The “Son of Man” — An Attempt at Interpretation

Met. Anthony sketch

Blessed Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) of Kiev

In what sense did the Lord call Himself the Son of Man? The theologians discussed this question much, wrote many books concerning it, but the very matter is left unresolved till the present day. Some interpreted this expression in a sense opposite to the Monophysites, seeing in it a reference to the human nature of Christ. There were many other attempts made to find in this expression a reference to the main aim of the coming of the Lord, and from this point of view the expression "the Son of Man" was interpreted either in the sense of the Redeemer, or in the sense of the Pastor or Teacher, or the Messiah in general.

But all these interpretations turned out to be so unconvincing that the known professor of the Petersburg Spiritual Academy V.V. Bolotov wrote an essay in which, having refuted all these interpretations, he came to the conclusion that in literary scholarship there is no satisfactory interpretation of this name of Christ, and therefore one needs to consider this name to be deprived of any definite significance. One should simply treat it as a conditional name which takes the place of a first person pronoun.

But to think that the lack of some idea in literary scholarship proves its absence in reality is rather erroneous. Neither the admirers of contemporary sciencefor scientific progress would be denied by such a statementnor the deniers of contemporary academic theologyfor the multiple attempts are the product of the school, but not of the holy fathers’ doctrinecould agree with that. And really, the statement of Bolotov is explicitly refuted by the Gospel, from which we shall quote some utterances testifying that the Lord-Savior not only allotted the discussed name with some definite meaning but made the latter known to the people, at least to some of them. "Whom do men say that I the Son of Man am?" (Mt. 16:13). It is clear that He wanted to make the people come to some new conclusion, which they could find within the facts they already knew: "That I am the Son of Man is known to everybody, but whom do men say the Son of Man is?" the answer is: "That Thou art John the Baptist: some say, Elias…" This makes us understand that not only the Lord and the apostles, but all Jews assigned certain features to the name of "the Son of Man," but differed in opinion as to who exactly from among the righteous or the prophets could be the bearer of those features. That was the question that the hostile Jews, being greatly puzzled, asked Jesus at the end of His earthly life, when it was already clear to everybody that He professed Himself to be the promised Messiah or Christ. All of a sudden He told them about the forthcoming Crucifixion. They could not understand that at all. "We have heard out of the law that the Christ abideth forever; and how sayest Thou, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this Son of Man?" (John 12:34). If Thou art the Son of Man—the Christ, then Thou canst not die; if Thou sayest that Thou wilt be killed and show Thyself to us as the Son of Man, then who art Thou? We know that the Christ will turn out to be the Son of Man, and now we see the Son of Man in Thee, but we cannot recognize the Christ in you, on the condition that Thou wilt be killed."

The Lord’s utterance given below contains the most direct reference to the fact that by the words "the Son of Man" the Lord did not simply substitute a first person pronoun, but used that name in some definite sense. "For as the Father hath life in Himself; so hath He given to the Son to have life in Himself; and hath given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man" (John 5:26-27).

This utterance ultimately demands Biblical theology to give an answer to the question: what did the Lord mean by the expression "the Son of Man"?

The words and expressions of the New Testament that are difficult to understand should be analyzed with the help of the Old Testament, as it was done by St. Chrysostom and other Church interpreters—such analysis was the reason why Protestants almost absolutely rejected literary scholarship. Contemporary literary scholarship makes the usual mistake while analyzing the multiple Old Testament utterances using the words "the Son of Man." It by all means tries to find one and the same thought in all of them, and in order to find that, it appeals to the numerical majority of occurrences with a particular sense. Meanwhile, this expression undoubtedly has several meanings in the Bible—simple and derivative, as other expressions; for example: the kingdom of God, the kingdom of the heavens, faith, salvation, the law, and others, which is rarely noticed by scholastic literary disciplines.

So, we should be little interested in the numerical majority of the Old Testament utterances, in which "the Son of Man" means a human being in general or has the meaning of a simple man, the antonym of a great noble or king. But it is necessary to pay attention to the circumstance where the expression, concerning some notion or quality, that uses the words "a son or daughter (the sons of the kingdom—Mt. 8:12; 13:38; a son of Gehenna—23:15; the sons of thunder—Mark 3:17; the son of peace—Luke 10:6; the children of the resurrection—20:36; the children of light—John 12:36; the son of perdition—17:12; the children of disobedience—Eph. 2:2; 5:6. Col. 3:6 and others, the daughter of Sion, the daughter of Israel—Mt. 21:5; John 12:15)” means the profoundness of some certain quality, as of the state of someone who possesses this quality in abundance. In particular, the expression "the Son of Man" in the majority of cases chiefly means “humanity.”

In the Old Testament there is a passage where the Son of Man is directly called the future Messiah, not a simple man, but someone divine, and there is left no doubt that precisely this passage, the vision of Prophet Daniel, was quoted by the Savior. This is the key passage for the question which interests us. It is well known to those who have been studying Holy Scripture.

Prophet Daniel saw five different terrible beasts, which reigned over the earth and "the holy nation" and haughtily talked against God. However, their power did not last for long.

"I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, Whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of His head like pure wool.... The judgment was set, and the books were opened." The beasts were given to the burning flame and their dominion taken away; who would gain the eternal power to replace their temporary rule? "I saw in a night vision, and, behold, one like the Son of Man came with the clouds of heaven, and came on to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him. And there was given Him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom that which shall not be destroyed" (Dan. 7).

Readers of the New Testament can hardly doubt that it was exactly that vision to which the Lord referred, calling Himself the Son of Man in several passages. The Hebrews unanimously saw in the words of Daniel the reference to the Messiah, Whom they imagined as the judge of all nations that would restore the Kingdom of Israel and submit all nations to Himself. John addresses Him with this question: "Art thou the coming one?"

The Lord does not deny that, but refers to the fact that He is not simply a glorified man, as the Hebrews understood from the prophecy of Daniel, but that He is God, Who had humbled Himself. Only with such unspoken reference to the prophecy does the sequence of the conversation become clear: Yes, I am the One Who will attain unto the Ancient of Days, but be aware that "no man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man Who is in heaven.... For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world" (John 3).

Even more clear is the connection of these words of Christ with the vision of Daniel: "When the Son of Man shall sit in the throne of His glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Mt. 19:28); to this relate the words of Apostle Paul: "Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world?" (1 Cor. 6:2).

But the fact that He is the One about Whom it was told in the prophecy of Daniel becomes clear from the answer of the Lord to Caiaphas’ question: "Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed? And Jesus said, ‘I am: and ye shall see the Son of Man sitting on the right of the power and coming in the clouds of heaven’" (Mark 14:62; Mt. 26:64). By quoting the prophecy, the Lord rejected the accusation of blasphemy—that He, being a Man, made Himself God (John 10:23). This becomes especially clear from the Gospel of St. Luke. "And they led Him into their council, saying, ‘Art Thou the Christ? Tell us.’ And He said unto them, ‘If I tell you, ye will not believe. And if I also ask you, ye will not answer Me, nor let Me go.’" Obviously, the Lord wanted to ask them about the vision of Daniel (as He asked about Psalm 109 before), about Who that Son of Man, Who was equivalent to the Ancient of Days, was in their understanding—because in His speech He resorted to that vision: "Hereafter shall ye see the Son of Man sitting on the right of the power." That was the quotation, but in order to accuse Christ of blaspheming, they needed to know if He applied that quotation to Himself. "Then said they all, ‘Art Thou then the Son of God?’ And He said unto them, ‘Ye say that I am’" (Luke 22:70).

The apostles lived by the promise that they would see the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy in the example of Christ with their own eyes, and those who received that chance were Stephen, His first preacher, and John, who lived longer than all the rest of them. "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right of God" (Acts 7:56).

Moreover, in the Revelation there are two passages where the Lord is called the Son of Man—with one more reference to the vision of Daniel: "And behold a white cloud, and upon the cloud One sat like unto a son of man" (Rev. 14:14). The vision of Daniel was so obviously recalled in the history of the New Testament that the Lord, to show His coessentiality with the Father, showed Himself in visions possessing the same qualities which God the Father revealed to the prophet, i.e., being in a garment white as snow, as at the day of His Transfiguration, or with hair white as wool, with "fiery feet," as in the first vision of the Revelation (1:13), and though He is not called the Ancient of Days directly, names with the same meaning are used in the text: "Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end" (Rev. 1:8). "I am He that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen" (1:18).

So, we sorted out that by calling Himself the Son of Man, the Lord bases this upon the vision of Daniel, and He refers to that vision in His most triumphant, pre-death sermon about Himself as the Messiah and the Son of God, because of which He was sentenced to death.

But by giving such an explication we have only prepared the way for answering the question of our article, but we have not answered it yet. Now we have to realize what the meaning of the vision of Daniel was and to which qualities of the Messiah the prophet referred, calling Him the Son of Man.

Theologians see in this vision a reference to the divine dignity of the Messiah, and they are right. The explanation will not end with this, for even its main thought is not yet revealed. To understand the Bible, one should never be satisfied by the definition of metaphysical and historical qualities of persons and phenomena, for these qualities are chiefly from Aristotle’s and scholastic points of view but not those of the Bible. They are found in the Bible as well but do not play the main role, which chiefly belongs to the theological point of view.

It will not be hard for any reader of the Book of Daniel to interpret this vision, for it was interpreted by the prophet himself. The kingdoms of the beasts are heathen kingdoms, and the kingdom of the Son of God is the kingdom of the saints, the Church of Christ. With this explanation end the contemporary interpretations of the vision, but this is only an introduction, not the interpretation itself. One should give an answer as to why the heathen kingdoms are represented as beasts, and the kingdom of God as the Son of Man. It should be clarified in connection with the narration about what God told the chosen nation concerning its calling, and how the elect of God understood that.

The Biblicists analyze the meaning of this calling from the Messianic point of view, and it is surely correct, but not complete. The Messianic doctrine was taught in its concealed form, and the moral designation of the Jewish people among the lawless heathens was more clearly revealed to the patriarch and then the law-giver. "The Lord appeared to Abram and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before Me, and be thou perfect. And I will make My covenant between Me and thee" and further (Gen. 17:1). The goal of this covenant was defined by the Lord more clearly in another vision, when He told Abraham about the forthcoming destruction of Sodom for its depravity and cruelty. "Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment" (18:18-19).

Having established a union with the people of Israel so that it could bring forth truth and righteousness, the Lord prohibits them to be friendly with lawless nations, so that those would not lead His inheritance into sin (Ex. 23:32-33), so that they would not teach it their whoring (Ex. 34:13-16); and gives to His people the commandment of chastity, adding: "Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you. And the land is defiled: therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants" (Lev. 18:24-30).

But Israel did not preserve the covenant with God, and the holy land forgot it, according to the formidable warning of the Lord; and then, being captured by lawless heathens, Israel changed its mind and again was inspired by hope that the Lord would fulfill His promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. Living among heathens, being the holy nation, it more and more recognized its infinite supremacy over those servants of abominable passions, but at the same time could not but see that its position was not supreme in terms of its historical existence, but was lagging behind, as it was predicted by the Lord. Huge states, having no morals or divine wisdom, became strong and then destroyed one another; and so, if small Israel was freed by Nebuchadnezzar or Cyrus or Darius, then what had it to expect further? If the struggling kingdoms, those assorted cultures, one after another, would toss it about as a ball, then there would be no hope for the recovery of its grandeur: in what would the global mission be expressed, and how would the words of God about the fact that all living nations will be blessed through it come true? These doubts disappeared after the vision of Daniel, and the later prophecies of Haggai, Zachariah, Malachi, 3 Ezra, and the later apocrypha of eschatological content were devoted to it. Daniel and other prophets convinced Israel that its designation is not political, mundane, but moral. Brilliant and formidable kingdoms frighten it, like horrible disgusting beasts, but their power is not long-lasting, and their glory is vain: the Lord sees their unrighteousness and will soon destroy them. On the contrary, the modest and unnoticeable activity of Israel has global and eternal significance. Those monstrous kingdoms are crowned with power and wealth and talk haughtily. Israel, the holy nation, can boast only that it brings forth the true man, the Son of Man. To the extent that man is weaker than a bear, panther, or any beast, dreadful and terrible (Dan. 7:7), to the same extent he is more wonderful than them. The same is the relation of the holy nation to the nations that make it inferior. And the Lord of Hosts knows that. He prepares impending destruction for the terrible kingdoms of the heathen, while the Son of Man, Who represented by His example the designation of those people who fulfill the true law, will reach the Ancient of Days and reign over the universe.

Having seen that extraordinary rise of the Son of Man over the terrifying beasts, the prophet asked about its meaning and received the answer: "These great beasts, which are four, are four kings that shall arise out of the earth. But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom forever, even forever and ever" (7:17-27).

So, the Son of Man, having received honor equal to that of God, represents that state of sanctity which makes the holy nation differ from the haughty heathen nations that are similar to beasts.

When the Lord came to earth, then the general attitude of the people was the same as in the time of Daniel. Highly appreciating their spiritual superiority over unrighteous heathens, constantly remembering their exclusive eligibility, the Hebrews could not accept the heathen yoke. Their impatient expectation of deliverance was focused on a definite image of the Savior-Messiah Who would conquer the Romans, and starting to reign in Sion, will judge the nations, as it was predicted by Daniel. About this judgment the Lord talks with Nicodemus, but the crowds wanted to make Him ruler after the miracle of feeding the multitude with five loaves.

Is it necessary to say that the Lord less than anything wished that His mission and the visions of Daniel would be understood in such a [carnal] way? The Son of Man, about Whom the prophet speaks, is authentically the One coming from heaven, but He came not for the physical conquering of nations, not for the punitive judgment over kings and kingdoms, but for leading the holy nation into the promised, eternal, heavenly kingdom (not in the way Moses and Abraham did, who passed away), for the fulfillment of spiritual judgment—exposure, but not punishment; and His followers do not await terrestrial glory, because the "Son of Man hath nowhere to lay His head." In its time there will come the visible glory of the Son of Man, but not already in this life but in the future one, describing which the Lord constantly calls Himself the Son of Man (Mt. 10:23; 13:41; 16:27; 19:28; 24:30, 37:39; 24:44; 25:13).

So the Son of Man will come into His glory in the forthcoming life, and in this life He is not one of those conqueror-kings whom Daniel had seen as monstrous beasts, but precisely the Son of Man, true Man, Whose example must be followed by the entire holy nation. As the Founder of the struggle of the holy nation, He, calling Himself the Son of Man, Who was seen by Daniel, admonishes all Israelites to forget about the desire for terrestrial glory typical of the heathens and to follow Him in God’s covenant with Abrahamin bringing forth truth and righteousness. So instead of promising the expected terrestrial glory, the Lord says to Israel: "Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of Man's sake" (Luke 6:22).

Having brought everything said together, we assert that the Lord calls Himself the Son of Man as the expresser and preacher of true humanity, that is, personal holiness, contrasting it with conditional political expectations of His contemporaries. For that goal, He chose the name of the Son of Man because exactly in that sense was it mentioned in the vision of Daniel. The Son of Man, revealing in Himself the true, holy Man, is the Head of the spiritual kingdom of saints, which will be, according to the prophet, eternal in the coming life, but which is absolutely opposite to any heathen kingdom in the present-day life and totally different to how the Jews expected to see it.

Archbishop Gregory
Dormition Skete
P.O. Box 3177
Buena Vista, CO 81211-3177
Contact: Archbishop Gregory
In a New Window.
Valid CSS!Valid XHTML
            1.0 Transitional
Copyright 2005
All rights reserved.