A Study in a title of Jesus
Many Muslims have profound problems with the identity of Jesus. It has been supposed that there is very little evidence in the Bible to substantiate the Christian belief that Jesus is God. Any Christian who has spent much time talking to Muslims will no doubt have come up against the common challenge: ‘Where in the Bible does Jesus say, “I am God – worship me”?’ This statement, of course, does not exist; hence the reason for its repeated use. Does this, however, mean that the same sentiment is not conveyed in the Bible? Is the deity of Jesus a fabrication of the Christian mind, a relic of pagan worship somehow incorporated into a corruption of the true religion of Allah? This is definitely not the case and it is the purpose of this essay to deal with just one of the many reasons why an open-minded reading of the Bible can leave the reader with no option other than to conclude that Jesus is indeed God.
Before beginning, it must be understood that the Jews of Jesus’ time held the name of God in such great respect that they would go to great lengths to avoid pronouncing it. This was to make sure that they were not guilty of breaking one of the greatest commandments of the Torah of Moses – ‘You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name’ (Exodus 20:7). This can be easily seen in one of the fundamental statements of Judaism, found in Deuteronomy 6:4 and reaffirmed by Jesus in Mark 12:29. It reads thus:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.
This, of course, does not negate the Christian assertion of Jesus’ deity, for neither Christians nor the Bible claim that Jesus is a god beside Allah (which the Qur’an seems to think). The concept of a triune God allows for a plurality of persons within one Godhead: three persons in one God.
The Hebrew word, here translated as LORD, is the personal name of the God of Israel, often transliterated as ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Jehovah’. Whenever Jews recite this verse, known as the Shema, they do not pronounce the name of God, but substitute instead Adonai, the word translated as Lord (not all in capitals) in most English Bible translations.
Another example is that when English Jews are writing about God, they often miss out the middle letter and write G-d, to show respect for his name.
Against this background, it is not at all surprising that Jesus did not say ‘I am God – worship me’, for the reasons stated above. Instead, we see in the New Testament many inferences when Jesus talked about God. For instance, he spoke of God as ‘the Father’. In the parable of the lost son (Luke 15:18), the son tells his father, ‘I have sinned against heaven and against you.’ From the context it is clear that he is referring to God when he mentions ‘heaven’.
The above has prepared us for the main subject of this essay. The phrase ‘Son of Man’ is found around 200 times in the whole Bible and 82 times in the four accounts of Jesus’ life and words, which we refer to as the gospels. In many instances it simply refers to an ordinary man and is not of any special significance. This can be seen in the 100 or so references in the book of Ezekiel, all of which refer to the prophet Ezekiel himself.
In Numbers 23:19, we find the statement, ‘God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind.’ No doubt some Muslims will jump onto this reference as evidence against the claims of Christians. However, an unbiased reading of the passage in context will show that it is simply stating that God’s moral character is way above that of evil men, a sentiment which both Christians and Muslims will have no problem with.
For the purpose of our discussion, the foundation text is found in Daniel 7:13,14:
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
Here, in Daniel’s vision, he saw two people inparticular. One is the Ancient of Days, a title which is given to God and mentioned three times in Daniel 7. The other person mentioned is one like a son of man, referring to the fact that he was human in his appearance. Some facts about this person in the passage are very instructive:
- He was given sovereign power
- All nations worshipped him (other English translations render this as ‘served’, but the Aramaic word in question is only used in the Bible to refer to serving God)
- He was the king of an eternal kingdom
We must ask the question, is it possible that Daniel’s vision could refer to one who was merely a man and nothing more? It is utter blasphemy to suppose that the whole world would worship or serve anyone but God whilst they were in his presence. Additionally, who can conceive that God would give sovereign (total) power to anyone else, let alone a mere man? Not one of the human prophets of God, in Christianity or Islam, would claim this. This leaves us with only one conclusion; namely, that this one like a son of man, was more than just a man.
This reference is one of many in the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament, for want of a better word), which point to the coming of a great king who would rescue God’s people from their sins and release them from slavery. This expected deliverer came to be called the Messiah, which means ‘anointed one’. In the Old Testament, different people were anointed with special oil, in order to set them apart for a specific task, including prophets, priests and kings. It can therefore be concluded that the promised Messiah would combine the offices of prophet, priest and king in one person.
Since the time that the book of Daniel was written (in approximately 400BC), the Jews rightly saw this person in 7:13,14 as the Messiah. Therefore, at the time of Jesus, they were expecting the one like a son of man. So in the gospels the term ‘son of man’ was not simply a way of denoting any old human being, but was used as a title to refer to this special person in the prophecy of Daniel. We will see more of this below.
Below I shall list all the references to the Son of Man in the gospels, so that anyone with an interest can spend time looking them up and checking what is said here. Afterwards, I will go onto quote from those references which are more relevant to our discussion. Please take note that these references are to a specific person and not a general reference to a normal human.
Occurrences of the title ‘Son of Man’ in the gospels:
Now I would like to quote the most relevant occurrences and then to discuss their implications.
Matthew 9:5,6 – ‘Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…’ Then he said to the paralytic, ‘Get up, take your mat and go home.’
Matthew 12:8 – ‘For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.‘
Matthew 12:40 – ‘For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.‘
Matthew 13:41 – ‘The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.’
Matthew 16:13-17 – When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?‘ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’
‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?‘ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ [Messiah], the Son of the living God.‘
Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.‘
Matthew 17:9 – As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, ‘Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.‘
Matthew 17:22,23 – When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.‘ And the disciples were filled with grief.
Matthew 20:18,19 – ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!‘
Matthew 20:28 – ‘…the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.‘
Matthew 26:2 – ‘As you know, the Passover is two days away – and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.‘
Matthew 26:45 – Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.‘
Mark 8:31 – He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.
Mark 9:31 – He said to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.‘
Mark 10:33,34 – ‘We are going up to Jerusalem,’ he said, ‘and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.‘
Mark 14:41 – Returning the third time, he said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.‘
Luke 9:22 – And he said, ‘The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.‘
Luke 12:40 – ‘You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.‘
Luke 18:31-33 – Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.‘
Luke 22:48 – …but Jesus asked him, ‘Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?‘
John 3:13-15 – ‘No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.‘
John 9:35-38 – Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ ‘Who is he sir?‘ the man asked. ‘Tell me so that I may believe in him.‘
Jesus said, ‘You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.‘
Then the man said, ‘Lord, I believe,‘ and he worshipped him.
The above references give far more information about who exactly this ‘Son of Man’ is. Matthew 16:13-17, Luke 22:48 and John 9:35-38 make it crystal clear that it can only refer to Jesus. The other examples teach us much more about his character and purpose. We see that:
- He has power to forgive sins (Matthew 9:6);
- He is Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8);
- He is the king of a kingdom and the angels are his (Matthew 13:41);
- He is the Messiah, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:13-17);
- He was to be killed and raised from the dead (resurrected) (Matthew 17:9,22,23;20:18,19;26:2; Mark 8:31;9:31;10:33,34; Luke 9:22;18:31-33);
- He was to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28);
- He was unique and came from heaven (John 3:13);
- All who believe in him are to have eternal life (John 3:14,15);
- He accepted worship (John 9:35-38).
In the light of the above, it will be seen that the Christian position on the person of Jesus has ample support from the Bible. Far from being simply a human prophet of Allah, he is unique, far above all other prophets. The following reference from Revelation 1:12-18 is yet again instructive. John, in his vision from God, says:
I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw… someone ‘like a son of man’, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters… His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me andsaid: ‘Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades [Hell].
Christians and Muslims alike must be very careful not to make a mistake in their treatment of this issue, for it is one of immense importance. We would all do well to remember the words of Jesus in Luke 12:37-40:
You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.