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Jesus Christ, Son of Man

General Audience — April 29, 1987

—    The prophet Daniel
—    Ezekiel's prophecy
—    The humiliation of the cross

Jesus Christ, Son of man and of God: this is the culminating theme of our reflections on the identity of the Messiah. It is the fundamental truth of the Christian revelation and of the faith: the humanity and divinity of Christ, on which we shall have to reflect more fully later. For the present we shall complete our analysis of the messianic titles already present in some way in the Old Testament, and we shall see in what sense Jesus attributes them to himself.

1.  The prophet Daniel

As regards the title "Son of Man," it is significant that Jesus made frequent use of it when speaking of himself. The others called him "Son of God," as we shall see in the following reflection. He, however, defined himself as "Son of Man," whereas no one else called him this, except the deacon Stephen before his stoning (cf. Acts 7:56) and the author of the Book of Revelation in two texts (cf. Rev 1:13; 14:14).

The title "Son of Man" is from the Book of the Prophet Daniel in the Old Testament. The following is the text which describes a vision which the prophet had at night: "I saw visions in the night, 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 kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom is one that shall not be destroyed" (Dan 7:13-14).

When the prophet seeks an explanation of this vision, he receives the following reply: "the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, for ever and ever.... And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High" (Dan 7:18-27). The text of Daniel concerns a single person and the people. We note immediately that that which refers to the person of the Son of Man is found in the angel's words in the annunciation to Mary, "He shall reign forever...and his kingdom shall have no end" (Lk 1:33).

When Jesus called himself "Son of Man," he used an expression deriving from the canonical tradition of the Old Testament and which is found also in the Jewish apocrypha. It must be noted, however, that the expression "Son of Man" (ben-adam) had become in the Aramaic of Jesus' time an expression to mean simply "man" (bar ethas). Therefore, in calling himself "Son of Man," Jesus was able to conceal as it were behind the veil of the common meaning of the term its messianic significance in prophetic teaching. It is not by chance, however, that though the statements about the Son of Man appear especially in the context of the earthly life and passion of Christ, they are also found in reference to his eschatological elevation.

2.  Ezekiel's prophecy

In the context of the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth we find texts such as: "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests: but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" (Mt 8:20); and also: "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners'" (Mt 11:19). On other occasions Jesus' words assume a character more strongly indicative of his power, such as when he said, "The Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath" (Mk 2:28). On the occasion of the cure of the paralytic who had been let down through an opening in the roof, Christ stated as it were in a challenging tone, "But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, I say to you--he said to the paralytic--rise, take up your pallet and go home" (Mk 2:10-11). Elsewhere Jesus stated, "For as Jonah became a sign to the men of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to his generation" (Lk 11:30). On another occasion there were the prophetic words shrouded in mystery: "The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it" (Lk 17:22).

Some theologians note an interesting parallel between Ezekiel's prophecy and the statements of Jesus. The prophet wrote that God said to him: "Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel...who have rebelled against me.... You shall say to them, 'Thus says the Lord God'" (Ez 2:3-4). "Son of man, you dwell in the midst of a rebellious house, who have eyes to see, but see not, who have ears to hear, but hear not" (Ez 12:2). "And you, O son of man...shall set your face toward the siege of Jerusalem...and you shall prophesy against the city" (Ez 4:1-7). "Son of man, propound a riddle and speak an allegory to the house of Israel" (Ez 17:2).

Echoing the words of the Prophet, Jesus taught, "The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost" (Lk 19:10). "For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk 1:45; cf. also Mt 20:29). The "Son of Man...when he comes in the glory of his Father," will be ashamed of whoever is ashamed of him and of his words (cf. Mk 8:38).

The identity of the Son of Man appears in the twofold aspect of representative of God, herald of the kingdom of God, and the prophet calling people to conversion. In addition, he is the representative of the people, one who shares their earthly condition and sufferings in order to redeem and save them according to the Father's plan. As he himself said when speaking to Nicodemus, "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life" (Jn 3:14-15).

Jesus repeated this clear announcement of the passion: "And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again" (Mk 8:31). No less than three times we find this forecast in Mark's Gospel (cf. 9:31; 10:33-34), and on each occasion Jesus spoke of himself as "Son of Man."

3.  The humiliation of the cross

Before the tribunal of Caiaphas Jesus used the same term in reference to himself. In reply to the question, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?" he answered, "I am; and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven" (Mk 14:62). These words echo Daniel's prophecy on the "Son of Man who comes with the clouds of heaven" (Dan 7:13) and Psalm 110 which sees the Lord seated on the right hand of God (cf. Ps 110:1).

Jesus repeatedly spoke of the lifting up of the "Son of Man," but he did not conceal from his hearers that this includes the humiliation of the cross. To the objections and incredulity of the people and of the disciples who well understood the tragic nature of his allusions and who even asked him, "How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?" (Jn 12:34), Jesus replied: "When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own authority but speak thus as the Father taught me" (Jn 8:28). Jesus asserted that his "lifting up" by means of the cross would constitute his glorification. A little later he added, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified" (Jn 12:23). It is significant that on the departure of Judas from the upper room, Jesus said, "Now is the Son of Man glorified, and in him God is glorified" (Jn 13:31).

This constitutes the content of life, passion, death and glory of which the prophet Daniel had offered a faint outline. Moreover, Jesus did not hesitate to apply to himself the character of eternal and unending kingship which Daniel had assigned to the work of the Son of Man, when in the prophecy of the end of the world he proclaimed, "Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory" (Mk 13:26; cf. Mt 24:30). It is in this eschatological perspective that the Church's work of evangelization must take place. Jesus let it be known, "You will not have gone through all the towns of Israel, before the Son of Man comes" (Mt 10:23). And he asked himself the question, "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Lk 18:8).

If as Son of Man Jesus fulfilled by his life, passion, death and resurrection the messianic plan outlined in the Old Testament, at the same time he took his place with that same name as a true man among men, as a son of a woman, Mary of Nazareth. By means of this woman, his mother, he the "Son of God," is simultaneously "Son of Man," true man as attested by the Letter to the Hebrews: "He has truly been made one of us, like us in all things except sin" (Heb 4:15; cf. GS 22).