“Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for members of Knox to ask questions of faith and religion. Andrew answers them in the Sunday morning service, and now in this blog. Enjoy!
Thanks again to Shelley Rose for preparing this manuscript for the blog.
Ask Andrew 1 (2020):
What Is the Meaning of “the Son of Man” and
Is it Relevant Today?
Q: There seem to be quite a few names for Jesus; Lord, Messiah, Son of God, Lamb of God, Christ to name just a few. The name ‘Son of man’ seems incongruous.
What is the meaning of this name? It appears to be associated with the apocalyptic immanent ‘Coming of the Kingdom of Heaven’ and has antecedents in the Book of Daniel, chapter 7. But what is the relevance of this name to us today?
Readings: Daniel 7:13-14
Thank you for this question.
I will address some of the other names we call Jesus in another sermon, but “The Son of Man” is the most obscure name for modern Christians and I think it is particularly relevant today.
At any other time, I might have answered today’s question by saying that the name “Son of Man” was relevant simply because Jesus used it so often and that it supplies us with a mystery to pursue.
But in the midst of COVID-19, which has stripped our society of it’s smug self-assurance and challenged us to discover the basics of life, I think we have a chance to re-discover the spiritual meaning of Jesus’ identity as “the Son of Man”.
The phrase “a son of man” appears many times in the Hebrew Bible in both Hebrew and Aramaic. Daniel 7 is written in Aramaic as a kind of code that the writer was looking to the future, since Aramaic had replaced Hebrew as the common language of the Jewish people. It was the first language of Jesus and his disciples.
Usually, it is simply a poetic (and sexist) way of saying “a human”.
In the Greek writings of our New Testament it has been changed from “A Son of Man” to “The Son of Man” and it is almost always Jesus who uses it. The only place it appears outside the gospels in in Acts, which was written by the author of Luke’s gospel.
Scholars are clear that adding “the” started with the gospels, but they can’t agree on what it means.
It does seem to tie in to the apocalyptic Daniel 7 reading. Most of these references in the Gospels seem to show Jesus referring to himself as the Son of Man. However, there are a few that don’t – where he seems to be talking about someone else.
Most “Son of Man” verses have to do with endings: either Jesus’ upcoming suffering and crucifixion, or some future, apocalyptic return of the Son of Man that looks more like the Daniel reading than Jesus’ own life did.
Traditional interpretations use this phrase to balance the idea of the Son of God; to emphasize the humanity of Jesus. In the early church, the nature of Christ was an issue. In the year 481 it led to something called the Chalcedonian Definition where the church declared that Jesus was fully human at the same time as being fully divine, rather than being exclusively one or the other, or some kind of hybrid. And if you didn’t accept this definition, you were condemned as a Monophysite heretic.
We have a lot of Monophysite heretics in the United Church of Canada because we are actively encouraged to explore who Jesus was and what he really did. His humanity is not in question, and the idea of a need to declare it feels outdated.
I don’t believe that the gospel writers were declaring it either. That became an issue a century later or so. They had another issue on their minds: what Jesus said about the end of the world.
That’s another thing we get a bit uncomfortable with today: the idea of the end of the world. We associate it with a kind of radical Christianity which we distrust, and we get upset with the way people twist scripture as they try to predict the end times. Sort of the religious equivalent to wearing a tin-foil hat.
Which is too bad. “The end of the world“ can represent different things, and what we are living through now is one of them: “It’s the end of the world as we know it” (to quote the rock group R.E.M.). Others are making this connection too: there are a HUGE number of COVID comments on the YouTube listing for this song.
We are facing such radical stress on our lives, on our ways of relating, that we can’t be sure what things will look like when it’s all over. What will be changed? What will be gone? What new things will exist?
We have a bit of a bad attitude towards eschatology: the study of the end of the world. What we forget is that Jesus was referring to a good thing when he talked about the coming of the Son of Man.
The world would be rescued & redeemed by God’s representative: the Son of Man, a human sent by heaven. Yes, Jesus predicted some dangerous stuff in some of these passages, but these were warnings to people to smarten up and live better, which has always been the basic message of a prophet.
That’s at the core, you see: talking about the end of the world isn’t about the end of the world, it’s about how we are living right now.
Jesus was calling, challenging people to consider what would happen if God’s transformation of this place to a righteous world were to happen tomorrow.
Would we fit?
Are we doing the things God would like to find? Are we living, right now, so that we could actually welcome a new world order where the first will be last, and the weak will be strong?
Jesus is inviting his listeners to re-examine their own lives; to embrace a new perspective: God’s perspective. To consider what is really important and whether we give that priority.
In this time of enforced isolation, we have an unprecedented opportunity to do exactly that: to examine our own lives, to consider our values, and to consider whether we are living up to them.
It’s not easy to spend so much time in our own company. That’s why alcohol sales are up right now: to give people a means of escape from themselves, from their own realities and often from their circumstances.
Let’s not waste this opportunity by trying to escape. Let’s consider what the Son of Man is inviting us to do: to ask ourselves the question: if we were to meet our maker tomorrow, would we be comfortable presenting ourselves to God? Would we be able to present our lives with clear consciences?
I’m not talking about doctrines of sin, of guilt, of human imperfection shrivelling in the face of our perfect creator.
I’m talking about our choices, our priorities. I’m talking about striving, despite mistakes, to live just and loving lives. Especially when it can be so much easier just to follow the crowd and live without thinking too critically about the values that surround us.
The end of the world isn’t about seas of blood or rains of fire; it isn’t about four horsemen riding out or angels blowing trumpets and emptying bowls.
Realistically, the world will end for each of us when we leave it. And if this crisis has taught us anything it’s that it could happen at any time, to any one of us.
So let’s use this time. Let’s take the opportunity to be contemplative in our solitude.
Time alone can be a spiritual gift, at least partly because it lets us see ourselves without all the distractions that allow us to duck and dodge the uncomfortable bits.
We have that time now, even if it’s not our choice. It’s a gift: let’s use it well.