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“Who Is This Son of Man?”

By Kyle Pope

I

n John 12:34b the people ask the question in the title of this article—“who is this Son of Man?” (NKJV). They ask this, in response to Jesus’ promise that “the Son of Man” would be lifted up (12:34a). Students of the Bible today might well ask the same question when we encounter this important and unusual biblical phrase—“the Son of Man.”

      There is much debate in the scholarly world about the meaning of the phrase “son of man” and how it would have been understood in the time of Jesus. There are times it can simply be a way of referring to a “man” (i.e. a human being).  The Law of Moses declared, “God is not a man…nor a son of man” (Numbers 23:19). The Hebrew in this text is ben-‘adam meaning “son of man, son of Adam.” ‘Adamah means “earth or red earth” (from which Adam’s name is drawn). This use is common even outside of Scripture. Ugaritic texts use the phrase bn-‘adm to mean simply “man” (Mark S. Smith, “The ‘Son of Man’ in Ugaritic,” CBQ 45 (1983):59-60). The book of Job speaks of, “Man, who is a maggot…and the son of man who is a worm” (Job 25:4-6). The Psalmist asks, “What is man…and the son of man?” (Psalm 8:4; 144:3). The Hebrew in this passage is ben-‘anish – a more generic word for man. Hebrews 2:6 quotes Psalm 8:4, which makes it clear that by New Testament times the phrase could still mean simply “man” or “human being.”

      It is also clear that there can be times when the phrase takes on a more specialized meaning.  There are times God may choose a “son of man.” In this sense, a “son of man” who is chosen may receive special blessings, revelations, or fulfill a special work for God. The Psalmist spoke of, “The son of man whom You made strong” (Psalm 80:17). The prophet Ezekiel was called “son of man” 93 times in the book (e.g. Ezekiel 2:1). The prophet Daniel was also referred to a few times in this way (e.g. Daniel 8:17). Daniel, however, reveals a very special use of this phrase in prophesying the coming of “One like the Son of Man” (Daniel 7:13-18). This phrase is the Aramaic bar-‘anash – “son of man.” In this text, there is clearly a different sense. This One is said to be “like the Son of Man” (i.e. He bears the likeness of man).  He is said to come on clouds (7:13) and possess an everlasting kingdom (7:14).

      In the gospels “Son of Man” is the designation Jesus used to refer to Himself more than any other (Matthew – 30; Mark – 13; Luke – 26; John – 11 = 80 times in the Gospels).  He asks, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man am?” (Matthew 16:13). This has led some scholars to argue that the phrase is simply an idiom meaning “I” (Maurice Casey, “The Jackals and the Son of Man,” JSNT 23 (1985):3-22). However, it is clear that there is much more to it in Jesus’ use of the phrase. Jesus will associate the “Son of Man” with a number of divine attributes: 

·         The “Son of Man” is of heavenly origin (John 3:13).

·         Jesus spoke of the “Son of Man ascending to where He was before” (John 6:62).

·         Jesus spoke of the Son of Man having power to forgive sins (Matthew 9:6)—only God can forgive sins.

·         The “Son of Man” is Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8)—God instituted the Sabbath.

·         The “Son of Man” holds the right to command angels (Matthew 13:41; 16:27; 25:31; John 1:51); execute judgment (Matt. 16:27; Mark 8:38; John 5:27); bestow salvation (Matthew 18:11; John 6:27), and conquer death (Matthew 12:40; 17:9).

In addition to this Jesus spoke of the “Son of Man” as a King (Matthew 16:27-28; 19:28) “coming on the clouds” (Matthew 24:29-31; 26:64). In this Jesus clearly identified Himself with the specialized meaning of Daniel’s prophecy and offered Himself as its fulfillment. Outside of the Gospels, New Testament writers affirmed the recognition of this specialized designation of Jesus as “the Son of Man” (Acts 7:56) or “One like the Son of Man” (Rev. 1:12-18; 14:13-17) harvesting the earth.

      It is in this specialized sense foretold in Daniel we must understand what is meant by Jesus’ identification as the “Son of Man.” He is Deity “Like the Son of Man.” He is King, Savior, and ultimately the Judge. We all can be assured that one day, we too will witness what Jesus promised Caiaphas: “hereafter, you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64). 

Pope, Kyle. "Who Is This Son of Man?" Biblical Insights 12.6 (June 2012): 12  

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