At Jesus’ trial, the high priest, Caiaphas, asks Jesus if He is the “Messiah/Christ.” Jesus acknowledges that He is but turns the discussion to Him being the “Son of Man” (Mark 14:61-62).
It is interesting that the apostles through the rest of the NT, rarely call Jesus “Son of Man,” even though it was Jesus’ preferred designation for Himself. The phrase is found 84x in the Gospel accounts. From Acts onward, it is found four times – Acts 7:56; Heb. 2:6 (a quotation of Psalm 8), and Revelation 1:13; 14:14.
On the other hand, “Christ” (Messiah) is used by the writers of the NT 477 times [131 times in the phrase “Jesus Christ” or 91 times in “Christ Jesus”] but only 52 times in the Gospels and only twice in contexts where Jesus Himself claims to be the Messiah. Likely, because Jesus was crucified as being a “false Messiah,” the apostles chose that designation to emphasize that, based on the resurrection, yes, He was in fact, the real, authentic Messiah.
Ezekiel is actually the prophet who identifies himself as “son of man” (93 times). “Son of” is a Hebrew idiom that carries the idea of having the qualities or characteristics of something. Therefore, this description identifies Ezekiel, the individual from Daniel 7, and Jesus Himself with humanity (having the quality of mankind). It is striking, then, that Jesus proved Himself to be “God” through His teaching, miracles, attitude, etc. But He verbally identified Himself most frequently as “God in the flesh.”
The theological background to Jesus’ self-description as “Son of Man” is Daniel 7. Daniel 7 gives the portrait to the Messiah of a reigning king, identified with humanity.
In this dream, Daniel sees four beasts coming up out of the sea of humanity (vs 3). The first beast, like a lion, was humanized before Daniel’s eyes. He was made to stand on two feet and given a human mind (vs 4). Notice the third beast, the leopard, was given “dominion” (vs 6). The fourth beast, dreadful and terrifying, wore ten horns, symbolizing authority and power (vs 7). We notice in verse 12 that all four beasts had their own “dominion,” which means they symbolized kingdoms, rulership, over a given people.
But as Daniel kept looking in his vision, he sees one coming “like a son of man.” This individual came up to the Ancient of Days, from verses 9-10, and to Him was given dominion (vs 14), glory and a kingdom. This dominion would be universal, everlasting, and indestructible.
In verse 17, just as the four beasts represented kings and embodied their own respective kingdoms, so the Son of Man will also have His kingdom and He will embody His own people. What is said in verses 13-14 about the Son of Man is also said about the “saints of the Highest One” in verse 18. Also, in verse 22, the saints of the Highest One will take possession of the kingdom. Again, verse 27 pictures the same thing – the saints of the Highest One are incorporated into the Son of Man person.
Jesus draws together three major persons from Old Testament history and prophecy: Messiah, Son of Man, and the Suffering Servant (primarily of Isaiah 53). Through each designation, Jesus sustains a relationship to His people, His followers. As Messiah (descendant of David), He rules over the people; as Son of Man, He embodies the saints of God who are given the kingdom; as Suffering Servant, He dies on behalf of His people’s sin.
Jesus will promise to begin such a new community…