Why Does Jesus Keep Calling Himself the Son of Man?

There was no denying it. In writing an accurate account of the life of Christ, the gospel writers could not avoid Jesus’ favorite self-reference. He could have simply referred to himself in the first person by using the pronoun, “I.” But Jesus had a more profound statement to make. He often referred to himself in the third person by using the term, “Son of Man.” This reference is used 80 times in the gospels and 30 of them are in Matthew’s gospel alone.

The first time Matthew recounts Jesus’ use of this term is in Matthew 8:20. A Jewish Scribe steps out from the crowd to express a desire to follow Jesus wherever he is about to go. Jesus’ response is to say that “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." Is it possible that a Scribe, who should have intimate knowledge of this Old Testament term, Son of Man, would see the significance of its use on the lips of Christ? We would hope that he would at least think it through, but Matthew makes no mention of the Scribes reaction. Even the reader of Matthew’s gospel would be a little confused by this designation at its first reference.

As one continues to read the Gospel of Matthew, each use of this self-reference of Christ brings us a little close to the fuller revelation of it’s meaning. We start with a view of the overwhelming humility of the Son of Man who has less of a place to lay his head than birds and foxes. We also find that the Son of Man: has authority to forgive sins (9:6), eats and drinks as one of us (11:19), is Lord of the Sabbath (12:8), will be buried in the earth for three days (16:27), will be raised from the dead (17:9), will be delivered over (19:28), came to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (20:28), and will bring final judgment and come in glory (12:40, 24:30).

By the time we get to Matthew’s 30th use of “Son of Man,” Jesus is standing before Caiaphas and the council of Scribes and Elders. The council was looking for a reason to be able to put Jesus to death. Jesus remained silent during their attempt to trap him, but there was a question that Jesus was prepared to answer directly. “But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, "I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God." Jesus said to him, "You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven." Then the high priest tore his robes and said, "He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy.” (Matthew 26:63-65).

Jesus referenced himself as the Son of Man by making a direct reference to Daniel 7:13-14 where the Son of Man comes in conquering victory to establish his eternal kingdom and is in authority with God in heaven. The council rightly interpreted this as Jesus placing himself on the same level as God.

The exercise of that authority was not the overthrow of an empire that the council was expecting. Jesus’ victory was to come through humility and suffering. The very same Son of Man explicitly announced to Caiaphas and the council was the Son of Man earlier described to a Scribe as one who has no place to lay his head.

The Scribe in Matthew 8 found no reason to accuse Jesus of blasphemy and tear his clothes at his self-reference to being the Son of Man. There was no thought that Jesus’ statement of humble homelessness had anything to do with a Messiah King coming on the clouds in glory and judgment.

Readers of Matthew get to read the whole gospel and have a bird’s eye view of everything that is associated with Jesus calling himself the Son of Man. We get to see that it is all connected as a progressive revelation of who the coming Son of Man, the Messiah, actually is. When we see it in its fuller perspective, we are able to go back and read Jesus’ conversation with the Scribe at Lake Galilee with wonder. Jesus is the Son of Man from Daniel 7, and he is the all-conquering victor and King of the eternal kingdom sitting at the right hand of the Father in equal authority as God. Yet….the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.

The Messiah did not come in arrogance, pomp and pride. He came as a suffering servant and he came not to make a home of this world, but to save people out of it. This is our humble, victorious King. If he can give up a home in this world to conquer death and sin on our behalf, surely we can be willing to give up anything in this world to follow him.