What Ancient Judaism Reveals About the “Son of Man”

Jesus had a lot of titles:

  • Son of God

  • Son of David

  • Son of Man

  • Christ

  • Messiah

  • The Holy One

  • The Just One

Can you guess which one was his favorite?

Here’s how many times each title appeared in the Gospels:

  • Holy One of God 3

  • Son of David 16

  • Son of God 26

  • Christ 56

  • Son of Man 82

“Son of Man” is used more than any other title, but it’s also the title Jesus preferred to use. By far.

What does it mean?

A popular theory is that it refers to Jesus’ humanness because he was born from mankind. Though the original Jewish audience most certainly would not have initially thought this, it does have some merit because “son of man” was a Hebrew expression for a human being (Job 16:21, Ps. 8:4, Ezek. 2:1).

But there’s much more to the “Son of Man” than meets the eye.

Where Did the “Son of Man” Come From?

Ever heard of the “silent years”? It’s the time between the last book of the Old Testament and the coming of Jesus (roughly 400 years). Studying the first century Judaism reveals that the so-called “silent years” was a busy time for Jewish theologians.

They poured over the Old Testament with great intensity. They found new connections, made new conclusions, and developed ideas that became so popular they found their way into the New Testament. One of them is about the Son of Man.

This poem in Daniel 7:13-14 is one of the most influential passages:

“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom.”

There it is! Now let’s unpack it.

What Will the Son of Man Do?

This book was written during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar who had recently destroyed Israel’s temple, then exiled and enslaved the Jews in Babylon. It was no picnic for the average Jew.

The Babylonians were brute pagans who worshipped strange deities, performed magic rituals, used temple prostitutes, and took part in gruesome acts of cruelty. It was a time of despair and pain for God’s people.

It was a time for questions, and they had a lot:

  • “How long will we be in exile?”

  • “Do you still have good plans for us?”

  • “And do you see the evil of these Babylonians?”

  • “Are you ever going to rid the world of such wickedness?”

Daniel was one of those exiled slaves, but he was also the mouth of God appointed to answer these questions. And how does God answer their cries?

Daniel portrays the nations as conglomerate beasts who look like monsters, and no wonder, they acted like animals – Nebuchadnezzar was literally turned into a beast to showcase this point (Dan. 4). But Daniel describes all these nations coming to an end under the reign of the one true God and his chosen king.

In chapter seven Daniel first tells of the fate of the wicked nations: “As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away” (Dan. 7:12). They will be no more.

Then he describes a vision of the chosen king, who is “like a son of man”, who goes up to the clouds to the “Ancient of Days”.

The Ancient of Days is clearly Israel’s God, Yahweh, but why in the clouds?

The Babylonians had an image of Baal, the storm god, riding in the clouds to give rain for dry crops. The Jews portrayed the true God as riding in the clouds to show that Yahweh alone is supreme, so “he makes the clouds his chariot; he rides on the wings of the wind” (Palm 104:3).

Daniel sees not Baal, but Israel’s God riding in the clouds. Then another figure approaches, and to this “son of man…was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion” (Dan. 7:14).

This Son of Man was God’s chosen king.

But he was more than some king – he was the master of the universe who would rule all existence, making everything conform to the Creator’s goodwill. He would fulfill the assignment of dominion Adam failed at (Gen. 1:26), and bring God’s dream for creation and humanity into fruition.

This. Is. Huge.

How Did God Answer Their Questions?

Daniel's vision of the Son of Man implied great hope:

  • All wicked nations will be destroyed, including Babylon

  • All who are faithful to the Son of Man will live on (Dan. 12:3)

  • Righteousness, peace, and life will reign in paradise

  • And God’s glory will saturate every nook and cranny of human experience

This was good news! The best news, even “the gospel” news (in the Greek translation of Isaiah 40:9 when God comes to reign).

During the 400 “silent years” the Jews continued to write and talk about this coming hero. First Enoch is one of the surviving books from this time, and it articulates the Jewish hope of this “Son of man”, who would be “the light of the Gentiles”, then “all who dwell on earth will fall down and worship him” (48:2-5).

This was the hope since Genesis 3. This was the hope of Israel in Jesus’ day. And this remains the hope today.

How Jesus Saw Himself

So when Jesus healed a paralytic to show “that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matt. 9:6), he was saying that he was this expected hero!

He was the one who would rule the nations.

He was the one who would destroy the wicked beasts.

He was the one who would usher in an eternal reign of righteousness.

No wonder there’s so much talk about his authority to forgive sins, his authority to heal, his power to command demons, and even how the material creation submits to his orders: “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and sea obey him?” (Matt. 8:27). He is the Son of Man.

This is how Jesus thought of himself, and this is how we should think of him.

This also gives background to the infamous statement, “From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming in the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64). Without getting into its meaning, just notice that it's couched in the imagery of Daniel 7 when “one like a son of man” comes “with the clouds of heaven” to receive supreme power.

Jesus said this to the Jewish leaders the night before his execution. Then his followers announced that a crucified carpenter from Nazareth was actually God’s appointed ruler over creation – no wonder it was “offensive to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”. This was the first Christian message (Acts 17:7).

The Son of Man is Coming

If Jesus is Daniel’s Son of Man, then it DEMANDS that we use all of our being to fall down and worship at his royal feet.

He is the chosen king, and he’s coming back to complete the prophecy: to rule all nations, to destroy all wickedness, to make a kingdom paradise of righteousness and life.

In light of this we must:

  • Submit to him as our king

  • Trust him as our king

  • Serve him as our king

  • Swear allegiance to him as our only king

  • Worship him as our divine king

We must join our king by praying that his kingdom would come (Matt. 6), but also by actually growing his kingdom with displays of his majesty until “all peoples, nations, and languages serve him.”

Come, King Jesus.