Jesus as the Son of Man
- Thursday, February 13, 2003
Those of us who look at this incident with the clarity of hindsight might find it easy to scoff at Peter's foolish audacity. But if we recall Daniel's vision, not to mention the development of this vision in later Jewish speculation, then we can begin to understand why Peter responded as he did. Everything Peter believed up to that moment identified the Son of Man as the victor, not the victim. He was to be glorified, not crucified. He was to judge the Gentiles, not to die under their judgment. Jesus was turning the image of the Son of Man completely upside down, and Peter intended to save his master from such folly.
If you're having trouble standing in Peter's shoes, imagine the following scene. A presidential candidate has just been elected by a landslide. He steps to the podium to give the traditional acceptance speech. But rather than proclaiming victory and thanking his supporters, he says, "In light of this election, I will now be going to prison, and then to the electric chair." It isn't hard to imagine how quickly the candidate's chief advisors would whisk him away from the television cameras and try to talk some sense into him. That's what Peter was doing with Jesus. "The Son of Man suffering and dying, Lord? Surely you're mistaken. That can't be right."11
The Song of Man as God's Servant
Jesus' other closest follower, James and John, shared Peter's confusion. When Jesus again predicted his imminent suffering, these two disciples couldn't let go of their picture of his future triumph. They asked Jesus, "In your glorious Kingdom, we want to sit in places of honor next to you…one at your right and the other at your left" (Mark 10:37). It's as if they were saying, "All of this bizarre talk of suffering aside, we know that you'll soon be enthroned as the Son of Man, and we want to get a piece of your glory for ourselves." Jesus responded by explaining that they really didn't know what they were asking. If, indeed, James and John sought to share in his work as the Son of Man, then they first had to share in his suffering.
When the rest of the disciples realized what the two had asked, they became angry, presumably because they wanted to protect their own share of glory. Jesus reproved the whole group:
[W]hoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mark 10:43-45, NRSV)
The disciples expected Jesus to the be luminescent Son of Man, the one who would be served by all peoples, as prophesied in Daniel 7. Jesus, on the contrary, saw his initial mission as Son of Man as rendering service, not receiving it, even serving to the point of giving up his very life for the sake of others.
Nothing in the disciples' background has prepared them for this astounding claim. Nowhere in Jewish thought prior to Jesus was the Son of Man envisioned as a servant who surrenders his own life for others. Where in the world did Jesus get this idea? Was it a brand-new thought, a novel bit of special revelation? Or was Jesus bringing together familiar Old Testament concepts in some startling, unprecedented combination?
The latter option appears to be correct. Jesus was framing his mission as the Son of Man by combining Daniel's fantastic dreams with Isaiah's poignant portrait of the suffering Servant of God, something that had not been done before in Jewish thinking. In the so-called Servant Songs found in chapters 42-53 of Isaiah, God speaks of his chosen servant, the one in whom his soul delights: "I have put my Spirit upon him. He will reveal justice to the nations" (Isaiah 42:1). Beyond reestablishing the kingdom of God in Israel, the Servant will extend God's salvation "to the ends of the earth" (Isaiah 49:6).
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