The Names of Jesus #13

Son of Man (No. 1)

July 12, 1998 / Luke 9:21-26

It is a plot that has been used in books and movies for centuries. The hero has taken it upon himself to defend and serve his nation, his tribe, or a wronged person. He proves himself brave and faithful. Word of his goodness spreads, and people begin to admire him for his exploits. Then he is cornered and about to be found out.

The villain of the story has key players in the town square or in his court. "Unless ĎThe Masked Avengerí (or whatever his identity in the story!) makes himself known, I will kill the lot of you!" he sneers. So our heroís nobility moves him to speak from the edge of the crowd and say, "I am The Masked Avenger." But no sooner does he speak than someone on the other side of the group says, "I am The Masked Avenger." Then a third speaks, a fourth, and fifth. The villain is crestfallen then as everyone in the crowd is shouting, "I am the Masked Avenger." Thus rallied and united, the group unites, rises up against the evil predator, and things are set right. Fade to black . . .

This compelling theme of solidarity is the approach I want to offer you for understanding, embracing, and appreciating one of the most complex and puzzling of the titles used by Jesus. What did he mean to communicate to us when he constantly referred to himself as the Son of Man?

Jesusí Designation of Choice

The expression "Son of Man" occurs approximately eighty times in the Four Gospels. It is always on the lips of Jesus.1 Approximately seventy times in the Synoptics and about ten more in John, he insists on making it his preferred self-designation. The simple fact that Jesus uses Son of Man more times of himself than any other of the rich names to which he was entitled practically demands that we try to find something that could account for it.

Although the term is multi-faceted in its significance, we begin with a text in which it appears as a rebuke and corrective. From this beginning, we will work outward to collect biblical information that illuminates the title Son of Man.

When Peter and the other apostles had been with Jesus long enough to know something of his character, works, and teaching, Jesus put the all-important question to them: "Who do you say I am?" In one account of the exchange, Peterís immediate reply was this: "The Christ of God" (Luke 9:20). In another record of the same event, Peterís slightly fuller confession takes this form: "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God" (Matt. 16:26). Thus two titles (i.e., "Christ" and "Son of the Living God") are attributed to Jesus. One confesses him as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, and one confesses his deity.

It is most important for our purposes here to examine Jesusí reply to that confession very closely.

Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone. And he said, "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life."

Then he said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels" (Luke 9:21-26).

The importance I attach to the title Son of Man is highlighted brilliantly in this single text. Go back for a moment to the story line that was sketched at the beginning of the defender-hero, oppressor-villain, and hapless-grateful crowd. It is an account of identification and solidarity. The one man identifies with the masses and acts on behalf of the entire group. In turn, the masses express such solidarity with the one man that they refuse to see themselves any further except in relation to him. He took their slights, injustices, and mistreatment onto himself; they henceforth stand in grateful association and fraternity with him, willing even to put themselves at risk for the sake of the one who has already been at peril for their sakes.

The shared hope of both the hero and those to whose defense he has come is that they will eventually stand together in triumph before the story ends. The reason such a story is so engaging is that it captures in fictional form the inspiring majesty of what Jesus has done for us as the Son of Man.

An Early Interpretation: Weakness

Do you recall the brief discussion earlier in this series of studies on the semitic (i.e., Hebrew) expression "son of x"? For the sake of getting it back into the forefront of your consciousness, let me remind you that it is sometimes quite different from our western (i.e., Greek) use of the term. Westerners most often use a predicate such as "John is the son of . . ." to give information on oneís origin or derivation. Thus we would be saying that John would not have existed except for the one who fathered him or that John owes his existence to the prior life of another. As easterners sometimes use the same expression, it asserts someoneís likeness to or sameness of nature with someone or something. That is why we get expressions like "sons of light" or "Son of Encouragement" in our Bibles. They are descriptive terms about someoneís character and lifestyle, not accounts of his or her origin.

This very important information about the semitism "son of . . ." was introduced previously in connection with "Son of God" as a title for Jesus. God the Father and God the Son are both eternal, self-existing, and fully equal in their persons. Neither owes his origin to the other. Neither brought the other into existence or conferred status on the other. Neither is superior to or greater than the other. Whatever God the Father is, God the Son is also. Any glory or praise or worship the one is entitled to receive, the other deserves as well. To say, then, that Jesus is the Son of God is to say that his nature is one and the same with the Father and the Holy Spirit, that he is divine in his very essence. Father, Son, and Spirit are united by virtue of their shared deity.

So what does it mean to say of Jesus that he is not only the Son of God but also the Son of Man? It announces the staggering mystery of the Incarnation (i.e., God coming among us in flesh-and-blood form) and affirms in still another way that God has become one with humankind so that we may become one with God. In Jesus Christ, God identified with our frailty and weakness so that we could ultimately stand in solidarity with him in glory. Jesus, you, and I are united by virtue of our shared humanity. "There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men ó the testimony given in its proper time" (1 Tim. 2:5-6).

Two of my all-time favorite quotations about the meaning of the Incarnation capture the essence of what I am trying to communicate here.

There is nothing that might be called otherworldly about this ministry of Jesus. He scandalized the religious leaders of his day, the prim and proper ones, because he consorted with the social and religious pariahs of his day: the tax collectors who were despised and hated because they collaborated with the Romans. His friends were the ladies of easy virtue who went about with uncovered heads, who made public spectacles of themselves at parties, clutching the feet of strange young men and weeping over them and wiping them with their long hair . . . Such were his friends, the ones who were looked down upon. No wonder one of the favorite titles for Jesus today, which captivates so many, is calling him the man for others.2

And the second: "The Son of God became man to enable men to become the sons of God."3

Indeed, the Old Testament uses the term "son of man" in what are obviously pre-Christian contexts simply to assert the frailty and creatureliness of the human species. In Numbers 23:19, for example, the expression specifically contrasts divine perfection with human flawedness: "God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind." Then there is the familiar question from David: "What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?" (Psa. 8:4). Again, in similar words: "O LORD, what is man that you care for him, the son of man that you think of him? Man is like a breath; his days are like a fleeting shadow" (Psa. 144:3-4).

Most basically, therefore, to call anyone ó including Jesus ó a "son of man" is to acknowledge that he is beset by frailty and weakness, that he is subject to time and death. In his exalted and eternal status with the Father and Holy Spirit, Jesus was subject to none of the sorts of limitations we human beings know only too well. For the sake of what he wanted to do for us, though, Jesus voluntarily and temporarily subjected himself to everything that threatens humans. He did not cease to be divine, but he laid aside his divine prerogatives. Like a king who lays aside his crown and scepter in order to live among his subjects as one of them, Jesus retained his personal identity but forsook the privileges to which his identity entitled him.

Jesus was both God and man simultaneously during his Incarnation. He neither desired nor sought to "disguise" either element of his total personality. Yet he would not coerce anyone to recognize or stand with him. Each person was left free to examine for himself, decide for himself, and declare for himself. Thus we go back to the critical discussion that took place in the coastal region of Caesarea Philippi about Jesusí identity. Who was he? What had the apostles been speculating about him? What had Peter decided?

Peter and the others would certainly have been able to discern his deity by being with him day after day. Indeed, what would you have said, if you had been in Peterís shoes on that day? His earlier teacher-mentor, John the Baptist, had pointed Jesus out to Peter as the one Yahweh had sent him to announce: "I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God" (John 1:34). Peter had watched in amazement as Jesus had healed sick people (Matt. 1:23ff), made lepers whole with a touch (Matt. 8:1-4), and made blind people see again (Matt. 9:27ff). He had even seen Jesus raise the dead (Matt. 9:18-26)! Add to these things the sermons he had heard from Jesus, the many private conversations in which Jesus had answered all his questions with uncanny insight, and the way Jesus responded to the accusing questions of his enemies. Then there was simply his goodness, his purity, his compassion! So Peter was ready and eager to confess that Jesus was Godís Messiah. No, even more, he was ready and eager to acknowledge his sameness with God and therefore confessed him to be the Son of God.

That was an all-important intuition and realization for Peter and his fellow-apostles. When he confessed him as the Son of God, Jesus was thrilled ó and said so. "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven" (Matt. 16:17). Yet Jesus did not want Peterís excitement over seeing his deity to overwhelm and obscure another element of his idenity that the apostle needed to grasp. It is as if Jesus felt compelled to say: "Peter, youíve seen my deity, and that is wonderful! But look still more closely and see also my humanity, for that part of my nature is equally important for you to understand. If you do not understand that my identification with you in your weakness is complete, you may eventually be unable to grasp or believe that you can be united with me in glory ó and thus might not be able to communicate it to others."

Jesus would "suffer many things" yet ó including a rejection that would lead to his death. When Jesus told Peter this, the man who was overwhelmed with Christís deity could not accept such a human (i.e., mortal) fate for him. "Never, Lord!" he said. "This shall never happen to you!" (Matt. 16:22). God doesnít suffer rejection. God doesnít "suffer" at all! And he certainly canít be killed! So Peter protested the absurdity that such a thing could even be said or contemplated ó with reference to one whose sameness to God he had just confessed by calling him the Son of God.

Ah, but you have so much still to learn Peter! There is so much more to Jesus than you can possibly grasp as this point in your emerging faith. You must be patient. In fact, Jesus told him, you are not even to try to tell people what you have come to see about Jesus yet ó for your understanding is so incredibly incomplete at this point (cf. Matt. 16:20). As to Peterís outburst to Jesus that rejection and death would "never happen" to him, it almost takes away oneís breath to hear the rebuke forthcoming: "Jesus turned and said to Peter, ĎGet behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of mení " (Matt. 16:23).

The language Jesus used sounds incredibly strong ó even harsh ó to us. But he had to be emphatic at this juncture in Peterís life. The fisherman-apostle wasnít ready to stand up with or to stand in for Jesus yet. He was still immature. He would still have his moments of doubt. He could still fold in a crisis. So it certainly wouldnít do to appoint him to the task of presenting, explaining, and defending Jesus yet. He still didnít know enough himself. And the primary thing lacking at this point was his failure to appreciate that the Son of God could also be the Son of Man, that God could ó and would by choice ó suffer, die, and be raised. The path to Jesusí own glorification would pass through suffering and death. Peter wasnít ready for that and couldnít understand its necessity. Yet it was at the heart of Jesusí mission.

The significance of the truth that Jesus was "fully man" as well as "fully God" is what drove the church fathers to understand the phrase "Son of Man" to refer principally to the humanity of the incarnate Son of God. Heretics such as the Gnostics had claimed that Jesus was indeed truly God but that his humanity was only an apparent or make-believe humanity. On their heretical view, which exalted Greek philosophy over divine self-revelation, God could not take fleshly form, could not feel pain, could not experience death. Thus the things Peter and the other apostles affirmed about Jesusí death for our sakes could not actually be true events of space-time history. This "interpretation" of Jesus eviscerated the gospel message and left any who embraced it without a Savior. Thus John would write: "Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that doe snot acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world" (1 John 4:2b-3). For John, the antichrist was not a still-to-come figure of the end times but a known reality. Anyone who cannot confess the full humanity ó the Son of Man-ness ó of Jesus has failed to appreciate the necessary truth of his complete identification with sinners that makes sinnersí redemption through him possible.


The principle lesson we are to learn from this first look at Jesus as the Son of Man is total dependence on God. In his self-emptying that led to humiliation and death, how did Jesus react to everything that happened to him? Here is Peterís eyewitness description: "When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly" (1 Peter 2:23).

As the Son of Man, Jesus modeled complete trust in and obedience to the Father. (Heb 5:8). That example is for our instruction and imitation. In our natural and inherent humanity, we are called to live in dependance on God rather than self, in trust rather than disbelief, in obedience rather than defiance. Our inclinations seem all to take us in the opposite direction. We want to believe ourselves to be self-sufficient creatures and tend to chafe at the idea of bringing ourselves under the authority of parent, state, or God. So it often takes some life-altering calamity to slam us against the wall, impress us with our fragility, and set us on a search for what is real and permanent. And as we move in its direction, we meet the Son of God walking toward us as the Son of Man.

Because Jesus so completely identified himself with us and our predicament, he was able to make atonement for our sins. As our single effective representative, he took the situation of sinful humanity onto himself and destroyed the power of Satan to hold us captive to it any longer. Now we can stand with him in solidarity as members of his spiritual body. He took our sin to himself and provided our justification; we receive his righteousness to ourselves and stand in his sinless perfection. "God put on him the wrong who never did anything wrong, so we could be put right with God" (2 Cor. 5:21, The Message).


1 One could claim that John 12:34 is an exception to this rule. In this instance, however, Jesusí hearers are only echoing his words and asking him to make clear for them the identity and nature of the Son of Man.
2 Desmond Tutu, The Rainbow People of God (New York: Doubleday, 1994), pp. 28-29.
3 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1952), p. 154.

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