That’s a question I’ve had for a long time. Jesus’ self-appelation of the title in Matthew always seemed needlessly complicated, and I don’t recall ever receiving an answer that made much sense (which isn’t to say one wasn’t given). My main impression growing up – and until very recently, truth be told – was that the “Son of Man” was an arcane way of essentially asserting Jesus’ humanity, the human equivalent of his description, primarily in John, as the Son of God.
But that really sells the title short. In fact, until we understand the roots of the phrase and why Jesus uses it, we run the risk of badly misinterpreting what he is trying to say.
A great example is one my wife brought up the other day. Matthew 10:21-23 caps a series of verses in which Jesus sends out the disciples and promises persecution:
Brothers and sisters will hand each other over to be executed. A father will turn his child in. Children will defy their parents and have them executed. Everyone will hate you on account of my name. But whoever stands firm until the end will be saved. Whenever they harass you in one city, escape to the next, because I assure that you will not go through all the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
Given the context of Jesus sending the disciples out, the literal sense of this passage is that they will not make it far before Jesus returns (since he’s already there and cannot simply “come” unless he’s coming back, right?). Yet they did actually make it quite far, certainly outside the cities of Israel, and he still hasn’t come back. Was Jesus wrong?
Certainly some biblical scholars believe so. I offered to read up on the passage in some biblical commentaries during my weekly study night at the library, and here’s what I found (in chronological order):
M. Eugene Boring in The New Interpreter’s Bible (1995) takes the passage quite literally. When Matthew says, “Whoever stands firm until the end will be saved” in verse 22, Boring argues it’s a reference to the ultimate end, or parousia. The passage is “thoroughly apocalyptic, referring not to the end of one’s life or to the end of the temporary, this-worldly persecution.”
Boring cites Albert Schweitzer (Quest of the Historical Jesus), who believed verse 23 “may have been spoken by the historical Jesus, who expected the eschaton to come before the disciples returned from their mission,” but more likely was spoken originally by an early Christian prophet giving instructions for missionaries under duress, then attributed to Jesus by Matthew or his source. Therefore, Boring argues, the “chronological mistake” became an encouragement to continue the mission, with the instructions becoming an entreaty for the church to continue ministering to Israel, along with the gentiles.
Ulrich Luz in the Hermeneia set of commentaries, a personal favorite of mine, wrote in 2001 that focusing on the expectation of Jesus’ coming is misplaced because it’s not the center of the passage; Jesus’ expression of comfort is what’s important – although he acknowledges the comfort is derived from the imminence of his coming.
Nevertheless, “our text confronts us with the problem that Jesus was mistaken in his belief that the eschaton was imminent.” Some liberal theologians avoided the question by simply declaring the statement not to be genuine to Jesus. Historically, the verse has been interpreted by making the cities of Israel allegorical (cities of the New Israel, i.e., the gentiles, or referring merely to an Israel ministry that runs through the end of the world). In the end, Luz seems to punt: “Verse 23 remains difficult in the framework of the Gospel of Matthew. At the very least the difficulties should not be ignored.”
That brings us to R.T. France, writing in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (2007). He rejects Boring’s apocalyptic interpretation of “the end” in Matt. 10:22 and says instead it simply means persevering as long as necessary because there is no specific antecedent for the phrase (as there is when similar wording is used in Matthew 24).
On verse 23, France sidesteps the question of whether the verse could have been spoken by Jesus or added by Matthew. He, first of all, chooses a literal rather than metaphorical meaning for “the cities of Israel,” given the context of the sending of the disciples, though he says “Israel” simply means Galilee in this passage.
France notes this is the first time in Matthew that Jesus is called the Son of Man. Modern Christians assume a reference to an eschatological parousia, but France argues this is “far removed” from the context of the narrative. He points us to Daniel 7:13-14:
As I continued to watch this night vision of mine, I suddenly saw
one like a son of man
coming with the heavenly clouds.
He came to the ancient one
and was presented before him.
Rule, glory, and kingship were given to him;
all peoples, nations, and languages will serve him.
His rule is an everlasting one—
it will never pass away!—
his kingship is indestructible.
In Daniel, the son of man is brought before God and given everlasting kingship – thus a vision of granting ultimate authority to God’s people, who have been oppressed by the empiric beasts but will someday rule them. Jesus therefore intentionally foreshadows his own experience as being oppressed but lifted up to rule by describing himself as the son of man.
But France urges us to note this: In Daniel, the son of man comes before God to be crowned; nothing implies a coming to earth. The verb used in Daniel and Matthew is simply “come,” he says, and not parousia, which has an eschatological connotation and is avoided entirely by the New Testament, except for Matthew 24. Therefore, France persuasively argues:
Despite centuries of later Christian interpretive tradition, when the gospels speak of “the Son of Man coming,” the presumption must be that they are speaking not of an eschatological parousia but of a heavenly enthronement, the vindication an empowering of the Son of Man after his earthly rejection and suffering, when God will turn the tables on those who thought they had him in their power. …
“The coming of the Son of Man” is thus not a description of a particular historical event but evocative language to depict his eventual vindication and sovereign authority.
Matthew calls Jesus the Son of Man seven times in various contexts, which France argues tell us the empowerment or enthronement was to be inaugurated with Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, revealed successively throughout history then culminated in the final judgment.
France declines to say where in that sweep Jesus’ promise falls, but given the assurance that the disciples would not have finished going through the towns of Israel, I’ll argue Jesus is referring to his resurrection and ascension – the inauguration of the kingdom of God, as promised in Daniel and explicated so beautifully in recent years by scholars such as N.T. Wright.
As an aside, this comparison of scholars really highlights one of the major weaknesses of an obsessive focus on the historical-critical method; one can miss the forest for the trees. The Daniel 7 reference for the son of man unlocks the meaning of the passage, yet two historical-critical scholars simply missed it. We need not assume that Jesus did not understand his own ministry, nor that his followers metaphorized his words to maintain his message, to take this passage seriously.
Indeed, knowing why Jesus called himself the Son of Man – or, if you prefer, why his earliest followers understood him to be the son of man from Daniel 7 – provides far more depth and resonance to his message in the gospels, a message in which he claimed kingship over “all people nations and languages,” a reign that would begin not at some distant date but within the lifetime of his disciples, and which would be inaugurated not with military power but with the power of death-conquering sacrifice.
When we see Jesus call himself the Son of Man in the gospels, let’s stop scratching our heads. The message is simple and powerful: Jesus, savior of the world, is also its king.