According to popular Christian tradition, the titles Son of God and Son of Man refer respectively to Christ’s divine and human natures. Jesus is the Son of God because he is God and he is the Son of Man because he is man. But as is the case with the designation ‘Immanuel,’ I argue that these titles too have been hastily removed from their Old Testament contexts and redefined according to later theological constructs—in this case, the doctrine of Christ’s hypostatic union.
What then is the Son of Man in its original context? And why does Jesus make it central to his identity?
Daniel: God and Empire
As most commentators acknowledge, Jesus’ understanding of the Son of Man figure originates in the book of Daniel, particularly in the vision of chapter 7. The book of Daniel preserves stories and visions associated with the prophet Daniel as he lived in exile under Babylonian rule. Throughout the first few chapters of the book, Daniel and his friends are persecuted by the pagan king on account their Jewish faith. Their example of faithfulness to God and their subsequent vindication functions to encourage Jewish readers to maintain Torah obedience as they too live under the rule of pagan kings. Just as Daniel was redeemed from the lions den and the furnace, so too, it is hoped, will other persecuted Jews be redeemed from their trials.
Daniel’s visions function along similar lines. They too champion Torah observance in the face of all-consuming pagan empires. But what is felt more acutely in the visions than in the stories is God’s inaction. Although Daniel was saved from his tribulations, other faithful Jews were not so fortunate. In fact, for centuries God allowed his people to suffer and die under pagan kingdoms. Daniel’s visions thus take aim not at particular instances of persecution, but at pagan empire as an institution. His visions ask When will pagan rule collapse and God’s rule prevail? Or in the words of Zechariah, When will God deliver his people from the hands of their enemies so that they might serve him without fear? (Luke 1:74). Such questions were of particular importance to Jews during and after the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, a tyrant king who instituted a program of forced Hellenization.
What should not be missed here is that the questions addressed by the book of Daniel are political in nature. They concern the existence of God’s people in the midst of powerful pagan empires. Despite our best wishes then, these questions are thus not primarily existential, that is, concerned with the general brokenness or sinfulness of man.
Daniel 7 and Apocalyptic
Daniel’s visions employ the imagery of apocalyptic to critique the problem of pagan imperialism addressed above. Apocalyptic ideology maintains that God will soon overthrow the forces of evil and establish his kingdom. The faithful who have suffered and died will be vindicated and exalted in this new world.
In Daniel 7 the prophet receives one such apocalyptic vision which is subsequently explained by an angel. The angel’s explanations function to map the otherworldly vision onto the earthly-historical stage.
Daniel first sees terrifying beasts arise out of the sea. They trample the earth and speak profanities against the Creator. These, the angel reveals, represent pagan kings who arrogantly rule over Israel. They “devour the whole earth,” “speak words against the most high God,” “wear out [his] holy ones,” and “attempt to change the sacred seasons and the law.” The rampage of the beasts is, however, short-lived. God suddenly appears and takes his seat on the throne of judgement. God condemns the beasts to death and in so doing strikes down the rulers of the age. The problem of pagan empire is thus resolved.
The vision then pivots to a new question: Who will now rule over the earth?
As Daniel continues to look he sees “one like a son of man” approach the heavenly throne. To this Son of Man is given the authority once maintained by the beasts. He receives dominion over “all peoples, nations, and languages.” As the angel explains further: “The kingship and dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High” (Daniel 7:27). God has thus issued a great reversal. Pagan empire has been defeated and the once pagan nations are now incorporated into God’s kingdom. Most surprisingly, God installs his saints as his viceroys.
What then does this mean for the Son of Man? He, like the beasts, is a symbol. He represents those Jews who endure pagan hegemony faithfully and who as a result inherit God’s rule over the nations. Whereas the pagan kings ruled the earth in a beastly fashion, having no regard for the Creator, the holy ones live as mortals should—in submission to God. Therefore it is the they, not the pagans, who earn the right to rule the nations as God’s representatives.
Jesus the Son of Man
In the Gospels Jesus identifies himself with the Son of Man more than with any other figure. Whereas the later church emphasized Jesus’ identity as God, Son of God, Immanuel, etc., Jesus himself gives preference to the Son of Man title. For Jesus, it is the Son of Man who will meet a tragic fate at Golgotha (Mark 8:31, 9:12, 10:32-45, 14:21, Matthew 12:38-42) and it is the Son of Man who will extinguish evil at his coming (Mark 8:38-9:1, 13:26, 14:62, Matthew 13:41-42, 16:27, 25:31). Jesus thus fulfills the two climactic moments of his existence, death and judgement, as the Son of Man. The vision in Daniel 7 allows us to understand why this is the case.
In regards to this first pivotal moment—his suffering and death—Jesus the Son of Man was destined to suffer on behalf of his faith in Israel’s God, to be “worn out” by the powers that be. In this he represented faithful Israel enslaved to pagan masters. He would endure the persecution that had been wrought upon righteous Jews for centuries. An idolatrous Jerusalem elite in conjunction with their pagan lords would dispose of him. In the same way, these powers would also persecute Jesus’ followers. They, like he, would be tormented by the beasts of pagan empire. Rome and Jerusalem would abuse the holy ones just as they abused the Holy One.
In regards to the second pivotal moment—his return and judgement—Jesus the Son of Man came to proleptically represent God’s exalted eschatological people through his resurrection and ascension. As the Son of Man he endured the tribulation and entered into glory before his brothers. He became the pioneer of God’s coming kingdom. At his coming on the clouds, Jesus would destroy the authorities that persecute his brothers and establish his reign over the nations (Revelation 14). He would destroy the beasts and give his people their dominion (Revelation 18-20). They would rule just as he now rules.
The eschatological narrative depicted in Daniel 7 lies at the heart of Jesus’ gospel and identity. Jesus, as the Son of Man, took it upon himself to enter the eschatological tribulation first, suffering for and as God’s holy people. He and his followers were tortured, mocked, flogged, imprisoned, stoned, sawn in two, beheaded, going about destitute, persecuted, and tormented—as were the prophets of Israel’s past. But this faithful suffering would give way to impending glory. Like a flash of lightning, the Son of Man would destroy the persecutors of his people (2 Thessalonians 1:5-12). All authorities in heaven and on earth would submit or perish. The beleaguered disciples would be vindicated and given authority over the nations, over God’s kingdom on earth (Revelation 2:26-27). In as much as Jesus was the Son of Man, he came to put this eschatological cycle into motion.
In summary, Jesus designated himself the Son of Man because he believed God was about to finally solve the problem of pagan empire through the suffering and exaltation of his people. God’s empire would replace Rome’s, not by sword, but by the obedient witness of the holy ones of the Most High.