Why Did Jesus Call Himself the Son of Man?

Question from a Site Viewer
Why did Jesus claim to be the Son of Man?

Tim’s Answer
Thanks for your question. The Bible does not tell us definitively why Jesus claimed to be the Son of Man. That is to say, there is no passage where Jesus says He used this phrase for a certain reason. Biblical scholars have differing views as to why Jesus would have made this statement. Some see the term “Son of Man” as an accepted Jewish title for the promised Messiah and therefore Jesus’ use was His claim to be the promised Messiah. Others disagree and see the title as purposely ambiguous allowing Jesus to define Himself as He deemed best. Still others see the title as evidencing a desire of Christ to associate with humans.

According to D. E. Aune, Professor of New Testament at Notre Dame University, the term “son of man” occurs 107 times in the Old Testament, 93 of which are in Ezekiel where the title is used of Ezekiel himself. Outside of Ezekiel, the title is generally used to mean “a human.” See Numbers 23:19; Job 16:21 (the second “man” in this verse in the New King James Version is the Hebrew “son of man”); 25:6; 35:8; Psalm 8:4; 80:17; 146:3; Isaiah 51:12; 56:2; Jeremiah 49:18, 33; 50:40; 51:43).

The notable exception in the Old Testament Scripture where the term is referred to a Messianic figure is in Daniel 7:13. In telling the high priests that they would see the Son of Man coming in the clouds (Matthew 26:64; Mark 14:62), Jesus is drawing on the imagery of Daniel 7:13 where Daniel sees in a vision one like the “Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven.” I think it is safe to draw the conclusion that Jesus saw Himself as the Son of Man referenced in Daniel 7:13. And, according to Daniel 7:14, to this Son of Man is given dominion and glory and a kingdom so that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him forever. Accordingly, I believe these passages argue strongly for the position that Jesus used the term with a Messianic view in mind; that is, He believed that the “Son of Man” was the very Person who would reign forever and ever.

This is not to say that everyone understood this linkage. For instance, in John 12:34, the people were confused because Jesus was talking about His impending death. So they asked Him by saying: “We have heard from the law that the Christ (Messiah) remains forever; and how can You say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this Son of Man?” Clearly, in asking the question, they were confused. However, it seems to me that the people also saw a linkage between the term “Son of Man” and the “Messiah,” else why would they have asked the question? One of the benefits, I believe, of the phrase “Son of Man,” is that it is oblique enough not to be under the radar screen of those who opposed Jesus, but a strong enough tie to Messiah to allow those who were searching to stop and think about Jesus, and who He is.

There is, however, yet another aspect or reason as to why I think Jesus might have used the phrase. Jesus wanted to identify with humanity. One of the earliest heresies that arose in the church was a belief that Jesus could not have been human – that He could not have taken on Himself human flesh. This heresy was known as Gnosticism. (I know that the Da Vinci Code postulates that the early belief of those outside of the established church was that Jesus was merely human, and not divine. However, this is simply Dan Brown’s fictional history and is inconsistent with actual history. The belief that Jesus was not fully divine did not arise among those who claimed to follow Jesus until more than one hundred years later. That belief system was known as Arianism.) There is no sign of the Arian heresy in Scripture (the view that Jesus was not divine), but there are signs of the Gnostic heresy in Scripture (that Jesus was not human). For instance, in 1 John 4:2-3, the Apostle John argues most strongly that those who deny that Jesus came in the flesh are not of God. The Apostle would not have needed this argument if in fact everyone believed that Jesus was human. But some believed that God simply appeared to be in flesh, and that He was not truly human flesh. They taught that God did not die on the cross. Even today, Muslims reject the idea that God would allow Jesus to die on the cross. To them, such death is inconceivable for a prophet of God. In the same vein of thought, some early in the church believed that Jesus, being God, could not have died. Yet, Scripture and the historical evidence teaches us firmly that Jesus did die. In order to show that He was fully human, I believe that Jesus took to Himself a title that emphasized His humanity. He was the Son of Man, that is, He was born of humanity. He used the phrase Himself, to emphasize, I believe, His connection to us. He was a man, like we are (Hebrews 2:14-17). And, as a man, He established Himself as the prototypical man, the model for all humanity who would follow Him. In the argument of the Apostle Paul, Christ became the second “Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45; see also Rom. 5:12-21).

The “Son of Man” is a phrase used exclusively by Christ to reference Himself (81 times in the gospels). Only once do other people use it in the gospels, and then it is to try to understand what Jesus is saying when He used the term (John 12:34). Stephen used the term to describe Christ in heaven, in Acts 7:56.

In conclusion, I believe that Jesus used the term first of all to emphasize His connection to humanity and secondly as a somewhat veiled reference to His Messianic role, which veil He opened with His answer to the high priests the day He was crucified.

I trust this will help answer your question.

May the Lord Jesus guide you into all truth as you seek to love and serve Him.

a fellow servant,


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