“Son of Man” is just as much about Jesus’s divinity as it is his humanity. This title proves to be perhaps the most effective way Jesus reveals and conceals who he really is. By using “Son of Man,” he is able to minister undercover, so to speak, on earth.
The hit CBS show Undercover Boss has enjoyed a decade-long run based on a simple premise. Conceal the identity of a high-ranking leader of a company as he or she works among ordinary employees—and make the big reveal of the boss’s true identity at the end of each episode. Part of the fun is how some folks begin to piece it together along the way.
Of all designations used for Jesus Christ, the most undercover one is “Son of Man.” It shows up seemingly everywhere in the Gospels (over eighty times across all four), as a distinct way Jesus refers to himself in the third person. Jesus is not shy, in other words, about calling himself “Son of Man.” But what does it actually mean? It is surprisingly rare elsewhere in the New Testament, and unlike “Son of David” or other designations, it is not common in the Old Testament or Jewish tradition either.
As we reflect on Jesus this Advent season, it is right to ask the very question he asked his disciples: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13). “Son of Man” may sound simple on the surface, but this phrase masks the astounding depths of the person and work of Jesus.
Revealing: Man Among Us
Let’s begin with what seems quite obvious about the phrase: “Son of Man” reveals someone is truly human. On the surface, the title seems to work just like, say, Aslan’s affectionate way of calling the four Pevensies “Sons of Adam” and “Daughters of Eve” to distinguish them from Narnian creatures. The offspring of a human shares the same nature.
Early church writers generally understood “Son of Man” along these lines. They treated it as a beautifully succinct reminder that Jesus is fully human, often as the opposite pole of “Son of God.” Here are a few examples that capture the Christmas spirit of the phrase (italics mine):
- Ignatius (d. 140s): “Jesus Christ—who according to the flesh is of the lineage of David, the Son of Man” (Letter to the Ephesians, 20.2).
- Justin Martyr (d. 165): “He spoke of himself as ‘Son of Man,’ either because of his birth through a virgin…or because Adam was his father” (Dialogue with Trypho, 100.3).
- Irenaeus (d. 202): “Our Lord is…Son of Man, because from Mary he has his generation according to humanity, being made Son of Man” (Against Heresies, 3.19.3).
- Tertullian (d. 220): “Christ is neither able to lie, that he would pronounce himself ‘Son of Man’ if it were not truly so, nor could he be regarded as son of man if he were not born of a human” (Against Marcion, 4.10.6).
- Origen (d. 253): “The Son of God is said to have died, namely, with regard to that nature that was able to accept death—and he is designated ‘Son of Man’” (On First Principles, 2.6.3).