The “Son of Man”

Paul E. Kretzmann

Useful for discernment

This expression, which occurs eighty-four times in the New Testament, has almost become a touchstone, or shibboleth, by which the attitude of a theologian toward the person and work of Christ may be characterized. The many commentaries and books on the person of Jesus reflect, in a most remarkable way, the personal faith of the writers.

A denial of any special significance

In the majority of cases, critics have reached the point at which they deny any special significance in the peculiar phrase. The “Son of Man,” in their opinion, simply means the ideal man, the original man, the normal human being, the man in whom the entire human history and destiny is realized. It is used, according to the idea of many, merely to express the weakness and humility of Christ, or to designate the second or heavenly man, the Pauline second Adam, the preexistent heavenly type of humanity, the ideal of the beyond. Its definition is said to be simply man, the unprivileged Man: not only no exception to the rule of ordinary human experience in the way of being better off, but rather an exception in the way of being worse off [Expositor’s Greek Testament, 1, 142].

The Messiah

Other critics there are that earnestly endeavor to give the expression, as found in the gospels, its full value and strength. “In all probability, Jesus chose this particular Old Testament designation of the Messiah, Daniel 7:13, because, unlike the others, it had not been grossly perverted to foster the carnal expectation of the Jews. Thus our Lord met the morbid and fantastic expectations of His contemporaries — and among them, apparently, those also of the scribe in the text — by laying emphasis on His genuine and true humanity as the Messiah. His great aim was that the people should view Him as true man — in the lowliness of His outward appearance, but also at the same time in His high character, as the Son of Man, that is, the ideal man, the second Adam from heaven (1 Corinthians 15).” [Schaff, Commentary, Matthew, 160].

The divinity of Christ

But these explanations are either entirely beside the mark, or they do not go far enough; they do not cover the full significance of the expression. A mere ideal man is surely not the Lord of the Sabbath, Matthew 12:8. If any one assumes the right to change the Old Testament institutions according to His will, as Lord in His own right, He must have divine authority. A mere ideal man cannot usurp the exclusive right of God to forgive sins on earth, Matthew 9:6. To forgive sins is God’s prerogative, and if Christ assumes this power, He is arrogating to Himself a divine right, as “the Son of Man.” A mere ideal man could not speak of the last days of the world as the days of the Son of Man, Luke 17:22-30. But it is said of the Son of Man that He will come in the clouds of heaven to hold judgment, with all the majesty of the Father and accompanied by all the holy angels. And a careful comparison of the other passages containing this expression will only serve to strengthen this impression that more than mere humanity, more than mere ideality, is implied.

God and man in one person

Jesus is “the Son of Man in an extraordinary and singular sense. He evidently intends, with this name, to distinguish two forms of existence, His existence before the beginning of time as the eternal Word of God, and His form of existence in time as Jesus of Nazareth. He confesses and means to convey with this appellation the fact that He, the eternal Son of God, became flesh, entered into a true humanity, for the sake of redeeming mankind. It is a description of His wonderful, mysterious person according to His divine and according to His human nature.” “It is not from mere humility that He calls Himself the Son of Man, as though the name Son of God did not pertain to Him in His present state of humiliation, and that He would adopt that title only by and through His exaltation. Indeed not; but He wants to lead to the mystery of His person, that the Son of Man in His humiliation is at the same time the true Son of God, as Peter formerly made confession of Him, Matthew 16:13,16. … And it behooved such a person also to be the Mediator between God and men. It was necessary that He be a man in order to suffer, and God, in order to transmit to His sufferings an eternal value; a man, in order to humiliate Himself to the earth, and God, to lift us up into heaven; a man, in order to become a substitute for men, in their stead, and God, in order that He might reconcile and satisfy the outraged righteousness of God by a proportional satisfaction; God and man in one person, in order to unite God and men into one spirit.” [Lehre und Wehre, 1907, 360-369. Cp. Meyer, Jesu Muttersprache, 140-149. Lietzmann, Der Menschensohn].