Son of Man. The term is used quite frequently in Scripture. In fact, it is the most common title Jesus uses to refer to Himself. But what does it mean, exactly? When we hear this descriptor, we tend to think of the humanity of Christ—that He was born as a little baby, that He took on flesh and blood, skin and bone to live with us, that He felt our frailty, temptation, weakness, and pain.
These statements are all very true, of course, and appropriate Christmas themes. Yet does the title “Son of Man” point toward something more? In truth, when Jesus’ first-century audience heard Him use the phrase, they had a very different set of associations in mind, ones that can broaden our understanding of why this infant in a manger is the hope of the world.
DEFEATING THE BEASTS
In Jesus’ day, “Son of Man” was used to refer to the Messiah. It comes from Daniel 7, where the prophet records his apocalyptic vision of four beasts that rise up to terrorize the earth. An angel explains that these beasts represent four empires—usually interpreted as Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome.
“Son of Man” was a title of vindication and victory, not frailty and weakness. It spoke to God’s coming triumph.
At the climax of the vision, God sits enthroned as the Ancient of Days to bring judgment, and “the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire” (Dan. 7:11 NIV). This is a dramatic picture of God’s arrival to tear down man-made empires and establish His kingdom. Daniel then sees “one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven” (Dan. 7:13). His description continues: “He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (Dan. 7:14).
This is God’s plan for the baby born at Christmas. For Jews in Jesus’ day, “Son of Man” was a title of vindication and victory, not frailty and weakness. It was cause for hope, because it spoke to God’s coming triumph.
BORN TO CONFLICT
Jesus was born to accomplish this triumph, and the powerful didn’t like it. When the Christ child arrived, Herod the Great attempted to protect his throne by ordering the execution of all male children two years old and younger in the vicinity of Bethlehem (Matt. 2:13-18). Jesus’ birth occasioned a campaign of heartless infanticide, not peace on earth.
Jesus’ collision course with the authorities—both Jewish and Roman—comes to a climax at His sham of a trial, His brutal crucifixion, and His lifeless body in the tomb. And yet, ironically, this is precisely the means by which God establishes His kingdom. As Jesus Himself said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28).
At Jesus’ trial, the high priest asks Him if He is the Messiah. I find Jesus’ response interesting. He says, “From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” The high priest tears his clothes and shouts, “He has spoken blasphemy!” (Matt. 26:64-65 NIV). What is going on here? What’s so blasphemous about Christ’s claim? It is not a statement of weakness; it is a bold assertion. Jesus says that He is the one God will use to bring His kingdom to bear upon the world and judge the authorities of the earth—including the very authorities who accuse Him.
Christmas is about so much more than a cute newborn; it’s about the birth of the Son of Man.
You don’t get charged with blasphemy for saying you’re human—you do for saying God is bringing His rule to the earth through you.
So the authorities had Him killed, but the story didn’t stop there. Jesus was raised in vindication from the grave and exalted to God’s throne (as was predicted in Daniel’s vision), where God “has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man” (John 5:27 NIV). And “his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (Dan. 7:14 NIV).
COMFORT AND CONFRONTATION
What does this mean for us today? First, Jesus’ birth is both comfort and confrontation. It is comfort because God—as the Son of Man—is truly with us, in our humanity and weakness. It is confrontation because it is God who is with us in Christ, confronting the ways we want to live apart from Him, to rule the earth without Him.
Second, this is a cause for hope. It’s easy to get discouraged by all the forces in our world that want to rule the earth without God. But fortunately, Christmas is about so much more than a cute newborn; it’s about the birth of the Son of Man, who came to combat our godless agendas and bring about the redemptive rule of God.
This baby in the smelly feeding trough is the means by which God confronts the proud and powerful of the world. His birth strikes a blow to the heart of all the sinful systems mankind devises to live without God. So though times might get dark, the Son of Man reminds us: At the end of the day, God wins. This season, let us humble ourselves at the feet of the Son of Man, submit ourselves to His kingdom, and yield everything we are to His powerful, redeeming love.
Illustrations by Drew Melton and Patrick White