Two New Testament titles for Jesus Christ seem, at face value, fairly straightforward. He is Son of God (God is his Father) and Son of Man (and woman; Gal 4:4) and therefore human. Mainstream Christianity understands Jesus Christ to be the incarnate Son of God, both fully divine and fully human. Non-trinitarian groups might emphasise the “Son of Man” aspect as Jesus’ more fundamental or intrinsic nature, confining his divine Sonship to his miraculous virgin conception or perhaps to some form of adoptionism. But is this what the title really means? An examination of the contexts of the two titles will show that both describe Jesus’ divinity.
“Son of God” is actually a rather general term in Scripture. Sonship of God (Heb. elohim) is ascribed to angels, human beings and to Jesus, with somewhat different emphases. Job 1:6, 2:1 and 38:7; Psalm 82:6 and Daniel 3:25 refer to “sons of God” and are likely descriptive of angels (but Gen 6:2 is problematic and controversial in this respect). Israel are described as sons of God also (e.g. Ex 4:22; Deut 14:1; Hos 11:1) and the messianic king was to embody the idea of sonship (2 Sam 7:14; Psa 89:19–29). Jesus Christ fulfils the attributes of true Sonship and enables the people of God, both Jew and Gentile to be sons of God (Gal 3:7, 26–29; Rom 8:19–23; 9:24–26; 1 John 3:1–2). Jesus Christ is in this sense the firstborn of the sons of God (Rom 8:29) but this is not the whole story. The man Christ Jesus, who began existence at his conception in the womb of Mary, is Son of God in a unique way, as the incarnation (in-fleshing) of the eternal Son who was with the Father through eternity (John 1:1–2, 14; 17:5; Heb 1:6–12).
‘And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ And Mary said to the angel, ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’ And the angel answered her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy — the Son of God’ (Luke 2:31–35).
But even the virgin conception is not the only sense in which Jesus is the Son of God, as this passage hints. Jesus was identified by his Father as “My beloved Son” at his baptism (Mark 1:11) and transfiguration (Mark 9:7) when his glory was displayed. Jesus often spoke of God as his Father and by extension, the Father of those in Christ by adoption (e.g. Matt 6:9; 23:9; Mark 14:36; John 8:54). The New Testament writers regularly ascribe the title “Son of God” to Jesus (e.g., Acts 9:20; Rom 5:10; 2 Cor 1:19; Heb 4:14). Jesus was recognised as Son of God during his ministry (Matt 4:3; 16:16–17; Mark 5:7; John 1:34) and yet it is a title Jesus rarely used of himself. He certainly did not deny being the Son of God (Matt 16:16–17, Luke 22:7) and often claimed God as his Father in a unique sense (Matt 11:27; John 10:30), which the Jews identified as a claim to divinity (John 5:18). Jesus’ Sonship was also demonstrated by his miraculous signs, which John says were specific proofs of his divine Sonship as the Christ (John 20:28–31). Paul also proclaims that Jesus was “declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:4).
Yet Jesus rarely spoke of himself as “the Son of God,” even playing down this title (Mark 3:11–12). Instead, his favourite self-appellation in the Gospels is “Son of Man,” by which he regularly refers to himself in the third person. Does this mean that Jesus denied his divinity, or attributed it solely to the mechanism of his conception, as Christadelphians might allege? Is the title “Son of Man” merely a reinforcement of the Lord’s genuine humanity, or is it more? In one sense, it certainly does emphasise Jesus’ humanity; the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head (Matt 8:20); came eating and drinking (Matt 11:19); suffered (Matt 17:12); came to serve (Matt 20:28); and as one who was tempted, the Son of Man is a righteous and sympathetic judge (John 5:27; Heb 4:15). But a scan through all the references to “Son of Man” in the gospels will reveal that the predominant characteristics, associations and prerogatives of Jesus as Son of Man are in fact divine. The Son of Man is Lord of the divinely-appointed Sabbath (Matt 12:8); claims jurisdiction over “his” angels and “his” Kingdom (Matt 13:41; 16:28); will come in the glory of his Father (Matt 16:27; 24:30); sits on the throne of his glory (Matt 19:28); is the Saviour of humanity (Luke 9:56; 19:10; John 6:27) and the way to the Father (John 1:51). The Son of Man came down from heaven and is in heaven (John 3:13; 6:62); has the authority to judge (a prerogative of God; John 5:27) and is the I AM (John 8:28).
What would the first century Jews who heard Jesus describing himself as Son of Man, with these divine associations, have understood by this title? Why would it have been necessary for Jesus to keep reinforcing this message if he was only emphasising that he was merely a regular human being? Surely these associations give the impression of anything but ordinary humanity! The answer lies in the Old Testament context of the title “Son of Man.” The most common use of the title is its application to Ezekiel. God regularly addressed Ezekiel as “son of man,” which some modern English translations render “human being.” In Ezekiel’s case it seems to be a reminder that he was mortal, and represented frail humanity. Ezekiel was a reluctant prophet and his lot was not an easy one. He was the mouthpiece of God and his message of judgement was very unpalatable. One can almost picture him trembling as his daily routine was yet again interrupted by the divine voice, “Son of Man! Prophesy against…!” or “Son of Man! Set your face against…!” Jesus certainly did make unpalatable prophecies of doom and pronounce judgement against the Jews, who did not recognise their Messiah. Just as Ezekiel witnessed the departure of the Shekinah Glory from the temple (Ezek 11), so Jesus came to his temple (Mal 3:1; Luke 19:41–46; John 1:9–11) and was summarily rejected, so that the house of Israel would once again be left desolate (Luke 13:34–35). However, the most striking association comes from the enigmatic prophecy of Daniel.
As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came out from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened… I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And 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 one that shall not be destroyed (Daniel 7:9–14).
The Ancient of Days here is undoubtedly God; he is seated on the throne (Psa 9:1–4; 47:7–8; 103:19–21; Isa 6:1–3) before the court of heaven, presiding over the books of judgement. The throne is associated with fire and wheels, as in other apocalyptic visions of the Lord (Ezek 1). Daniel sees “one like a son of man” who comes in the clouds of heaven and is presented before the Ancient of Days. To him is given the everlasting dominion and glory, the kingdom which encompasses all nations and will not pass away. This is none other than the Kingdom of God and of Christ and the fulfilment of all the Old Testament prophecies of the universal and everlasting reign of God (2 Sam 7:12–13, 16; Psa 135:10–13; Isa 9:6–7).
This kingdom is given to “the one like a son of man.” Who is this figure? Is he merely human? Evidently not, because this is the everlasting kingdom of God, although it was promised to the son of David (Psa 110:1; Ezek 21:25–27). Furthermore, he is “like” a son of man, so there is something about him which sets him apart from humanity also. The key is in the word “serve,” the response of all peoples, nations and languages. In Aramaic (the language in which this section of Daniel was written) the word translated “serve” is peal, as in Daniel 3:12 and 6:16, and means the service-worship directed to a god or to God. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament with which the first century Jewish community would have been most familiar, the word is latreuo, to serve or worship. This word is elsewhere used of the worship due to YHWH alone (Deut 5:9; Matt 4:10). This is remarkable! One like a son of man is actually worshipped by all peoples, nations and languages, in the very presence of the Ancient of Days! This is the God who will not share his glory with another nor permit the worship of anyone else or any created thing, including angels (Isa 45:5; Deut 6:13; Isa 42:8; 48:11; Rev 22:8–9). Clearly, this one like a Son of Man must share in the divine identity.
Jesus himself takes up the mantle of Daniel’s Son of Man by associating the title with references to Daniel’s vision: “Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt 24:30). Specifically, Jesus as the Son of Man associated himself with the glory of the Father angels, the everlasting kingdom, arriving with or on clouds, heaven and judgement (Matt 13:41; 16:27; 19:28; 24:30; 25:31; 26:64; John 1:51; 3:13; 5:27; Acts 7:56). The throne is the everlasting one promised to the seed of David, at the right hand of the Father (2 Sam 7:13, 16; Psa 110:1; Matt 22:42–45; Luke 1:32–33). Jesus clearly understood himself to be this divine Son of Man, who is worshipped and who receives the everlasting kingdom.
And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, ‘Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?’ But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?’ And Jesus said, ‘I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.’ And the high priest tore his garments and said, ‘What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?’ And they all condemned him as deserving death (Mark 14:60–64).
What so incensed the high priest? Jesus seems to have redirected the question. He was asked if he was the Son of God, and the Christ, and he affirms this, but then goes on to drop the real bombshell; “actually, I am also the divine Son of Man who will receive the everlasting kingdom and glory and whom all nations will worship.” Now that was too much for his hearers and they proceeded to reject him (Matt 17:12, 22), ironically themselves fulfilling prophecy when they taunted him, “Prophesy!” (verse 65). In rejecting the Son of Man, the Jews completed the acts of rejection of all the messengers of God and once again the Glory departed from their midst.
Nevertheless, the one who was despised and rejected will one day return; as he departed into the clouds, so he will return with the clouds (Acts 1:9–11), every eye beholding him. John was one of those who saw the Lord depart and heard the assurance of his return. John also beheld his glory on the mountain and was privileged to receive the final revelation on Patmos. In this vision, John saw “in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow…” (Rev 1:13–14) The Son of Man is now described in the same terms as the Old Testament visions of God, the Ancient of Days. As the slain Lamb he approaches the throne, the only one who is worthy, and the elders and living creatures fall down and worship (Rev 4:1–5:10). Later John sees the one like the Son of Man coming in the cloud as judge of the earth (Rev 14:14) and finally, all creation ascribing glory to “him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb” (Rev 7:9–12). The Son of Man, seated on the very throne of God (Rev 22:1), at the right hand of the Father, righteous judge and receiver of the everlasting Kingdom, King of Kings and Lord of Lords; is he not much, much more than merely human? Is he not worthy of our worship, our Lord and our God?