In our passage last Sunday, Jesus referred to Himself for the first time as “the Son of Man” (Matt 8:20). When a scribe came to Jesus pledging to follow Jesus wherever He went, the Lord replied, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”
The title “Son of Man” is Jesus’ favorite designation for Himself in the Gospels. It occurs in all four Gospels, and Jesus is the only one who uses it. I remember the title puzzling me when I was young – if Jesus is the Son of God, why does He call Himself the Son of Man?, I thought. Knowing that each of the Gospel writers desired to convince their readers that Jesus was the Son of God, it seemed strange that they would include the phrase “Son of Man” so consistently. So what is the significance of this reference?
Virtually all scholars agree that this title was not a native Greek expression. Therefore, its explanation must lie in the Hebrew/Aramaic background of the Gospels. That being the case, if this self-designation is to make sense to the New Testament reader, there must be something in the Old Testament to shed light on it.
Actually, there are a number of OT passages that use the phrase. These uses tend to fall into three categories. The first category employs the phrase as a generic reference to humanity. That humanity is the referent is clear from that fact that many of these uses are found in parallel lines, being synonymous with “man.” For example:
God is not man, that he should lie,
or a son of man, that he should change his mind. (Num 23:19)
…how much less man, who is a maggot,
and the son of man, who is a worm!" (Job 25:6)
What is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him? (Psa 8:4)
Who are you that you are afraid of man who dies,
of the son of man who is made like grass…? (Isa 51:12 ESV)
Blessed is the man who does this,
and the son of man who holds it fast… (Isa 56:2)
The phrase “son of man” as used in these and other OT references should not be considered a title as it is simply another way of referring to mankind. Could this usage be what Jesus had in mind when He used the phrase to refer to Himself? It is not out of the question. Jesus was fully man. He had to be in order to pay the penalty for our sin. Perhaps, He used the phrase to identify Himself with the human race, maybe as our representative before God. This is possible, but because this kind of usage was not a title, it seems doubtful that it would be Jesus’ primary self-designation.
A second category can be found primarily in Ezekiel. In the book that bears his name, Ezekiel is referred to by God as “son of man” 93 times! An especially important passage is found in ch2:
1 And he said to me, "Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you."
2 And as he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.
3 And he said to me, "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.
4 The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them, and you shall say to them, 'Thus says the Lord GOD.'
5 And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them. (Eze 2:1-5)
God used Ezekiel as His representative/messenger, His prophet, to rebellious Israel. It is in this capacity as God’s spokesman that Ezekiel is referred to as the son of man. So is this the usage that Jesus had in mind? Was He identifying Himself as a prophet, as God’s representative and spokesman? Certainly, this works theologically. Jesus was widely regarded as a prophet (Matt 14:5; 21:11; Mark 6:15; Luke 1:76; 7:16; John 4:19;6:14; 9:17). Further, all three of the Synoptic Gospels record the Father commanding the disciples to listen to Jesus, implying that He was God’s spokesman (Matt 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35).
It is possible that Jesus had His role as a prophet in mind, just as He could have been referring to Himself as a representative of mankind. However, the statements in which Jesus uses the phrase “son of man” would seem to point to someone more extraordinary than a normal man or even a prophet. Consider the following uses in Matthew alone:
“… the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” (Matt 9:6)
“For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” (Matt 12:8)
"Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." (Matt 16:28)
"Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead." (Matt 17:9)
"The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men," (Matt 17:22)
"And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death" (Matt 20:18)
"…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Matt 20:28)
"For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man." (Matt 24:27)
"…and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory." (Matt 24:30)
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne." (Matt 25:31)
"You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified."" (Matt 26:2)
"…from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven." (Matt 26:64)
These are spectacular statements that would seem to be more suited to a third category of usage in the OT, from one passage in the book of Daniel:
"I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was 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.” (Dan 7:13-14)
When we take into account Jesus’ heavy emphasis on the coming kingdom in the book of Matthew and the other synoptics, together with the above references in Matthew that connect the phrase “Son of Man” with other kingdom references (authority, Lord, clouds of heaven, kingdom, power, glory, angels, throne, etc), it seems likely that Jesus sees Himself as the son of man figure in Daniel’s prophecy. Indeed, most evangelical interpreters not only see Jesus as the fulfillment of this prophecy, but believe that Jesus Himself had this in mind when He used the self-designation “Son of Man.”
So when we see this title wherever it is found in the Gospels, we need to understand the implicit claim that Jesus is making – “I am the coming King.”
What then should we make of the use of this phrase in Matt 8:20 (“the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head”)? I believe it highlights the condescension of Christ in coming to save man. The one who has no home is the majestic King. Reminds me of Phil 2:5-11.
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Posted by Greg Birdwell