Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?–Mat 16:13
The Name by Which Jesus Most Frequently Called Himself
There are two names which our Lord was wont to use when He spoke about His person or His work. The one was the Son of God, and the other was the Son of Man. It was not often that He used the former title, if we may judge by the Synoptic Gospels, and when He used it, it was always in some moment of unusual importance and solemnity. But it is different with the latter, “the Son of Man.” This was constantly upon the lips of Christ. It seems to have been His most familiar word when He referred to His person or His work. And so deeply engraven is this upon our hearts, and inwrought into the thought of Christendom, that whenever we hear the expression “Son of Man” we at once revert to the figure of our Saviour. Under this name, then, our Lord described Himself. By this He conveyed His thought about Himself. It was a name He loved with deep affection, and which welled to His lips in the most diverse circumstances. Nor should it be forgotten that in the whole New Testament, where the title “Son of Man” occurs so often, only on two occasions is it used by anyone other than the Lord Himself.
Jesus Never Defined or Explained the Meaning of “Son of Man”
Now it is notable that in all His use of it our Lord never pauses to define the name. He does not explain what it conveyed to Him, nor what He meant it should convey to others. When our Lord gave Simon his new name of Peter, He was careful to interpret its significance. “Thou art Peter,” He said, so that all could hear, “and on this rock I shall build my church.” But when He laid aside His own name Jesus, and began to speak of Himself as Son of Man, He offered no explanation of the name, and never declared the reason of His choice. Equally noticeable too is this, that no one ever asked Him to define it. It seems to have been accepted without comment, and at least in a measure to have been understood. For men were not slow to interrogate the Saviour, and to ask Him what He meant by this or that, but we never find anyone enquiring of Him what was the meaning of this “Son of Man.”
Not a New Name
Now the reason for that absence of all questioning will suggest itself to every reader at once. This was no new name, coined at a moment’s need, it was a name that was wreathed with old association. There was not a Jew who heard the Master use it but would find it encircled with familiar thoughts. It was a name they had been accustomed to since childhood in their reading or hearing of the ancient Scriptures. And it came to them, not as a word of novelty, nor with the arresting touch of the unknown, but as a word that was a heritage of Israel from the far-off day of prophet and of psalmist. In other words, this was a borrowed name, and it was borrowed from the roll of the Old Testament. It was not a title coined for the occasion; it was fragrant with happy and with holy memories. And what Christ did was to take the hallowed name, and to breathe upon it with the breath of life, so that it glowed into a new significance and expanded into undreamed-of fullness.
Let me just say in passing that that is the real meaning of originality. If only we had just thought upon that matter, I think that we might understand our Saviour better. It is not the nature of originality to say what never has been said before. The genius that is most strikingly original is hopelessly in debt to all the past. Originality consists in this–in taking all that the past has got to offer, and then in so passing it through heart and brain that it leaps forth as if a recreation. We speak of the originality of Shakespeare, yet who is more deeply in debt to his predecessors? We speak, and we can do it with all reverence, of the originality of Jesus. Yet do remember, that that does not mean that Christ owes nothing to the past of Israel. It means that He gathers up that mighty past, and makes it new just because He is new. It should never distress you to find in the Old Testament the rudiments of one of the beatitudes. The past was Christ’s, but just because He was Christ the old was all transfigured on His lips. And so with His favourite name “the Son of Man”; it was not new, it was an ancient title; it was drawn out of the storied past of Israel, but Christ has made it different forever.
Why Did Jesus Choose This Name?
Well, that being so, why did this title so appeal to Christ? Why did He love to use it of Himself? Why was it so often on His lips? There were many other names He might have chosen out of the stores of psalmist and of prophet. In Isaiah you will get twenty titles that describe the office and glory of Messiah. And all these were familiar to our Lord, whose mind and heart were steeped in the old Scripture, yet the one He chooses from them all is “Son of Man.” Why, then, did this title so appeal to Him? There is only one way to discover that, it is to go back to the Old Testament page, and find the meaning of the words “Son of Man” there. If we discover that, then we discover the thoughts that moved before the mind of Jesus, when in the quiet of Nazareth He made His choice of the name that was to mark His ministry. I do not imagine for one single moment that He used the word in a dogmatic way. There was nothing hard or cold about His use of it–nothing of fixed and stereotyped significance. It was a plastic and suggestive word for Jesus, now shining in one light, now in another, and we must reverently try to trace these lights to that Word which was a lamp unto His feet.
To Indicate His Humiliation–Psalm Eight
First, then, we shall turn to the 8th Psalm for one of the notable uses of the word: “What is man that Thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that Thou visitest him?” The psalmist has been gazing at the heavens and contemplating their majestic grandeur. He stands perhaps upon his palace roof, amid the silent beauty of the night. The moon has arisen, and over the sleeping city there streams the silver pathway of her radiance. And the heaven above him, undimmed by any cloud, is ablaze with the countless glories of the stars. It is one of those eastern nights of perfect beauty when the stars are like the eyes of heavenly watchers looking down with an infinity of calm upon the weary and troubled hearts of men. Now, had the psalmist been a poet only, he might have rested in that outward beauty. But he was more than a poet; he was a spiritual man ever awake to the touch of the divine. And looking upward into that night of beauty what was borne in upon his soul was this–how could a God whose finger made the heavens be mindful of a creature such as man? “When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars which Thou hast ordained; what is man that Thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that Thou visitest him?” You see, then, the thought in David’s mind when he uses that expression “son of man.” He is thinking of man in all his native lowliness, of man contrasted with the glowing heavens, of man so frail compared with moon and star, yet crowned with a glory akin to that of angels. Man but a breath contrasted with the stars, yet greater than they in fellowship with God; man but the needy creature of a day, yet lifted up above all heaven’s magnificence. “What is man that Thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that Thou visitest him?”
Now, when you turn to the words of Jesus, you find Him using the name in the same way. For Jesus also it carries the significance of man in His lowliness and yet exalted. “Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.” Or again, where He is foretelling His own passion: “The Son of man shall be betrayed into the hands of men.” And yet this lowly and suffering Son of man is to be crowned with glory and honour, for “Hereafter,” He cries, “ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power.” I think there can be no question that that was one charm of this old name for Christ. It blended together His humiliation with the joy of glory that was set before Him. It spoke of Him as a man of sorrows and as One who shared the frailty of our frame, yet it ever suggested the glory that was His, and the honour that was in store for Him from God.
A Prophet Identified with Manhood–Ezekiel
Again, when we turn back to the Old Testament, we light upon the title in Ezekiel. God calls Ezekiel the son of man not less than seventy times. “Son of man, stand upon thy feet”; “Son of man, seest thou what they do?” It is thus that God constantly addresses him. You will understand, then, how the title “son of man” came to be charged with a prophetic import. It became familiar to readers of Ezekiel as the name for the prophet of the living God. And so when one called himself the “son of man,” amid a people so intimately acquainted with the Scriptures, it would at once suggest to them his claim to stand in the succession of the prophets. But why did God choose this title for Ezekiel? Was it just to indicate his lowliness? Nay, rather, it was God’s reminder to His servant that he was one with the people whom he warned. He was not to speak as one who stood apart, untouched by the sorrow and the tears of Israel; he was the son of man, the sympathetic man who was bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh. Thus you see that in the mind of Israel there clustered these ideas around the title. Familiar with it from Ezekiel’s writings, it spoke to them of one who was a prophet; and yet this prophet was not a man aloof and unable to enter into his people’s heart. He was a son of man, the man of sympathy, one who was touched with a feeling of their infirmities.
And again, when we turn to the words of Christ, we find Him using the term in the same way. He uses it to claim prophetic power, and yet to reveal His sympathetic heart. “The Son of Man hath power to forgive sin”; “the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath day”–that is the voice of One who was a prophet, charged with a message greater than Ezekiel’s. And yet, “the Son of man came eating and drinking”; “the Son of man came to seek and save the lost”–that is the voice of One who was a Brother, and who was filled with intensest sympathy for man. That also is one secret of the charm which this ancient title had for Jesus. It revealed a yet half-concealed prophetic claim, and told that His word was the oracle of God; and yet it suggested that He was rich in sympathy and able to be compassionate to the weakest, and fitted to bear the burdens of humanity, and to be the Brother of the tired and weak. Was He the Son of Man?–then He was Brother-Man, and all might find in Him their Friend and Helper. But was He the Son of Man ?–then, like Ezekiel, He was the Prophet of the living God.
Associated with the Nations–Daniel
Then, lastly, and most notably of all, we find this title in the Book of Daniel. Let me recall to you what it implies in Daniel, and in what connection it was introduced. Daniel had had a vision of four empires that came up like four great beasts out of the sea; and then to these bestial and inhuman kingdoms succeeded another and a nobler kingdom. Within it were all nations and all peoples; it was a dominion that was to last forever. And over it, coming with the clouds, Daniel saw one like to the Son of Man. Now that was a vision of Messiah’s kingdom, superseding the bestial kingdoms of the world. And who was the Son of Man who reigned within it? He was the expected Messiah of the Jews. And so, as the Jews looked forward to Messiah, and dreamed of the day when He was to appear, they came to think of Him, and came to speak of Him, under that ancient name of “Son of man.” Let other kingdoms be typified by beasts, the kingdom of Christ is typified by manhood. It is the perfect Man who is to reign, in the golden age to which the Jew was looking. And yet this Man is something more than man, for He stands in the heavens engirdled by its clouds, and the passing of ages leaves no trace upon Him, and the Ancient of Days receives Him as His fellow. It was such thoughts the Jews associated with the name “Son of man.”
It is not a matter of debate if such thoughts were in the mind of Jesus. There can be no question in the matter, for we have the testimony of Christ Himself. On two occasions our Lord recalled this prophecy in words whose reference is unmistakable, and both times He identified Himself with the Son of man of Daniel’s vision. In His prophecy over Jerusalem, He predicted that they shall see “the Son of man coming in the clouds with power and great glory.” And when standing before Caiaphas He thus addressed His judges, “I say unto you, hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.” Of this, then, there is no doubt, that the name was to Jesus a Messianic name. He would never have used it had He not wished to intimate that He was the promised Messiah of the Jews. And so it tells us that here is Christ indeed; the Man in whom all humanity is centered, yet the Man who knew that He was more than man, the Fellow of the everlasting God.