Why did Jesus call himself son of man? Here’s a clue: in the Synoptic Gospels, the vast majority of occurrences (78%) are after Peter calls him the Christ. Jesus has used the phrase previously in relation to his authority, but mostly he uses it once they recognize him as God’s anointed ruler. I think the phrase son of man contains a paradox he wanted them to understand.
Peter’s claim — You are Christ — was so controversial that Jesus ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ (16:20). Never underestimate how threatening it is for those in power to hear someone else named as God’s anointed leader.
Who felt threatened? What would they do to keep their power?
Matthew 16 21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. (NIV)
Jesus keeps stressing the danger (17:9, 22-23; 20:18-19; 21:35-39; 23:37). It makes no sense to the disciples: “Never, Lord! This will never happen to you!” (16:22). In their minds, a good king deserves to reign at least 40 years, like David and Solomon. To be killed by enemies is to fail to restore the kingdom, like Israel’s last good king (Josiah, 2 Kings 23:29-30). A “killed king” is a contradiction that fills them with grief (17:22).
How can Jesus put this paradoxical message together for them? On the one hand, he is God’s anointed, the Son to whom heaven gives kingship over the earth. On the other hand, those who currently hold power will kill him. They cannot understand how a king can embody the whole problem of human history in himself: the world’s rejection of divine authority, and God’s faithful rescue of his world.
And yet, the disciples are living in this very conundrum. God decreed the land for Jacob’s descendants, but Babylon took it through war. The rulers of the world have already cut off the Davidic kingship.
The Old Testament prophets addressed this paradox. In Daniel’s first apocalyptic vision, the beasts who were running the world lost their power when God gave the kingdom to one like a son of man (Daniel 7). By beasts, Daniel meant the foreign emperors that crushed God’s people, but Jesus applied it to the temple rulers in Jerusalem too. The elders, chief priests and scribes (16:21) were the beasts who would kill the human, the son of man.
So son of man speaks of this living paradox. God gave humans dominion over animals (Genesis 1:26-28). But Jesus is the human descendant (son of man) whose life is in danger from the animals (beasts). They will kill him, but earth’s ancient ruler (the Ancient of Days) will intervene and rescue him from the jaws of death.
The son of man is God’s solution to the problem of evil. God does not do evil to reassert his authority. God’s creative solution is not giving death to his enemies (forced subjugation) but giving life to the Son they killed (resurrection). In raising his Christ out of death, God removes the power that evil rests on — the power of death. With death defeated, evil eventually crumbles. This is how God’s Son restores earth into heaven’s governance — a kingdom of heaven as it was in the beginning.
Son of man is the paradox of Jesus’ identity. The son of man embodies the incongruence between God and the world:
- The crucifixion of God’s anointed leader (Christ) is the ultimate expression of sin (the world’s rejection of God’s authority);
- The resurrection of God’s Son is the ultimate expression of grace (the sovereign’s benevolence towards his unruly world).
Son of man is the primary language Jesus uses for the atonement — heaven and earth being reconciled (at-one) in him. He is the human killed by the beasts, and the Son raised to life with all authority (the glory of his Father). What happens to the king happens to the kingdom. Heaven and earth are reconciled in him.
“Death or glory!” — the rally cry of warrior kings. Death and glory — the resolution of conflict in the son of man.
Open Matthew 16:21-17:23.