Question: Sometimes our Lord refers to Himself as "the Son of Man," instead of as "the Son of God." Is there some significance to this usage?
Answer: The phrase "Son of God" occurs about fifty times in English language bibles. In the Old Testament, King Nabuchodonosor mistakenly identified the Angel in the fiery furnace with the three young men, saying he looked "like the Son of God."1 The other occurrences of the phrase are all found in the New Testament. In some translations of Luke iii: 38, Adam is referred to as the "son of God," denoting his direct creation by the Father.2 Every other time the phrase is used it clearly refers to our Lord's claim to divinity.
With various changes in capitalization, the phrase "son of man" occurs around two hundred times. In the early books of the Old Testament it is a way of saying "mankind." Occasionally it is used for emphasis -- "What is man that Thou art mindful of him? or the son of man that Thou visitest him?"3 -- is the same as asking "Why is God concerned with any member of mankind?"
But in the book of Ezechiel it seems to take on a new aspect. "Son of man" is the title by which heaven addresses Ezechiel as God's prophet. While remaining "one of mankind," Ezechiel is commissioned as God's messenger. In chapter after chapter the phrase is repeated time and again; appearing to give Ezechiel at least a temporary right to its use as a personal title. God speaks to this "son of man" of mankind's wickedness, but also of forgiveness and redemption: "I will save My flock ... and I will set up one Shepherd over them."4
In Daniel the phrase takes on a messianic aspect. Daniel is privileged to see a vision, an apocalyptic mixture of pre-Christian conquests, the coming of Christ, and the end times of the world:
"I beheld ... one like the son of man ... and he came even to the Ancient of Days ... and he gave him power and glory and a kingdom: and all people, tribes and tongues shall serve him: his power is an everlasting power that shall not be taken away: and his kingdom shall not be destroyed."5
Throughout the Gospels our Lord applies the title "Son of man" to Himself. Presumably, He expected his Jewish listeners to be familiar with the messianic implications of Ezechiel's words, for He often speaks of the "Son of man" in connection with His own sacrificial end, and with the end times and the coming of the eternal Kingdom:
"The Son of man shall be betrayed into the hands of men, and they shall kill him, and the third day he shall rise again."6
"You shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of the power of God, and coming with the clouds of heaven."7
"Whoever shall confess me before men, him shall the Son of man also confess before the angels of God."8
Significantly, it was Peter, the prince of the Apostles who tied together the identity of the Son of man and the Son of God:
"Whom do men say the Son of man is? Some say John the Baptist, and some others Elias, and others Jeremias or one of the prophets. Jesus saith to them: But whom do you say that I am? Simon Peter answered and said: Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered: Blessed art thou Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood has not reveled it to thee but My Father who is in heaven."9
The messianic theme was continued immediately after Peter was commissioned pope:
"He commanded His disciples that they should tell know one that He was Jesus the Christ. From that time Jesus began to show to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem ... and be put to death, and the third day rise again. ... For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels: and then will render to every man according to his works.10
The Gospel uses the phrase, "Jesus the Christ." "Christ"
is not just a surname. "The Christ" is not a name but an exclusive
messianic title: "The Anointed of God." This title, and referring to
our Lord both as Son of God and Son of man, reflect the important truth that man
could not save himself from the sin of Adam for the gulf between God and man was
too wide to cross in making atonement. Yet it was man who had sinned, and who
needed to make reparation. Appropriately, designed to bring this about through
the cooperation of mankind in the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary through the
overshadowing of the Holy Ghost. "The Holy which shall be born of thee
shall be called the Son of God" -- and the Son of God often called Himself
the "Son of man."11