we his people will worship him forever and ever as the Son of Man.