PMW 2023-028 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

During his earthly ministry, Jesus repeatedly refers to himself as “the son of man” (Matt. 8:20; 9:6; 10:23; 11:19; 12:8; etc.). But what does this self-designation mean? How is it used in the Gospels?

As we consider this phrase in the Gospels, we must keep three important issues in mind: (1) Jesus is the only one who ever uses this phrase. Never do his disciples, the Jews, or anyone else mention it. (2) The phrase is always used with the definite article: “the son of man” (3) In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus himself does not even begin using it until Matt. 8:20. Each of these points is significant.

In the Gospels, we find four key predicative-expressions serving to identify who Jesus is: (1) “the son of David” (Matt. 12:23; 22:42); (2) “the Messiah” (Matt. 16:16, 20; 26:63); (3) “the Son of God” (Matt. 26:63; 27:43, 54); and (4) “the king of the Jews/Israel” (Matt. 27:11, 42). And these are often used by persons other than Jesus — even by God himself (Matt. 3:17; 17:5), Satan (Matt. 4:3, 6), and demons (Matt. 8:29).

The phrase “the son of man” is a technical term, but not a term of identification pointing out who Jesus really is. That is, we never find it mentioned as a predication, such as “he is (or is not) the son of man.” Despite modern popular opinion, it does not function as a christological title. And it is not a substitute for “Messiah.”

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Even though Jesus constantly speaks of himself as the “son of man” either to his disciples or in their presence, they never pick up on this phrase and refer to him as the “son of man.” They do not even do so in the very contexts where he has just declared himself to be the “son of man” (Matt. 8:18, 20; 10:5, 23; 12:1, 8; 13:36, 41). In fact, when he specifically asks his disciples who people say “the son of man” is (Matt. 16:13) and who the disciples themselves believe he is, Peter responds “You are the Christ, the son of the living God” (Matt. 16:15). He does not say “you are the son of man.”

And when the disciples declare Jesus’ identity, they do not call him “the son of man.” Rather, they use one of the other identifying phrases such as “the son of God” (Matt. 14:33) or “the Christ” (Matt. 16:16).

What is more, Jesus even warns his disciples not (yet!) to tell others that he is “the Christ” or “the Son of God” (Matt. 16:16, 20). [1] He never tells them not to tell anyone he is “the son of man.” Charges are brought against him for claiming he is “the son of God” (Matt. 26:63–65; 27:42), but not for claiming he is “the son of man.”

The reason “the son of man” does not occur before Matt. 8:20 is because in the first section of his Gospel (Matt. 1:1–4:16), Matthew is establishing Jesus’ identity as “the Son of God.” [2] The climax of this first section is God’s own declaration: “This is my beloved Son” (Matt. 3:17). Once that has been established, Matthew has Jesus beginning to call himself “the son of man.” And for an important reason.

Matthew is pressing home the point that Jesus is the son of God. But once he has established that all-important, foundational truth, then he shows that in his earthly ministry the Son of God has become . . . a man, a particular man, “the son of man.” And as a man (God in the flesh) he must suffer (Matt. 8:20; 17:9, 12; 26:24, 45). And as a man, he will judge all other men (Matt. 13:37–43; 25:31–46; cp. John 5:22, 27; Acts 10:42; 17:31). [3] And it is only as this man, “the son of man,” that Jesus as the God-man effects full redemption for sinners (Matt. 18:11; 20:28).

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Thus, Jesus the Son of God has become flesh so that he might die on the cross. In Matt. 16:21 (where Matthew’s second section begins; see Note 2) Jesus begins making this point to his confused disciples (cp. Matt. 17:23; 20:18). Until his resurrection they do not fully understand that he must die as the “son of man” (Matt. 16:21–23; cp. John 20:9). Jesus’ redemptive work depends on his being “the son of man,” a particular, historical man.

And, again: this “son of man” will be the judge of all men — which will be the concluding point of the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 25:31–46).

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1. This prohibition only continues until he has fully revealed his redemptive plan to them and they understand it. For in the Great Commission, they are commanded to God and baptize people in the name of Jesus as God’s Son. But this point must await another article!

2. Note the phrase marker is: “from that time Jesus began” (Matt. 4:17a and 16:21a). See my article “Matthew’s Outline; Jesus’ Identity.”

3. This point will be significant in my forthcoming commentary on Matt. 21–25. There I will show that all men need to be judged at the end of history (cf. Matt. 25:31–46) — not just Israel in AD 70.

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2 thoughts on “WHAT DOES “THE SON OF MAN” MEAN?

  1. Doug Shuffield May 4, 2023 at 6:50 pm

    Dr. Gentry,
    You make no argument for or against “son of man” being a reference to Daniel 7. Does this theory have any validity from your perspective?


  2. Kenneth Gentry May 15, 2023 at 10:21 am

    Yes, I believe Daniel 7 likes back of this.

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