Why Did Jesus Refer to Himself as the “Son of Man”?

This name is also derived from the Old Testament, specifically from Daniel 7. After the description of the four world monarchies, portrayed by as many animals (a lion with eagle’s wings, a bear, a panther, a beast not mentioned by name), reference is made to one “who is like a son of man” and who by the “Ancient of Days” is given “dominion and honor and a kingdom that all peoples and nations and languages should honor him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingdom shall not be destroyed” [Dan 7:13–14]. It is not subject to doubt that the Messiah is intended here, although not the Messiah by himself. Since the Son of Man comes to supersede the earlier world-kingdoms, he must be taken here, together with his kingdom and its subjects, as ruler over Israel representing his people. He is called a son of man because over against the wild and animal-like world-kingdoms he represents true humanity as it must be in God’s kingdom.

Thus, in part, the question of what may have given Christ occasion to make use of this name for signifying His office is already answered. He apparently wanted to counter the faulty conceptions that people had formed about the Messiah as an outward king. The kingdom in which He is Messiah and King is not according to the manner of the kingdoms of this world—which find their image in an animal-type, but it bears a human countenance—is like a son of man. If Christ had repeatedly called Himself Messiah, He would have given support to the fleshly expectations, with drawn bow, of his contemporaries. He therefore could use the title that let the emphasis fall on the human and less warlike nature of His kingdom, and, moreover, that was not understood by most people in its Old Testament messianic significance and gave less occasion to draw erroneous conclusions from it.

At the same time, there is in the name a not-unclear pointing to the deity of the Lord. He is the Son of Man, ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, who is thus distinguished from all other men through something special, as comes out clearly in the predicates that are ascribed to Him as such: “So that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins” (Matt 9:6); “From now on, you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (26:64); “For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He shall repay every man according to His works” (16:27); “For the Son of Man is Lord, even of the Sabbath” (12:8). For the mysterious nature of this title, as a consequence of which the multitude did not comprehend Him, see the question in Matthew 16:13, “Whom do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?”

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Adapted from Geerhardus Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics: Christology. In honor of Vos’ birthday, Reformed Dogmatics is currently on sale for more than 20% off!