The Son of Man in the Gospel of John

Does the Gospel of John Present a “Radically Different” Jesus?

Critics of the New Testament like Bart D. Ehrman have popularized the myth that the New Testament’s presentation of the Lord Jesus Christ is not true to history, but instead represents a mish-mash of ideas formed by cultic communities who embellished some very basic historical facts about an ordinary Man. Christ, they argue, does not exhibit consciousness of His own Deity in the Gospel of Mark since He frequently refers to Himself as “the Son of Man.” Taken in conjunction with the fact that they do not believe the last twelve verses of Mark 16 are authentic verses, these critics then propose that Christ’s reference of Himself as “the Son of Man” is the title that He had given Himself as apocalyptic end-times prophet. His prediction of the end, however, was wrong, and He was crucified. How anyone with any common sense, let alone a PhD, can identify such silliness for “scholarship” is absolutely baffling. Yet, God’s Word tells us to answer them, so let’s turn to His Word.

In all four Gospels, the Lord Jesus Christ uses the title “the Son of Man” in conjunction with His role as Judge of all Men. We see this very clearly in the Synoptics,[1] but it can also be observed in the Gospel of John, where the title shows up exactly thirteen times, each occurrence containing either an implicit or explicit reference to judgment. The first of these is given in John 1:51. There, we are told that the angels of God will be ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. The obvious allusion that Christ is making is to Jacob’s latter in Genesis 28:10-22, where Jacob dreams of a ladder upon which angels ascend and descend. Christ identifies Himself as this ladder. But why does He do this? According to Matthew Henry, in his concise commentary on the whole Bible, the ladder, which has a lower half fixed on/in the earth and an upper half that is fixed in the heavens, typifies the two natures of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is Christ who is both Man and God, who is our Mediator thereby, and through whom all of heaven’s blessings come to us, and by which we go the Father.[2] This reference, however, is made in conjunction with Nathanael’s declaration that Christ is (a.)Son of God and (b.)King of Israel.

These three titles – Son of God, King of Israel, and Son of Man – are found in the book of Daniel. In Daniel 3, we read of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s plight under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar who ordered all men to bow down before an idol that he had made of himself. The Son of God appears in the midst of the flames in Daniel 3, while the King of Israel and Son of Man appear in the clouds of glory in Daniel 7. John’s record of our Lord’s conversation with Nathanael in this opening portion of his Gospel already points us to Christ as the Son of Man in a way that is similar to, if not identical with, the Markan, Matthean, and Lukan usage of the title. Christ, the Son of God, is the Divine Son of Man, King of Israel, who has come to establish His kingdom on earth. This Kingdom, however, is a spiritual kingdom. Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus brings this to light, as the false kingdom for which Nicodemus is hoping is contrasted with the true kingdom of God. Nicodemus is fleshly minded, un-spiritual, and unable to see the kingdom of God. “Unless one is born again,” Jesus tells him, “he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

In connection with this kingdom, Christ calls Himself “the Son of Man.”[3] Whereas Daniel’s prophecy only shows us Christ as exalted, coming on the clouds of heaven, returning to judge the quick and the dead, the Lord Jesus is connecting this title to His incarnation, suffering, resurrection, and exaltation. The Son of Man’s kingdom “is not of this world,”[4] being a spiritual kingdom where Christ exercises absolute control over all men so that He may save all those whom the Father has given Him.[5] Nicodemus, as a Jew who expected the Son of Man to establish a political reign over the earth and destroy the Gentiles that had been oppressing “God’s chosen people,” cannot grasp the reality of the situation: Jesus Christ has come to save sinners; it is those sinners whom the Father has chosen unto salvation that are the recipients of that salvation. Christ’s dominion is not an ethnic dominion, it is a spiritual dominion; He has crushed the serpent’s head underfoot.

Our Lord continues to speak in this manner in John 5, where He explains that it has been given to the Son to be the Judge of all men, who will one day hear His voice and rise to the judgment.[6] Appropriately, He refers to Himself using the title “the Son of Man.”[7] Verses 25-29 allude to Daniel 12:2, where we are informed that “…many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” We should expect our Lord to identify Himself as “the Son of Man,” given the context of His discourse. Christ is proclaiming Himself to be none other than the very King of kings in whom all must place their trust or perish; hence, we read that it is only those who eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man who have life in them in the very next chapter.[8] The theme of judgment comes up once again and with it the title “Son of Man” also appears. In fact, the themes of judgment, authority over all flesh, and the salvation of God’s elect people occur in 8:28 and 9:35, gradually reaching a climax in 12:23, 12:34, and 13:31, which all specifically refer to our Lord’s crucifixion.

-h.


[1] Cf. Matt 8:20 (service to the Son of Man and the spiritual nature of the kingdom), 9:6 (authority to forgive sins), 10:23 (Judgment on the last day by the Son of Man), 11:19-24 (Judgment on the last day), etc; Mark 14:62, etc; Luke 22:69

[2] Cf. John 14:1-6

[3] Cf. John 3:13-14

[4] Cf. John 18:33-37

[5] Cf. John 17:1-2

[6] Cf. John 5:19-29

[7] Cf. John 5:27

[8] Cf. John 6:53

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