The “Son of Man” is Jesus’ own self-description—he uses the title twelve times in the Gospel of John (1:51; 3:13, 14; 5:27; 6:27, 53, 62; 8:28; 9:35; 12:23; 13:31; in 12:34 his language is quoted back to him). It ranks second behind “Son” (in the sense of Son of God) as Jesus’ favorite self-description in the Gospel of John.
“Son of God” reflects the unique and intimate relationship between the Father and Jesus. He is uniquely Son—he is monogenes (the only one of his kind; John 3:16); there is no other sonship like his. Father and Son share an intimacy that is rooted in their shared divinity. They are one.
“Son of Man” has often been characterized as a focus on the humanity of Jesus, that is, he was born of woman. He is a human being. The Gospel of John certainly stresses the humanity of Jesus. Jesus eats and drinks like other humans; he experiences fatigue and he sheds blood. He dies.
But what is the function of this title on the lips of Jesus? Does he use the title to alert his hearers to his own humanity and his identification with the human predicament? Does Jesus use “Son of God” to refer to his divinity but “Son of Man” to signal his humanity? Or, is there more to the story than that?
“Son of Man” in the Gospel of John
Initial Use (John 1:51). John 1 is strewn with titles applied to Jesus: God (John 1:1), Son (John 1:18), Lamb (John 1:29, 36), Elect (John 1:34), Messiah (1:41) and Son of Joseph (1:45). “Son of Man” is Jesus’ own language for his identity. Nathaniel believed on Jesus because of Jesus’ intimate knowledge of him, but Jesus promised that he would “see greater things than that.” Specifically, and with the emphatic emphasis of “I tell you the truth,” he promised all the disciples (“you” is plural) that they would “see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
The language alludes to Jacob’s vision in Genesis 28:12. It is a rich metaphor which probably includes several ideas. Jesus is where humanity and divinity intersect. He is the revelatory Word of God addressing humanity through the presence of divine glory. That “heaven opened” pictures the pouring out of divine reality into the world which includes judgment (Isaiah 24:18; cf. John 5:27) and life (Deuteronomy 28:12; cf. John 6:53). Jesus is the locus of divine glory on earth—the place where heaven and earth meet.
Nicodemus Story (John 3:13-14). Responding to Nicodemus’ inquiries, Jesus declares that kingdom people are born “from above” (or, again) through the work of the Spirit. This, according to Jesus, is a “heavenly” thing, and only the one who can speak it is the one “who came from heaven—the Son of Man.” At the same time the one “came from heaven” is also the only one who “has ever gone into heaven.” This is the language of descent and ascent. The Son of Man is a heavenly persona who comes down from heaven (incarnation; cf. John 1:14) and returns to heaven (ascension; cf. John 20:17).
However, between the descent and the ascent is a crucial saving event called “lifting up.” Like the snake in the wilderness (Numbers 21:4-9), “the Son of Man must be lifted up.” The wilderness event saved those who trusted in God through looking at the snake, but judged those who refused. In the same way, the cross of Jesus will save those who believe but condemn those who reject the Son (John 3:16, 36). Life comes to those who believe but judgment to those who do not.
Judgment Theme (John 5:27). Jesus rehearses a similar theme in John 5:24—“whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life” but those who do not will be condemned (John 5:29). The Son of God is given “authority to judge because he is the Son of Man.” This judgment is eschatological in character, that is, it is occurs on a coming day when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of Man and rise to life or condemnation. The Son has authority to give life (John 5:21) or to condemn (judge; John 5:27).
Living Food (John 6:27, 53, 62). The Son of Man, Jesus tells those who are seeking loaves that only satisfy for a moment, gives “food that endures to eternal life” (John 6:27). Indeed, the Son of Man is himself the living bread of the Passover meal. He is the “bread of life” (John 6:35). This eternal life is present but also eschatological, that is, it is the life of the resurrection on the last day (John 6:40).
Jesus, then, becomes more specific about the reality of this living food which gives eternal life. One must, Jesus says, “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood” in order to have life (John 6:53). Flesh and blood clearly point to the humanity of the Son of Man but the “eternal life” (John 6:54) that comes through eating and drinking points us to the heavenly nature of the Son of Man. Eating and drinking are means by which, Jesus says, one “remains in me, and I in him.” It is a spiritual union, an intimacy that is made possible by the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb and by our ingesting that sacrifice.
“Eating flesh” is too much for some disciples as they grumbled about his meaning. But this eating is a one that is rooted in the exalted nature of the Son of Man whom they will “see…ascend to where he was before” (John 6:62). His return to heaven—the ascension—empowers the Spirit to give life even when flesh in and of itself “counts for nothing” (John 6:63). The exalted, ascended Son of Man gives life by the power of the Spirit to his disciples through the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood.
Uniqueness of the Son (John 8:28). Jesus is the “light of the world” (John 8:12)—the revelation of God, the Word of God. This is rooted in his unique relationship with the Father (John 8:16) and the fact that he is “not of this world” (John 8:23). He has come down from heaven as one sent by the Father. But the climactic revelation of this relationship is the cross when fallen humanity lifts up the Son of Man (John 8:28). In that moment the heavenly origin of Jesus will be revealed and the world judged.
Healing Presence (John 9:35). In Jerusalem Jesus healed a man who had been born blind. Refusing to accept the miracle, the temple leaders excluded him. When Jesus “found him,” he asked, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The association of “Son of Man” title with this healing act reflects the eschatological reality that the Son of Man will inaugurate. There will be no curse, no blindness, but only the revelation of the glory of God. A blind man sees the Son of Man—that is the life and joy that God brings through the Son of Man.
The Son is Lifted Up (John 12:23, 34). Now the “hour” has arrived. It is the moment when the Son of Man is to be lifted up—and this involves both glorification (John 12:23) and death (John 12:32-34). When the Son of Man is lifted up, the name of the Father is glorified (John 12:28). Also when the Son of Man is lifted up, the Son of Man dies like a “kernel of wheat” planted in the ground to produce life. The Son of Man glorifies the Father through submissive obedience as an expression of the intimacy the Son feels for the Father (John 12:27-28) and this glorifies the Father. The Son of Man is the Lamb of God who goes to the slaughter (cf. Isaiah 53:1 quoted in John 12:38) and is lifted up for the sake of the world in obedience to the Father. Disciples who serve Jesus must also “follow” him in honoring the Father who will in return honor the one who serves Jesus (John 12:26).
The Glory of the Son (John 13:31). The glory of the Son of Man is to glorify the Father through his death, and in response God will glorify the Son. This is the intimacy of their relationship. The Son of Man obeys the Father and the Father loves the Son, and they share the glory of redemption by inviting humanity into their own communion. The glory of the Son and Father is the inclusion of broken humanity in the Triune fellowship of the Father, Son and Spirit—a theme prominent in the Farewell Discourse (John 13:31-17:26).
The Theology of the Son of Man in the Gospel of John
The identity of Jesus as the Son is the one who descended from heaven to obey the Father by being lifted up on a cross in order that believers might have eternal life in the resurrection and the disobedient judged by the light of God’s glory.
Son of Man as the Descended Heavenly Figure. Jesus’ role as the “Son of Man” is deeply connected with his unique relationship to the Father as the Son of God. It is because he is Son of God that he comes to earth as Son of Man. The Son of Man is sent by God from heaven to earth to accomplish the redemption of humanity through his obedience and to be the light of God in the midst of the world’s darkness. The Son of Man descends from a pre-existent status as “God” (John 1:1) to incarnate himself in human flesh and dwell among us. This is the one who not only lived in the bosom of the Father but now comes to earth to reveal the Father and manifest the glory of God in a broken world. The Son of Man is not simply a human being but the one who comes from heaven and is returning to heaven.
Son of Man as the One Lifted Up. The Son of Man is lifted up in obedience to the Father. The Son loves the Father, trusts the Father and thus obeys the Father. Their intimacy bears the fruit of redemption in the cross. The cross of Jesus, however, both saves and condemns. The cross draws some into fellowship with the Father but it repels others. Some trust in Jesus but others reject him. The cross is God’s saving act for believers but it condemns those who trust the darkness. The Son of Man is an apocalyptic savior and judge—the whole cosmos will answer to him. The cross is the focus of both God’s saving work and his judgment.
Son of Man as Ascended Eschatological Figure. The Son of Man does not remain dead but is born again through resurrection. The seed that is planted in death produces a new life in the resurrection. In this sense the Son of Man is a human being from the future; he is new humanity anticipating a new creation. The resurrection inaugurates a new reality that will be consummated in a new heaven and new earth. The Son of Man, as new human, returns to heaven; he ascends to the Father. There he pours out the Holy Spirit upon his disciples who live in the intimacy, power and giftedness of the Spirit for the mission entrusted to them. By the power of that Spirit, the Son of Man is yet present to his disciples through eating and drinking, that is, the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. This is life, and it is the eternal life of the Ascended One who will raise us from the dead on the last day. The Son of Man is both the guarantor of our own resurrection and the life of our resurrection because of his own resurrection.
In conclusion, it is important to raise the question of significance and meaning for the contemporary church. There are many points to raise, but four are particularly significant for our present walk with God.
First, the Son of God became Son of Man in order to reveal the Father. We know the Father most clearly and fundamentally through Jesus—he is the image of the Father. The Son of Man is the revelatory bridge between God and humanity. He is the intersection between heaven and earth and to see—to know him—is to know the Father.
Second, through the Son of Man we are united to the Father and experience the same intimacy with the Father that the Son of Man has with the Father. The Father loves us just as he loves the Son (John 17:23). The Father dwells in us and we in him just as the Father dwells in the Son and the Son in him. The Father and Son did not abandon us when the Son returned to heaven but sent the Holy Spirit to dwell in us through whom we experience the intimate communion and love of the Triune God. Our intimacy with the Father in the Son through the Spirit is real, authentic—and it is available to all who trust in the one who was lifted up for our sakes to the glory of God.
Third, the Son of Man is yet present in the world through the power of the Holy Spirit when we eat his flesh and drink his blood at the table of the Lord. While flesh means nothing, the Spirit gives eternal life through eating and drinking. The realistic language upsets many—as it did disciples at the time it was spoken—but the reality is the spiritual communion between Jesus and his disciples through the Holy Spirit. By the Spirit we enjoy not only the forgiveness that the death of Jesus (flesh and blood) produced for us but we also enjoy the eternal life that is experienced in the communion of the Father, Son and Spirit with those who sit at the table eating and drinking in the kingdom of God. This is communal, spiritual nourishment as we experience eternal life even now while we yet live in these broken bodies. When we eat and drink the life of the Son at this table we experience even now the new, abundant life he brings and anticipate the fullness of that life in the coming resurrection.
Fourth, just as the Son of Man was sent, so now he sends his disciples. The Son of Man was obedient, even to the cross, and those who believe on him must follow him, even to a cross. Just as the Son of Man, we are sent into the world for the sake of the world to the glory of God. His mission has become our mission, that is, to obey the Father so that the glory of God might shine in the world. Redeemed by the Father, sent by Jesus, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, this is our mission.
An audio presentation of similar material is available here (delivered at the Highland View Church of Christ in Oak Ridge, TN, on July 29, 2009).