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"The Son of Man" Part 4: Jesus's Use
Jesus uses the phrase “the son of the man” to refer to himself almost ninety times. He seems to do it largely for fun, the humorous use of illeism that I discussed in the first article in this series. When anyone repeats a distinctive line ninety times, it becomes a catchphrase. In this article, we will look at a few of the more interesting times Jesus uses this phrase and what they tell us about his meaning.
Today, we might describe this phrase as being Jesus’s “brand.” People who are well-known today separate their public persona from their private lives by seeing the public selves as a “brand” they are selling. As we will see, Jesus often does this with “the son of the man” phrase.
The Son of God?
Is there a connection between the two phrases: “the son of the man” and “a/the son of the Divine.” This isn’t clear. The closest that Jesus seems to come to connecting these two phrases is in John, chapter three. He starts by referencing “the son of the man” in John 3:14.
KJV: And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:
Of course, the actual Greek says, “the son of the man” as it always does, but it is mistranslated, as always. Then, just two verses later, Jesus seems to say in John 3:16.
KJV: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
There is a little problem, well, actually a big problem caused by a little word, with this connection. The actual Greek words translated as "His only begotten Son" is τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ, literally, “the son, the only born.” There is no “his” modifying either the “son” or “only born.” An article, “the,” what changed to “his.” The idea that Jesus was saying that the Divine sent “His” one and only son, is an intentional addition to what Jesus actually said. So what is Jesus referring to when he calls himself “the only born?” Connecting the two verses, though it is not what people would have heard then, he is the only son of any man born who was “raised,” not on a cross, but from the dead. However, the people he was speaking to at the time could not have heard it that way, except those the trusted what he had said about being raised after his death.
Jesus’s Early Uses
Jesus’s first reference to being "the son of the man" is in Matthew 8:20. As you can see from the literal translation in its original word order, this statement is very light-hearted.
Literal: The vixens have dens and the winged ones of the sky: perches. But this child of the man? He doesn't have anywhere, this head, he might lay back.
This is after his longest "sermon," where the phrase is notably absent.
He then uses the term referring to his power to forgive sins and as part of a miracle. He tells a crippled youth that his sins are forgiven and then heals him. However, this too follows a bit of humor. When he is asked why he told the young man that his sins wre forgiven, Jesus answers in Matthew 9:5.
Literal: Because, what is less tiring? To say, "Those mistakes are letting go of you!" or to say "Arise and walk around."
This is clearly a facetious question. He follows it with a reference to “the son of the man,” in Matthew 9:6, which we can assume is in the same tone:
Literal: In order that, however, you might know that he has power, this son of the man, upon the earth, to let go of mistakes.
Notice that he use the word for “power” in this verse. Something we will mention later.
However, the most revealing of these early verses is Matthew 12:8. It may even actually provide a kind of definition. However, this verse is also terribly mistranslated.
KJV: For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day.
Literal: Because a master belongs to the Sabbath, this son of the man.
In the English translations, this verse is reversed from the original Greek. "A lord" comes first in the Greek, and "the son of the man" is the punchline at the end. The "of the Sabbath" doesn't modify "a lord." Instead, "of the Sabbath" is the object of the "is" verb. When this form of object follows the verb "to be," the verb means "belongs to." Since "sabbath" means "rest" or "day of rest" in Hebrew, Jesus defines "the son of the man" as a man who belongs to the day of rest. This seems very peaceful.
He Shows Up
The most common way Jesus uses the phrase “the son of the man” is in reference to his “coming.” The word translated as “coming” is erchomai (ἔρχονμαι). which means "to start," "to set out," "to come," "to go," and any kind of movement from one place to another. It means both "to go" on a journey and "to arrive" at a destination. I prefer to translate this verb as “shows up” because this seems to capture both the Greek’s sense of a beginning and its sense of movement both away from and to. It also implies the ability to see something for the first time, which often works well with Jesus’s words.
These verses are the biggest category of “the son of the man” sayings, with about twenty-five of them. They fall into two categories: references to a future coming and references to his current presence on earth.
Many of these “coming” verses seem to refer to the second coming at a time in the future, for example, Matthew 25:31:
KJV: When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:
Whole sections of the Gospels describe this future. These verses use the future tense, as we see above in the verb, “shall sit.” These verses often feature angels, clouds, power, judgment, and glory. It seems that he is reluctant to put himself as Jesus the Nazarene in this future role that he describes. Six of these verses also reference “glory,” the Greek word doxa, a noun better translated as “reputation” or “recognition.” So this phrase becomes a part of his reputation.
However, in the second category of “coming” verses, he is just as clearly referring to his coming into this world as Jesus the Nazarene. For example, Mark 10:45:
KJV: For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.
These verses are fewer than the future-time references, but many of them are also rather positive statements about himself. See the earlier verse above about “having power on the earth.” In these statements, his use of this phrase also seems to be one of humility. They commonly reference accomplishments made possible by the roles that he has been given rather than being Jesus, the Nazarene.
With almost ninety verses use this phrase, a lot more research is possible to zero in on its meaning more precisely. For example, I wondered how often this phrase was used with the word “father,” making it clear that “the son of the man” was somehow related to God the Father. But I can find only five such verses, and their content doesn’t strongly suggest a connection. Other references such as Jesus’s mention of “the son of the man” descending from the sky (John 3:13) are also tantalizing, but this could be just another example of his using the term to deflect recognition from Jesus of Nazareth.