The hit CBS show Undercover Boss has enjoyed a decade-long run based on a simple premise. Conceal the identity of a high-ranking leader of a company as he or she works among ordinary employees — and make the big reveal of the boss’s true identity at the end of each episode. Part of the fun is how some folks begin to piece it together along the way.
Of all designations used for Jesus Christ, the most undercover one is “Son of Man.” It shows up seemingly everywhere in the Gospels (over eighty times across all four), as a distinct way Jesus refers to himself in the third person. Jesus is not shy, in other words, about calling himself “Son of Man.” But what does it actually mean? It is surprisingly rare elsewhere in the New Testament, and unlike “Son of David” or other designations, it is not common in the Old Testament or Jewish tradition either.
As we reflect on Jesus this Advent season, it is right to ask the very question he asked his disciples: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13). “Son of Man” may sound simple on the surface, but this phrase masks the astounding depths of the person and work of Jesus.
Revealing: Man Among Us
Let’s begin with what seems quite obvious about the phrase: “Son of Man” reveals someone is truly human. On the surface, the title seems to work just like, say, Aslan’s affectionate way of calling the four Pevensies “Sons of Adam” and “Daughters of Eve” to distinguish them from Narnian creatures. The offspring of a human shares the same nature.
Early church writers generally understood “Son of Man” along these lines. They treated it as a beautifully succinct reminder that Jesus is fully human, often as the opposite pole of “Son of God.” Here are a few examples that capture the Christmas spirit of the phrase (italics mine):
- Ignatius (d. 140s): “Jesus Christ — who according to the flesh is of the lineage of David, the Son of Man” (Letter to the Ephesians, 20.2).
- Justin Martyr (d. 165): “He spoke of himself as ‘Son of Man,’ either because of his birth through a virgin . . . or because Adam was his father” (Dialogue with Trypho, 100.3).
- Irenaeus (d. 202): “Our Lord is . . . Son of Man, because from Mary he has his generation according to humanity, being made Son of Man” (Against Heresies, 3.19.3).
- Tertullian (d. 220): “Christ is neither able to lie, that he would pronounce himself ‘Son of Man’ if it were not truly so, nor could he be regarded as son of man if he were not born of a human” (Against Marcion, 4.10.6).
- Origen (d. 253): “The Son of God is said to have died, namely, with regard to that nature that was able to accept death — and he is designated ‘Son of Man’” (On First Principles, 2.6.3).
The church fathers, then, chart a course for seeing “Son of Man” as a three-word way of capturing the essence of the nativity: Jesus took on flesh and was born of a virgin. This fits nicely with the hypothesis that — assuming Jesus regularly spoke this phrase in Aramaic (bar enash) — it would sound to his hearers like a simple idiom for “a man like me.”
There is only one problem: Jesus uses “Son of Man” in ways that stretch far beyond mere humanness.
Concealing: Divine Man in Heaven
Several times, Jesus states that, as “Son of Man,” he will sit on a heavenly throne, come with the clouds, receive glory and power, and be surrounded by angels (Matthew 24:30; 25:31; 26:64; Mark 13:26; 14:62; Luke 21:27; 22:69). Surely this is not normal for a man! A reader with ears to hear will be drawn to Daniel 7 as the key for how “Son of Man,” while revealing Jesus’s humanity, simultaneously conceals Jesus’s heavenly status.
“‘Son of Man’ sounds simple on the surface, but this phrase masks the astounding depths of the person and work of Jesus.”
In Daniel’s vision of heaven, the Ancient of Days takes his throne of judgment, and “with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man . . . and to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom” (Daniel 7:13–14). The setup is staggering. Someone is enthroned with God in heaven to rule forever, and he appears as a “son of man” because he is better than the beastly kings of earth (Daniel 7:17).
By deftly applying phrases of Daniel 7 to himself, Jesus unveils that he is that Son of Man. And Daniel’s vision is not about simple flesh and blood. It is ripe for far more.
- Preexistence: In this vision, Daniel glimpses the preincarnate Son in the throne room — just as Isaiah saw Jesus’s glory (John 12:37–41; Isaiah 6:1–10), and Ezekiel saw a “man” enthroned in the highest heaven (Ezekiel 1:26–28).
- Present authority: Multiple times, Jesus invokes his identity as Son of Man to claim authority on earth that no mere man could claim, such as unrestricted forgiveness of sins (Mark 2:5–12) and lordship over the Sabbath (Mark 2:28). Jesus’s divine prerogatives are rooted in his status as heavenly Son of Man.
- Suffering to accomplish redemption: Jesus also connects “Son of Man” with the vicarious suffering of the Isaianic “servant” (Isaiah 52:13–53:12) when he predicts how, as Son of Man, he would suffer and die for sins (Mark 9:31).
- Heavenly enthronement: Upon his ascension, Jesus is enthroned as Son of Man at the right hand of the Father on high (Acts 7:56; cf. Revelation 1:12–16) — further connecting the phrase to Psalm 110:1. Having accomplished salvation, the man Jesus Christ now reigns in heaven.
- Return in glory: Finally, Jesus will return from heaven as Son of Man, the divine judge and eternal king (Matthew 19:28–30).
On closer inspection, “Son of Man” is just as much about Jesus’s divinity as it is his humanity.
This title proves to be perhaps the most effective way Jesus reveals and conceals who he really is. By using “Son of Man,” he is able to minister undercover, so to speak, on earth. For many observers then and now, the cryptic phrase just states the obvious: he’s human. But those who know the Scriptures see that “Son of Man” conceals something amazing: he is the one divine-man, grounded in heaven!
Our Son of Man
When Daniel glimpsed this heavenly reality, he was thoroughly overwhelmed (Daniel 7:28). What is our own response this Advent, as we see with greater clarity than even Daniel that Jesus Christ as Son of Man is truly man — born in Bethlehem, placed in a manger — but also much more?
He came down from heaven as Son of Man among the sons and daughters of Adam. Why? So that, through his divine authority and self-giving, he might make us to be children of the living God. The Son of Man descended from the heavenly throne room to win a people for himself, that in him the “saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever” (Daniel 7:18).
How, then, should we answer Jesus’s question, Who is this “Son of Man”? He is nothing short of God-made-flesh, who reigns in heaven, yet was born of a virgin — our brother and our friend.