Jesus as the Son of Man

Mark D. Roberts

In some of his sayings, Jesus reflected the Jewish vision of a glorious Son of Man who appears at the climax of history to execute divine judgment:

But when the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne.  All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate them as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  (Matthew 25:31-32)

And then at last, the sign of the coming of the Son of Man will appear in the heavens, and there will be deep mourning among all the nations of the earth.  And they will see the Son of Man arrive on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.  (Matthew 24:30)

Jesus may not have envisioned the Son of Man flying in the sky and spewing fire from his mouth, but heavenly fireworks do figure in his future:  "For as the lightning lights up the entire sky, so it will be when the Son of Man comes" (Matthew) 24:27).

If these were the only things Jesus had said about the Son of Man, we would conclude that he, like Daniel and other Jewish visionaries, prophesied the future coming of a superhuman being who shared God's glory and authority.  We would probably not, however, interpret Jesus' statements about the Son of Man as referring to himself.  Yet in other passages from the Gospels, Jesus quite clearly used the title "Son of Man" where he might just as well has said "I."  For example, when a man promised to follow Jesus wherever he went, Jesus responded:  "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" (Matthew 8:19-20, NRSV).  Or when Jesus wanted to know what people thought of him, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" (Matthew 16: 13).

As I read these passages I'm reminded of Arthur Fonzarelli from the classic television hit Happy Days.  "Fonzie," as he was called by his friends, rarely used the first person singular pronoun.  If he was dragging some poor soul into the men's restroom of Arnold's Drive-In to straighten the kid out, Fonzie would never say, "I'm takin' you to my office."  Rather, he'd say, "The Fonz is takin' you to his office."  Like a judge who speaks of himself as "the court," Arthur Fonzarelli always referred to himself as "The Fonz."  His peculiar language gave him an aura of intrigue and authority.  Likewise with Jesus.  When he referred to himself as "the Son of Man," Jesus drew the attention of his listeners, making them wonder just what sort of man he was.  He implied that, among other things, he shared the very authority of God."10

The Suffering Son of Man

Jesus inspired the greatest wonderment—and puzzlement—by predicting that, as the Son of Man, he would suffer, even to the point of death.  These predictions perplexed all who heard him, including his closest disciples.  For Jews inspired by Daniel's vision, the Son of Man would exercise divine power and share in divine glory.  He would reward others who had suffered, but the Son of Man himself would never suffer.  That would be inconsistent with his supernatural character and his superlative authority.  According to Jesus, however, suffering lay at the heart of his vocation as Son of Man.  It's no wonder that his words confused his listeners. 

In one of the most dramatic scenes in the gospel of Mark, Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was.  "You are the Messiah," answered Peter boldly (Mark 8:29).  But then Jesus began to teach them that he, as the Son of Man, "must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again" (Mark 8:31, NRSV).  This revelation horrified Peter, who actually rebuked his master.  Jesus responded with a stunning rebuke of his own:  "Get away from me, Satan!  You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God's" (Mark 8:33).

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).

In chapter 52, Isaiah's description of the Servant seems at first to fulfill Jewish expectations for the one who will inaugurate God's reign:  "See, my servant will prosper; he will be highly exalted" (verse 13).  But then the prophet's picture of the Servant takes a staggering turn.  Many are "astonished" at his features because his appearance was "marred…beyond human semblance" (verse 14, NRSV).  Not only does he lack any sign of glory, but he is so battered and disfigured that people hide their eyes.12  The Servant's shocking suffering is not in vain, however, because he agonizes for the sake of others:

Surely he has borne our infirmities
       and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
       struck down by God, and afflicted.
but he was wounded for our transgressions,
       crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
       and by his bruises we are healed.  (Isaiah 53: 4-5, NRSV,
       emphasis added)

God's Servant even "poured out himself to death," giving up his life as "an offering for sin" (Isaiah 53:10-12, NRSV). 

Jesus appropriated these images when speaking of himself as the Son of Man who "came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45, NRSV).  As the Servant "poured out himself to death" for the sake of others, Jesus would soon "pour out" his blood for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:28, NRSV).13

Jesus interwove the unsettling picture of the Servant of God in Isaiah with Daniel's mysterious vision of the Son of Man.  In this extraordinary tapestry, he combined Jewish hopes for God's glorious salvation with divine promises of the Servant's vicarious suffering.  The Son of Man will be glorified, Jesus said, but not as you have expected, at least not at first.  He will be lifted up, as you have hoped, but not initially into the heavens.  Rather, the Son of Man as Servant of God will be lifted up on the cross, and, paradoxically, from there he will draw the whole world to himself.14  He will be glorified through a most inglorious death.  Yet his sacrifice will be the source of life for others, the ultimate act of servanthood, the ransom for many.

From Jesus Revealed.  Copyright © 2002 by Mark D. Roberts.  Used by permission of WaterBrook Press, Colorado Springs, CO.  All rights reserved.

Mark D. Roberts is senior pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church in Irvine, California, and an adjunct professor of New Testament at Fuller Seminary.  He earned degrees in philosophy and religion at Harvard University, where he also received a Ph.D. in New Testament.  He is a contributor to The NIV Worship Bible and the author of After "I Believe."  Mark and his wife, Linda, live in Southern California with their two children.

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