Christians, and to a lesser extent the rest of the world, have over the centuries wrestled with the identity of Jesus of Nazareth ever since his first followers encountered him in 1st century Roman Palestine. Probably, the most well-known challenge of the Church has been navigating the intricacies of Trinitarian theology. How is Jesus the same as God yet different from him and how does the Holy Spirit fit into all of this? However, there is a subtler problem which comes from not paying attention to how Jesus understands and identifies himself in the New Testament. Christians consistently mistake what one of his most well-known titles mean with another title’s meaning who’s meaning is very counterintuitive. This is one of those situations you really have to pay attention because this is going to be a deep, long dive into what the scriptures actually say.
I remember years ago going through the Bible and looking for simple answers to simple questions it directly addresses. One of those questions was who is Jesus. Of course the New Testament answers that question multiple ways but one of the most well-known is the famous episode in the region of Caesarea Philippi.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven… Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised… For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” – Matthew 16:13-17, 20-21, 28-27 ESV.
When Jesus asked his disciples, and through the scriptures us as well who he was, there are several things going on in this loaded scene. Here we see two titles of Jesus, “Son of Man” and “Son of God.” I contend that these titles actually mean the opposite of what we usually think, such that we have swapped out their meanings with one another. To make sense of this we need to start with this passage and look briefly at how in the gospels Jesus understands himself.
Now in the Gospel of Matthew this episode marks a major turning point in the narrative. It is the climactic reveal that ushers us into the last phase of his mission, the final drive to the cross, the fulfilment of the prophetic scriptures, the birthing of a renewed Israel and the coming of the end of the age. According to Matthew this is who Jesus and what the entire narrative is about, after teasing and hinting at his identity throughout the preceding 15 chapters.
All the Gospels identify Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, usually through a character in the gospel narrative except for Mark which outright begins with this declaration. Jesus himself never utters these words but the designation that he does use for himself, with which he asks the question of his identity and is his favourite way of referring to himself is Son of Man. It does not appear beyond the gospels in Christian writings the first century after Jesus as well as in any orthodox creeds of Christianity. Not only does this tell us this title is unique to Jesus originating from him, it means we need to pay closer attention to his preferred way of calling himself. Before, we deal with what is more obscure to us but common in the gospels, let’s look at what is more obscure to the gospels and common to us, the title “Son of God.”
I have already spoken about what Son of God means which you can find here, so I will be brief. In all the gospels the Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. To perhaps make it a bit clear the messiah means son of God and Jesus is the messiah. N.T. Wright potently argues that Christ, the Hebrew being “Messiah,” is not actually a name, like Larry or Adwoa, neither is it used as a name in the New Testament. He writes,
 ‘Messiah’, or ‘Christ’, does not mean ‘the/a divine one’. It is very misleading to use the words as shorthands for the divine name or being of Jesus. It is comparatively easy to argue that Jesus (like several other first-century Jews) believed he was the Messiah (see Jesus and the Victory of God, chapter 11). It is much harder, and a very different thing, to argue that he thought he was in some sense identified with Israel’s God. In this context, the phrase ‘son of God’ is systematically misleading because in pre- and non-Christian Judaism its primary referent is either Israel or the Messiah, and it retains these meanings in early Christianity (e.g. Rom. 1:3-4) while also picking up the overtones of Paul’s early, high Christology. It seems to me, in fact, that the title was perceived very early on in Christianity—within the first decade or so at least—as an ideal one for Jesus because it enabled one to say both ‘Messiah’ and ‘the incarnate one’. However, its subsequent use simply for the latter meaning, coupled with its too-ready identification with the virginal conception story, make it in my view difficult to use without constant qualification in contemporary in systematic discussions.
It is an honorific, that is, a kind of title except that it is one that transcends the particular individual bearing the epithet like the ‘King of Israel,’ which is what the New Testament usage of Messiah actually means. As you probably know messiah means anointed one. Many people were anointed in the Old Testament in the service of God including prophets, priests and kings. All of them were people therefore, messiah exclusively refers to human figures. Now if the Messiah is the Son of God, Son of God as a designation also refers to humans. For instance, Adam is called in Luke “the son of God” (Luke 3:38.) In fact, son of God is a common way of referring to faithful Israelites. Earlier on in his gospel, Matthew quotes Hosea where God calls Israel his son (Hosea 11:1; Matthew 2:14-15.) What is interesting is he re-applies that passage to Jesus making him the living embodiment of the people of God, the ‘true Israel of God.’ Even with that figural interpretation it is still a human figure, albeit an idealised Israel as the faithful servant of God.
Son of God speaks directly of Jesus’ humanity, not as a generic everyman but as the ‘Son of David.’ Paul famously writes in Romans 1,
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord… – Romans 1:1-4 ESV.
In the Old Testament the primary passage that describes David’s heir, his son, as the new king of Israel i.e. the messiah and the son of God is 2 Samuel 7 where God through the prophet Nathan promises David a dynasty.
When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever – 2 Samuel 7:12-16 ESV.
In Jewish Messianic beliefs of that period, one popular stream of thought is that the eschatological Messiah would be the Davidic king who will unite the fractured, dispersed people of God and through him the kingdom of God will be established throughout the earth. The prophet Ezekiel for instance writes,
The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, take a stick and write on it, ‘For Judah, and the people of Israel associated with him’; then take another stick and write on it, ‘For Joseph (the stick of Ephraim) and all the house of Israel associated with him.’ And join them one to another into one stick, that they may become one in your hand. And when your people say to you, ‘Will you not tell us what you mean by these?’ say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I am about to take the stick of Joseph (that is in the hand of Ephraim) and the tribes of Israel associated with him. And I will join with it the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, that they may be one in my hand. When the sticks on which you write are in your hand before their eyes, then say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land. And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms. They shall not defile themselves anymore with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions. But I will save them from all the backslidings in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God. “My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes… – Ezekiel 37:15-24 ESV.
The popularity of this view is evidenced in the NT and Jesus himself directly plugs into that vision but as usual in a modified manner (Matthew 9:36.) When we look at the passage in question from Matthew 16, Jesus goes into kingdom talk immediately after confirming he is indeed the Messiah, God’s specially chosen ruler. There are many more echoes and resonances with the OT in support of this Matthean passage.
It seems evident that saying you are the son of God in Jesus’ time meant something very specific which everyone understood but embodied a modified version of it peculiar to himself. So he most stayed away from using that title because his peculiar understanding of it could cause confusion. The gospels record several instances where his identity did cause misunderstanding like in Matthew 16. This fits his overall profile throughout the gospels, to lesser and great degrees, as a cryptic figure with a cryptic agenda. He had a very public ministry but who he was and what he was trying to accomplish was a great mystery. Jesus had reinterpreted the Jewish scriptures, which was their history and worldview, in the light of himself. So he shied away from the popular overt categories that designated Messiahship and took the time to re-align people’s perceptions to his unique interpretation and fulfilment of Messianic expectations. He was certainly the Messiah they were looking for but not the one they expected.
He not only had a subversive interpretation of Messiahship, the Messiah was a subversive figure. Right from Matthew’s infancy narrative we have Herod plotting to kill the child Jesus upon hearing there is a new king of Israel, a new Messiah. The Messiah was to establish Israel and by extension God’s kingdom on earth, this meant the overthrow of existing worldly regimes. The coming of God’s Messiah was many a Jewish people’s hope for the overthrow of the pagan Roman Empire that held them captive as a vassal state. The mention of the Messiah was a rallying crying and there were many clashes between the Jews and Roman forces because of this. It would have been a very bad idea for Jesus to go about announcing to his enemies who he was. The unusual thing with Jesus was that he was a Messiah who was ready to die, something that went completely against Jewish expectations of the Messiah. From the reaction of Peter to the notion of dying, no less by crucifixion, it seemed totally scandalous. In one place someone asks “Isn’t the Messiah meant to abide forever?” Jesus was prepared to die but he had to die in a particular way because he believed that was how his kingdom initiative would be accomplished. He therefore had to be careful in revealing his identity, protecting it up to the right moment to get into the right kind of trouble. So instead of using the more conspicuous designation Son of God, he goes for the more enigmatic epithet ‘Son of Man.’
For something to have a hidden meaning, it has to have at least more than one layer of interpretation. The surface meaning of son of man is a human being. That is how most people have understood it in the church. However, the frequency of use as well as some of the specific references it has tell us there is deeper meaning behind it. Jesus’ unique personal preference for it tells us it is more than a generic word for humanity. He first poses the question of his identity as “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” The disciples were so used to it they did not ask who he was referring to. Now they were not expecting the confirmation of his Messiahship but they got a double reveal in Matthew 16. Though it is not as explicit as the first the second reveal was what he meant by Son of Man.
For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.
Jesus places the Son of Man among divine/heavenly beings. Here is not an ordinary human figure but an exalted being. Also the Son of Man is given attributes only reserved for God in the scriptures. The angels, as their names suggest, serve as the heavenly monarch’s attendants but in this instance they are for the Son of Man. It is God who is often pictured with a heavenly entourage in the scriptures (1 Kings 22:19; Psalm 68:18, 82:1.) He describes the angels and the glory of the Father as both his. In this word picture the son of man is invested with God’s heavenly majesty. Bearing divine glory, “the shekinah”, meant he not only authoritatively represented God but somehow embodied his holy divine presence. Not only is the Son of Man a stately figure, he performs a role only the God of Israel can do, that is, judging the world. It is only YHWH who will repay everyone according to their deeds (Isaiah 59:18.) So the Son of Man is an exalted heavenly figure who has divine authority and shares in God’s identity as cosmic king and judge. Such a description evokes no other figure than the enigmatic Son of Man of Daniel 7.
As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came out from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened. “I looked then because of the sound of the great words that the horn was speaking. And as I looked, the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time. “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed – Daniel 7:9-14 ESV.
All the themes condensed in the Matthew’s short passage are present and alluded to in Daniel. God is presiding over a session of the heavenly court and there is ‘one like a son of man’, invested with divine authority over the entire world with an everlasting kingdom. This apocalyptic figure is not depicted as something more than human, more than angelic, distinct from God but somehow intimately related with him in an unparalleled fashion. Though he looks like a creature he seems to fall on the creator side of creator/creature divide which in Jewish thinking is a permanent division. The “coming” of this exalted being here is not a reference to the Second Coming but something like a coronation procession or a royal parade. Either he is being granted royal status or that position is being reaffirmed. Remember the root metaphor for God in the OT is ‘king.’ Achieving kingly status with God is another way of saying someone shares in the one God’s unique identity. Later on in Matthew, as well as all the other gospels, Jesus explicitly references this passage.
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. What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.” – Matthew 26:63-66 ESV.
There were many views, as there are today, of who the Son of Man of Daniel 7 was. Whether Caiaphas shared Jesus’ view of an exalted figure we cannot tell but how Jesus referenced the passage sent a clear message of who he was claiming to be. He was claiming divine status with God and the high priest’s strong, dramatic reaction shows he understood what he was saying. That is why he cried out blasphemy, tearing his robes, calling for Jesus’ execution. Saying he was the Messiah was a serious issue but it was never considered blasphemous. Jewish monotheism was the bedrock of Jewish identity. The Shema is recited every day since Jesus’ own time by faithful Israelites to this day. Their common creed was “Hear O Israel, YHWH your God is one.” There is no other God except the Lord. Such outrage was no doubt elicited by the second part of his response, in the mind of a second Temple Jew an unmistakeable claim to divinity. That was the statement that sealed his fate, the worst form of impiety. Ironically, it was those who condemned the Son of Man who were truly guilty of impiety since God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead. Even though that episode is the last instance in the scriptural record the title ‘Son of Man’ appears, Daniel 7 is alluded to in Revelation 1 twice where a glorified Jesus appears to John the Revelator. The Son of Man is certainly a divine, transcendent figure in Jesus’ own understanding as well as later portrayals no doubt inspired by him.
The contemporary understanding of the Son of God in Jesus’ time is that he is a thoroughly human figure i.e. the Messiah, the Davidic king. Jesus’ unique interpretation of the apocalyptic Son of Man, his favourite self-referent, is that he is a divine figure. At Caesarea Philippi Jesus asks who the Son of Man is and the answer is he is the Son of God. When Caiaphas asks who the Son of God is, Jesus says he is the Son of Man. In the gospels he does not see himself as either human or divine but as both human and divine, the Son of God and the Son of Man. N.T. Wright observed that son of God was a shorthand for Jesus being the ‘incarnate one.’ So in NT theological phrasing he is not the incarnate son of God but rather the incarnate Son of Man, the same way we say God incarnate not man incarnate. Jesus the Messiah had embodied the transcendent, pre-existent apocalyptic figure, something hinted at in extra-canonical second Temple Jewish literature (1 Enoch 37-71.) As Paul would later say he is God in the flesh. The perplexing “one like a son of man” had become the Son of Man. So we have one who pre-existed, fully participating in God’s identity. Each gospel in its own way indicates his pre-existence by Jesus’ story never beginning with his birth or even conception but always proceeding from God through the course of Israelite history. He then lays aside his claim to divinity to fulfil God’s will as the truly human one. Then because of his obedient sacrifice he then regains his divine status. (Philippians 2:5-11.) Jesus is both the human Son of God and the divine Son of Man.
 https://www.christiancentury.org/reviews/2014-07/lord-and-god. Larry Hurtado, “[Bart Ehrman] does not consider evidence from ancient Jewish sources (especially apocalyptic texts such as 1 Enoch) that the “preexistence” of eschatological figures was a Jewish theological trope. This evidence suggests that Jesus’ preexistence could well have been an almost immediate corollary of the conviction that God had exalted him uniquely to heavenly/divine glory as the eschatological redeemer, the Messiah.”