Doesn’t the Title “Son of Man” Emphasize that Jesus is Not Divine?

Sometimes Muslims will seize on Jesus’ favorite title for himself, Son of Man, as evidence that Jesus never claimed to be the Son of God or that he didn’t claim to be divine. There is a passage where Jesus uses the title, Son of God, for himself. But here we’ll deal with the claim directly – Does Jesus’ usage of Son of Man mean that he is emphasizing his mere humanity? At first glance, it would indeed seem that this title is emphasizing humanity. Perhaps Jesus knew that people would naturally ascribe divinity to him, given his many miracles, and he wanted to guard against this? However, as with so many other questions, a better answer comes from reading the passage in question in the context of the whole Bible.

Jesus isn’t the only one who is the recipient of the title, Son of Man. Many of you reading this know where I’m going, but the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world have never heard of the book of Daniel, much less the vision of the Son of Man contained in chapter seven. Here is that vision from Daniel 7:13-14.

     “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,
            that all peoples, nations, and languages
                        should serve him;
            his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
                        which shall not pass away,
            and his kingdom one
                        that shall not be destroyed. (ESV)

In this passage, this Son of Man figure is pictured coming on the clouds of heaven. This is not merely a note about the mode of this person’s arrival. This is theophany language, phraseology used to describe when God reveals himself. Only YHWH is pictured coming on the clouds in the Old Testament. If the clouds in Daniel 7 are not meant to imply divinity, then, according to the scholar Peter Gentry, this would be the only time in about seventy Old Testament occurrences.

This Son of Man comes to the throne of the Ancient of Days, apparently possessing the kind of standing and glory necessary to approach the throne of God himself. Then he is given dominion and universal service (another translation could render this term as worship) and an everlasting kingdom. These two things, universal service/worship, and an everlasting kingdom, belong to God alone, as every faithful Old Testament believer would attest. But in this passage, the Son of Man is given both. Furthermore, he is mysteriously presented as distinct from the Ancient of Days, yet also possessing the unique attributes of the Ancient of Days. Sounds a lot like and the word was with God, and the word was God. Somehow distinct, yet somehow the same. The Son of Man is clearly presented here as mysteriously divine.

But how do we know that Jesus is alluding to Daniel 7 when he uses the title, Son of Man, for himself? Couldn’t he be using it to say he’s not God, as is the usage in Numbers 23:19? Maybe it’s just royal language like is used in Psalm 8:4? Or maybe Jesus has a particular affinity for the prophet Ezekiel, who is called Son of Man more than ninety times in his book? I actually find the linkage to the Psalm 8:4 and and Ezekiel helpful, though they are not usually mentioned in talking about the background to Jesus’ usage of this title. Apparently, the title Son of Man has Davidic-Messianic meaning as well as context informed by Ezekiel, the prophet who suffers in exile on behalf of his people. Very appropriate for the Messiah-King-Prophet who would suffer exile from God for the sake of his people.

But Jesus himself lets us know which passage he has in mind as the primary lens through which we are to view the meaning of Son of Man.

Matthew 26:63–65

[63] But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” [64] Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” [65] Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. (ESV)

Apparently the high priest understood Jesus’ allusion to Daniel 7 all too well. We also are to understand Jesus’ choice of the title, Son of Man, primarily through the figure of Daniel 7. This means that the title Son of Man is Jesus claiming to be divine every single time he uses it. And the gospels are absolutely saturated with his usage of this term.

Far from being a title that proves Jesus didn’t claim divinity, Son of Man is instead a radical self-claim by Jesus that he is with God, and that he is God, that he has received an eternal kingdom and is worthy of universal service and worship. So, if you ever encounter the objection that Son of Man is emphasizing Jesus’ mere humanity, take your friend to Daniel 7 and Matthew 26 and draw the connections. They are mysterious, yes, but they are clear.

Source Material:

Hamilton, Jim, With the Clouds of Heaven: The Book of Daniel in Biblical Theology

Photo by Michael Weidner on Unsplash

The King of the World Gets Boanthropy

Daniel chapter 4 is an epic tale in itself, one in which Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon begins as the king of the most powerful empire in the world and then dreams a foreboding dream. He does not heed Daniel’s prophetic interpretation of his dream, instead falling into pride and being cursed for seven years to live like a cow. But in the end, proud Nebuchadnezzar is humbled and restored to an even greater glory than before. Someone needs to turn this into a musical.

It wasn’t until I took a seminary class on the book of Daniel though that I learned that Nebuchadnezzar’s seven-years-a-cow punishment is most likely a documented psychological disorder, known as boanthropy. The Pharmaceutical Journal defines boanthropy as “a psychological disorder in which the sufferer believes he or she is a cow or ox.” Fascinating that this is still happening to the extent that it is mentioned in the medical literature. Am I the only one who missed this in Sunday school? Apparently, this was not limited to Nebuchadnezzar, but is a possibility for any one of us, should God in his providence choose to let our minds go. Beware, prideful world rulers! Beware, prideful self, prone to take credit for your own limited works when they were all gifts of sheer grace. God opposes the proud. How? Sometimes he turns us into cows.

I also can’t help but appreciate whenever the Old Testament is demonstrated to be sound history, in spite of all the skepticism hurled against it. After an initial reading of this text, many would be tempted to dismiss this narrative as mythological moralizing. Yet here we have an ancient text proving not only that truth is stranger than fiction, but also that we can trust the seemingly mythological text of Daniel to present reliable history. If Daniel is proven reliable with such a strange thing as boanthropy, then we should be willing to trust the text in other areas we might be tempted to scoff at. Indeed, that would have something to do with the humility the king’s boanthropy is meant to cultivate.

Photo by Jonas Koel on Unsplash

Babylonian Seminary

[3] Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, [4] youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. [5] The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. [6] Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah. [7] And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego. (Daniel 1:3-7 ESV)

I’ve recently started reading the book of Daniel again. While the book of Daniel is full of amazing theology, history, and prophecy, today I only want to take one obscure point and with that point to poke popular missiology. Here is that point: Daniel and his friends were asked to study the language, literature, and religious practices of the Babylonians for three years before they were qualified to serve as leaders in pagan Babylonia.

Why does this matter? Popular missiology (the study and practice of missions) contends that multi-year seminary-type preparation of leaders is a modern Western concept. It claims that for the needs of the Great Commission today, we should jettison such slow, non-reproducible, knowledge-centric leadership training. In its place we need to create streamlined rapidly-reproducible leadership lessons that pump out leaders at a much faster rate – something like ten leadership development participatory bible studies. After all, can’t we trust the Spirit of God and the word of God to raise up qualified leaders? Why should we ask locals to sit under training for so long and under the instruction of foreign teachers? God forbid we train leaders in ways that echo those of the older Western paternalist missionaries, stuck in their colonialist mindsets. We are beyond that, aren’t we?

My contention is a simple one. Multi-year leadership training is a global concept, one embraced by all epochs of church history and even practiced before church history began. It’s not a modern Western imposition on the rest of the globe, even if we grant the questionable point that if something is Western then that automatically means it should be jettisoned. Multi-year leadership training is a simple outworking of what many civilizations have found to be universal wisdom – it takes some years to really know a man and to impart to that man the knowledge and skill necessary to lead well. This was not only true of ancient pagan Babylon, but also of the ancient Christian training centers of Edessa, Gond-i-Shapur, Ireland, and the those medieval European centers of clergy training that would form the basis of our modern university system. Jesus himself invested three and a half years in those who would become the first leaders of the global Church.

While living in the US, for three years I took part in a church-based pastoral apprenticeship. Then after I graduated, I helped to lead that apprenticeship for two more years. Though I was skeptical in the beginning about the length of time being asked by the elders (three years?!), over time I came to see the wisdom of taking the slow route when it came to raising up pastors, missionaries, and church planters. Sometimes a man would make it two and a half years through the program only to flame out in the final year, some character or doctrinal issue finally bubbling up to the surface. It was often very surprising when this happened, and this in our own language and culture, where we have a much easier ability to discern character and belief. On the other hand, for the vast majority of the men that made it through the apprenticeship, at the end of those three years we could say with confidence that we really knew their life and doctrine. Many of these have now gone out as pastors, church-planters, and missionaries and are raising up leaders in their own contexts.

But what about Paul? Didn’t he appoint elders much more quickly than this in the churches he planted? Yes, there is some evidence in the book of Acts that Paul didn’t always take years to train and assess potential leaders before they were appointed. This is a valid point, and one worth exploring further. But it’s the whole counsel of the word we need here, not just the book of Acts. When the instructions for leader qualification of 1st Timothy 3 and Titus 1 (written by Paul) are taken seriously, we will often find that it takes years to soberly assess and inculcate these character traits and skills in the men of our churches – especially when we are working in a different language and culture. And this should probably be considered normal. Who, after all, plants lasting churches as quickly as Paul did? So shouldn’t it be normal if our leadership development runs a little slower than his did also? I for one recognize that there are some real discontinuities between my gifts and Paul’s, just as there are also some continuities. That capital or lower-case “A” in apostolic makes a real difference. But I digress from my simple point.

If anyone states that multiyear leadership training is a Western concept (and therefore bad), that person is simply speaking ahistorically. It’s popular to take pot-shots at seminary in missions circles. Yet the common witness of the Church throughout the centuries has been that an investment of years in faithful men leads to trustworthy leaders, who will then be able to train others also (2 Tim 2:2). What may be truly Western (in the bad sense) would be methods that insist that leaders can be multiplied rapidly and exponentially like some kind of pyramid scheme.

Photo by bantersnaps on Unsplash