The “one like a Son of Man” from Daniel is the source of Christ’s self-designation, the “Son of Man” – Daniel 7:13-14.
In the gospel accounts, the “Son of Man” is the most frequent self-designation heard on the lips of Jesus, a term derived from Daniel’s vision of the figure “like a Son of Man,” who approached the “Ancient of Days” to receive “dominion.” For example, at the end of the age, “all the tribes of the earth” will mourn when “they see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven.” Jesus was “that Son of Man.”
In each case, the Greek text reads, “the Son of Man,” and the definite article in Koiné Greek had demonstrative force (i.e., “the”). Rendered into idiomatic English, the real sense is “that Son of Man.” Jesus was not referring to just any man, to humanity in general, or to his human nature, but instead, to a specific and known figure; in this case, the “Son of Man” from the seventh chapter of Daniel.
In his vision of the four “beasts ascending from the sea,” Daniel saw a malevolent figure called the “little horn” that appeared from the fourth “beast.” This figure had “a mouth speaking great things” and waged “war” against the saints. The vision concluded with a judgment scene and the appearance of the “Son of Man” to receive “dominion” and judgment on behalf of the saints:
- (Daniel 7:13-14) – “I continued looking in the visions of the night, when, lo, with the clouds of the heavens, one like a son of man was coming, and to the Ancient of days he approached, and before him, they brought him near; and to him were given dominion and dignity and kingship, that all peoples, races and tongues, should do service to him; his dominion was an everlasting dominion, which should not pass away, and his kingdom that which should not be destroyed.”
In the interpretation of the vision, the “little horn made war against the saints and prevailed against them,” then “judgment was given for the saints” by the “Ancient of Days,” and thereafter, the saints “possessed the kingdom.” Bear in mind that “judgment” does not, by itself, mean punishment, but instead, in this context, to a decision rendered on behalf of the saints; their vindication – (Daniel 7:15-27).
Features from the vision are found in Jesus’ references to the “Son of Man,” as well as in related passages elsewhere in the New Testament, including:
- His “coming on clouds.”
- His approach to the “Ancient of Days” for judgment.
- His receipt of dominion over “peoples, races, and tongues.”
- The rendering of judgment for the saints.
In his teachings, Jesus is the “Son of Man who sows the seed” of the gospel, a process set in motion that will consummate when the “Son of Man shall send forth his angels to gather out of his kingdom all things that cause stumbling, and them that do iniquity.” At that time, the “Son of Man will come in the glory of his Father to render to every man according to his deeds” – (Matthew 13:41, 16:27).
But THAT same “Son of Man” is also destined to suffer for his people – (“For the Son of Man shall be delivered up into the hands of men, and they shall kill him”). However, death is not the final word, for “on the third day,” God resurrected him from the dead. And in the “regeneration, the Son of Man will sit on the throne of his glory, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” – (Matthew 17:22, 19:28).
That judgment will include sentence on the same members of Israel that condemned Jesus to death, which is borne out by his response at his trial to the high priest when he demanded whether Jesus was the Messiah or not:
- “I am he, and you will see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven” – (Matthew 19:28, 26:64).
In that declaration, Jesus combined the phrase from Daniel with a clause from the Psalms, leaving no doubt that he was the Davidic Messiah destined to reign over the nations from the throne of Yahweh, including over Israel:
- “Yahweh declared to my Lord: Sit at my right hand, until I make your foes your footstool” – (Psalm 110:1. See Mark 14:62, Matthew 26:64, Luke 22:69).
The language from Daniel is especially prominent in passages that describe the return of Jesus. He is the glorious figure who will appear “on the clouds of heaven”:
- “Then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” – (Matthew 24:30).
Similarly, the description of Jesus “coming on the clouds” appears in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians when describing how the saints will meet Jesus as he descends from heaven – (“Then we that are alive, that are left, shall together with them be caught up in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air”).
In Daniel’s vision, the “Son of Man” approached the “Ancient of Days” to receive the kingdom on behalf of the “saints,” as well as authority to reign over “all peoples, nations and tongues,” but only after the “little horn” had waged “war against the saints and prevailed over them.” Only then did the saints “receive the kingdom.” So also, the receipt of “dominion” by Jesus only came after his death and resurrection, and his death was a “ransom for many.”
The imagery from Daniel’s vision of the “Son of Man” is prominent in the Book of Revelation. The conclusion of its prologue, for example, declares the coming of Jesus “on the clouds.” As is typical in Revelation, the passage combines language from at least two different verses from the Old Testament:
- “Behold, he is coming with the clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they that pierced him; and all the tribes of the earth shall mourn over him” – (Revelation 1:7, Daniel 7:13-14, Zechariah 12:10).
The prologue is followed by John’s first vision, the picture of “one like a Son of Man” who was walking among the seven golden lampstands that represented the seven churches of Asia:
- “And I turned to see the voice that spoke with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like unto a son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about at the breasts with a golden girdle. And his head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; and his feet like unto burnished brass, as if it had been refined in a furnace; and his voice as the voice of many waters” – (Revelation 1:12-15).
In the fifth chapter, though pictured as a “slain Lamb,” overtones from Daniel’s vision are evident in the description of his victory and arrival at the divine throne. Like the “Son of Man” in Daniel, upon his arrival, the “Lamb” approached the throne to receive the “sealed scroll” from the one who sat on throne, and immediately began to break open its seals. All creation declared him worthy to receive all power and authority because, “by his blood,” he redeemed men from “every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation,” a group he then constituted a “kingdom of priests” – (Revelation 5:5-14).
When the seventh trumpet sounded, the victory and sovereignty of the “Lamb” and his people over the kingdoms of the world was declared, once again, echoing words from Daniel:
- “And the seventh angel sounded; and there followed great voices in heaven, and they said: The kingdom of the world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ: and he shall reign for ever and ever… And the nations were angry, and your wrath came, and the time of the dead to be judged, and the time to give their reward to thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and to them that fear your name”– (Revelation 11:15-19).
- “And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed” – (Daniel 7:14).
- “And the kingdom and the dominion, and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most-High: his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him” – (Daniel 7:27).
In chapter 14, Jesus is the “Son of Man” who is “sitting on the cloud,” poised to reap the grain harvest of the earth, a portrait of his gathering of the saints to himself – Revelation 14:14-16).
During the “thousand-years,” Satan is bound in the “Abyss,” and prevented from deceiving the nations. During this period, judgment is made on behalf of the saints:
- “And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given for them: and I saw the souls of them that had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus, and for the word of God, and such as did not render homage to the beast, neither his image, and received not the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand; and they lived, and reigned with Christ a thousand years” – (Revelation 20:4).
- “I beheld till thrones were placed, and one that was ancient of days did sit… I beheld, and the same horn made war with the saints, and prevailed against them, until the ancient of days came, and judgment was given for the saints of the Most-High, and the time came that the saints possessed the kingdom”– (Daniel 7:9-22).
As in Daniel, so also in Revelation, the “Son of Man” is closely associated with the “saints” and their fate, and especially with their vindication at the time of judgment. They do not escape tribulation and death. The malevolent “little horn” first wages “war against” them and “overcomes them”; that is, he kills them. So likewise in Revelation, the “Dragon” and his earthly vassals “wage war against the saints,” and kill them. However, afterwards, the “Son of Man” vindicates his saints, and they participate in his reign – (Daniel 7:21, Revelation 12:17, 13:7-10).
The New Testament writers used several Old Testament images to portray aspects of Christ’s ministry. For example, the suffering “Servant of Yahweh” from Isaiah was employed to portray the sufferings and death of Jesus on behalf of his people. Most often, the figure of the “Son of Man” is associated with his future return in glory when he sits in judgment and vindicates his elect, and with his kingdom reign. Jesus is “THAT Son of Man.”