Jesus refers to himself often as the Son of Man (using the definite article). This title had always confused me. I thought that what distinguishes him from me and you – each of us likewise a child of men (note the indefinite article) – is that he is the son of God, and that this unique status formed the basis on which his ministry, his crucifixion, his Atonement for our sins, and so our redemption and salvation, all rested.
Why would Jesus characterize himself as the Son of Man? I mean, sure, everyone in Palestine back then knew exactly what he meant in doing so. “Son of Man” was in the symbolic language of Israel another way of saying “Son of God.” But then, why should that have been so?
In apocalyptic literature, “Son of Man” is a title for a supreme divine being. In the seventh chapter of his book (Daniel 7:13-14), Daniel reports seeing one like a Son of Man presented in the throne room of Heaven to the Ancient of Days – the Most High God – and given dominion over all creation:
… 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 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 10:5-6 continues:
I lifted up my eyes and looked, and behold, a man clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with gold of Uphaz. His body was like beryl, his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the noise of a multitude.
The first century Similitudes of Enoch describe the Son of Man as one who existed before the Creation: “even before the sun and the constellations were created, before the stars of heaven were made, his Name was before the Lord of Spirits” (1 Enoch 48.3)(cf. Philippians 2:9-10: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth”); and, “from the beginning the Son of Man was hidden, and the Most High kept him in the presence of his power and revealed him only to the chosen” (1 Enoch 62.8).
Some representative texts from the New Testament:
“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done” (Matthew 16:27).
Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28).
“… then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven, 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… “ (Matthew 24:30).
“But I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64; cf. Mark 14:62).
“But from now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God” (Luke 22:69).
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:53-54).
… and in the midst of the [seven] lampstands one like a Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden girdle round his breast; his head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters; in his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth issued a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength (Revelation 1:13-16).
Compare John’s description from Revelation with the description in Daniel’s tenth chapter, and it is clear that both men are describing the same personage. Now compare Daniel’s description of the Ancient of Days:
… one that was ancient of days took his seat; his raiment 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 forth from before him … (Daniel 7:9-10).
It is not hard to detect a family resemblance between the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man. Ezekiel fleshes out the vision of the Son of Man considerably:
And above the firmament over [the heads of the Four Living Creatures] there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness as it were of a human form. And upward from what had the appearance of his loins I saw as it were gleaming bronze, like the appearance of fire enclosed round about; and downward from what had the appearance of his loins I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness round about him. Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord (Ezekiel 1:26-28).
When they saw this being, John, Daniel and Ezekiel all fell on their faces in terror.
It seems clear that the Son of Man is none other than YHWH, the only begotten son of El Elyon, the Most High God. This accounts for their family resemblance. But why should these eternal persons appear to be anthropomorphic, “as a Son of Man,” or “appearing as a Son of Man”? We get that Jesus is a man, and that when he ascended into Heaven, he took his human body along, so that where he now sits on the throne at the right hand of his Father, he is (whatever else he is) embodied as a Nazarene of Galilee. But why would both YHWH and his Father El have appeared in the likeness of men to Ezekiel and Daniel, prior to the Incarnation?
It won’t do to suggest that YHWH appears in the form of a man to men because he is accommodating himself to their categories of thought. All that is needed to see this is a quick reading of Ezekiel’s description of the Chariot Throne in verses 4 through 21, immediately preceding his description of the God he saw sitting upon it. The Throne and the Four Living Creatures shatter human conceptual categories.
Why would the Persons appear as men?
As infinity is prior to all other quantities, eternity is prior to time. Whatever happens, then, happens in eternity; and some of those things happen also in time. For God, who understands all things under the aspect of eternity, all events, whatever their temporal loci, originate and terminate in his single Act, by which he is, creates, knows, provides, governs, redeems, judges, and saves. Thus for the Incarnation as for every event eternity is as it were the alpha and omega of its causal coordinates; by virtue of its eternity it happens in time.
But this means that before all worlds – and, also, with them, and after them – YHWH is a Nazarene from Galilee. And El, who understands himself eternally as the Father of YHWH, understands himself in and through his Son, who is a Nazarene from Galilee. The Galilean who is the Logos is the Word of El, so that his humanity was found first in his Father; and when the person of the Son takes human form, the being of God – the whole being of God – takes human form. El too, then, is “as a Son of Man.” Likewise also the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth.
This is not to say that YHWH, El, and Ruach are *nothing but* men, as they appeared to Abraham and Sarah at Mamre, or that their manhood anywise exhausts their Being and Nature. That God are as men does not mean they are only men. It means rather that their expression in manhood is a synecdoche of their Being and Nature, as we could say likewise are the Bread, the Wine, the Church, and the Word – the teaching, the Law and the Logos – that they all communicate to us, and to all creatures.