Note: This is an excerpt from a book on Daniel 7 coming in January 2019 called The Son of Man: Recovering the Apostolic Gospel.
When Jesus used the phrase “Son of Man” to describe Himself, He was making a very bold claim about His identity. If we do not grasp the significance of this phrase and the connection to the book of Daniel it is easy to miss exactly what Jesus was saying. Over the last 2,000 years the church has profoundly wrestled with the identity of Jesus and we tend to summarize His identity as “fully God and fully man.” As a result, we tend to categorize Scriptures as either affirming Jesus’ humanity or affirming His deity.
When the gospels are read quickly without a grasp of the book of Daniel, the phrase “Son of Man” seems to be an acknowledgement of Jesus’ humanity. Because we read the gospels with the conviction that Jesus is divine, we assume Jesus was affirming His humanity by His use of this phrase. Furthermore, there were a number of scholars over the last century or so who ruthlessly attacked the divinity of Jesus and tried to argue that Jesus Himself did not claim to be divine. This kind of scholarship tried to argue that when the disciples tried to exalt Jesus that Jesus intentionally tried to redefine Himself as a less than divine figure redefining their expectations of what a messiah was.
Because of our assumption that Jesus had a need to frequently affirm his humanity, and because of the influence of liberal scholarship, we need to read the phrase “Son of Man” with fresh eyes and understand it the way Jesus’ audience would have understood it. Jesus did not use the phrase to affirm His humanity. His humanity was apparent to everyone. His humanity was not shocking even in the context of His messianic identity because people assumed the messiah was a human.
Jesus’ use of the phrase “Son of Man” was not a claim to His humanity, but was a claim to divinity or at least divine authority. When He used the phrase it was frequently associated with His right to judge and His coming on the clouds. Both of these were things that only God did. His use of the phrase also enraged the Pharisees which clearly demonstrates that phrase was not a statement of humanity, but a claim of something more.
Jesus’ Favorite Title
“Son of Man” was the primary term Jesus used to establish His identity.No other phrase in the gospels used to describe Jesus even comes close to being used as much as the Daniel 7 phrase:
- 28 Times in the book of Matthew—Matthew 8:20, 9:6, 10:23, 11:19, 12:8, 12:32, 12:40, 13:37, 13:41, 16:13, 16:27, 16:28, 17:9, 17:12, 17:22, 19:28, 20:18, 20:28, 24:27, 24:30, 24:37, 24:39, 24:44, 25:31, 26:2, 26:24, 26:45, 26:64.
- 13 Times in the book of Mark—Mark 2:10, 2:28, 8:31, 8:38, 9:9, 9:12, 9:31, 10:33, 10:45, 13:26, 14:21, 14:41, 14:62.
- 25 Times in the book of Luke—Luke 5:24, 6:5, 6:22, 7:34, 9:22, 9:26, 9:44, 9:58, 11:30, 12:8, 12:10, 12:40, 17:22, 17:24, 17:26, 17:30, 18:8, 18:31, 19:10, 21:27, 21:36, 22:22, 22:48, 22:69, 24:7.
- 12 Times in the book of John—John 1:51, 3:13, 3:14, 5:27, 6:27, 6:53, 6:62, 8:28, 9:35, 12:23, 12:34, 13:31.
This term is used 78 times to refer to Jesus and each time Jesus is the one using the term to describe Himself.(This only counts uses of the exact phrase “Son of Man.” It does not count any allusions Jesus made to His Son of Man identity without explicitly using the phrase.) Matthew likely contains the most references because it was written primarily for a Jewish audience who were more deeply acquainted with Daniel 7 than gentile audiences.
Compared to Other Phrases
This becomes more staggering when you compare it to the other phrases frequently associated with Jesus:
- The term “Son of God” is used 25 times in the gospels and only 5 of those times was it used by Jesus to refer to Himself(Matthew 4:3; 4:6; 8:29; 14:33; 26:63; 27:40; 27:43; 27:54; Mark 1:1; 3:11; 15:39; Luke 1:35; 4:3; 4:9; 4:41; 22:70; John 1:34; 1:49; 3:18; 5:25; 10:36; 11:4; 11:27; 19:7; 20:31.)
- The term “Son of David” is used 14 times in the gospels and only one 1 of those times was it used by Jesus to refer to Himself (Matthew 1:1; 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30; 20:31; 21:9; 21:15; 22:42; Mark 10:47; 10:48; 12:35; Luke 18:38; 18:39.) Furthermore, though the “Son of David” was a key Messianic phrase, the book of John does not even contain the term “Son of David.”
The comparison between these phrases is not even close. First consider the number of times these phrases are used to refer to Jesus in the Gospels:
- Son of Man—78
- Son of God—25
- Son of David—14
It becomes even more amazing when we consider which terms Jesus used to refer to Himself:
- Son of Man—78
- Son of God—5
- Son of David—1
Every time “Son of Man” is used in the Gospels to describe Jesus, it is used by Jesus not another speaker. It is by far Jesus’ preferred phrase to describe Himself.
Jesus the Christ
The title most commonly associated with Jesus is probably “The Christ.” This title is commonly used in the Gospels to refer to Jesus, but surprisingly even this title is not used nearly as much as the phrase Son of Man and it is rarely used by Jesus to describe Himself (The title Christ means “anointed one” and is essentially a Greek version of the title messiah.)
Christ (Greek Christos—χριστός) is used 49 times in the gospels to refer to Jesus but only 11 of those times was it used by Jesus to refer to Himself (Matthew 1:1, 1:16, 1:17, 1:18, 2:4, 11:2, 16:16, 16:20, 22:42, 23:10, 24:5; 26:63, 26:68, 27:17, 27:22, Mark 1:1, 8:29, 9:41, 12:35, 14:61, 15:32, Luke 2:11, 2:26, 3:15, 4:41, 9:20, 20:41, 22:67, 23:2, 23:35, 23:39, 24:26, 24:46, John 1:17, 1:25, 1:41, 4:25, 4:29, 7:26, 7:27, 7:31, 7:41, 7:42, 9:22, 10:24-25, 11:27, 12:34, 17:3, 20:31).
There is clearly a uniqueness to the phrase Son of Man not present in the title Christ. For example, Jesus warns that there will be numerous “false christs” who claim to be the Christ but are not (Matthew 24:5, 23-24; Mark 13:21). In comparison, Jesus does not warn about a false “Son of Man.”
Furthermore, Jesus frequently told the disciples not to tell anyone He was the Christ (Matthew 16:20; Mark 8:29-30) while openly referring to Himself as the Son of Man. Jesus reluctance to use the term “Christ” is often referred to as the “Messianic Secret” by commentators who identify several pragmatic reasons why Jesus did not want to be referred to as the Christ particularly during His ministry. However, there is something more than pragmatism in Jesus’ preference.
Jesus did not avoid the term christ primarily to hide His identity or avoid controversy. The title Son of Man was far more controversial than the term christ. Had Jesus chosen to primarily use the term christ he would have had a much better reception from many of the Jews. Jesus preferred the phrase Son of Man over the term christ in order to emphasize His identity.
At the time Jesus came there was a lot of messianic expectation. This expectation was also fueled by Jewish nationalism and a passionate desire for freedom from the dominion of Rome. As a result, many false christs (messiahs) emerged over a period of a few hundred years. The term christ in the first few centuries was not exclusive to Jesus. It was simply a claim to be the promised messiah and there were many claiming to be “christs” at the time.
While many claimed to be the christ—there was only one bold enough to claim to be the Son of Man.
Jesus openly affirmed He was the Christ, but He established Himself as the Son of Man rather than the Christ for a very specific reason. He was not trying to keep His identity a secret, He was trying to communicate His identity accurately.Because messianic expectation was running high and people had a number of expectations about the messiah, Jesus chose to distance Himself from the term christ.
He was so much more than what most men claiming to be christ meant by that term so He had to choose another term. Many expected a christ at the time Jesus came—no on expected the Son of Man. Christ describes a promised political deliver who will restore Israel and bring the earth in line with God’s leadership. However, Jesus is much, much more than a messiah. He is the Son of Man.
Messiah is one of Jesus’ assignments. It is a functional title. However, the title Son of Man is altogether different. It is not an assignment; it is an identity. It reveals who Jesus is and not only what He will do. When people asked if Jesus was the christ they were not primarily wanting to know who He was but rather what He would do. This is why Jesus usually avoided the term and told His apostles not to propagate it.
Jesus was unwilling to be known simply as the political deliverer. He wanted to be known as the Son of Man—the man sent from His Father. The Man who had descended from heaven and had been given the authority of God. Therefore Son of Man served Jesus’ purposes much better than the term christ. He did not want to be known as another political deliverer. He wanted to be known for who He was.
While many have reduced Jesus’ use of the term Son of Man to a statement of His humanity, it simply does not make sense of the Gospels. Jesus uniqueness was not found in His humanity. His humanity was apparent to anyone who interacted with Him. His uniqueness was found in the fact that He was more than a man—He was the man who had descended from heaven.
Jesus clearly used Son of Man as a Daniel 7 reference. He associated it with His authority and His glory. He was the Son of Man who would come on clouds and judge the nations. These phrases were all obvious Daniel 7 references. Furthermore, His claim to be the Son of Man was the final claim that led to His execution. Jesus did not die for claiming to be a human. He died for claiming the exalted status of the Daniel 7 man. Jesus boldly and uniquely established His identity every time He referred to Himself as the Son of Man. The term christ did not have the same power and this is primarily why Jesus did not use it publicly.
Jesus was not trying to start a political war with Rome—which was the primary expectation of a christ in Jesus’ time. His avoidance of the term christ was pragmatic in the sense that He did not want to start a war with Rome therefore He did not want His disciples speaking about Him as the christ. However, it was not an attempt to hide His identity. On the contrary it was an attempt to reveal His true identity.
His claim was much bigger than a “christ.” He was far more than a political liberator for Israel. He was the cosmic deliverer entrusted with divine authority. He was judge of the cosmos and the living and the dead. He was so exalted above other christs and even Caesar that any comparison to a human deliverer was not even valid. He was the God-man who had descended—a claim far more controversial than the claim to be the christ. It was an exclusive title and Jesus used into force people to grapple with His true identity.
There is likely also a secondary reason Jesus tended to publicly avoid the title christ: timing. As we have noted, the term christ was a function more than an identity. the christ was the promised messiah—the political deliverer who would liberate Israel and establish God’s kingdom on the earth. Jesus was clear He was the Christ, but He avoided the public label to not create any confusion that He was going to politically liberate Israel in the first century.
The Son of Man
The main point is that “Son of Man” is the dominant phrase Jesus used to refer to Himself because it revealed His identity in a unique way. Other phrases were used like “Son of David” and “Son of God.” He affirmed the title Christ (messiah). However, none of those terms were used in the way Son of Man was. Daniel 7 is what made sense of who Jesus was. He was also the Son of David (the promised King). He was the Son of God (uniquely born of a virgin with a divine nature). He was the Messiah (Israel’s political deliverer).
Jesus was the fulfillment of many chapters and deserved numerous accolades. However, there was one chapter that best encapsulated His identity: Daniel 7.
 Mark 8:31 is the only reference that is not Jesus speaking, but Mark wrote Jesus was teaching about the Son of Man so Jesus is using the term.