Jesus, the son of man (Matthew 8:20)

In calling himself “the son of man” Jesus contrasts his vocation with what’s inhumane.

Open Matthew 8:19-20.

So why did Jesus call himself the son of man more than eighty times in the New Testament? Here’s the first one:

Matthew 8:19 – 20 (my translation)
One of the scribes approached and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever go. 20 Jesus says to him, “The foxes have dens, and the birds of the heavens have roosts, but the son of man has nowhere he could rest his head.”

In Ezekiel, son of man meant the human servant of Lord YHWH, after Israel had fallen. In Daniel, the Ancient Ruler promised to take the kingdom from the beasts and give it to someone like a son of man. The beasts were still ruling when Jesus was born, so he received the commission given to Adam: to subdue the earth and rule over it as the representative of the divine sovereign. Jesus was to be a son of man in the face of the beasts.

Of course Jesus was much more than a son of man (human). He was the son of David, born to resume God’s reign. He was the lion of Judah, to whom the kingship was promised. He was the star of Jacob, born to bring the nations to their knees. But fundamentally, he was the son of man — the person commissioned to subdue the earth, to bring it back under its heavenly ruler’s reign. He’s the human — the son of man tasked with restoring the kingdom of God to the earth.

There’s something fundamentally wrong when the foxes have holes to rest in, and the birds that fly between heaven and earth have places to roost, but the human has no place to settle safely and rest his head. There is something wrong with the world, and the Herodian family knew it. King Herod was paranoid about his power. Even members of his own family, he slaughtered like animals. He forced slaves to build him safe places: the Herodian near Bethlehem, Masada in the Judean wilderness, and Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast. His son Herod built palaces in Galilee, at Tiberias and Sepphoris. Yes, the foxes had their dens.

In the face of the beasts, the human (son of man) must be as wise as a serpent, yet as harmless as a dove. Arouse the wrath of the beasts and you don’t survive. Jesus avoids confronting Herod, never criticizing him directly. Even when it’s obvious that Herod is out to kill him, Jesus’ critique is oblique — calling him a “fox” (Luke 13:32). Jesus never goes near the fox’s dens. He avoids Sepphoris, just 5 kilometres from Nazareth. He avoids Tiberias, the largest city on the Galilean shores. To Jesus, Herod is a real danger, but he’s not the enemy. The wise human picks his battles.

In a world where the foxes are entrenched in their dens, the true human (son of man) is unsafe. He owns no palace to lay his head. He builds no fortress to protect him from the beasts. The son of man — the person heaven has appointed to rule on earth — is homeless until humanity willingly submits to his kingship. What a contrast to the beasts!

Jesus explained this to a scribe. A Torah instructor had volunteered to follow Jesus wherever he went. But if the scribe followed Jesus, he would lose his position as a teacher of Israel. In joining Jesus, he would make himself an outcast in the eyes of Jerusalem’s leaders.

As Matthew’s Gospel unfolds, we see that the real threat to Jesus’ life is not from foxes like Herod. Israel’s own rulers — “the elders and chief priests and scribes” — prove themselves to be the beasts who threaten the life of the true human (Matthew 16:21). If they’re the birds of the heavens, they care only about feathering their own nest. That’s why Jesus calls them hypocrites: they claim to represent God’s reign, but they’ve become beasts who threaten heaven’s appointed ruler.

The son of man must confront the beasts if he is to restore the kingdom of God to the earth. He had nowhere safe to rest his head. Until his kingship is complete, neither do his followers.


What others are saying

Larry W. Hurtado, “Summary and Concluding Observations” in ‘Who is this Son of Man? The Latest Scholarship on a Puzzling Expression of the Historical Jesus, edited by Larry W. Hurtado and Paul L. Owen (London; New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2011), 176:

For the purpose of accounting for his use of the expression ‘the son of man’, it is sufficient to posit here that Jesus thought of himself as having a particular, probably even unique, divine vocation and mission, and that this sense of being a particular mortal called to a special role in the coming of the kingdom of God found expression in the use of that distinctive way of referring to himself.

J. Gordon McConville. Being Human in God’s World: An Old Testament Theology of Humanity (Baker Academic, 2016), 7:

The Bible focuses relentlessly on the human being. In biblical terms, it is impossible, of course, to think of humanity apart from its relation to God, just as it is impossible to think about God apart from his relation to humanity. One cannot prioritize one over the other as the true subject of the Bible.

G. B. Caird. New Testament Theology, Completed and edited by L. D. Hurst. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995). 380 (emphasis original):

The Son of Man is a ‘job description’ for the New Israel, with Jesus inviting any and all applicants to join him in fulfilling God’s full intention, first for Israel, and then for all the nations of the earth.

[previous: Son of Man in Ezekiel]

[next: The homeless king]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

2 thoughts on “Jesus, the son of man (Matthew 8:20)”

  1. Another powerful and insightful piece Allen.
    This made me think of today’s Church, in light of the recent Mc Criddle report, the biggest threat to faith today, is inside the Church not outside. The call to see our diversity as a strength, to see other’s viewpoint as valuable would see wonderful things happen in God’s Kingdom………if only we would ?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely, Kerry.
      For Jesus, the problem wasn’t Rome oppressing his people; it was his people failing to reveal God to their oppressors.
      When we find the world dark, blaming the darkness doesn’t help; we need to partner with God in being the light.
      Thanks for dropping by.


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