As is often said, Jesus’ favorite description for himself is the “Son of Man.” Interestingly, in the Gospels this title comes almost exclusively from the lips of Jesus, and it is not to be found as a popular way for referring to Jesus in the rest of the New Testament. Modern readers, perhaps approaching the Bible for the first time, generally assume that this is a title that is indicative of Jesus’ humanity. However, it is clear that the Jesus of the Gospels intends something deeper by this expression, and it has been a favorite topic for analysis by scholars from both liberal and conservative traditions. George Eldon Ladd, in his work A Theology of the New Testament, present the three categories scholars generally employ for understanding the Gospels’ presentation of the identity and mission of the “Son of Man”: he is the earthly Son of Man, the suffering Son of Man, and the apocalyptic Son of Man.
The earthly category for Jesus’ identity and work as the Son of Man is expressed most clearly in the ministry of Jesus. The Son of Man heals, he proclaims a message of good news, and he announces the arrival of the kingdom. The Son of Man is commissioned by God; in fact, the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins (Mark 2). Indeed, the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 3). He is the Son of Man who pre-existed; angels ascend and descend upon him (John 1). Accordingly, the description of earthly Son of Man is no less authoritative or divine. It comes with Messianic and Danielic implications, as do each of these three categories.
The turning point for the Gospels, however, comes with Jesus’ declaration to his disciples that his mission as the Son of Man includes being rejected and killed (Mark 8; Matt. 16; Luke 9). This is the suffering Son of Man. It is “necessary” (dei) that the Son of Man be handed over to lawless men and die, and on the third day to rise again. This is because the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. The suffering Son of Man is not only a righteous martyr; he suffers vicariously for his people. Here the motif of the Son of Man is mingled with the theme of Isaiah’s suffering servant. The Son of Man suffers as sin-bearer; he gives his life “for you” (Luke 22:19).
Nevertheless, the fact that the Son of Man suffers does not eclipse his glory and authority. This is the prominent feature of the apocalyptic Son of Man, seen most clearly in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. The Son of Man will judge the fruitless people of Israel; not a stone from the Temple will be left on top of another. Moreover, in typical eschatological fashion, the details surrounding Jesus’ prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem of AD 70 are presented alongside of events concerning the end of history: the Son of Man will return in the clouds to gather his elect—“you will see” him. The Danielic Son of Man will be visible in full glory—glory that was partially veiled in his incarnation and suffering (though not without manifestation, John 1:14). This glory and authority will shine brightly.
The portrait of the Son of Man in the Gospels is ultimately not about distinct categories that are separate from each other, as if the Gospel writers are confused in their presentation. Rather, we see, in the terms of historical theology, a theologia crucis and a theologia gloriae, united in one Person. The Son of Man is indeed a man—a man like us (Psalm 8), and yet utterly unlike us (Hebrews 2). His mission includes a perfect life of ministry, a substitutionary death, and a glorious return.