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Why did Jesus call Himself “The Son of Man”?

For a long time, the expression that Jesus used about Himself, the “Son of Man,” has been debated back and forth.

Wikipedia has this to say about this term: “Son of man is an expression in the sayings of Jesus in Christian writings, including the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and the Book of Revelation. The meaning of the expression is controversial.  Interpretation of the use of ‘the Son of man’ in the New Testament has remained challenging and after 150 years of debate no consensus on the issue has emerged among scholars.

“The expression ‘the Son of man’ occurs 81 times in the Greek text of the four Canonical gospels, and is used only in the sayings of Jesus.  The singular Hebrew expression ‘son of man’ (ben-‘adam) also appears in the Hebrew Bible over a hundred times.”

One commentator on the internet made these observations: “In the gospels, there are more than 80 places where Jesus refers to himself in the third person as the ‘Son of Man’. In most of those places, he is associating it with one of two prophecies concerning himself; either that the Son of Man will suffer and be killed (Matthew 17:12, Mark 8:31, 9:12, Luke 9:22) or that the Son of Man will come again in glory and final judgement (Matthew 16:27, 25:31; Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26, 21:27).  Often the two images are linked, and in only a very few places he doesn’t use ‘son of man’ that way.”

In Matthew 25:31, as referred to above, we read: “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory.”   Here we should note that “the Son of Man” is a clear reference from the mouth of Jesus that He, as the second Person of the God Family, will “sit on the throne of His glory.”

In the following chapter, Matthew 26:64, at His trial, He was asked if He was the Messiah.  He said: “It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of the power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

These two passages show that Christ referred to Himself as the “Son of Man” in connection with His future as an immortal being, not just according to His human appearance on earth nearly 2,000 years ago. However, as we will explain, His reference in this regard must not be misunderstood.

In the Old Testament, we read about this same phrase in Daniel 7:13-14: “I was watching in the night visions, And behold, One like the Son of Man, Coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, And they brought Him near before Him.  Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, Which shall not pass away, And His kingdom the one Which shall not be destroyed.”

What David saw in a vision of the future is in complete accord with what Jesus said about Himself in the future. This would be a good reason why Jesus used this term and a proof that He was the Messiah.

One internet commentator made these observations: “The person who is presented to the Ancient of Days here is described as ‘like a son of man.’… The Jewish people took the phrase ‘son of man’ from this vision and used it as a title (‘Son of Man’) to describe the divine savior figure they were expecting.  Jesus often applied this title to himself, both to show that he was the Savior sent from God, and also, paradoxically, to show that he had given up his divine prerogatives and come to earth humbly, in human form, to identify completely with those he came to save.”

After Christ’s crucifixion, we read more instances about the Son of Man in His glory. In Acts 7:55-56 when Stephen was accused of blasphemy and gave his address, we read: “But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’”

In Revelation 1:13-14 we read: “… and in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band.  His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire…”

There is a further reference in Revelation 14:14 which reads: “Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and on the cloud sat One like the Son of Man, having on His head a golden crown, and in His hand a sharp sickle.”

We see that even after His resurrection as a glorified being, He is still referred to, at times, as the Son of Man. In fact, we even read that there is only one Mediator between God and man—the MAN Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5). In addition, He was referred to repeatedly as the “Lamb,” or the “Lamb of God,” when here on earth, but He is even now, after His resurrection, still referred to as the Lamb (Revelation 5:6) to show the tremendous sacrifice which He gave for all of mankind. All of this proves that He is still the Person which He was when here on earth as a Man. But it does NOT show that He is still a Person consisting of flesh and blood, or that He still has a physical body which was somehow made “immortal.” That is why the reference to His so-called “bodily resurrection” can be so deceiving. (Please read our Q&A on that topic, titled, “Do you teach a resurrection of the physical body?”).

When Christ, the Son of God, became Man and the Son of Man, He ceased to be a divine Spirit being. He became fully flesh. At the same time, this did not mean that He ceased to be the Person who  He had always been since eternity. That is why we read that when Jesus became a Man and dwelled among us, He was still “God with us” (Matthew 1:23), referring to Him as the Person, not as an immortal God being. In the same way, when He died and was resurrected, He ceased to be a physical being. He became fully God, but again, this does not mean that He ceased to be the Person who  He was when He lived as a Man. Rather, Jesus Christ—the God being—became Man, and after His death, Jesus Christ, the Man, became God—an immortal eternal God being. But as a God being, He still possesses all the memories of His experiences as a Man, and that is why He is referred to as the Man Jesus Christ who can suffer with us and who can be our merciful High Priest. He is also referred to as the Lamb now, as He died for us for our sins, and His Sacrifice has ongoing applications for us today (1 John 1:7-10).

Unless we understand this connection we are bound to misunderstand the meaning of the terms “Son of God” and “Son of Man.” Christ was always the Son of God, but He became the Son of Man when He was conceived in the womb of His mother Mary.

We will show now why this understanding is so critically important, and why so many have a totally false concept of the Incarnation and associated issues.

On the website “desiringgod” we read the following in their article, “How Can Jesus Be God and Man?”

“The early church considered the Incarnation to be one of the most important truths of our faith. Because of this, they formulated what has come to be called the Chalcedonean Creed, a statement which sets forth what we are to believe and what we are not to believe about the Incarnation. This creed was the fruit of a large council that took place from October 8 to November 1, 451, in the city of Chalcedon and ‘has been taken as the standard, orthodox definition of the biblical teaching on the person of Christ since that day by all the major branches of Christianity.’”

One of five main “truths” that the Chalcedonean Creed listed was that Jesus was and is “fully God and fully man.” This is hardly surprising given that the basis of their faith is that God is a Trinity and this became a teaching of the [now defunct] Worldwide Church of God a few years after Mr Herbert W Armstrong died in 1986. However, this teaching is totally false. Christ was never and is not now “fully God and fully Man.”

Let us quote briefly, and selectively, from our free booklet Jesus Christ – A Great Mystery:

On page 9, under the heading “Jesus Christ Came in the Flesh” we read:

“God clearly reveals who and what Christ was when He was here on earth, and He also tells us that people have been deceived by the ‘spirit of antichrist’ if they don’t accept this clear Biblical revelation. 1 John 2:22–23 warns us: ‘Who is a liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist who denies the Father and the Son.’”

On pages 10-11 we read: “How, exactly, did Christ come in the flesh? Was He, at that very time, ‘fully God and fully man’? Was He ‘fully God’? Or was He ‘fully man’? Notice the clear revelation of this mystery in John 1:14: ‘And the Word [the ‘Word” referring to Jesus Christ, Who in the beginning was God and was with God the Father, John 1:1–2] BECAME flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.’

“God clearly tells us that the Word—Jesus Christ—who was God before His human birth, BECAME flesh. Christ came in the flesh by BECOMING flesh. This means that He became totally and fully flesh and blood, like you and I! This is CRUCIAL for you to understand! When Christ BECAME flesh, He was no longer Spirit. He was no longer fully God, because He had become fully man!

“Think for a moment about the word ‘became.’ When a poor person becomes rich, he is no longer poor. When a person becomes sick, he is, at that point in time, no longer healthy. When a woman becomes pregnant, she is, at that point in time, no longer barren. Likewise, when the Word became flesh, He was no longer Spirit. He was no longer an immortal God being as He was before.”

In this booklet, pages 10-14 deal with the Scriptures that are used incorrectly by those who think that Jesus was fully God and fully man while He was here on earth.

It would appear that, with the use of the phrase “Son of Man”, Jesus wanted to show everyone that when He dwelled among us, He was entirely human and that he was fully man. In the book of Ezekiel, the phrase “son of man” is used many times for the prophet Ezekiel, but he was just a man with no previous supernatural background. On the other hand, with Jesus, previously a supernatural being from all of eternity, it was somewhat different.  By using this phrase, He showed that He, who had been God, became fully human, but He also showed that He, the Person who had lived in the flesh and who had died for us, would be resurrected and return as a glorified immortal and eternal God being–the King of kings and the Lord of lords–to rule over all mankind.

Lead Writers: Brian Gale and Norbert Link