“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Johannine Sayings (Jn 6:27)

John 6:27, 53, 62

There are three occurrences of the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) in the great ‘Bread of Life’ Discourse of chapter 6. Like the chapter 5 Discourse (see the previous study), the Bread of Life Discourse is built upon the historical tradition of a miracle episode—the Miraculous Feeding episode (6:1-14ff), known also from the Synoptic Tradition (Mk 6:30-44; 8:1-10 pars). In many ways, the chapter 6 Discourse is better integrated with the miracle episode than is the chap. 5 Discourse. The manna-theme of “bread from heaven”, featuring in the Exposition sections of the Discourse, provides a natural fit to the feeding miracle (with its multiplication of the bread-loaves).

The Discourse proper (vv. 22-59) may be divided into three parts, each of which further expounds the previous section:

    • Introduction to the Discourse (vv. 22-24)
    • Part 1—The Bread from Heaven [Passover/Manna theme] (vv. 25-34)
      • Encounter scene—Question from the crowd (vv. 25-26)
      • Saying of Jesus (v. 27)
      • Initial reaction by the people (v. 28)
      • Exposition (second saying) by Jesus (v. 29)
      • Reaction by the people (vv. 30-31)
      • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 32-33)
      • Concluding/transitional response by the people (v. 34)
    • Part 2—The Bread of Life [exposition of Bread from Heaven theme] (vv. 35-50)
      • Saying of Jesus (v. 35), with exposition (vv. 36-40)
      • Reaction by the people (vv. 41-42)
      • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 43-50)
    • Part 3—The Living Bread [exposition of Bread of Life theme] (vv. 51-58)
      • Saying of Jesus (v. 51)
      • Reaction by the people (v. 52)
      • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 53-58)
    • Narrative Conclusion (v. 59)
John 6:27

The principal saying/statement by Jesus that opens the Discourse is in verse 27:

“Do not work (for) the food th(at is) perishing, but (for) the food th(at is) remaining into (the) life of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal life], which the Son of man will give to you…”

Jesus adds the following statement regarding “the son of man”:

“…for (on) this (one) God the Father (has) set (His) seal.”

There are thus three main points made by Jesus in this saying:

    • There is food, different from ordinary physical food, that remains (vb me/nw) into the (eternal) life to come.
    • The “son of man” gives people this food.
    • God the Father has His seal on this “son of man”

In turn, these points reflect key Johannine theological themes or principles:

    • Use of the verb me/nw (“remain, abide”) to express the Divine (eternal) nature and character of the union between God and the believer, in parallel here with the equally important motif of life (zwh/, i.e. eternal life).
    • The Son (Jesus) gives life to the world, to those who trust in him (i.e., to believers).
    • Jesus (the Son) is the authoritative representative of God the Father, having been sent by Him, and carrying His message.
      The seal-motif, however, is not typically Johannine (cf. 3:33), though it does occur repeatedly (in a different context) in the book of Revelation.

How are we to understand the use of the expression “the son of man” here in verse 27? At the historical level, as a saying of Jesus, apart from the Johannine literary context, it would be most natural to regard it primarily as a self-reference by Jesus, such as in many of the examples we looked at in the Synoptic Gospels. The most natural parallel would be the saying in Mark 10:45 par, which also relates to the three Passion-predictions (8:31; 9:31; 10:33 pars). Though the initial saying in verse 27 is not clearly connected with Jesus’ death, that association will be developed over the course of the Exposition sections that follow (cf. the next part of this study).

Thus, as a self-reference, the phrase “…which the son of man will give” is essentially equivalent to “…which I will give”. And, indeed, Jesus later uses this formulation with the first person, in verse 51: “…and the bread, indeed, which I [e)gw/] will give”. This is very much in keeping with the distinctive usage of the expression by Jesus, which could perhaps be effectively translated as “th(is) son of man” —i.e., this human being, this person, namely Jesus himself.

However, there can be little doubt that the Gospel writer intended the expression to be understood in light of the earlier occurrences—in 1:51, 3:13-14, and 5:27. Three thematic aspects of that earlier usage would seem to be relevant here:

    • The heavenly origin of the son of man
    • The descent (vb katabai/nw, “step down”) of the son man
    • The authority of the son of man, given to him by God the Father, which includes the authority to give life to those who believe

All three of these explithemes are developed by Jesus (and the Gospel writer) throughout the Discourse. The themes are summarized concisely in the initial exposition by Jesus in verse 29, which reads like a Johannine confessional statement; he defines the “work of God” (v. 28) as: “…that you should trust in the (one) whom that (One) sent forth”. Jesus is the Son sent (from heaven) by God the Father, and thus possesses the authority of the Father, to speak and act. In the second exposition (vv. 32-33) of this first portion of the Discourse, Jesus utilizes the Scriptural tradition of the manna as “the bread from heaven”(Exod 16:14; Psalm 105:40; Neh 9:15), introduced by his audience in v. 31. Through this motif, Jesus identifies himself as the “bread from [e)k] heaven”, though he does not make the identification explicit right away, but instead prepares the groundwork for it through an exposition of the Scripture:

“…(it was) not Moshe (who) has given to you ‘the bread out of heaven’, but (rather) my Father gives to you the true ‘bread out of heaven’; for, the bread of God is the (one) stepping down [katabai/nwn] out of heaven and giving life to the world.”

The perceptive reader/hearer of the Gospel would immediately recognize the Christological use here of the verb katabai/nw, as referring to the descent of the Son of God from heaven, and his incarnation on earth in the person of Jesus. The expression “the son of man” was used in this context in 3:13 (note), and was alluded to earlier in 1:51 (note).

In the next part of this study, we will look at how the Johannine themes, associated with “the son of man”, are developed in the second part (vv. 35-50) of the Discourse, as well as their unique application in the third part (vv. 51-58), including the apparent eucharistic context of the “son of man” saying in verse 53.

“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Johannine Sayings (Jn 5:27, cont.)

John 5:27, continued

In the first part of this study, we examined the context of the “son of man” reference in verse 27. As part of this analysis, we noted the parallelism between vv. 21-24 and 25-29 in the first expository section of the chap. 5 Discourse. We may narrow the focus to the parallel units of vv. 21-22 and 26-27, in which the thematic emphasis is on the Father giving to the Son the authority/ability both to give life (to the dead) and to judge. Here, again, is how this is expressed in vv. 21-22:

“For, just as [w(sper] the Father raises the dead and makes (them) live, so also the Son makes live th(ose) whom he wishes.
For the Father judges no one, but has given all (power of) judgment to the Son”

And, in vv. 26-27:

“For, just as [w(sper] the Father holds life in Himself, so also He (has) given to the Son life to hold in himself.
And He (has) given (the) authority [e)cousi/a] to him to make judgment, (in) that he is (the) Son of man.”

The point is made doubly: the Father has given life-giving power to the Son; He has also given the Son the power/authority to act as judge over humankind.

Throughout the first division of the Discourse, vv. 19-30, the principal theme is how Jesus, as the Son (of God), does the work of God his Father. The broader thematic focus is on the relationship between the Son (Jesus) and God the Father. Because of this central theme that runs through the entire Gospel, Jesus regularly refers to himself (in the Discourses) as “the Son” (o( ui(o/$), by which is meant “God’s Son” (i.e., “the Son of God”). This is typical of the Johannine Gospel, compared with the relatively rare use of the unqualified expression “the Son” in the Synoptics. And, not surprisingly, given the thematic emphasis in 5:19-30, the expression “the Son” occurs quite often (9 times) in these verses. This makes the singular use of the expression “(the) son of man” in v. 27 quite significant.

Why does Jesus (and the Gospel writer) use “(the) son of man” in verse 27 (and only there)? The precise wording of the phrase containing the expression is important: “(in) that [i.e. because] he is (the) Son of man” (o%ti ui(o\$ a)nqrw/pou e)stin). This explicative use of the o%ti-clause offers the reason why God the Father has given the Son (Jesus) authority to judge humankind: it is because he is “(the) son of man”.

From a syntactical standpoint, the statement “he is (the) son of man” is an example of the sort of essential predication that occurs throughout the Gospel (and Letters) of John. These simple predicative statements contain three elements: (1) Divine subject, (2) verb of being, and (3) predicate noun or phrase. The statements give essential information about who the subject is. The formulation is basically limited to a Divine subject—usually Jesus Christ (the Son), but occasionally God the Father, while, in at least one instance (1 Jn 5:6), the Spirit is the subject. In a secondary application, the formula can also be applied to believers in Christ (viz., believers, the children/offspring of God, as the divine subject).

The “I am” (e)gw\ ei)mi) declarations by Jesus are the most famous examples of Johannine essential predication. Indeed, when Jesus, as both Divine subject and speaker, makes such statements, it is most natural that he would use a first person pronoun to express the subject. Here, however, he speaks in the third person (“he is”), as he typically does whenever he uses the expression “the son of man”, using it as a self-reference. The pronoun is not present in the Greek, but only implied (based on the form of the verb). The specific formulation is unusual (and unprecedented): Jesus uses one self-reference (“the Son”, i.e., “he”) to identify himself with another self-reference (“the son of man”). That is, “the Son is the Son of man”.

How is this essential information to be understood? There are two main lines of interpretation that commentators tend to follow. The first line of interpretation understands the expression “(the) son of man” here as a title, referring (principally) to the heavenly figure (“[one] like a son of man”) in Daniel 7:13-14. Thus, Jesus would be identifying himself (“the Son”) with this heavenly figure. The most relevant parallel, and perhaps the strongest argument in favor of this line of interpretation, is the fact that, in Dan 7:13-14, God gives to the “(one) like a son of man” a ruling authority over humankind:

“…and to him was given dominion [/f*l=v*] and glory [rq*y+] and kingship [Wkl=m^], and all the peoples, nations, and tongues shall give (diligent) service to him” (v. 14)
While Theodotion translates all three Hebrew terms, the LXX renders them under the single word e)cousi/a, as in Jn 5:27:
“…and authority [e)cousi/a] was given to him”

It is not specifically stated that the heavenly figure was given authority to judge; however, this would certainly be part of the ruling authority given to him, and the eschatological judgment (of the nations) certainly features in the passage (vv. 10ff, 22, 26-27). Moreover, in the Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71), the heavenly figure of Dan 7:13-14, called by the title “th(e) Son of Man”, is more directly associated with the Judgment (46:2-4ff; chap. 62; 63:11; 69:27ff), the Danielic figure having been blended together with the figure of the Davidic Messiah. For more on the Jewish eschatological/Messianic background of this “Son of Man” figure, see Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

The second line of interpretation understands the expression in a qualitative sense—that is, “son of man” (without the definite article [see below]) means a human being. In other words, Jesus (the Son) is given the authority to judge humankind because he himself is a human being. In the Johannine theological context, this would refer specifically to the incarnation of the Son (1:14ff). It is as the incarnate Son that Jesus has the authority to act as judge over humankind and to render judgment.

On the whole, this second line of interpretation is to be preferred, particularly in the overall context of the Johannine Gospel (and its theology). Before developing this further, a word should be said about the lack of definite articles for the expression here (i.e., uio\$ a)nqrw/pou instead of o( uio\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou)—the only such anarthrous occurrence of the expression in the Gospels. In spite of the lack of the definite article, the expression can still be definite. Indeed, in the case of the word order here, on purely syntactical grounds, a predicate nominative (noun) that precedes the verb should probably be understood in a definite sense*.
* On this point, see the study by E. C. Colwell back in 1933 (Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 52, pp. 12-31; Jn 5:27 is discussed on on p. 14); cf. Moloney, pp. 82ff.
At the same time, anarthrous predicate nouns often carry a qualitative sense (cf. the article by P. B. Harner in Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 92 [1973], pp. 75-87). If both of these aspects of the predicate noun are present here in v. 27, then it would mean that the expression is particularly emphasizing that the Son is the human being with the authority to exercise judgment over humankind (cp. the expression in Mk 2:10 par, also 2:28 par). In terms of the Johannine theology, as noted above, this would refer to the incarnation of the Son—viz., the pre-existent (heavenly) Son who has come to earth as a human being. We have seen how the twin Johannine themes of the heavenly origin of the Son, and of his descent to earth, featured prominently in the prior “son of man” sayings (1:51 [study]; 3:13-14 [study]).

Of particular importance is how the thematic motif of judgment (kri/si$, vb kri/nw) is presented in the Gospel of John. Most relevant for consideration is the statement in 3:19, coming as it does in the expository section (of that earlier Discourse), vv. 16-21, immediate following the “son of man” references (vv. 13-14). The end-time Judgment is explained in terms of the ‘realized’ eschatology of the Gospel (see the discussion in the first part of this study). That is to say, the Judgment occurs now, in the present; and, specifically, those would fail or refuse to trust in Jesus are already judged:

“The (one) trusting in him is not judged; but the (one) not trusting has already [h&dh] been judged, (in) that he has not trusted in the name of the only [monogenh/$] Son of God.” (v. 18)

The nature of the Judgment, in this regard, is further explained in verse 19:

“And this is the judgment: that the Light has come into the world, and (yet) men loved the darkness more than the Light, for their deeds are evil.”

This corresponds to what Jesus says about the Judgment here in verse 24, and clearly relates to the idea that this judgment has been given to the Son (v. 22). Interestingly, in 3:17, Jesus seems to say the opposite—viz., that he has not come (as the incarnate Son) to render judgment:

“For God did not send forth the Son into the world (so) that he should judge the world, but (rather) that the world might be saved through him.” (cp. 8:15-16; 12:47)

The locus of the Judgment is whether or not one trusts in Jesus (as the incarnate Son). In that sense, the incarnate Son (Jesus) does not fill the role of end-time Judge as it might traditionally be understood. Instead, the Judgment occurs based on how a person responds to the message of the incarnate Son—the truth of who he is and what he has done. Compare the Judgment-references in 9:39 and 12:47-48. Later on in the Gospel, this aspect of the Judgment is tied more directly to the Son’s fulfillment of his earthly mission—that is, his exaltation (“being lifted up”), beginning with his sacrificial death (see the previous study on the saying in 3:14). This thematic development is expressed by the declaration in 12:31:

Now is the judgment of this world; now the chief (ruler) of this world will be cast outside!”

The implication is that Jesus’ Passion (suffering and death) initiates the Judgment of the world; this Judgment involves the punishment (expulsion) of the “ruler of this world” (i.e., the Satan/Devil). Much the same is stated in 16:11 (see my earlier study on the Paraclete saying[s] in 16:8-11ff). Again, this Judgment is tied to the world’s failure/refusal to trust in Jesus, defined (in Johannine terms) as the great sin (vv. 8-9).

How does all of this relate to the use of the expression “(the) son of man” in verse 27? Though there are definite allusions to Daniel 7:13-14 (see above) here in the passage, it would seem that Jesus (and the Gospel writer) has reinterpreted the traditional Judgment-association in light of the Johannine theology (and Christology). In particular, the whole theme of judgment has been radically interpreted in the Johannine writings. The Judgment is now defined primarily in terms of trust in Jesus as the incarnate Son of God. The one who trusts has already passed through the Judgment (v. 24), while the one who does not trust has already been judged (3:18-19, etc). The trust in Jesus specifically relates to his death (viz., the beginning of his exaltation), the fulfillment of the mission for which the Father sent the Son (from heaven to earth).

We may expand our understanding of the Johannine “son of man” references, based on the sayings we have examined thus far, to include the following points:

    • The heavenly origin of the Son (Jesus)
    • His descent to earth—entailing his incarnation as a human being (“son of man”)
    • The promise of his ascent (back to heaven), following the completion of his mission
    • This ascent (exaltation, “lifting up”) begins with his sacrificial death (3:14)—whereby the use of the expression “the son of man” has definite parallels to the Synoptic Passion predictions (and similar sayings)
    • The end-time Judgment, traditionally associated with the “son of man” (Dan 7:13-14; Mk 13:26 par, etc), is defined primarily in terms of how one responds to this Christological message of the Son’s descent/ascent.

In the next study, we shall turn to the “son of man” references in the chapter 6 (Bread of Life) Discourse.

References above (and throughout these studies) marked “Moloney” are to Francis J. Moloney SDB, The Johannine Son of Man, Second Edition (Wipf and Stock: 1978/2007).

“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Johannine Sayings (Jn 5:27)

John 5:27

The next “son of man” reference in the Gospel of John is at 5:27, within the lengthy Discourse of chapter 5. The Johannine Discourses of Jesus are all carefully structured and arranged. For example, the first four Discourses are arranged in two pairs. The Discourses in the first pair (3:1-21; 4:1-42) are based upon encounters between Jesus and a particular individual—Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, respectively—characters who are vividly portrayed in the narrative. The Discourses of the second pair (chaps. 5 and 6) are each rooted in a different kind of historical tradition—namely, a miracle episode, similar to those we find narrated in the Synoptic Gospels. Indeed, the miraculous feeding episode in chap. 6 (vv. 1-14f) so closely resembles the Synoptic episode(s) (Mk 6:30-44 par; 8:1-10 par), that most commentators would consider both versions to be derived from a single (common) historical tradition.

As for the miracle episode in chapter 5 (vv. 1-16), it bears a certain resemblance to Mark 3:1-6 par, with the healing framed as a Sabbath controversy episode. Actually, in the Johannine narrative, the healing (vv. 1-9) and Sabbath-controversy (vv. 10-16) portions appear to reflect separate traditions, which the Gospel writer (or the underlying Johannine Tradition) has combined into a single narrative. In this regard, we might a comparison with the healing miracle (of a paralyzed man) in Mk 2:1-12 par, in its contextual position preceding the Sabbath controversy episodes of 2:23-3:6. As it happens, in both the episodes of 2:1-12 and 23-28, the expression “the son of man” plays a prominent role (vv. 10, 28).

The Johannine combination of traditional elements—healing miracle and Sabbath controversy—provides the narrative background for the main saying of Jesus (v. 17) that initiates the Discourse proper: “My Father works (even) until now, and I (also) work.” In the sections of the Discourse that follow, Jesus expounds the meaning of this saying.

In all of the Johannine Discourses, there is a reaction to the initial saying of Jesus by his hearers, and this reaction leads to an expository response by Jesus. The hostile reaction, by at least some of the populace (“the Yehudeans”) who heard him, is presented indirectly, in summary fashion by the Gospel writer, in verse 18. The people objected both to his healing act which (in their view) violated the Sabbath law, and to his statement, by which they recognized that “he was making himself equal to God”.

Typically, the audience reactions to Jesus’ statements in the Discourses involve a misunderstanding of (the true meaning of) his words. Here, the emphasis is not so much on misunderstanding, as it is on opposition to Jesus. Given the Synoptic parallels (see above), and also the certain parallels with the healing episode in chapter 9, it would seem likely that “the Yehudeans [i.e., Jews]” of verses 10-18 should be identified with the kinds of Jewish religious authorities (‘Scribes and Pharisees’) who typically feature as Jesus’ adversaries/opponents in the Gospel Tradition (cf. 9:13-16ff).

Jesus’ exposition that follows may be divided into two main portions—vv. 19-30 and vv. 31-47. The “son of man” reference occurs toward the end of first division. The principal theme of the Discourse is two-fold: (1) Jesus’ identity as the unique Son of God the Father, and (2) the fact that, as the Son, he does the work of his Father.

Like a dutiful son, Jesus follows his father’s example in his working—a principle that almost certainly reflects the practical situation of a son apprenticing in the same work/trade as his father. As Jesus states at the opening of his exposition:

“The Son is not able to do anything from himself, if not [i.e. but only] what he should see the Father doing; for the (thing)s which that (One) would do, the Son also does.” (v. 19)

The Father, like a human father instructing his son, shows the Son what to do and how to work (v. 20).

To illustrate the nature of the Father’s work, Jesus cites two examples, both of which have an eschatological orientation: (i) giving life to the dead (v. 21), and (ii) acting as Judge over humankind (v. 22). The first theme is loosely related to the healing miracle of vv. 1-16, though it would, of course, be more appropriate to the Lazarus episode of chap. 11. The ability to heal illness reflects the life-giving power of God. However, the exposition focuses specifically on giving life to the dead (i.e., resurrection), with the end-time resurrection primarily in view. This resurrection, according to traditional eschatological expectation, is connected with the end-time Judgment.

These twin themes are woven through verses 19-30, being developed in various ways, and (most importantly) given a Johannine Christological interpretation. Structurally, the exposition here is given in two parallel sections—vv. 21-24 and vv. 25-29. Three key points are made in each section:

    • The authority/ability both to give life and to judge is given by the Father to the Son (vv. 21-22f, 26-27)
    • Giving life: the one who hears the voice of the Son will receive life and be raised from the dead (v. 24a, 25ff)
    • Judging: those who hear the Son’s voice will face the Judgment (v. 24b, 28-29)

The emphasis in the second section (vv. 25-29) is on what we may call the traditional future eschatology, held by Jews and Christians in the first centuries B.C./A.D. In the first section (vv. 21-24), however, the focus is on the realized eschatology that is so distinctive of the Johannine Gospel. The two eschatological strands are joined together here by the phrase in v. 25a: “(the) hour comes, and is now (here)”.

From the standpoint of the Johannine ‘realized’ eschatology—that is, where traditional future events (i.e., resurrection, the Judgment) are realized for human beings already in the present—the eschatological events of the resurrection and the Judgment are understood in terms of trust in Jesus. This is stated quite clearly in verse 24:

“Amen, amen, I say to you, that the (one) hearing my word and trusting in the (One hav)ing sent me holds (the) life of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal life], and does not come into judgment, but has stepped over [metabe/bhken], out of death and into life.”

The use of the perfect tense of the verb metabai/nw, in particular, makes clear that the person trusting in Jesus (as the Son sent by the Father) has already (in the present) received the resurrection-life, and has passed through the Judgment into eternal life. Much the same idea was expressed earlier in 3:16-21, and can be found at other points in the Gospel as well.

Yet this ‘realized’ eschatology does not exclude the traditional (future) understanding of the end-time resurrection and Judgment. This is clear from the second section (vv. 25-29), though some commentators would view the future eschatology in these verses as the product of a later (redacted/edited) edition of the Gospel, and not the work of the original author. As noted above, verse 25a serves to join together the two different eschatological viewpoints. More than this, there is a certain inclusio to the section which could be interpreted as presenting the theme of Jesus’ life-giving (resurrection) power according to both eschatological aspects:

    • Realized eschatology:
      “(the) hour comes and is now (here)
      when the dead
      shall hear the voice of the Son of God,
      and the (one)s hearing shall live” (v. 25)
    • Future eschatology:
      “(the) hour comes
      in which all the (one)s in the memorials [i.e. tombs]
      shall hear his voice,
      and they shall travel out…(some) unto life…and (others) unto judgment” (vv. 28-29)

In both instances, human beings hear the voice of the Son (Jesus). This “hearing” has a double meaning, but the second (deeper) meaning applies only to the ‘realized’ eschatology of the Johannine theology. For this reason, the verb a)kou/w (“hear”) is used twice in verse 25:

    • “the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God”
      viz., at the resurrection, when humankind is raised from the dead
    • “and the (one)s (hav)ing heard shall live”
      viz., believers, those trusting in Jesus, shall enter into eternal life

At the same time, the entire verse echoes the realized eschatology of vv. 21-24, and anticipates the Lazarus episode, in which “the dead hearing the voice of the Son” is applied to the present, not simply to the future.

With this analysis in place, we can now turn to the “son of man” reference in verse 27. It is important, first, to examine the reference within the unit of vv. 26-27. As noted above, in this unit, we find the theme of the Father giving to the Son the authority/ability both to give life (to the dead) and to judge. In the first section, this theme was expressed in vv. 21-22:

“For, just as [w(sper] the Father raises the dead and makes (them) live, so also the Son makes live th(ose) whom he wishes.
For the Father judges no one, but has given all (power of) judgment to the Son”

It is similarly expressed, though with quite different wording/phrasing, in vv. 26-27:

“For, just as [w(sper] the Father holds life in Himself, so also He (has) given to the Son life to hold in himself.
And He (has) given (the) authority [e)cousi/a] to him to make judgment, (in) that he is (the) Son of man.”

The point is thus made doubly: the Father has given life-giving power to the Son; He has also given the Son the power/authority to act as judge over humankind. With regard to the use of the expression “(the) son of man” here, there are three interpretive issues that need to be addressed:

    1. The relation between the (parallel) terminology “the Son” (v. 22) and “(the) son of man” (v. 27)
    2. In what ways (if any) does the power to give life and to judge differ, particularly as expressed in vv. 26-27, and (how) does this effect the use of the expression “son of man”?
    3. How is the judgment to be understood, comparing the matter in light of both sections (vv. 21-24, 25-29), and in the broader context of the Johannine theology? And how does the expression “(the) son of man” relate to this understanding of the judgment?

In addition, some consideration must be given to the distinctive anarthrous form of the expression (i.e., without the definite article[s]) here in verse 27.

These points will be discussed in the continuation of this study.

 

“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Johannine Sayings (Jn 3:13-14, cont.)

John 3:13-14, continued

John 3:14

“And, even as Moshe lifted high [u&ywsen] the snake in the desolate (land), so it is necessary (for) the son of man to be lifted high [u(ywqh=nai]”

This “son of man” saying follows upon the one in verse 13 (discussed in the previous study). While it is possible that these sayings once circulated separately, they are clearly connected here, being integral—indeed, central—to the Johannine Discourse of Jesus in chap. 3 (3:1-21). In this case, the initial conjunction (kai/), connecting verse 14 with v. 13, would seem to have a coordinating (and explicative) force (i.e., “and so…”).

The bonding motif, uniting the two sayings, is the idea of ascent. In verse 13 (as in 1:51, cf. the earlier study) the verb used is a)nabai/nw (“step up”), while here in v. 14 it is u(yo/w (“lift/raise high”). Both verbs are important Johannine keywords, used throughout the Gospel, with special theological (and Christological) meaning. In verse 13, the “stepping up” of the son of man (Jesus) is anticipated, and this is expressed with greater clarity in v. 14.

We may isolate two component clauses to the saying, reflecting two distinct lines of tradition:

    • Phrase 1: An illustrative comparison from Scripture, viz., a particular Moses tradition (Numbers 21:4-9, vv. 8-9)
    • Phrase 2: A “son of man” saying rooted in the Gospel Tradition, comparable to the three Passion-prediction sayings by Jesus (Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:33 pars)

Before turning to the Moses-tradition, let us consider the resemblance of v. 14b to the Synoptic Passion-predictions—all of which utilize the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) as a self-reference by Jesus. The first prediction, in particular, bears a close formal resemblance:

    • “it is necessary [dei=] (for) the son of man to suffer many (thing)s…” (Mk 8:31)
    • “it is necessary [dei=] (for) the son of man to be lifted up high” (v. 14b)

In the Synoptic saying, the chain of infinitives covers the full range of Jesus’ Passion—suffering, death, and resurrection. By contrast, here in John, a single infinitive (of the verb u(yo/w) suffices. The parallel suggests that the verb corresponds similarly to the range of Jesus’ Passion (entailing both his death and resurrection), though it is his impending death that would seem to be primarily in view (cf. below).

The illustration of the bronze snake, set up by Moses on a ‘pole’ (Num 21:8f), certainly is suggestive (visually) of Jesus being placed upon a stake. Thus, it would seem that the primary reference is to Jesus’ crucifixion; the other occurrences of the verb u(yo/w (8:28; 12:32, 34) would tend to confirm this (see esp. the comment in 12:33).

However, the Hebrew word for the pole or staff, upon which the snake was set, is sn@, which specifically refers to a signal-flag or banner—viz., something placed up high (and waved) so that everyone can see it (and rally to it). This brings out additional associations for the symbolism. In the original Moses tradition, the snake served as signal-flag, so that, whenever a person was bitten by a snake, he/she could look to the elevated bronze snake, and thus be healed (lit. “live”). In verse 8, the verb ha*r* (“see”) is used, but in v. 9 it is the verb fb^n`, which can imply a more intense or careful looking (i.e., gazing at, contemplating).

Given the theological importance of the sight/seeing motif in the Gospel of John, it is no surprise that this aspect of the tradition is particularly brought out by the Gospel writer (and Jesus as the speaker). This becomes clear from the expository application that follows in verse 15:

“…(so) that every(one) trusting in him should hold (the) life of the Ages [i.e. eternal life].”

In the Johannine theological idiom, seeing means trusting in Jesus (as the Son of God)—see, in particular, this correlation in the chapter 9 narrative (esp. vv. 35-41). Thus, everyone “seeing” the raised snake corresponds to everyone “trusting in” Jesus.

What significance, if any, is there to the use of the expression “the son of man” here in v. 14, beyond its use as a self-reference by Jesus? If we limit our analysis to the parallel with the Synoptic Passion-prediction (Mk 8:31 par, see above), then there would seem to be a specific association between the expression and the suffering (and death) of Jesus. This, in turn, represents a natural extension of the poetic use of the expression in the Old Testament Scriptures, in which the limitation and weakness of the human condition—including its mortality—tends to be emphasized. Jesus identifies himself with these aspects of the human condition.

However, if we turn to the prior occurrences of the expression in the Gospel of John (1:51; 3:13) there would seem to be a rather different orientation and point of emphasis. As we saw in our studies on each of these references [1:51 and 3:13], there are two key thematic motifs associated with the expression “the son of man”: (1) the heavenly origin of Jesus, and (2) the descent/ascent motif. The principal point in verse 13 is Jesus’ descent to earth from heaven; implicit in the saying is the expectation that, after his descent (stepping down) to earth, he will then ascend (stepping back up) to heaven.

It is in this regard that the verb u(yo/w (“lift up high”) can be understood as signifying something more than Jesus’ death on the cross. Indeed, while the Johannine understanding of Son’s exaltation may begin with his being ‘lifted up’ on the cross, it also includes his resurrection and ultimate return to the Father (in heaven). Jesus’ suffering and death begins a process of exaltation that reaches its climax with his return to heaven. We shall find this same Christological dynamic at work in the remaining “son of man” sayings as well.

Given the parallel between verse 14b and Mark 8:31 par (see above), it would be enough to explain Jesus’ use of the expression “the son of man” here on that basis. However, in light of the proximity to the saying in v. 13, we may fairly assume that the expression in verse 14 carries the same theological import as it does in v. 13 (and 1:51). In other words, Jesus’ identity as the “son of man” must be understood in terms of the distinctive Johannine theology. As we begin to expound this in the context of the descent/ascent motif, we can isolate two principal theological strands:

    • Descent: Jesus’ heavenly origin, and his incarnation on earth as a human being (“son of man”)
    • Ascent: A process of exaltation that begins with his death (i.e., suffering of the “son of man”), and culminates with his return to heaven.

*     *     *     *     *     *

The association with Moses in verse 14 raises an interesting (possible) point of interpretation for verse 13. Indeed, it is possible that the Gospel writer (and Jesus as the speaker) intends a specific comparison, between Jesus and Moses, in v. 13. Central to this theory is the idea of Moses’ ascension, as it is found in Jewish tradition. When Jesus declares that “no one has stepped up into heaven”, he may have the ascension of Moses specifically in mind. For traditions regarding an ascent by Moses, see Meeks, pp. 104ff, 110-111, 192-5, 235-6 (cf. Moloney, p. 56f).

Such a comparison is made more plausible by the thematic relationship, between Jesus and Moses, that runs through much of the Gospel. This begins in the Prologue (1:14-18, esp. vv. 17-18), where the comparative superiority of Jesus is established. These verses draw upon various Moses/Exodus traditions, particularly the theophany (YHWH’s revelation to Moses) in chapters 33-34—and especially the notice in 33:23 (cf. Deut 4:12ff). The wording in v. 18 of the Prologue resembles that of 3:13:

    • “no one has seen God at any time”
    • “no one has stepped up into heaven”

If the phrase in 1:18 alludes to Moses (Exod 33:23), then it is plausible that the similar phrase in 3:13 does so as well (particularly given the reference to Moses in v. 14).

References above marked “Meeks” are to Wayne A. Meeks, The Prophet-King: Moses Traditions and the Johannine Christology (Brill: 1967).
Those marked “Moloney” are to Francis J. Moloney SDB, The Johannine Son of Man, Second Edition (Wipf and Stock: 1978/2007).

“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Johannine Sayings (Jn 3:13-14)

John 3:13 and 14

The next two Johannine occurrences of the expression “the son of man” occur together, at the center of the ‘Nicodemus’ Discourse in chapter 3. These two sayings (vv. 13 and 14) may have originally circulated separately, even within the Johannine Tradition; however, they are currently integral to the Discourse, and clearly represent an important expository component within the literary structure of the Discourse.

All of the Johannine Discourses have an historical-traditional episode as their basis. In this instance, it is the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus (vv. 1-8ff). However, Nicodemus effectively disappears midway through the discourse, and is not mentioned again after verses 9-10. The sayings in verses 13-14f represent the transition point in the discourse, leading to the exposition by Jesus that follows in vv. 16-21. This is significant from the standpoint of the theological framework of the discourse, since it explains how being “born from above” and “born of the Spirit” (the dual-theme in vv. 1-8) are to be understood—viz., in terms of trusting in Jesus as the Son sent from heaven by God the Father (vv. 16-21). This Christological exposition also informs the “son of man” sayings in vv. 13-14 (as is clear from v. 15).

John 3:13

“no one has stepped up [a)nabe/bhken] into heaven, if not the (one hav)ing stepped down [kataba/$] out of heaven, the son of man.”

This statement by Jesus fits somewhat uneasily in the immediate context of vv. 9-12. Indeed, it is not entirely clear how it relates to the preceding vv. 11-12, and it certainly could have existed as a separate saying by Jesus (in some form). In the context of the Discourse, the statement affirms Jesus’ ability (and authority) to speak of “heavenly (thing)s” (e)poura/nia, lit. “[thing]s above the heaven[s]”)—such as the Divine/spiritual teaching in vv. 3-8, along with the exposition that follows in vv. 16-21. Only someone who comes from heaven is able to speak of heavenly things.

Verse 13 begins with the conjunction kai/, which could be translated conjunctively as “and”, or emphatically as “indeed”. In either case, the conjunction connects the saying with the prior vv. 11-12.

The saying itself uses the same verb pair as in 1:51 (see the previous study): a)nabai/nw (“step up”, i.e., go/come up) and katabai/nw (“step down”, i.e., go/come down). In our discussion on 1:51, the special theological significance of these verbs, in the Gospel of John, was noted. More to the point, they carry Christological importance. Though the immediate subject of the verbs in 1:51 was the angels (“Messengers of God”), the “son of man” (Jesus) is clearly the focus of that vision; and, indeed, throughout the remainder of the Gospel, these verbs are applied to the person of the Son (Jesus). This Johannine usage makes it absolutely clear, if there were any doubt, that the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) refers to Jesus, and is thus used here by Jesus as a self-reference.

There are three component-phrases to this saying, and we shall examine them each in turn.

(a) “no one has stepped up into heaven”

In a strictly literal sense, this would mean that no one (i.e., no human being) has ever gone up (ascended) into heaven. It is possible that the Gospel writer intends us to understand the statement in just this way; however, if so, then the author (and Jesus as the speaker) would be rejecting well-established traditions regarding figures such as Enoch (cf. Gen 5:24), Moses, and Elijah (2 Kings 2:1, 11f). It is, I think, better to view the verb a)nabai/nw here in its special (Johannine) Christological meaning. That is to say, no other person has ever “stepped up” to heaven, being exalted by God in the manner that Jesus was.

In the immediate context of vv. 11-12, the idea of someone ascending to heaven relates to that person’s ability/authority to speak of heavenly things (see above). A human being (such as Elijah) who went up to heaven could presumably speak, in a certain way, about “heavenly things”, but not in the manner of the Son (Jesus); on this point, see below.

(b) “if not the (one hav)ing stepped down out of heaven”

The compound negative particle ei) mh/ (“if not”) is conditional, and usually is meant in an exceptive sense (i.e., “except [for]”)—that is, no one has ever “stepped up” into heaven except for… . The only person who has ever “stepped up” into heaven is the person who has (first) “stepped down” from heaven. This person is designated by the substantive verbal noun (participle) kataba/$ with the definite article—o( kataba/$ (“the [one hav]ing stepped down”). Such use of the articular substantive participle is typical of Johannine style, and there are many examples occurring throughout the Gospel and Letters (too many to cite here). The syntax allows the author/speaker to express an essential or definitive characteristic of a person (or group). The qualifying prepositional expression “out of heaven” (e)k tou= ou)ranou=) fills out the characterizing phrase: “the (one hav)ing stepped down out of heaven”.

This is a vital element of the Johannine Christology—viz., declaring and affirming Jesus’ heavenly origin, and his identity as the Son sent (down) from heaven by God the Father. For more on this, see section (c) below.

A word should be said about the tenses of the two verbs. The verb a)nabai/nw is in the perfect tense, while the participle of katabai/nw is in the aorist tense; in English, both would essentially need to be translated “has stepped up/down”, but note the distinction (indicated by parentheses) in the translation above.

If the author (and/or Jesus as the speaker) intends a meaningful distinction here between the two tenses, and it is not simply a stylistic difference, what would this be? The aorist is generally used as the past tense, typically referring to an event which took place at a specific point in the past. In this case, it would refer to the Son (Jesus) “stepping down” out of heaven at some point in the past—specifically, we may assume, from the Gospel standpoint, that this refers to the incarnation described in 1:14ff. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus is identified as the pre-existent Son (or Word [Logos], in the Prologue), who was sent to earth (from heaven) by God the Father. The “stepping down”, then, would refer to Jesus’ appearance on earth as a human being (see below).

The perfect tense of a)nabai/nw is more problematic. A perfect tense is typically used for a past action (or condition) the results/effects of which continue into the present. The sense may be that no one has ever (in the past) “stepped up” into heaven, a fact that continues to be true up to the present moment. This would give greater emphasis to the idea that Jesus (the present speaker) is the only one to do so.

(c) “the son of man”

Some manuscripts and versional (Syriac, Latin) witnesses include the qualifying phrase o( w&n e)n tw=| ou)ranw=| (“the [one] being in heaven”). The expression “the son of man” appears here so abruptly, without further explanation, that it would have been natural for scribes to add an explaining phrase such as this. On the other hand, copyists might just as well have deleted the phrase as being redundant or superfluous. The shorter reading is, I think, much to be preferred, though the matter is far from decisive; however, I would point out that the expression “in heaven” (with the preposition e)n) is not at all typical of Johannine usage, and occurs nowhere else in the Gospel (or Letters).

The expression “the son of man” is apposite to the phrase “the (one hav)ing stepped down out of heaven”, identifying the son of man (i.e., Jesus himself) as this person. That is, Jesus is the one who has “stepped down” out of heaven. In the context of the Johannine Christology, as noted above, the verb katabai/nw refers to Jesus’ heavenly origin, and to his identity as the Son sent (from heaven) by God the Father.

Does this usage imply that “the son of man” should here be understood as the title of a heavenly figure, with whom Jesus is identified? Many scholars believe so (or would assume so), and yet the evidence is highly questionable, when examined in detail. If it is intended as a title, then the heavenly figure called “the son of man” must refer to the one “like a son of man” in Daniel 7:13-14. As we have seen, at least two of the Synoptic sayings (Mark 13:26; 14:62 pars) allude to Dan 7:13f, and it is possible that other eschatological sayings assume the same traditional background. On this, see Part 4 of the article on the “Q” sayings. The question of the influence of Dan 7:13f on the occurrences of the expression will be discussed more extensively at a later point in this series.

Other commentators would emphasize the incarnation of the Son here, in the use of the expression “the son of man”. Since “son of man”, as a Semitic idiom, denotes a human being, it would be natural that it signify here the incarnation. Indeed, such an interpretation would very much fit the sense of the statement in v. 13: the Son “stepped down” from heaven to earth, and became a human being, viz., Jesus as “th(is) son of man”.

In the continuation of this study, we will examine the following “son of man” saying in verse 14.

“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Johannine Sayings (Jn 1:51)

The Johannine “Son of Man” Sayings

Having explored all of the “son of man” references in the Synoptic Gospels, we now turn to the Gospel of John. Given the distinctiveness of the Johannine Tradition, and the special contours of the Johannine theology, it is not surprising that the “son of man” sayings in the Gospel of John carry aspects of meaning and significance that are quite different from those in the Synoptic Gospels.

There are thirteen occurrences of the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) in the Gospel of John, which may be reduced to eleven specific sayings located in eight passages. These will be discussed in the order that they occur in the Gospel.

It is interesting to note that, while scholars and students have long recognized the complexities and difficulties surrounding Jesus’ use of the expression “the son of man” (as it occurs in the Gospels), the Gospel of John provides evidence that, at the historical level, it also could be confusing to people at the time who heard him speak. The question posed by the crowd in 12:34, and which is used as the title for this study series, asks “Who is this son of man?” (ti/$ e)stin ou!to$ o( ui(o\$ tou= a)qrw/pou;).

John 1:51

The first “son of man” saying in the Gospel of John occurs in 1:51, at the close of first main section of the narrative (1:19-51). This section can be further divided into four units (vv. 19-28, 29-34, 35-42, 43-51), organized according to the narrative framework of four successive “days” (see vv. 29, 35, 43). The narrative shifts from John the Baptist (vv. 19-34) to Jesus (vv. 35-51)—part of a broad contrast in chaps. 1-3, between Jesus and John—and deals specifically with the theme of Jesus’ Messianic identity (in contrast to that of John). Various Messianic titles are applied to Jesus in each unit (vv. 20-21 [and 25], 34, 41, 49) and the use of the expression “the son of man” needs to be considered in light of these titles.

Given the way that verse 51 appears abruptly, without a clear connection to what has gone before, it is perhaps best to regard the verse as transitional in nature. It both summarizes the events of vv. 19-50 and points ahead to the “signs” and discourses of chapters 2-12.

Here is the saying:

“Amen, amen, I declare [le/gw] to you, (that) you shall see [o&yesqe] the heaven(s) having opened up, and the Messengers of God stepping up [a)nabai/nonta$] and stepping down [katabai/nonta$] upon [e)pi/] the son of man.”

How does this saying relate to what precedes it, and how does it serve to summarize vv. 19-50? It is immediately connected to the narrative units of vv. 19-50, focusing on the ‘call’ of the first disciples, by way of Jesus’ closing words to Nathanael in v. 50: “greater (thing)s than these you shall see [o&yh|]”. This verb for seeing (o)pta/nomai) also occurs in verse 51, being one of numerous sight-verbs that occur regularly throughout the Johannine Gospel. It specifically denotes looking or gazing with (open) eyes; however, in the future tense it often functions in the simple sense of “seeing”. It occurs ten times in the Gospel, including earlier in v. 39, as part of the call of the disciples (“come and see”).

In the Gospel of John, and as part of the Johannine theological vocabulary, these seeing-verbs carry special significance, being closely connected with the idea of the revelation of God in the person of Jesus. Moreover, there is a dual idiom in the Gospel of seeing/knowing, playing upon the linguistic dual meaning, for example, of the verb ei&dw (meaning both “see” and “know”). When one comes to trust in Jesus (as the Messiah and Son of God), that person both sees and knows the truth. This theological idiom was established in the Prologue (through the parallel light and witness motifs, vv. 4-9, and again in vv. 14-18), and then continues throughout the Gospel. It is therefore not surprising that the first main section of the Gospel (1:19-51) would conclude with this promise of seeing.

A second important Johannine feature, present in v. 51, is the use of the verbs a)nabai/nw (“step up”) and katabai/nw (“step down”). These are common verbs, used frequently in narrative (describing travel, viz., ‘go/come up’, ‘go/come down’), but which have special theological (and Christological) significance in the Gospel of John. I have discussed this on numerous occasions in prior notes and articles, and the point will be addressed again as we proceed through the Johannine “son of man” sayings.

However, here it is important to note the use of the verb katabai/nw (“step down”, i.e., come down) earlier in vv. 32-33, in John the Baptist’s description of the descent of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism. This is one of the important ways that John the Baptist functions as a witness (vv. 7-8, 15; see vv. 32, 34). The use of the verb katabai/nw in this context is traditional, occurring also in the Synoptic narrative of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:10 par); but, again, this language takes on deeper significance in connection with the Johannine theology. The Spirit (of God) “steps down” upon (e)pi/) Jesus (v. 32f); this is the same idiom (half of it, at least) that occurs in verse 51—viz., the Messengers (angels) of God “stepping down upon the son of man”.

Thus, with regard to both the seeing motif, and the ascent/descent motif (using the verb pair a)na– and kata-bai/nw), verse 51 summarizes aspects of the theological message in chapter 1 (looking back), and also points ahead to the message of chapters 2-12ff. The declaration formula used, with the double amen (a)mh/n [Heb /m@a*]), confirms the importance of verse 51 at this point in the Gospel narrative. This double-amen formula, is distinctive of the Johannine presentation of Jesus’ sayings, being found only in the Gospel of John, and occurring repeatedly (25 times) in the Gospel. Here in v. 51 is the first of these occurrences. The emphatic nature of the formula, indicating a firm and solemn pronouncement, demonstrates that the Gospel writer (along with Jesus himself) is giving special significance to the saying.

The Allusion to Genesis 28:12

Virtually all commentators agree that the saying in verse 51 alludes to Genesis 28:12f, but disagreement remains as to the extent of the reference. The similarity of imagery (and wording) is obvious:

“And he [i.e. Jacob] dreamed, and see! (there was) a ladder [<L*s%] having been set up on (the) earth and (with) its head [i.e. top] touching the heavens—and, see! Messengers of (the) Mightiest [i.e. God] (were) going up and going down on it.” (v. 12)

In the LXX, the italicized portion is rendered as follows:

oi( a&ggeloi tou= qeou= a)ne/bainon kai\ kate/bainon e)p’ au)th=$
“the Messengers of God were stepping up and stepping down upon it”

The differences with the wording of the saying in v. 51 are relatively slight: (a) the use of the imperfect indicative for the verbs, rather than the present participle; and (b) the genitive case after the preposition e)pi/, rather than the accusative.

On the whole, it seems clear that the saying alludes to the scene in Jacob’s dream at Bethel; but what is the meaning of this allusion? The parallel suggests that the place of the ladder is being taken by the figure of the “son of man”. There is a line of Jewish tradition that interprets the suffixed preposition oB (“on him/it”) as referring to Jacob, rather than the ladder, and some commentators have applied this to Jesus’ saying as well. However, the LXX clearly understands oB as referring to the ladder, since, in the corresponding Greek (e)p’ au)th=$), the pronoun is feminine, in agreement with the feminine noun kli/mac (“ladder”). If the Gospel writer (and/or Jesus as the speaker) intends a precise parallel with Gen 28:12, then the “son of man” is best understood as being identified with the ladder that reaches from earth to heaven. The noun in Hebrew (<L*s%) denotes something that is thrown (or cast) up (like a mound or raised highway, etc), and which thus lifts and raises up.

What more can be determined regarding the significance of this imagery, particularly as it relates to the figure of the “son of man”? Earlier 20th-century scholars (such as Odenberg, Jeremias, and Boismard) were inclined read into the Johannine saying a number of different Rabbinic and Jewish-philosophical interpretive traditions regarding Gen 28:12f (cf. the summary by Moloney, pp. 26-32). Most commentators today would be unwilling to go so far, primarily because the Jewish sources cited generally come from a time much later than the Gospel of John. More serious, from a methodological standpoint, is the questionable procedure of applying interpretative traditions for which there is no clear basis in the Gospel text itself. Our approach should focus on the details and points of emphasis actually present in verse 51.

The Components of the Saying

We can isolate four principal components of the saying in verse 51: (a) the orienting location of heaven, (b) the presence of the Messengers (angels) of God, (c) the ascent/descent motif (using the verbs a)nabai/nw and katabai/nw), and (d) the figure of the “son of man” (including the use of the preposition e)pi/).

(a) “the heaven(s) having opened up”

The vision is located principally in heaven, which differs somewhat from the focal point in Gen 28:12 (emphasizing the ladder standing on the earth). The opening of the heavens alludes to the Baptism tradition, even though this particular detail is not specified in the Johannine account (vv. 32-34). The verb a)noi/gw (“open up”) is used in the Matthean (3:16) and Lukan (3:21) description of the descent of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism. In John, the emphasis is on the heavenly origin of the Spirit (“out of [e)k] heaven”).

Elsewhere in the Gospel of John, the verb a)noi/gw is used almost exclusively in the context of (Jesus) opening the eyes of someone who is blind; the verb occurs 7 times in chapter 9 (cf. also 10:21; 11:37). This “opening up” of physical sight serves as a symbol for the opening of spiritual sight—that is, recognition of Jesus (i.e., trust in him) as the Son of God (cf. 9:35-41, at the close of the chap. 9 narrative).

Thus the reference here to the “heaven(s) having opened up”, from the standpoint of the Johannine theology, carries two points of significance: (i) an allusion to the heavenly origin of Jesus, and (ii) a revelation of his identity that leads to trust in him.

(b) “the Messengers of God”

This is one of only two references in the Gospel to the Divine/heavenly “messengers” (or ‘angels’), the other being the notice in 20:12 (in the Resurrection narrative). Their mention here is derived primarily, it would seem, from the tradition in Gen 28:12f (see above). However, there are a number of references in the Synoptic Gospels where angels are associated with an (end-time) appearance by the son of man. This will be discussed further below.

I tend to think that the Gospel writer may have in mind an identification of Jesus with the angels, in the sense that, in his earthly ministry, Jesus takes on the traditional character and activity of the angels. From the standpoint of the Johannine theology, this would be realized in several different ways. Most notably, like the angels, Jesus comes from heaven to earth, and then returns back to heaven (see below). He also represents God the Father, serving as the ultimate Messenger. Being the Son, Jesus is far greater than all other Messengers from heaven (compare the line of argument in Hebrews 1, along with the “son of man” reference that follows in 2:6-7ff). Like the Messengers, Jesus makes known the word and will of God to human beings on earth. Finally, the angelic/heavenly mission of Jesus is confirmed by the descent of the Spirit upon him (see above); on the traditional designation of the angels as spirits, see, e.g., Hebrews 1:13-14.

(c) “stepping up and stepping down”

As noted above, this activity of the angels (taken from Gen 28:12), echoes the descent of the Spirit (“stepping down”) upon Jesus at his baptism. However, throughout the remainder of the Gospel, the verbs a)nabai/nw and katabai/nw are applied to Jesus (the Son)—it is he who “stepped down” from heaven, for his mission on earth, and who, once it has been completed, will “step up” again, back to heaven. The activity of the angels thus serves as a type-pattern for the mission of Jesus himself; see the discussion in section (b) above.

The verb katabai/nw (“step down”) is used of the pre-existent Son’s coming down to earth (incarnate, as a human being), to fulfill his mission, the duty (e)ntolh/) which the Father gave him to complete. Conversely, the verb a)nabai/nw (“step up”) refers to the exaltation or “lifting up” of the Son (Jesus)—a process which includes his death, resurrection, and return to the Father. This same language will be discussed further, as it occurs in other “son of man” sayings in John.

(d) “upon the son of man”

Here we come to the specific use of the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou). Though here the point can only be inferred, it is fair to assume that the expression is being used primarily as a self-reference by Jesus, much as it was used in many (if not all) of the Synoptic sayings. Conceivably, at the historical level, such a saying (without further context) could have been understood by Jesus’ hearers as referring to a figure separate from Jesus himself. To the extent that this might be true, the reference surely would be to the heavenly figure of Daniel 7:13-14, such as it came to be interpreted and applied in an eschatological (and/or Messianic) context (as, e.g., in the Similitudes of Enoch [1 Enoch 37-71]). However, in the immediate context of the Gospel, the expression can only refer to the person of Jesus. Thus, Jesus would be promising his disciples a heavenly vision of himself (“the son of man”).

How should we understand this promise? The closest parallels in the Synoptic Gospels are the eschatological sayings in Mark 8:38 and 13:26 pars. In each of these sayings, the end-time appearance of the “son of man” involves the presence of angels. As he comes from heaven, the angels descend with him; cf. also Matt 13:41; 25:31. Similar as a vision of the son of man in heavenly splendor is Mark 14:62 par, though this particular saying seems to emphasize the exaltation of Jesus (after his death) rather more than his end-time return. Both Mark 13:26 and 14:62 use the verb o)pta/nomai for the seeing (gazing at) of this vision, just as here in verse 51.

Thus, if a specific visionary event is intended by the saying, then it most likely refers to the end-time appearance of the son of man (i.e., return/parousia of Jesus), when he comes from heaven with the angels. A less likely interpretation is that it refers to the exalted status of Jesus (in heaven), akin to the vision experienced by Stephen in Acts 7:55-56. The ascent/descent of the angels could indicate activity, connected with the appearance of the son of man, such as we see described in Mk 13:27 par (cf. Matt 13:41ff).

However, I do not believe that a particular eschatological event is foremost in the Gospel writer’s mind. Rather, for the author, the language and imagery of the saying is emblematic of the Gospel portrait of Jesus as a whole. The promised vision encompasses the entire message of the Gospel, declaring Jesus’ identity as the Son who descends from heaven and then ascends back. It is an exalted, heavenly identity, one which is worthy of being described as surrounded by angels. The angel-motif alludes back to the Gen 28:12f tradition, as describing the formative revelation of God to Israel (Jacob). It also looks ahead to the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus (following his death), and to his future return in glory.

References above marked “Moloney” are to Francis J. Moloney SDB, The Johannine Son of Man, Second Edition (Wipf and Stock: 1978/2007). This work provides fine summary and analysis for each passage. John 1:51 is discussed in Chapter 2, pp. 23-41.

“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Synoptic Sayings (Matthew, cont.)

The “Son of Man” in the Gospel of Matthew, continued

In the initial portion of this article, we examined the “son of man” references that occur throughout the narrative sequence of the Gospel of Matthew. For the most part, the Gospel writer follows the Synoptic/Markan narrative (though with some re-ordering), and also includes a number of “Q” traditions (shared with the Gospel of Luke). The author’s treatment of the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) similarly follows his use of this traditional material. The most original contributions are found in the way that Jesus’ declaration(s) in Mark 8:38-9:1 are adapted (16:27-28), and by the inclusion of the saying in 19:28 within the Synoptic tradition of Mk 10:17-30 par (cf. Lk 22:28-30).

If I may summarize the main results of our analysis of the narrative references:

    • The Matthean Gospel writer unquestionably saw the expression “the son of man” by Jesus primarily as a self-reference; the interchangeability between the expression and the personal pronoun (compare 16:13, 21 with Mk 8:27, 31), in the declarations by Jesus occurring at the heart of the Gospel, makes this especially clear.
    • In Matthew, as in Luke, the “son of man” sayings bring out the Gospel’s thematic emphasis on discipleship. Just as Jesus identifies with the human condition (and its suffering), so the disciple of Jesus must take on a similar cost (of hardship and self-sacrifice) in following him.
    • The suffering and death of Jesus is particularly in focus, but balanced (more so than in Luke) with an emphasis on the exaltation of Jesus.

The “son of man” saying in 19:28, in particular, blends together these last two thematic emphases.

The Matthean Sermon-Discourses

As was discussed, the Matthean narrative is punctuated by a series of Discourses (or ‘Sermons’), built up out of smaller discourse-sections, around which other teachings by Jesus (sayings, short parables, etc) have been added. The great ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (chaps. 5-7) is the first of these Discourses, in which Jesus presents a range of essential ethical-religious instruction for anyone would be his disciple. In chapter 10, Jesus subsequently instructs his disciples in preparation of their mission. Further on, in chapter 13, Jesus teaches his followers about the Kingdom of God, and (in chap. 18) on certain social aspects of being his disciple—viz., on belonging to the Kingdom, and how one is to relate to fellow members of the Kingdom. Finally, in chapters 24-25, the disciples are given further instruction on their mission (i.e., the early Christian mission), in connection with the coming end of the Age (and the Judgment).

The most significant Matthean occurrences of the expression “the son of man” (in 16:27-28 and 19:28), as noted above, have an eschatological orientation. This is also true for all of the occurrences of the expression in the Sermon-Discourses—10:23; 13:37, 41; 24:27, 30, 37, 39, 44; 25:31.

Matthew 10:23

As part of the discourse (chap. 10) in which Jesus prepares his disciples for their mission—and, by extension, all believers for the coming early Christian mission—he instructs them in regard to the hostility and persecution that they will experience (vv. 16-25). In the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” (Mk 13 par), this persecution (vv. 9-13) is framed in eschatological terms, as part of the end-time period of distress (vv. 19, 24). Matthew’s version of that Discourse (see below) has only a shortened form of the section related to the disciples’ mission (24:9, 13-14), having transferred the portion corresponding to Mk 13:9-12 largely to the chap. 10 discourse. This means, however, that there is a definite eschatological aspect to Jesus’ instruction here in chap. 10.

When facing persecution, the disciples are told to move (“flee”) from one city to the next (v. 23a). Jesus then adds the following declaration:

“For, amen, I say to you, that you shall (surely) not complete (going through) the cities of Yisrael, before [lit. until] the son of man should come.” (v. 23b)

This saying, like the instruction regarding persecution, is rather out of place in the narrative context—viz., the disciples’ initial mission during Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. It is much more appropriate in the context of the Eschatological Discourse (chap. 24f), set in Jerusalem, not long before Jesus’ death and resurrection. Indeed, the eschatological reference to the son of man’s (i.e., Jesus’) end-time appearance makes almost no sense here, from a narrative standpoint, occurring as it does before he has even once told his disciples of his impending death and resurrection. The arrangement of the material in chapter 10, however, is topical, not chronological.

In any case, the imminence of the son of man’s end-time appearance would seem to be expressed quite clearly by Jesus here in v. 23. The implication is that not all that much time will pass before his coming—indeed, some (if not many) of the first disciples will still be alive at his parousia. The declaration by Jesus in 16:28, in the Matthean formulation of the saying (cp. Mk 9:1), carries the same implication, as does the famous statement in 24:34 par. We have already discussed the “son of man” reference in 16:28:

“Amen, I say to you, that there are some of the (one)s having stood here who (surely) shall not taste death, until they should see the son of man coming in his Kingdom!”

However problematic these statements may be for later generations of Christians (and for many of us today), the imminent eschatology held by first-century believers is well-established, and we should avoid the inclination to try and explain away their belief in this regard. For a thorough survey of the subject, see my earlier article (and specifically the portion covering the Gospels) in the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”.

Matthew 13:37, 41

In chapter 13, the Gospel writer has expanded the collection of Kingdom-parables in Mark 4:1-34, by including a number of additional parables and sayings—vv. 24-30, 32, 36-43, 44-50, 51-52—and by omitting (or otherwise not including) one of the parables found in Mark (4:26-29). The parable of the Weeds (vv. 24-30) functions as a corollary to the parable of the Sower. As in that earlier parable, an explanation by Jesus is recorded for the parable of the Weeds (vv. 36-43). In this explanation, it is declared that sower of the seed is “the son of man” (v. 37)—that is, Jesus, in his ministry of proclaiming the Gospel (of the Kingdom). As is clear from chapter 10 (see above), the disciples (and other believers) will be continuing this mission of Jesus. It is noteworthy that in Matthew, these parables come after the disciples’ mission, whereas in Mark, the parables (chap. 4) come before the mission (6:7-13).

It is also explained that the harvest, involving the separation of the weeds from the grain, represents the end-time ‘harvest’, when the righteous will be separated from the wicked (vv. 39-43). The harvest, marking the end of the growing season, was a natural metaphor for the end of the Age—e.g., Joel 3:13ff; Matt 3:12 par; Rev 14:14-20. The parable of the Net (vv. 47-50) has a similar eschatological message.

In any case, in the parable of the Weeds, it is “the son of man” who will do the gathering (i.e., separating out the righteous), through the mediation of heavenly Messengers under his command (“his Messengers”), v. 41. Much the same scenario is described in the Eschatological Discourse (Mk 13:27; par Matt 24:34). This eschatological reference to the Messengers (angels) confirms that the “son of man” declarations in 16:27-28 refer to the end-time appearance of Jesus (from heaven), i.e., his parousia (cf. 24:3, 27, 37, 39).

Matthew 24:27, 30, 37, 39, 44

The Matthean Gospel writer has also expanded the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13 par), adding to it other eschatological sayings and parables of Jesus, including a number of “Q” traditions (vv. 43-44, 45-51, 26-27, 37-39, 40-41, 28) which Luke locates at different points of the narrative (12:39-40, 42b-46; 17:23-24, 26-27, 34-35, 37b). The expression “the son of man” occurs several times in this “Q” material (vv. 27, 37, 39, 44 par), and the references were examined in Part 4 of the article on the “Q” sayings.

The fundamental point in these references is that the coming of the son of man will coincide with the coming of the end-time Judgment. His appearance will be sudden and unexpected (v. 44 par), like lighting flashes that instantly light up the entire sky (v. 27 par). Matthew includes the Noah/Flood illustration, but not the Lot/Sodom illustration (Lk 17:28-29, 32). It is difficult to be certain whether or not the latter was originally part of the “Q” tradition inherited by the Gospel writer; it seems likely that it was, though, as a natural pairing (cf. 2 Peter 2:5ff), it might have been added at any point in the tradition. In Matthew, Jesus specifically utilizes the Noah/Flood reference as the type-pattern for the end-time Judgment, pointing out that the coming of the “son of man” will be just like the coming of the Flood (vv. 37, 39 par)—the righteous (believers) will be saved, while the rest of humankind will perish under the Judgment.

Naturally enough, Matthew also retains the climactic “son of man” reference in Mk 13:26f par (v. 30f), but includes certain details which are worth discussing briefly. The declaration in Mk 13:26 is preserved in v. 30b, with only slight variation:

“…they shall gaze with (open) eyes (at) the son of man coming upon the clouds of heaven with much power and splendor.”

Mark has “in/with [e)n] the clouds”, while Matthew more clearly draws upon the ancient storm-theophany imagery, viz., of the deity coming (or ‘riding’) upon (e)pi/) the clouds. However, the precise wording here actually stems from Daniel 7:13 LXX, “upon the clouds of heaven” (e)pi\ tw=n nefelw=n tou= ou)ranou=). The Matthean version of the tradition thus conforms more precisely to the “son of man” reference in Dan 7:13f.

The Gospel writer has also included an additional detail, in v. 30a; prior to the actual appearance of the son of man:

“Then shall shine forth the sign of the son of man in heaven, and all the offshoots [i.e. tribes] of the earth shall beat themselves…”

There are differences of opinion regarding what is meant by the sign (shmei=on) of the son of man. It may simply refer to a brilliant theophanous light (the verb fai/nw literally meaning “shine”) that announces the son of man’s coming. Other commentators prefer to explain it is a visual symbol of something, such as Jesus’ crucifixion (i.e., cross), or even as a representation of Jesus himself (crucified). If the Gospel writer understands the reference to the peoples “beating themselves” (i.e., in mourning) as an allusion to Zech 12:10, then they may, indeed, be responding to the fact that the “son of man” (i.e., the exalted Jesus) had been crucified (cp. John 19:37). Revelation 1:7 similarly brings together Dan 7:13 and Zech 12:10. If the death (crucifixion) of Jesus is being specifically referenced here, then it provides us with another indication of how the Matthean author has balanced two primary Gospel contexts where the expression “the son of man” is used: (a) the suffering and death of Jesus, and (b) his exaltation and (future) return in glory.

Matthew 25:31

The Gospel writer has further expanded the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse, by including three eschatological parables in chapter 25. Two of these (vv. 1-13, 31-46) are unique to Matthew, while the other (vv. 14-30) is similar to the parable of the Ten Minas in Luke 19:12-27 (and may derive from a common [“Q”] tradition). All three of these parables refer in some way to the end-time Judgment, but only the third (vv. 31-46) specifically has a Judgment setting. Indeed, it can only marginally be described as a parable; it is more akin to some of the visions in the book of Revelation, providing a vivid portrait of the end-time Judgment.

In any case, it is clear from the opening (v. 31) that the Judgment takes place only after the coming of the son of man (see on 24:30f above):

“And, when the son of man should come in his splendor, and all the Messengers with him, then he shall sit upon (the) throne of his splendor, and the nations shall be gathered together in front of him, and he shall mark them off from each other, just as a herder marks off the sheep from the goats.” (vv. 31-32)

The idea of the separation of the righteous from the wicked was a central component of the Judgment parables in 13:24-30 (+ 36-43) and 47-50 (see above). Clearly, in this instance, though the holy Messengers (angels) are involved, it is the son of man himself who oversees the Judgment. The peoples (“nations”) are all brought together in front of him, as he sits upon his throne. As the exalted/heavenly ruler, the son of man (Jesus) will proceed to pass judgment upon humankind. Though it is not specifically indicated here, it is fair to assume that Jesus is acting as God the Father’s representative, acting with His authority, in overseeing the Judgment.

In all respects this scenario represents a more developed form of a line of tradition preserved elsewhere in the “son of man” sayings (16:27, etc), in which we find both the motif of the end-time Judgment, and the idea of the “son of man” appearing (in glory, with the angels) at the end-time.

“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Synoptic Sayings (Matthew)

The “Son of Man” in the Gospel of Matthew

As discussed in the previous article on the Gospel of Luke, the most widely-accepted view regarding the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels posits that Matthew and Luke each made use of the Gospel of Mark and the so-called “Q” material as a common source. This approach, though not without its difficulties, remains the most plausible option for a functioning hypothesis, and so I have followed it for the purpose of this study. Thus, for the Gospel of Matthew (as for Luke), in examining the use of the expression “the son of man”, we must consider: (a) how the Markan and “Q” source material was included and adapted, as well as (b) references or aspects that are original or unique to Matthew.

From a structural standpoint, perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Matthean Gospel is the way that the author has grouped together teachings of Jesus—individual traditions, or clusters of traditions—into larger discourse-sections (or ‘sermons’). These discourses punctuate the Gospel—in chapters 5-7, 10, 13, 18, and 24-25 (to which one may add chap. 23)—and provide a certain theological framework that is interwoven with the narrative framework (drawn largely from the Markan narrative).

The Matthean Discourses actually represent expansions of previous, shorter discourse-sections. For example, the underlying “Q” material that formed the core of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (chaps. 5-7) likely corresponds, more or less, with the Lukan ‘Sermon on the Plain’ (6:20-49). To this core, various other sayings and teachings of Jesus—some “Q” traditions, and others being unique to Matthew (“M” material)—have been added and arranged. The same is true with regard to chapters 10 (expanding the core tradition of Mk 6:7-13), 13 (expanding the sequence of parables in Mk 4:1-34), and 24-25 (expanding the “Eschatological Discourse” of Mk 13). To a lesser degree, chapters 18 and 23 are built up around core Synoptic/Markan and “Q” traditions, respectively.

The Matthean Gospel thus has a parallel arrangement running through the work: the narrative sequence (drawn from Mark), and the discourse/sermon sequence. With regard to the “son of man” references, it would seem best to analyze the data for each sequence in turn. We begin with the narrative sequence.

The Synoptic/Markan narrative, while generally followed by the Matthean Gospel writer, has also been disrupted and re-arranged at various points. The disruptions are largely due to the presence of the Discourses. For example, the Markan narrative is followed up to 1:20 (4:22), but then is interrupted to include the Sermon on the Mount (chaps. 5-7); when it resumes in chapters 8-9, the material from Mk 1:21-2:17 is presented, but in a different order (with the summary in 1:39 essentially being repositioned [and expanded] to introduce the Sermon on the Mount [4:23-25]).

The first occurrence of the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) is at 8:20, following the Sermon on the Mount (the expression does not occur in the Sermon). Verses 18-22 are “Q” sayings (par Lk 9:57-60) on the theme of discipleship, and, in particular, on the cost involved in following Jesus. In the context of the narrative sequence, the two sayings of vv. 19-22 occur between the call of the first disciples (4:18-22) and the call of Matthew (9:9ff). In the intervening Sermon on the Mount, Jesus provides a range of essential ethical-religious instruction for those who would be his disciples.

Let us briefly survey the references in the narrative prior to the central episode of Peter’s confession (16:13-20, par Mk 8:27-30); the sequence of references is as follows:

As in the Markan and “Q” source-material, these occurrences of the expression “the son of man” function primarily as a self-reference by Jesus (i.e., “this son of man”, namely himself). Any significance beyond this relates to Jesus’ identification with the human condition, especially with regard to human weakness and suffering. This extends to the anticipation of Jesus’ suffering and death that would occur in Jerusalem. The Matthean treatment of the “sign of Jonah” tradition (12:39-40ff) clearly brings this out—identifying the “sign” with Jesus’ death (and subsequent resurrection). The Lukan version—and the underlying “Q” tradition itself—focuses instead on the ministry (preaching) of Jesus. His preaching is contrasted with that of Jonah. The prophet Jonah’s preaching led to the repentance of the people of Nineveh; by contrast, Jesus’ own contemporaries (in Galilee) have not responded to him in a similar way, even though he is a far greater (and Messianic) Prophet.

In both 12:32 and 40, the expression (as a reference to Jesus) is connected with the theme of discipleship. Only the person who responds with trust to Jesus, and who, as a true disciple, will confess him publicly, will be able to pass through the Judgment and be saved. This thematic emphasis is intrinsic to the “Q” traditions themselves, and is brought out even more strongly in Luke’s treatment of the material (see the discussion in the previous article).

The focus on the suffering and death of Jesus comes more clearly into view with the central cluster of references in chapters 16-17ff. In this regard, the Matthean author is following the Synoptic/Markan narrative, and the three ‘Passion predictions’ by Jesus (Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:33). What is most interesting, however, is the way that the Gospel writer treats the expression “the son of man” so unequivocally as a self-reference by Jesus, entirely interchangeable with the use of the first person pronoun (“I”). Compare the question posed by Jesus to his disciples (in Mark and Matthew, respectively):

    • “Who do men count/consider me to be?” (Mk 8:27)
    • “Who do men count/consider the son of man to be?” (Matt 16:13)

The Gospel writer clearly (it seems) does not consider the expression to be a Messianic or special Christological title per se, otherwise Jesus’ question would make no sense—viz., he would be giving his disciples the answer before he even finished asking the question (cf. Hare, p. 131f). Note the similar interchange, between expression and pronoun, in the first Passion prediction:

    • “And he began to teach them that it is necessary for the son of man to suffer many (thing)s…” (Mk 8:31)
    • “From then (on), Yeshua began to show to his learners that it is necessary for him to go forth to Yerushalaim and to suffer many (thing)s…” (Matt 16:21)

In chapters 16-20, references to Jesus’ suffering and death (17:9, 12, 22; 20:18, 28) alternate with references to his exaltation (and future return), 16:27-28; 17:9; 19:28. It will be useful to examine the original Matthean contributions to this presentation.

The saying in 16:27, though formulated differently, corresponds to Mark 8:38. It is possible that the saying was reworked (or replaced) because of the similar “Q” tradition that the author would include in 10:32-33 (where Jesus uses the personal pronoun instead of the expression “the son of man”). But the author has retained the motif of the “son of man” coming in glory:

    • “…the son of man…when he should come in the splendor [do/ca] of his Father with the holy Messengers” (Mk 8:38)
    • “For the son of man is about to come in the splendor [do/ca] of his Father with his/His Messengers…” (Matt 16:27)

The following saying in v. 28 also corresponds to the Markan parallel (9:1), being nearly identical, but with one key difference:

    • “…there are some of those having stood here who shall not taste death until they should see the kingdom of God having come in power!” (Mk 9:1)
    • “…there are some of those having stood here who shall not taste death until they should see the son of man coming in his kingdom!” (Matt 16:28)

The coming of the Kingdom is defined in terms of the coming of the son of man (Jesus) in glory. This clearly refers to the exaltation of Jesus, but also (it would seem) to his future (second) coming at the end-time. The saying in 10:23 (to be discussed) would indicate that the author had Jesus’ second coming (i.e., parousia) in mind. However, it is Jesus’ exalted position in heaven that is being emphasized in 19:28, a Matthean addition to the Synoptic tradition in Mk 10:17-31 (19:16-30) that has a loose parallel in Lk 22:28-30. The emphasis on the heavenly position of the son of man (on a ruling throne) anticipates the eschatological references in chaps. 24-25. It also reiterates the important discipleship context that attends a number of the “son of man” sayings (esp. the “Q” sayings) we have examined (see above):

“Amen, I say to you, that you, the (one)s having come on the path with [i.e. followed] me, in the (time of all things) coming to be (born) again, when the son of man should sit upon the throne of his honor/splendor [do/ca], you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve offshoots [i.e. tribes] of Yisrael.”

These sayings reflect the eschatological outlook of early Christians. As the Messiah, following his resurrection and exaltation to heaven, Jesus will be sitting (in a ruling position) at the “right hand” of God, a position that he will continue to hold into the New Age. The end of the current Age was thought to be imminent, so that the New Age would very soon be ushered in—indeed, within the lifetime of some, if not most, of the first disciples. The exaltation of Jesus, followed by his subsequent return to earth (in glory), would mark the end of the current Age, and, with it, the final Judgment. This aspect of the “son of man” references will be discussed further in the continuation of this article, and again at the conclusion of this series.

Finally, the remaining “son of man” references in the narrative (26:2, 24, 45, 64) generally follow the Synoptic/Markan narrative, building upon the earlier association between the expression and the anticipation of Jesus’ impending suffering and death (in Jerusalem). Matthew is unique in the way that the Gospel writer opens the Passion narrative with a reiteration of the Passion-predictions:

And, when it came to be (that) Yeshua (had) completed all these words, he said to his learners: “You have seen [i.e. know] that after two days the Pesah [i.e. Passover] comes to be, and the son of man is given along to be put to the stake [i.e. crucified].” (26:1-2; cp. Mk 14:1)

Otherwise, the Gospel writer, in preserving the Synoptic/Markan references, emphasizes both the suffering of Jesus (including his betrayal, 26:24, 45) and his subsequent exaltation (26:64)—compare Mk 14:21, 41, 62. This balancing of the two aspects—suffering/death and exaltation—is, on the whole, typical of the use of the expression throughout the Gospel Tradition, but it is particularly significant (and noteworthy) in the Matthean presentation of the traditional material. In contrast with the Gospel of Luke, where the emphasis tends to be on the suffering aspect, Matthew gives somewhat greater prominence to Jesus’ exaltation.

References above marked “Hare” are to Douglas R. A. Hare, The Son of Man Tradition (Fortress Press: 1990).

“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Synoptic Sayings (Luke)

The “Son of Man” in the Gospel of Luke

In our study of the expression”the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) in the Synoptic Gospels, we have examined the core sayings in the Gospel of Mark (Pt 1, 2, 3, 4), and also those in the so-called “Q” material (Pt 1, 2, 3, 4). According to the most widely-accepted view regarding the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew and Luke each made use of the Gospel of Mark and the “Q” material. I have followed this approach, as a functioning hypothesis, for this study. Thus in examining the use of the expression “the son of man” in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, we must consider: (a) how the Markan and “Q” source material was included and adapted, as well as (b) references or aspects that are original or unique to the particular Gospel.

We begin with the Gospel of Luke. First, we may note that Luke, in following the Synoptic/Markan outline, includes nearly all of the Markan “son of man” references, with the exception of those in Mk 9:9, 12, and the saying in 10:45 (cp. Lk 19:10). During the Galilean period of Jesus’ ministry, there occur the first two Synoptic/Markan sayings (5:24; 6:5 / Mk 2:10, 28), the “Q” saying in 7:34 (par Matt 11:19), and the first two Passion-predictions (9:22, 44 / Mk 8:31; 9:31), along with the intervening saying in 9:26 (Mk 8:38). The only original Lukan contribution, apparently, is the use of the expression “the son of man” in the final Beatitude (6:22; cp. Matt 5:11), though it is possible that the expression was present in the “Q” material that the Gospel writer inherited.

Between the second and third Passions-predictions (9:44; 18:31 / Mk 9:31; 10:33), there is the Journey to Jerusalem (Mk 10 par), which Luke has expanded into a major division—indeed, the central (and longest) division of the Gospel, covering more than nine full chapters (9:51-18:31). The Journey serves as the setting for a wide range of teaching by Jesus, including many traditions which occur at an earlier point (i.e., the Galilean period) in Mark and Matthew. With one exception, the “son of man” references in this division are derived from, or are related to, the “Q” material shared with the Gospel of Matthew.

Also, with the exception of the first saying (9:58; par Matt 8:20), all of the “son of man” references in the Journey period have an eschatological orientation or aspect. Either they relate to the end-time Judgment (11:30; 12:8, 10; par Matt 12:40; 10:32; 12:32), or refer to the end-time appearance of the “son of man” (12:40; 17:22, 24, 26, 30; 18:8). The references in 12:40 and 17:24, 26 represent “Q” sayings which Matthew has included as part of the “Eschatological Discourse” in chap. 24f (vv. 44, 27, 37). It is not entirely clear whether the Lot/Sodom illustration (Lk 17:28-30, 32, absent from Matthew) was part of the original “Q” material, or was added by the Lukan author (from another source). As discussed (in Part 4 on the “Q” sayings), the Lot/Sodom illustration makes for a natural pairing with the Noah/Flood illustration (cf. 2 Peter 2:5ff)—both being Scriptural type-patterns for the coming end-time Judgment.

The two “son of man” sayings, set during the Journey period, which are most original to the Gospel of Luke are: the introductory eschatological saying in 17:22, and the saying in 18:8. The reference in 17:22 reflects the manner of expression in vv. 24ff, using the specific expression “the days of the son of man” (v. 26, cf. the comparable expression “the son of man in his day”, v. 24). This expression refers to the time when the son of man will appear; however, in v. 22, there seems to be a particular allusion to the coming suffering and persecution of Jesus’ disciples, during the end-time period of distress.

This reflects an important thematic emphasis by the Lukan author, with regard to the “son of man” sayings—viz., an emphasis on Jesus’ suffering and death, and, by extension, the suffering and hardship which must be endured by Jesus’ followers (believers) during their end-time mission. A key detail which the Gospel writer includes, within the eschatological teaching in 17:20-37, and amid the eschatological (“Q”) son of man sayings, is another reference to Jesus’ impending suffering and death (v. 25), echoing the earlier Passion-predictions (9:22, 44). Note the way that the declaration of the son of man’s (i.e., Jesus’) future coming (in glory, at the Judgment) is tied back to his present suffering:

“just as the (lightning) flashes flashing shine light, out of the (one area) under the heaven unto the (other areas) under the heaven, so will be the son of man [in his day]—but first, it is necessary (for) him to suffer many (thing)s, and to be removed from consideration [i.e. be rejected] (by) this genea/.” (vv. 24-25)

This has the added (practical) effect of making clear—for both Jesus’ disciples (in the narrative) and for the Gospel writer’s audience—that the “son of man” (identified as Jesus himself) cannot come to earth (in glory) at the end-time, until after his death and resurrection. As we have discussed, this incongruity represents a difficult aspect of the eschatological “son of man” sayings, when the expression is understood as an authentic self-reference by Jesus.

The saying in 18:8 is rather difficult to interpret in its immediate context, though it brings to the fore, even more clearly than in 17:22, the expectation that Jesus’ followers (believers) will experience suffering (and persecution) during the end-time period of distress. The parable (vv. 1-5) illustrating the need to persevere in prayer to God, is interpreted in this eschatological context:

“Hear (now) what the judge (acting) without justice says. And shall not God (then) make the working out of justice for His elect/chosen (one)s, the (one)s shouting to him day and night? and will His impulse (to do so) be long over them [i.e. will He wait long to help them]?” (vv. 6-7)

God is contrasted with the unjust (human) judge of the parable, one who acts “without justice” (a)diki/a). If an unjust human judge will respond to someone in need who makes a persistent request of him, how much more will the just and righteous God do so for his chosen ones (i.e., the righteous/believers)? The motif of the righteous/believers, shouting to God day and night, suggests a period of intense suffering. Within the Gospel context, the end-time period of distress, which will involve the persecution of believers, is certainly in view.

The answer, already implicit within Jesus’ question, is made explicit in verse 8: “(Yes,) I say to you that He will make a working out of justice for them with (great) speed!” But then, Jesus adds a final challenging question:

“Yet [plh/n] the son of man, (hav)ing come, will he find trust upon the earth?”

The connection of v. 8b to vv. 7-8a suggests that the deliverance which God will provide for believers, during the end-time period of distress, will be realized through the coming of the son of man (cf. Mk 13:27 par; Lk 21:28). For the Lukan author, this unquestionably refers to Jesus’ second coming (i.e. return) to earth, though some commentators have raised the possibility that, originally, Jesus would have been referring to a heavenly figure (Dan 7:13-14) separate from himself. I discussed this critical theory briefly in Part 4 of the article on the “Q” sayings, and will address it more fully at the end of this series.

The question itself implies that there could be a considerable loss of faith, a falling away, during the end-time period of distress. In a general sense, this was part of the eschatological expectation of Jews and early Christians, as we see in the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus (Mk 13 par). The repeated warnings by Jesus (to his disciples) very much suggest the possibility that even a genuine disciple (or believer) could be led astray and lose faith (Mk 13:5, 13, 20-21, 22-23, 33ff).

In the final division of the Lukan Gospel, the Jerusalem Period, the author includes the Synoptic/Markan “son of man” sayings from 13:26; 14:21, and 14:62 (21:27; 22:22, 69). To these have been added a reference at the close of the “Eschatological Discourse” (21:36), one during the Garden-scene of the Passion narrative (22:48), and a summary reference (24:7), at the beginning of the Resurrection narrative, which echoes the earlier Passion-predictions. In addition to these, we may also mention the saying in 19:10, set at the end of Jesus’ journey, on his approach to Jerusalem; in some ways, it holds a comparable position to the Synoptic/Markan saying in 10:45.

If we consider these few Lukan additions and adaptations, they seem to bring out two key thematic points of emphasis: (1) the suffering and death of Jesus, and (2) the suffering of disciples (believers), and the need to remain faithful during the end-time period of distress. Jesus’ suffering and death is alluded to in the 19:10 saying (“For the son of man came to seek and to save the [one] having been lost”), is emphasized during the Passion narrative at the focal point of the betrayal (“Yehudah, with a mark of fondness [i.e. a kiss] you give over the son of man?” 22:48, cp. Mk 14:41 par), and is summarized (after the resurrection) in 24:7.

The second theme is expressed in the saying that concludes the Lukan version of the “Eschatological Discourse” (21:5-36):

“(So) then, you must remain awake, in every time expressing (your) need (to God), (so) that you might be strong against (that day), (and so) to flee [i.e. escape] out of all these (thing)s being about to come to (pass), (and) to stand in front of the son of man.” (v. 36)

The Discourse concludes with an exhortation to “keep awake” (vb a)grupne/w), Mk 13:32-37 par, but the Lukan version adds this pointed reference emphasizing believers’ salvation—that is, of their/our escaping the coming Judgment, and of standing before the son of man, i.e., having passed through the Judgment. This will only happen if believers remain faithful to the end (v. 19; Mk 13:13). The blending of this discipleship emphasis with the motif of the Last Judgment can also be seen in the earlier (“Q”) son of man sayings, particularly as they have been positioned within the Lukan narrative—cf. again, in context, 11:30; 12:8, 10, 40.

If we may summarize the most salient points regarding the distinctive Lukan treatment of the “son of man” sayings:

    • The Gospel writer understood the expression primarily as a self-reference by Jesus. This can be seen, particularly, in 6:22 and 12:8, where the Matthean version (of the “Q” saying) has a personal pronoun (“I/me”) instead of the expression. The basic understanding is also attested by the way that the author has utilized the Synoptic/Markan sayings (see above).
    • The tradition of the Passion-predictions, and the related use of the expression in this context, referring to the suffering and death of Jesus, is clearly emphasized by the Lukan author, more so than in the other Synoptic Gospels.
    • Similarly, the Gospel writer brings out the discipleship-theme in relation to such sayings, emphasizing the hardship and suffering that the true disciple must endure in following Jesus. This extends to the end-time period of distress, beginning with the suffering/death of Jesus, during which time, in connection with the early Christian mission, believers will face intense suffering and persecution.
    • Sayings related to both the end-time Judgment and the end-time appearance of the son of man (i.e., the second coming or return of Jesus) are framed to bring out the discipleship theme—viz., the need for believers to remain faithful, willing to confess faith in Christ, even in the midst of persecution.

Overall the Lukan Gospel writer’s use of the expression reflects a coherent and comprehensive Christological outlook, balancing Jesus’ earthly ministry, suffering/death, resurrection/exaltation, and future return. The expression “the son of man” is used in all of these contexts, as a reference to the person of Jesus. For the most part, the Gospel writer has relied upon inherited traditions, but there are some original contributions as well, mainly in terms of arrangement and adaptation of the material.

“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Synoptic Sayings (“Q”, part 4)

The “Q” Son of Man Sayings, continued

The remaining “son of man” references in the “Q” material (see Parts 1, 2 & 3) are eschatological, and deal with the idea of the end-time appearance of the “son of man”. In this regard, they are similar to the saying in Mark 13:26 par (discussed in Part 4 of the study on the Synoptic/Markan sayings). The use of the expression “the son of man” in these eschatological sayings is problematic, particularly if regarded as authentic usage by Jesus himself.

As we have seen, the expression seems to function primarily as a self-reference by Jesus. Yet there are serious difficulties when the expression is understood in this same way in the eschatological sayings, referring to the future (end-time) appearance of Jesus (as “the son of man”). Early Christians would have had no difficulty with this idea, as it simply reflects the conceptual (Christological) framework, whereby the exalted Jesus would return to earth, following his death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven. However, for people during Jesus’ own lifetime—including his disciples—they would not have readily understood the eschatological “son of man” references in terms of this sequence of Christological events. Indeed, for Jesus to speak of his future appearance (as the “son of man”), while he was still alive, prior to his death and resurrection, would surely have made little sense to most hearers.

Most critical commentators have approached this difficulty in one of two ways: (1) some (e.g., Hare) have denied the authenticity of the eschatological sayings, regarding them as early Christian creations (or adaptations), patterned after the other (authentic) “son of man” sayings; and, quite differently, (2) some (e.g., Tödt) have held that the eschatological sayings are authentic, but that Jesus was not identifying himself as this heavenly “son of man” figure (taken from Dan 7:13-14 and subsequent Jewish tradition, cf. Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). Yet there are serious problems with both of these approaches, some of which have already been touched upon in the previous studies. At the close of this series, I will address the matter again, in a more comprehensive way.

In any case, we shall keep these longstanding (and much debated) critical issues in mind as we examine the eschatological “Q” sayings.

In the Gospel of Luke, there are two distinct blocks of eschatological teaching, separate from the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13 par), where these sayings are contained: 12:35-46 and 17:20-37. Matthew includes this “Q” material (12:39-40, 42b-46; 17:23-24, 26-27[ff?], 33, 34-35, 37b) within the framework of the “Eschatological Discourse” (24:43-44, 45-51, 26-27, 37-38, 40-41, 28, with the sole exception of 10:39).

Luke 12:40 / Matt 24:44

“(So) also you must come to be ready, (in) that [i.e. because] (it is) in the hour which you do not think, (that) the son of man comes!” (Lk 12:40)

The Matthean version of this statement (24:44) is virtually identical. In the Matthean context of the “Eschatological Discourse” (chap. 24f), the reference is clearly to Jesus’ future coming (using the early Christian term parousi/a, parousia, v. 3, see also vv. 27, 37, 39). In the Lukan context, however—viz., Jesus’ instruction to his disciples in chaps. 11-12—this is by no means quite so apparent. Indeed, within the immediate context of 12:35-46, it is not at all clear that the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) in verse 40 is a self-reference by Jesus. Only in relation to the earlier “son of man” references (including in vv. 8-9f), can one infer that the Gospel writer understands the expression as referring to Jesus himself.

The illustration in verse 39 (par Matt 24:43) is meant to emphasize the unexpectedness of the son of man’s coming. The illustrative eschatological sayings in vv. 35-38, resembling those of Mark 13:33-36 par and Matt 24:42, 45-51 (cf. also the Wedding illustration in Matt 25:1-13), suggest that the end-time Judgment is in view. Those who remain faithful, in sober expectation of that moment, will be rewarded by God, while punishment awaits those who do not. The use of the verb grhgoreu/w (“stay/keep awake”) is regularly used in this eschatological context—Mk 13:34-37 par; 14:34ff par; Matt 24:42-43; 25:13; Lk 12:37; 1 Thess 5:6, 10; 1 Pet 5:8; Rev 3:2-3; 16:15; cf. also 1 Cor 16:13. In Revelation 3:3, the Gospel parable/saying by Jesus has been translated into an unmistakable reference to his (Jesus’) future return (note also the context of 1 Thess 4-5).

As in Mk 13:26 par, so also here in Lk 12:40 par, the “son of man” comes (vb e&rxomai), appearing—presumably from heaven to earth—at the end-time. If this is taken as a self-reference by Jesus, it would have to refer to a second coming, from his exalted position in heaven (cf. Mk 14:62 par; Acts 7:55-56, etc), following his death and resurrection. This makes such an eschatological use of the expression “the son of man” problematic, as noted above. By all accounts, Jesus’ disciples, during his lifetime, would have had only a vague comprehension of this Christological framework—death, resurrection, ascension, exalted position in heaven, future coming—a framework otherwise so readily comprehended by early Christians (viz., at the time the Gospels were written).

Luke 17:22, 24, 26, 30 / Matt 24:27, 37

In Jesus’ eschatological teaching in Luke 17:20-37, the expression “the son of man” again occurs (4 times), though only in the last of these references (v. 30) is an end-time appearance of the son of man clearly indicated:

“…according to these (thing)s, (so) it shall be on the day when the son of man is uncovered [i.e. revealed]!”

The “things” Jesus speaks of are the illustrations given in vv. 22-29, as also (we may assume) those that follow in vv. 31-37. Elsewhere in this passage, the expression “the days of the son of man” is used (vv. 22, 26), with a comparable phrase (“the son of man in his day”) in v. 24. It is fair to assume that this wording refers to the time when the son of man will appear. The illustration of lightning flashes that instantly and vividly light up the entire sky (v. 24, par Matt 24:27) would seem to relate to the idea of the son of man’s appearance. In Mark 13:26 par, his appearance is preceded (and/or accompanied) by extraordinary celestial/meteorological phenomena (vv. 24-25ff) and disruptions of the natural order, drawing upon traditional eschatological imagery associated with the “day of YHWH” (Isa 13:10; 14:12; 24:23; 34:4; Amos 5:20; 8:9; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; Zeph 1:15; Ezek 32:7).

The Flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah are traditional images of catastrophic Divine judgment, which were both used as type-patterns to illustrate the coming end-time Judgment—cf. 2 Peter 2:5-10; 1 Peter 3:20ff; Jude 7; Luke 10:12 par; Matt 11:23-24. The Lot/Sodom illustration (vv. 28-29, 32) is not included by Matthew, so one cannot be sure that it originally was paired with the Noah/Flood illustration in the “Q” material; the two illustrations certainly do make for a natural pairing (as in 2 Pet 2:5ff). The point of the illustration(s) is that people were busy going about their daily affairs when the catastrophic judgment struck them, suddenly and unexpectedly. Only the righteous—the chosen ones—represented by Noah and Lot (and their families), respectively, were saved from the judgment. So it will be at the end-time. The appearance of the “son of man” thus coincides with the end-time Judgment.

While the reference in Mark 13:26 par clearly alludes to Daniel 7:13-14 (and the heavenly figure “like a son of man”), it is not immediately apparent that the same point of reference informs the use of the expression in these “Q”/Lukan sayings. Apart from the use of the expression “son of man”, there are no other obvious allusions to Daniel, other than the broad context of the (eschatological) Judgment (cf. Dan 7:9-10f, 14, 26-27). To be sure, several other key Daniel references (9:27 par; 12:1ff) clearly influence the thought and wording of the “Eschatological Discourse”, but a comparable influence is harder to find in these “Q” sayings.

In the Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71), the figure-types of the Davidic Messiah and the heavenly “Son of Man” from Daniel are blended together, and ultimately identified with the figure of a human being (Enoch) exalted to divine status in heaven (chap. 71). This certainly provides the closest parallel to the early Christian understanding of Jesus as both the Messiah and Son of Man. In the Similitudes, the Messianic “Son of Man” plays a central role in the end-time Judgment (46:4-6ff; 63:11; 69:26-29, etc), including the help and protection/salvation he gives to the righteous (48:4-7ff; 62:13-14, etc). For more on this subject, see Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

The statement in Luke 17:22 (which is not part of the “Q” material) is the most peculiar of the “son of man” references in this passage:

“The days shall come when you will set your qumo/$ upon seeing one of the days of the son of man, and (yet) you shall not see [o&yesqe] (it).”

The expression “one [mi/a] of the days of the son of man” has long puzzled commentators. The basic expression “days of the son of man” is relatively straightforward, in context—it refers to the time when the son of man will appear. A possible parallel has been noted with the Rabbinic expression “the days of the Messiah” (m. Ber. 1:5, etc; cf. Strack-Billerbeck 2.237, 4.826-9; Fitzmyer, p. 1169), referring to the coming Messianic Age. A more likely explanation, perhaps, would attribute to the expression an emphatic/dramatic purpose, such as, e.g., (1) some indication that the son of man is about to come, (2) the onset of the end-time events which will immediately precede his coming, or (3) the beginning of the time of his appearing. This last (3) is probably closest to what the Gospel writer (and Jesus as the speaker) has in mind.

Verse 22 is addressed to Jesus’ disciples, whereas the prior vv. 20-21 (see my recent study) involve an exchange between Jesus and certain Pharisees. The verb e)piqume/w means “set one’s qumo/$ upon [e)pi/] (something)”. The noun qumo/$ roughly means “impulse”; in English idiom, we would probably use the term “heart” or “mind” as an approximation—i.e., “set one’s heart/mind on…”. However, one should not lose sight of the more intense idea of “impulse”, conveyed, e.g., by our words “longing”, “desire”, etc. The verb (and the related noun e)piqumi/a) can indicate a negative (sinful) desire, but it may also be used in a positive or neutral sense, as it is here.

What does it mean for the disciples to long (or desire) to “see” one of the “days of the son of man”. Based on parallels in the eschatological teaching of Jesus, the end-time period of distress (qli/yi$ [cf. Mk 13:19, 24 par; Dan 12:1 LXX]), involving the disciples’ (believers) experience of persecution, is probably in view. This is certainly an emphasis in the “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13:9-13 par), but it can also be found, for example, in the context of the eschatological teaching of Luke 12:35-46 par (see above)—verses 4-7, 8-12, 52-53; cf. Matt 10:16-23ff. In the face of persecution and the end-time distress, Jesus’ disciples will long for his return. The end-time appearance of the “son of man” (Jesus) will usher in the Judgment, bringing salvation and reward for those who remain faithful.

The warning for them, however, is that they will not be able to see this moment coming, anymore than devout Pharisees, looking for the Kingdom of God, will be able to observe it coming (with their physical senses). Jesus specifically uses the verb o)pta/nomai, which implies physical sight (with one’s eyes); a literal rendering of the verb would be something like “gaze with (open) eyes (at)”. Interestingly, the same verb is used in both Mk 13:26 par and 14:62 par, where it refers to the visible appearance of the Son of Man.

Even for Jesus’ disciples (and all believers), the time of the end will come suddenly and unexpectedly—that is a principal point of emphasis in nearly all of these eschatological sayings. However much they may long for it, they will not be able to see it coming. It is for this reason, that all disciples/believers need to stay “awake”, remaining faithful and alert at all times, continuing to follow Jesus and to fulfill his mission, even in the face of growing darkness and persecution.

In the next (2-part) article of this series, we will examine the distinctive use of the expression “the son of man” in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, respectively. This involves the inclusion and adaptation of inherited traditions (Synoptic/Markan and “Q” material, etc), but also material that is original or unique to each Gospel.

References above marked “Fitzmyer” are to Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 28A (1985).