TRA Wordtalks

"Sunday, 17th May, 1998 - Jesus: The Son of Man."

13/98 17.5.98 Scripture: Luke 19:1-10

DO you know the story of Zacchaeus the tax-collector? He was that short man who climbed the tree to see Jesus pass. But Jesus called him down, went into his house and Zacchaeus' life was changed forever. You have probably heard the story many times. Yet would you have thought the words Jesus spoke as he left Zacchaeus' house, would have become so controversial that in the past thirty years they have created dispute among the scholars and caused a dozen learned books to be published?

In "The Third Quest For The Historical Jesus" there has been considerable research into the words or titles Jesus used to describe Himself. We will look at four such titles for they speak to us eloquently of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The first phrase Jesus used of himself is an innocent looking one found in the story of Zacchaeus that is causing great debate.


That was our Lord's favourite title for Himself. He used it more frequently than any other. The Gospel of Luke is the Gospel of "The Son of Man": Jesus, the man. His essential manhood is constantly being set forth throughout this Gospel. The key to the Gospel, which forms a brief outline of the book, is found in Luke 19:10 "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost." Look again at that sentence: "The Son of Man is come to seek and to save what was lost." In it you have the divisions of this Gospel. First, the Son of Man came and Luke tells us how He came into the race. Then, He came to seek. Finally, He came to save that which was lost.

"The first part of His ministry consists of seeking us out, of moving into the heart of humanity, penetrating into the emotions, thoughts, and feelings of mankind, discovering the innate centres of human motivation, putting His finger upon them, and showing His mastery over these areas. Finally, He moves on to save by means of the cross and His resurrection." (R.C.Stedman). The Gospel of Luke falls into these three divisions.

What did Jesus mean by describing Himself as "the Son of Man"? The first thing you notice is its frequency of use. "The Son of Man" was Jesus' most personal and deliberately chosen title for himself. The title occurs 82 times in the New Testament. With one exception all these occurrences are in the Gospels.
The one exception is the saying of Stephen (Acts 7:56) "Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." Of the 81 remaining occurrences of this title, all but one are from the lips of Jesus Himself, and the one exception is a quotation of the words of Jesus, when the crowd in Jerusalem in the last days, following upon Jesus' prediction of his own crucifixion, (John 12:34), "We have heard from the Law that the Christ will remain forever, so how can you say, `The Son of Man must be lifted up'?
Who is this `Son of Man'?" This was a title which, to all intents and purposes, no one used except Jesus Himself. Clearly this is Jesus' self-chosen name. We need to discover what He meant by it and why He used it. Some recent manuscript discoveries are helping us understand Jesus' use of the title, "The Son of Man" especially one among the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1947. Among the scrolls written before the birth of Jesus was "The Book of Enoch" using the phrase.

In former times, some used to say the phrase was just a way of referring to Himself as when Jesus said (Matt 8:20), "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." Others said it was a term indicating the real humanity of Jesus in the same way that Ezekiel was called "Son of man" when God said: (Ezek 2:1), "Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you." Ninety times God spoke to Ezekiel like that. So in the same way as God called Ezekiel "Son of man" so this term refers to the humanity of Jesus. As "Son of David" describes His line of descent from King David and "Son of God" describes His divine nature, so "The Son of Man" describes His real humanity.

But we have now discovered there is very specific meaning to this title in the Old Testament and in books written just before His birth. The Book of Daniel and the Book of Enoch, written about 70 BC, give specific meaning to this term. The title "The Son of Man" referred to a divine, pre-existent figure who was with God from the very beginning, waiting to come to earth as a figure of divine judgment.
So Jesus says (Mark 13:24-27), "In those days, following that distress, `the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.' At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens." Or (Mark 14:61-2), "The high priest asked him, `Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?' `I am, said Jesus. `And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.'"

Most times Jesus described Himself like this. When Jesus called Himself "The Son of Man" He was claiming to be the One who stood from eternity at God's right hand, who would bring God's judgment of this world and inaugurate God's kingdom. He was the Messiah, the anointed one, the Son of God, who was both pre-existent and the final judge who comes at the end of history. But some scholars question whether Jesus really thought this.


They believe Jesus could never have used the title "The Son of Man" of Himself as He would not have had the education or insight to do so. Rather, it was the church, after the resurrection, that came to see Jesus as "The Son of Man" in this special sense. So every time it is mentioned by Jesus in the Gospels, that must have been a late addition not His words.

"The Jesus Seminar" in USA follows this line of argument. They say Jesus was a peasant teacher and as such a use of this Old Testament terminology was too sophisticated for Him. Therefore they reject all sayings which include the phrase "The Son of Man" as not authentic. They say that Jesus could not have used this phrase, otherwise the disciples would have understood that Jesus would suffer and die and be vindicated by God by the resurrection whereas the disciples were caught unawares by the cross and totally dumbfounded by the resurrection.
So these scholars do not accept as authentic the extensive use of "The Son of Man" in the Gospels. Further most scholars regard this expression as not an established title for the Messiah in Judaism at Jesus' time, nor did the early church use it as a title for Jesus, therefore Jesus could not have used it.

As it was used exclusively by Jesus of Himself, it must come from a Jesus who possessed incredible insight and knowledge, or else these statements were put in His mouth by later leaders of the church. So these scholars discount these sayings because they say this would require a much more sophisticated understanding of Himself by Jesus when He was just a carpenter from Nazareth.

But another scholar Michael Wilkins argues: "If Jesus was merely a sage and teller of parables, then why all the fuss over Him? Where did the severe animosity surrounding Him come from? How can they explain His rejection, given the slight portion of authentic sayings on mostly proverbial topics? In sum, the Jesus that emerges from the Jesus Seminar is not a Jesus whom Judaism would have crucified."
In other words, it was precisely because Jesus called Himself "The Son of Man", that the Jewish leaders became so vicious and demanded His death. No-one rejects mild-mannered Clark Kent, but evil people in Metropolis fear Superman!

Scholars like Marcus Borg who say Jesus did not see Himself coming in glory to bring judgment upon the earth in the near future, do so because most passages using the phrase "The Son of Man" have to do with His return in glory and judgment. They argue that these words could not have been spoken by Jesus. But there is a growing number of scholars, whose research shows that Jesus did use that title of Himself. One such scholar, Ben Witherington 111, states, "I believe that the Daniel 7 material was foundational for Jesus' understanding of who He was and what God wished Him to do and proclaim."

Another great scholar of the Judaic tradition, James Charlesworth says: "I am persuaded that He knew and was influenced by Daniel and 1 Enoch 37-71... I am convinced that all three classes of Jesus' `the Son of Man' sayings - those that depict `the Son of Man's' authority, future coming, and present suffering were not invented by the Church" but were the authentic words of our Lord who knew well His own person. There are new discoveries helping us better understand Jesus.


Why didn't the disciples understand the meaning behind Jesus use of the phrase "The Son of Man." The main element in Jesus' teaching was His coming suffering and death. Why were they so utterly unprepared for His death? Jesus hardly ever foretold His death without also foretelling His resurrection. Why did the resurrection come to the disciples as a complete surprise?

The reason can only be that the disciples never at any time succeeded in effecting any kind of connection in their thoughts between the idea of "The Son of Man" and the idea of suffering, humiliation and death. Humans simply refuse to assimilate an idea which is strange and alien and objectionable.
The disciples regarded Jesus as "The Son of Man" but only in connection with majesty, power and glory, visible victory and earthly triumph. They never, in spite of the teaching of Jesus, escaped from that conventional idea. That is why they were quite unprepared for the cross. And because they had never even looked at the cross they could not grasp the resurrection that would follow. Jesus taught them, but they never absorbed His teaching.


From the beginning Jesus knew Himself as the Messiah whose ultimate triumph and glory were as sure as God is sure. He was the Messiah, the Suffering Servant, who must pass through the cross to the glory. To Jesus this was no after-thought. It was the conviction in which His work was begun, continued and ended. So Jesus took this title "The Son of Man" and re-minted it. He used it in such a way that He shocked those who heard it. He intended all who heard Him use it to listen, to be startled and to think. He knew Himself to be the divine Son of Man whose triumph was sure. He knew Himself to be the Suffering Servant for whom the cross was the chosen way. But He also knew that God would raise Him up as King and soon returning judge and ruler of all.

"`The Son of Man' is the title which contains within itself the shame and the glory of Jesus. If the life of Jesus had come to an end in final suffering and death on a cross with nothing beyond it, then it would have been impossible to see in Him the fulfilment of the picture of `The Son of Man'. But the resurrection brought the glory and the triumph which were necessary for the completing of the picture." (William Barclay)

He knew Himself to be the divine Son of Man whose triumph was sure. He knew Himself to be the Suffering Servant for whom the Cross was the only way. As the Servant of the Lord He was to suffer for humanity. As "The Son of Man" He must in the end be the King of men. "The Son of Man" is the title which contains within itself the shame and the glory of Jesus Christ. Jesus is bigger than our own minds. He is Jesus Christ, Son of God, Son of Man!

Gordon Moyes

Send an e-mail to Gordon Moyes

If you would like to receive a printed copy of Word Talk via mail, you can subscribe for just $15 per year. Please contact us on 02 9263 5555, or write to:

Turn 'Round Australia
PO Box A5555
Sydney South, 1235

Return to TRA home page