Who is the ‘Son of Man?’

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.

It is a curious saying “the Son of Man.”  Naturally, we equate the saying as synonymous with Jesus or Christ or Son of God or Messiah.  However, what if we were to back away from that leap and actually consider the saying “Son of Man?”  In other words, the real question before us today is a question raised earlier in Matthew’s Gospel.  In Matthew 16, the gospel writer tells us that Jesus asks his disciples, ““Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And of course, the disciples respond, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  Jesus continues the dialogue by asking the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?”  It is an interesting question – and it is interesting that Jesus has replaced “Son of Man” with “I” in the second portion of the dialogue.  It is interesting not simply because Jesus claims the title of Son of Man.  It is also an interesting question for us today.  Who do we say that Jesus is?  Who is the Son of Man?

The imagery of the Son of Man in this particular passage draws on Daniel’s vision in the night of the coming of “one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven.”  The imagery in Daniel, like Matthew is of a judgement scene in which the one like a son of man comes before the Ancient One and is “given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.  His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.”  Daniel paints a picture of a realm that will continue into eternity, and Matthew draws on that image as the natural fulfillment of what Jesus is doing in his earthly ministry.  For Matthew, the judgement scene is the portrayal of the ultimate outcome of those that have lived according to the will of God.  The judgement scene in Matthew is the conclusion to Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”  Until now, Jesus has instructed the disciples through enigmatic signs of his coming and through parables teaching the importance of watchfulness and of keeping awake.  The judgement scene is the response to those that are able to remain watchful and are prepared for the return of the Son of Man.  Just as the sheep are separated from the goats, the wise bridesmaids were separated from the foolish, the faithful servant from the wicked, and the enterprising stewards from the fearful steward.  The judgment scene is the final answer that Jesus gives to the disciples before the beginning of Matthew’s version of the passion, and it is the final outcome of being watchful, being faithful, of being good stewards.  The judgement scene is what Matthew understands to be the final proclamation for having lived a faithful life grounded in the will of God.

Just as Daniel depicts the one like a son of man coming on clouds of heaven, Matthew places his judgment scene not on earth but in heaven – in the kingdom that shall not pass away.  Matthew’s imagery of the second coming is not that Christ comes back to earth but that “all the nations will be gathered before him.”  Like Daniel, Matthew is emphasizing the kingship, the authority and power of Jesus as Lord.  Matthew understands that the enthronement of the Son of Man is not a future event to take place but something that takes place in Jesus’ resurrection.  The enthronement of Christ in Matthew’s last chapter is the culmination of Matthew’s story and is also based in the imagery of Daniel when Jesus tells the disciples “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”  Matthew clearly understands Jesus to be the one like the son of man coming on the clouds of heaven.  While it is good to understand how Matthew defines son of man, we are still left with the ultimate theological question for Christians.  We are still left to respond to Jesus’ question, “But who do you say that I am?”

If we look back to the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, we may be able to get a sense of how Matthew understood Jesus and who Jesus is.  In chapter 2, Matthew tells us of a vision of Joseph’s in which an angel visits Joseph and encourages Joseph to take Mary as his wife.  Matthew understand the birth of Jesus to be the fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah’s words: “Look the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel.”  At the beginning of the gospel, it is relatively clear – Matthew understands the birth of Jesus to be the event through which God enters into the world of humanity as a human being.  So, one way we could respond to Jesus’ question is “Emmanuel.”  But perhaps that does not quite resonate with us today just as perhaps thinking of Christ as King may not resonate with a post-modern world.

Moving deeper into the traditions of the Church we might look to the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed to help us answer the question of who Jesus is to us.  Perhaps we answer that question by simply stating the Chalcedonies formula – Jesus is truly human and truly God.  Perhaps we look at the Pascha Nostrum in the Dialy Office and answer it by asserting that Jesus is the Christ – Jesus is the passover sacrificed for us, and Jesus is the one that is risen from the dead and is the first fruit of salvation.

For myself, I can certainly say that all this is true.  I can ascribe to any of the above definitions, but I still feel like there is something missing from the puzzle.  While all of the above formulas ring true enough for me, I feel like they are all very distant understandings of who Jesus is and how Jesus is part of my own life.

Interestingly enough, the term “Son of Man” is often used in a way that distances Jesus from the people being addressed throughout Matthew’s gospel.  The term is a term that Jesus uses when speaking to those that oppose him, and it is a term that creates a gulf between Jesus and others.  While Jesus employs the term throughout Matthew, Jesus never uses the term to explain who he is, which is why the question continues to stand and is one of the most profound theological questions a Christian can attempt to answer.  It is why the term ‘Son of Man’ continues to function in an enigmatic way, and it is why we must risk trying to answer the question ourselves.

Jesus is first and foremost, for me, the son of the living God.  Jesus came into the world in order that humanity can be become divine.  Jesus is who I turn to when I seek help in a difficult or troubling situation.  Jesus is the one that speaks consolation to my heart when I need it most.  Jesus is the one that challenges me to go deeper in my faith, to understand the depth of God’s love for God’s creation, to turn to God with all that I have to offer by way of thanksgiving and praise.  Jesus is the one that teaches me the words to say when I turn towards God in prayer, and Jesus is the one that teaches reconciliation between brother or sister.

And while Jesus is the greatest of teachers of the meaning of love and faith and hope, Jesus is so much more than that in our daily lives.  Jesus is the one that walks beside us and helps us along the way.  Jesus is the friend that never turns away despite the hardness of a heart.

Jesus is the one that is transfigured up on a mountain, and Jesus is the one that forgives sins.

Jesus is Emmanuel – Jesus is God among us.  Jesus is the Son of God walking among us.  Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Lord of Lords and King of Kings.

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”