"I [the Prophet Daniel] was watching in the night visions, and behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days [God], and they brought Him near before Him. Then 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 the one which shall not be destroyed. Daniel 7:13-14 (NKJV).
Jesus is known by various titles, words and offices in the Gospels and the New Testament generally. However, the title “Son of Man” (Greek, ho huios tou anthropou) is the title used more frequently by Jesus than any other Name. Son of Man was Jesus’ favorite way to refer to Himself. The Son of Man occurs approximately eighty-four times in the four Gospels as mainly being Jesus’ self-description.
Jesus would often use the title Son of Man to resist disclosure of His identity as the Messiah. One reason Jesus preferred the title “Son of Man” was because it was not an provocative title such as “Christ” or “Messiah.” By using this title, Jesus concealed His Person as the long awaited Messiah during the early ministry while revealing His works of compassion.
The phrase “son of man” appears in the Old Testament as a synonym for “man,” “humankind” (see Isaiah 56:2; Jeremiah 50:40; Psalm 8:4; Psalm 80:17; Psalm 146:3; Job 25:6). In the Aramaic language, the expression “son of man” was similarly used to mean “the man,” “a man,” or simply “someone.” The term appears in the Rabbinic writings with the meaning, “a certain person.”
In the Book of Ezekiel, God uses the phrase “son of man” approximately ninety times to address the prophet Ezekiel. The emphasis seems to be on the humanity of the prophet Ezekiel, a meaning which believers also come to attach to Jesus.
In the Book of Daniel, the majestic yet humble figure in Daniel 7:13-14 is “like a son of man,” meaning that he looked like a man, but he also appears to be more than merely human. The prophet Daniel saw “one like a son of man” coming on the clouds of heaven to appear before the throne of God. The son of man was given dominion over all peoples and an everlasting kingdom.
The exact identity of the “son of man” in Daniel 7:13-14 is not specified, but his role is clear: The Most High has appointed him to rule an eternal, universal Kingdom that will be over all other nations. Also, this figure represents his own people, the holy people of the Most High and these people will also share in this son of man’s kingdom over all peoples and nations (Daniel 7:22). Moreover, this son of man receives his kingdom with humility and holiness without arrogantly grasping after it. The prophet Daniel makes clear this figure is opposite in character to the “little horn” (Daniel 7:8).
The scene surrounding this son of man indicates his divine characteristics. That he comes “with the clouds of heaven” (Daniel 7:13) indicates his heavenly origin (cp. Psalm 68:4; Psalm 97:2; Nahum 1:3). Many biblical scholars are divided over whether the “son of man” of Daniel 7:13-14 refers to an angel, the Messiah, or all of Israel. Jewish interpretation of Daniel 7:13 sees this figure as messianic.
For Christians, this "One like a Son of Man" described in Daniel 7:13-14 is the Messiah. Jesus identifies Himself with this Son of Man of Daniel 7:13 (Matthew 24:30; Matthew 25:11; Matthew 26:24; Mark 13:26; Luke 21:27; John 1:51; John 12:34; see also Acts 7:56; Hebrews 2:6; Revelation 1:13; Revelation 14:14). He is the representative Man and the human agent of God (Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:21-23). Moreover, Jesus understood Himself as that One who would return to earth in the clouds of heaven at the end times with has authority and power (see Mark 8:38; Mark 13:26; Mark 14:62). Son of Man is linked closely with Peter's confession of Jesus as the Christ and confirms its Messianic significance (Mark 8:29-31). Revelation 1:7 likewise yokes this Son of Man figure with Jesus Christ, the One who was pierced for our sins.
Moreover, the clouds of heaven from Daniel 7:13-14 portray the Son of Man as Divine. Throughout the Bible, clouds represent God, His majesty and His awesome presence. God's glory appeared in a cloud in Exodus 16:10 and 19:9 at the giving of the law at Sinai. The Lord God covered Himself with a cloud in the Book of Exodus (Exodus 13:21-22; Exodus 19:9). God’s people will be caught up into the clouds (1 Thessalonians 4:17) at the resurrection as Jesus was received into a cloud at his ascension (Acts 1:9).
As the Son of Man, God the Father has given Jesus all authority and power to rule over all things (Daniel 7:14; Matthew 28:18) and to win people from all the nations and kingdoms of the world (Matthew 28:19-20). God’s purpose in calling Abraham was to make a great nation through his people (Genesis 12:1-3; cp. Daniel 2:44-45), and Jesus fulfilled it.
Jesus used the title “Son of Man” in several ways in the Gospels. Sometimes Jesus used “Son of Man” to refer to His role as Judge, Deliverer, Savior, and Vindicator (Matthew 10:23; Matthew 13:41; Matthew 16:27; Matthew 19:28; Matthew 24:27, 30, 37, 44; Matthew 25:31; Matthew 26:64). Often Jesus used “Son of Man” to describe Himself as a Suffering Redeemer (Matthew 12:40; Matthew 17:9, 12, 22; Matthew 20:18, 28; Matthew 26:2, 24, 45). This sense is rooted in Isaiah 52:13–53:12. At times, Jesus apparently used “Son of Man” to refer to Himself as the Representative of humans (Matthew 8:20; Matthew 11:19; Matthew 12:8, 32; Matthew 13:37).
The Son of Man is confined to the sayings of Jesus, or allusions to them, in the four Gospels. The Son of Man sayings can be classified into three groups: present sayings, passion sayings and apocalyptic saying. The largest number of Son of Man sayings deal with the future or apocalyptic sayings when the Son of Man will descend to earth to gather the elect and to judge. The second largest group of Son of Man sayings is connected with the passion sayings (suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus). Three times Jesus predicted that the Son of Man would be rejected and killed by the priests and scribes but would rise on the third day (Mark 8:31; Mark 9:31; Mark 10:33-34; Luke 24:7).
The New Testament evidence reveals that the Son of Man never became a way for other people to refer to Jesus, and thus played no part in the confessional and doctrinal statements of the early church, unlike “Christ”, “Lord” and “Son of God.”
In the rest of the New Testament, the Son of Man occurs only four times outside the four Gospels. Nonetheless, all four references reflect understandings of the title already found in the Gospels. In Acts 7:56, Stephen beheld the ascended Son of Man standing beside the throne of God to receive him. In Revelation 1:13 and Revelation 14:14-16, the Son of Man appears as Judge. In Hebrews 2:6, the reference to Son of Man in Psalm 8:4 which originally applied to humanity in general are specifically applied to Jesus as the unique Son of Man and representative of humanity.
I do question the few references to Son of Man outside the four Gospels. Perhaps the Son of Man was not a familiar term to non-Jews in the New Testament world after Jesus ascended to heaven. In any event, the significance of the Son of Man is not lost to us non-Jews. The New Testament writers all confirm for Jew and non-Jews (Gentiles) to the profound teachings which this term embodies — the true humanity of the Word made flesh, the necessity of His suffering and death for salvation, the glory of His reign over an everlasting kingdom, and His final coming to judge the just and the unjust.
Draper, Charles. Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Holman Reference, 2003.
Life Application Study Bible. Tyndale House Publishers, 2005.
NIV Study Bible. Zondervan, 2008.
NLT Study Bible. Tyndale House Publishers, 2008.
Green, Joel. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Intervarsity Press, 1992.