|The Names of Jesus #13
Son of Man (No. 2)
July 19, 1998 / Daniel 2:13-14
Whereas the older interpretation of the title "Son of Man" that traces back to the church fathers points to the humanity, weakness, and suffering of Jesus, the majority of modern scholarship sees it quite differently. Some even go so far as to assert that the interpretation of the church fathers "is in error" because of its failure to root the Son of Man motif more solidly in the Old Testament vision of Daniel.1
Indeed, there is a fascinating use of the term in Daniel 7. In the first year of Belshazzar’s reign, the prophet Daniel had a disturbing vision that he described in these words:
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed (Dan. 7:13-14).
Since there is no interpretation given of this vision in the New Testament, one cannot be dogmatic as to its meaning. But there are a few things that help a student deal with this text as it bears on this title for Jesus.
For one thing, this vision is in the context of Daniel’s dream about four beasts — a lion, a bear, a leopard, and a terrifying fourth beast that had tremendous destructive power (Dan. 7:1ff). For another, most interpreters agree that the four beasts here parallel the four components — gold, silver, bronze, and iron mixed with clay — of an image Daniel had seen in chapter two. This leads many of us to conclude that the beasts represent, in turn, the four empires of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. If this much is correct, we at least have a time line for interpreting the scene.
As to the vision in question, the Son of Man in Daniel is obviously a human figure as opposed to another animal or beast. That he comes before the Ancient of Days (i.e., God Almighty) to receive "authority, glory and sovereign power" is certainly suggestive to Christians of a possible interpretation. This may well be heaven’s view of the event that left the apostles so bewildered, confused, and sad — Jesus’ ascension to heaven following his resurrection.
As in the Danielic vision, that ascension took place in connection with heavenly clouds (Acts 1:9). And Jesus was borne from Earth to heaven to be "exalted to the right hand of God" (Acts 2:33). True to the pattern of that vision, "Jesus thus follows the path of the Son of man up to the Ancient of Days and does not come down from heaven to earth."2
While again disclaiming dogmatism in view of the lack of a definitive New Testament interpretation of the passage, it is certainly not impossible for us to see Daniel 7:13-14 as a prefiguring of the exaltation of God’s Christ in the glorious resurrection and ascension of Jesus.
How Shall We Understand It?
How then should we interpret the title Son of Man in relation to Jesus? Shall we view it as the church fathers did and see it as a title of his humility? Or shall we embrace the more contemporary judgment that Son of Man is a title of majesty? I favor a both-and rather than either-or interpretation. Let me explain.
From Luke 9, we know that Jesus accepted the title Son of Man for himself. The same text also lets us know that he wanted Peter and the other apostles to understand the title in terms of the necessity of his suffering and death. Yet Daniel 7 clearly envisions the Son of Man as someone highly exalted by God and exercising an "everlasting dominion" that would surpass any human kingdom.
The New Testament invites us to see Jesus taking the unlikely path through suffering to exaltation. In his humility, he identified with us for the sake of our redemption. He identified with us and became one with us in our weakness, modeling total dependence on the Father. His weakness led to his death on a Roman cross. Yet God would not leave him in the throes of death. He brought him out of the dark tomb. In that act, Jesus "was declared to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom. 1:4). Then, in his exaltation and coronation, the one who had already been shown to be "Son of God," "Christ," and "Lord" was additionally honored as "Son of Man."
To the degree that we understand his identification with us, we also gain insight into the necessity of our identification with him. Our own "exaltation" must come through self-emptying and humility; our own "glorification" can come only through suffering with Christ. So James writes: "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up" (Jas. 4:10). And Paul adds: "Now if we are children, then we are heirs — heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory" (Rom. 8:17).
There is a story by Walter J. Wangerin that I would not know except that Phil Hasty shared it with me recently.3 Something I said in a sermon about Jesus’ work of redemption triggered his memory of it. So he looked it up and faxed it to me. It has been on my desk ever since. Without repeating the story in all its details, let me summarize its essential point for you and tie the two themes in this Son of Man motif together with it.
In a city long ago, a ragman walked the streets and cried, "Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags! Rags!" He saw a woman sitting on her porch and sobbing into a handkerchief, as her heart was obviously breaking. He walked up to her gently and said, "Give me your rag, and I’ll give you another." The exchange made, he laid a clean linen cloth in her hand — so bright it forced her to shield her tender eyes. He took her old rag, started walking away, and then put the woman’s handkerchief to his own eyes. He began to sob as pitifully as the woman had before. And she sat on her stoop without a tear.
"Rags! Rags! New rags for old!" came his cry again. Then he saw a little girl with empty eyes and a blood-soaked bandage on her head. Offering her a bright yellow bonnet for her ugly rag, another exchange was made. He put the bonnet on her and tied her filthy bandage on his own. Incredibly, the wound seemed to go with the bandage. She was healed, but the Ragman began to pour blood from his head. Sobbing and bleeding now, he somehow managed to go on.
Wangerin’s story continues, as his narrator follows the trail of the Ragman. Next he came to a man leaning against a telephone pole. "Are you going to work?" the Ragman asked him. "Are you crazy?" sneered the man. With that, he pulled away from the pole and his jacket fell limp, for its sleeve was empty. He had no arm. "Give me your jacket," said the Ragman, "and I’ll give you mine." He spoke with such quiet authority that the man did it. And the Ragman’s healthy arm stayed in his jacket. When the crippled man put it on, he had two arms — strong and functional. But the Ragman now had only one.
Then the Ragman found a drunk lying under a blanket. He wrapped it around himself and left new, clean clothes in its place.
The little old Ragman — he came to a landfill. He came to the garbage pits. And then I wanted to help him in what he did, but I hung back, hiding. He climbed a hill. With tormented labor he cleared a little space on that hill. Then he sighed. He lay down. He pillowed his head on a handkerchief and a jacket. He covered his bones with an army blanket. And he died.
Oh, how I cried to witness that death! I slumped in a junked car and wailed and mourned as one who has no hope — because I had come to love the Ragman. Every other face had faded in the wonder of this man, and I cherished him; but he died. I sobbed myself to sleep.
I did not know — how could I know? — that I slept through Friday night and Saturday and its night, too.
But then, on Sunday morning, I was wakened by a violence.
Light — pure, hard, demanding light — slammed against my sour face, and I blinked, and I looked, and I saw the last and the first wonder of all. There was the Ragman, folding the blanket most carefully, a scar on his forehead, but alive! And, besides that, healthy! There was no sign of sorrow nor of age, and all the rags that he had gathered shined for cleanliness.
Well, then I lowered my head and, trembling for all that I had seen, I myself walked up to the Ragman. I told him my name with shame, for I was a sorry figure next to him. Then I took off my clothes in that place, and I said to him with dear yearning in my voice: "Dress me."
He dressed me. My Lord, he put new rags on me, and I am a wonder beside him. The Ragman, the Ragman, the Christ!
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 and in sure hope of sharing in his resurrection glory. 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).
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. Then he offers to exchange our rags for his clothing. The miracle of redemption occurs — and nothing is ever the same again!
1 George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1974), p. 146.
2 The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, s.v. "Son, Son of God, Son of Man, Servant of God, Son of David," by Otto Michel as revised and updated by I. Howard Marshall.
3 Walter J. Wangerin, Ragman and Other Cries of Faith (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1984).
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