What Does “Son of Man” Mean?

Why does Jesus refer to himself as the “Son of Man”? What does that mean, and what is the significance?

Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man more than anything else in the Gospels. The term appears around 80 times in the four Gospels. If Jesus used this title for himself so often, then we should think carefully about what it means. The title “Son of Man” holds great significance, and adds to our understanding of his identity, purpose, and mission.

The title finds it’s origins in the Old testament. It is first used in the book of Daniel. Daniel’s use of the title in Daniel 7:13-14, created a link between the title and messianic expectations. God’s people had been waiting for and learning about a coming Savior, known as the Messiah, for centuries. God shared increasing details over the course of many generations regarding what kind of savior they should be looking for. 

They knew from Genesis (Genesis 3:15) that he would be the seed of a woman and that he would crush the head of the serpent, but that he would be bruised in the process. The prophet Samuel (2 Samuel 7:16) revealed that he would be a king that would sit on David’s throne forever. 

In Daniel 7:13-14, the prophet, Daniel, has a vision and describes “one like a son of man”.

Daniel 7:13-14

13 “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.
14 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.

Jewish tradition firmly held that this figure, who appeared like a son of man (or in human form) was pointing to the coming Messiah. In this passage, the “Son of Man” is portrayed as a figure with divine authority who receives an everlasting kingdom from the Ancient of Days (a divine figure representing God the Father). The imagery of coming with the clouds of heaven and receiving dominion over all peoples was one more installment in the growing revelation of what the coming Messiah would be like. Daniel is describing a tremendous amount of power, glory, and authority, which seems to be on the level of the Ancient of Days himself. 

When Jesus uses the title “Son of Man” in the Gospels, his audience, particularly those familiar with the Jewish scriptures, would have recognized the messianic implications associated with the term. By employing this title, Jesus was intentionally connecting himself with great authority, power, and the messianic expectations created by the prophets. 

In Mark 2:10, Jesus uses the title “Son of Man” in the context of healing a paralyzed man, who was brought to Jesus by four men. They couldn’t get through the crowded house where Jesus was teaching. So, they removed part of the roof and lowered the paralyzed man down in front of Jesus. Before healing the man, Jesus makes a shocking statement that includes the use of the title “Son of Man.” First, he declares that the man’s sins are forgiven. Then, after the religious leaders question him, he says “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.”(Mark 2:10-11, ESV)

In this context, Jesus uses the title “Son of Man” to assert his divine authority to forgive sins. He is making a clear declaration about his authority and identity. The religious leaders who were present were questioning him, and he responded by making this connection to the promised figure in Daniel 7.

The phrase “Son of Man” here emphasizes Jesus’ role as a divine figure with the authority to forgive sins on earth. It’s a claim to divine prerogatives and highlights Jesus’ unique position as the one who brings about both physical and spiritual healing. The statement is a powerful way for Jesus to demonstrate not only his ability to perform miracles but also his authority in matters of sin and forgiveness. This use of the title makes it clear that Jesus did not intend to leave us with the option of saying that he was just a prophet or a great moral teacher. His claim of divine authority forces us to decide whether we will worship him or reject him. Those are the only two options. 

What’s unique about Jesus is that this claim to divine power and authority was paired with remarkable statements about service and humility. In Mark 10, Jesus uses the title “Son of Man” in the context of teaching his disciples about the nature of true leadership and servanthood. The specific passage is Mark 10:42-45 (ESV):

“And Jesus called them to him and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.'”

Given the meaning of this title that we discussed before, this statement is truly jawdropping. The Son of Man, who has been granted all power and authority, has come serve and not be served. Given all that this title represented, this would have been a stunning reorientation. Jesus is saying that he, as the one who has been granted authority over the whole world, is choosing to serve others rather than seeing others as existing to serve him.

By using the title “Son of Man” in this context, Jesus emphasizes his role as a servant-leader and provides a model for his disciples. The Son of Man, who has divine authority, willingly takes on the posture of a servant. His mission involved serving others, which culminated in the ultimate act of service—giving his life as a ransom for many.

This use of “Son of Man” in Mark 10 underscores Jesus’ self-understanding as the Messiah with a mission not focused on worldly power and dominance but on sacrificial service and redemption. It challenges conventional notions of leadership and points us to Jesus’ values of humility, selflessness, and love.

The meaning of the title “Son of Man” is filled with meaning and Jesus uses it so often because of the thread of meaning that stretches back to the book of Daniel. When he uses this title to refer to himself, he is making unmistakable claims about himself, his identity, and his mission. The Son of Man came with all power and authority and yet chose to take the low place and become the servant of all.