The Frailty and Glory of the Son of Man

July 06, 2016

by Iain Duguid

Though there are many titles used to refer to Jesus throughout the Gospels (Rabbi, Lamb of God, Messiah, etc.), there is one title that Jesus uses most frequently to describe himself, and that is “Son of Man.” Unlike many of the other designations applied to Jesus, the meaning of this title may not be immediately clear to us. However, those who heard Jesus call himself “Son of Man,” ben adam, would have two very different Old Testament images conjured in their minds: fragile humanity and the divine glory.

On the one hand, there’s the normal, regular use of that phrase, which emphasizes a difference between mere mortals and almighty God. So in Numbers 23:19, Balaam says, “God is not a man that he should lie, or a son of man [ben adam], that he should change his mind.” In the book of Isaiah, the Lord gently chides his people; why are they still “afraid of man who dies, of the son of man who is made like grass,” even though the sovereign Lord is the one who comforts them (51:12)? Of course, the most common use of the term “son of man” in the Old Testament is in the book of Ezekiel, where the prophet is addressed in those terms by the Lord, as a way of reminding the prophet of his weakness and insignificance in comparison to the holy almighty God.

On the other hand, the term “Son of Man” as used in Mark 10 would also have reminded Jesus’ hearers of Daniel 7, that glorious vision of “one like a son of man” coming with the clouds of heaven, approaching the Ancient of Days, being given authority, glory, sovereign power over all peoples and nations and languages (vv. 13–14). This ben adam, this son of Adam, is far more than a mere human. In fact, he seems to combine in one person both human and divine traits. Insofar as he is one like a son of man, he is clearly a mortal human being.

Earlier in the vision, the Ancient of Days is also described in anthropomorphic form: he sits on a throne, he wears clothing, he has white hair. But only the second figure is described as one “like a son of man,” which suggests already that there is more to his humanity than God simply appearing in human form. At the same time, this son of man rides on the clouds, which is a clear claim of divine authority. In the Old Testament, God is the only one who comes riding on his cloud chariot (see Ps. 68:4; Isa. 19:1). And when this son of man comes into the presence of the Ancient of Days, he is given authority, glory, and sovereign power over all peoples, nations, and languages, and they are instructed to bow down and worship him.

One of the Aramaic words used here, palach, elsewhere always refers to homage shown to deities. So here we have the son of man given an everlasting and indestructible dominion and sovereignty that everywhere else, the book of Daniel is clear to show us, belongs to God and to God alone, in contrast to the temporary kingdoms and temporary glory that the sovereign God gives to the empires of this world. What would Daniel have made of that? It must have boggled his mind.

From our perspective, looking backward, we can see how “Son of Man” was thus the perfect title for Jesus to bear on his mission to earth, because it combines in itself incongruous ideas of mere humanity with the unparalleled glory of God himself. Very often in Jesus’ earthly ministry, it is the mere human aspect of the Son of Man that is prominent. Eugene Peterson says, “This Son of Man has dinner with a prostitute, stops off for lunch with a tax collector, wastes time blessing children, when there are Roman legions to be chased from the land, heals unimportant losers while ignoring high achieving Pharisees and influential Sadducees.”

Ultimately Jesus hung pierced and bleeding upon a cross. He died and was buried in a tomb. Isn’t that the most un-godlike of acts? Sons of Adam all die, and so must this one. But his majesty as the Son of Man was still present, although veiled while on earth. Jesus taught as one who had unparalleled authority, not like the rabbis who hedged their statements by saying, “Well, Rabbi So-and-So says this, but Rabbi Such-and-Such says that.” Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, but I say to you.”

This piece is adapted from Iain Duguid, “The Life and Ministry of Jesus,” in The Triune God, ed. Ronald L. Kohl (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2014), 161–63. Used with permission of the publisher.

Iain Duguid

Dr. Duguid (PhD, Cambridge) is professor of Old Testament at WTS.

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