Here’s a quick quiz. No trick questions: just consider the words you would use to describe some of the central tenets of the Christian faith. Please take a moment to record your responses before reading on.
- Who was Jesus (his identity)?
- What did Jesus come to do (his mission)?
- What was the good news according to Jesus (his gospel), in one sentence?
There is no one right answer: there are many valid ways to describe Jesus’ identity and mission. People from different church traditions tend to emphasize different aspects. For example, evangelicals often reply that Jesus was the Son of God, and his mission was to die for us.
Okay, you have found the words for your answers?
Now let’s ask Jesus those questions. If you asked the Jesus of the Gospels, “Who are you?” there is one phrase that he chooses overwhelmingly to describe his identity. On more than 50 separate occasions—more than 80 times in the Gospels—Jesus identifies himself with the puzzling phrase “the son of man.” What does that mean?
If you ask Jesus, “What are you doing?” there is again a single phrase he uses to describe what he did. The evangelists summarize Jesus’ preaching as “the kingdom of God” (Mark 1:15). His parables were glimpses of the kingdom (e.g. Matt 13:31-47). He asked his followers to proclaim the kingdom (Luke 9:2, 60; 10:9-11). His healings enacted his kingdom message (e.g. Luke 9:11). He expected people to view his exorcisms as evidence that evil was losing its grip and the kingdom of God was breaking through (e.g. Luke 11:20). His vocation was the establishment of the kingdom of God.
So, if we ask Jesus about his identity and mission he tells us, “I am the son of man, establishing the kingdom of God.” Son of Man? Kingdom of God? Is that how you understand him? Were your answers (above) anything like that? I’ve grown up in church all my life, but I had to say that I don’t understand Jesus in the way he understood himself. When I describe Jesus as “the son of man establishing the kingdom of God”, most of the Christians I know respond with a blank and puzzled expression. Their silence tells me, “I’ve heard those phrases, but I have no idea what you are talking about.”
So, what difference would it make if we did understand Jesus in the terms he used to describe himself?
This question has proved so significant that I plan to devote the rest of my life to this pursuit—the pursuit of the kingdom of God, and the son of man who establishes it.
What others are saying
N. T. Wright. Jesus and the Victory of God (London: SPCK, 1996), 651:
The implication is that Jesus saw the coming of the kingdom closely bound up with his own Messiahship, his own forthcoming death, and the journey to Jerusalem which would encapsulate both. He would embody in himself (that is) the return from exile, the defeat of evil, and the return of yhwh to Zion. Once we have understood that entire sequence of thought, as a whole and in its parts, in the way for which I have argued, we can see that, from Jesus’ point of view, this was indeed how the ‘son of man’, who is also here the ‘son of god’, would be vindicated. This was how yhwh would return to Zion; this was what he would accomplish when he arrived there. This would be the way to the victory of God.
Robert Stein, “Kingdom of God” in Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996):
The heart of Jesus’ teachings centers around the theme of the kingdom of God. … Despite the centrality of this expression in Jesus’ teachings, there has been a great deal of debate over the years as to exactly what Jesus meant by it. One reason for this is that neither Jesus nor the Evangelists ever defined exactly what they meant by this expression. They simply assumed that their hearers/ readers would understand.