To grasp the meaning of Jesus’ unique self-identification, “the Son of Man,” we should begin, I think, with those dominical sayings that most clearly evoke the vision of “a son of man” in Daniel 7. These sayings, which form significant blocks in the Gospels, generally have to do with the Last Judgment and the end of history.
The clearest and most dramatic example is found in the scene of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin: “Again the high priest asked him, saying to him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed?’ Jesus said, ‘I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven’” (Mark 14:61–62). It is worth observing that this solemn word—and warning!—was Jesus’ final declaration to the leaders of Judaism. He had nothing further to tell them.
The title, “the Son of Man,” first referred, then, to Jesus’ claim to be the final arbiter of history. Because this term was so prominent in apocalyptic expectations among the Jews at the time, none of Jesus’ hearers failed to appreciate the significance of this declaration.
What was new in Jesus’ claim before the Sanhedrin was its public and official setting, because he had already used the same apocalyptic language in discourses to his disciples. He had said, for instance, “Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (8:38). Again, he declared, the Father “has given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of Man” (John 5:27). Or again, “When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. Amen, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Matt. 10:23). Similar examples abound (cf. 13:41; 16:27–28; 19:28; 24:27,30,37,39,44; 25:31).
This apocalyptic sense does not exhaust the meaning of the term “the Son of Man” as Jesus used it. His allusions to Daniel’s vision, however, centered on a lively point at which Jesus addressed the expectations of his contemporaries, are the easiest to grasp.
That apocalyptic dimension of Jesus’ self-understanding defies every attempt to “de-historicize” him—to abstract his teaching from the existential setting of his life and death. Although many writers, especially in recent times, have engaged in such attempts, they have invariably changed the gospel into some theory of ethical and religious philosophy—a theory quite separable from the person of Jesus himself. Whatever else may be said of “the historical Jesus,” he was certainly motivated by apocalyptic concerns.
Moreover, it is perhaps the case that a renewed attention to this apocalyptic dimension of the gospel—“a special and extreme mode of presenting the drama of saving history” (Von Balthasar)—is particularly needful today, by way of response to the secular messianisms, utopian hopes, and revolutionary impulses of modern culture and politics.
I make this suggestion in spite of two risks:
First, those secular efforts may co-opt the gospel itself, because many Christian activists are marvelously naïve. Attention to the apocalyptic dimension of the gospel may easily be confused with recent efforts by some Christians to clothe secular efforts with a veneer of theological respectability. I have in mind not only the more obvious examples like Liberation Theology, but also a currently popular confusion of material prosperity with moral improvement. Confusions like this, however, can be avoided by directing adequate attention to other aspects of “the Son of Man,” especially the theme of the Cross.
Second, apocalyptic imagery and language readily lend themselves to fanaticism and unbridled speculation. As we see in some contemporary examples of preaching and publication, this danger is real, but it is hardly insuperable. Understanding and critical discernment are required. The most apocalyptic book of the New Testament testifies that apocalyptic images require special discernment: Hode ho nous ho echon sophian—“This requires a mind that has wisdom” (Rev. 17:9).
The apocalyptic should be approached as a branch of dogmatics. Holy Scripture, in not isolating eschatology from other aspects of doctrine, provides the model. So does the Creed, which, after listing the other essential dogmas of our confession, goes on to proclaim, “He will come again in glory to judge.”
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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