Son of Man in the New Testament: Part 3 of 4

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Son of Man in the Gospel of John

Introduction

The Son of Man in the Gospel of John is not nearly as ubiquitous as it is in the Synoptics. John only used the term 13 times, in comparison to the 69 times it was used by his fellow evangelists (an average of 23 occurrences per Synoptic account). Of course, Mark only used the term once more than John in total, but this can be attributed most likely to the brevity of Mark’s gospel (completed in just 16 chapters). Regardless, the challenge to the reader is in recognizing that John’s gospel 1) includes all of the components offered in the Synoptics, and 2) is not without added value. John’s Gospel, while echoing all of the same themes present in the Synoptics, is also extremely valuable in that he had new insights to offer. Some would say that we essentially have the same set of traditions discussed from two different perspectives (i.e., the Synoptics and John). While this is true, it should not be overstated; the unique focus of John’s gospel provides a fresh perspective on the SM, especially as he 1) related to Old Testament allusions and 2) fit within John’s emphasis on realized eschatology. (Realized eschatology is a fancy way of saying that John focused on how our lives should be lived in the here and now as a result of our belief that Jesus will return and initiate the final end-times sequence of events. This usually manifests in John's urgency to repent and believe.) Finally, John’s gospel should always be read and interpreted in light of his overarching goal: to prove that Jesus is exactly who he said he was.

Son of Man in the Gospel of John

As the goal of John’s gospel is to prove that Jesus was exactly who he said he was (i.e., the Messiah promised in the Old Testament Scriptures), it is quite fitting that John wasted no time in introducing Jesus as the SM; he introduced the SM nomenclature in his opening chapter, with more haste than any of the Synoptics. Again, in light of John’s purpose, however, it should be noted that just prior to this opening SM reference, Philip called Nathaniel and described Jesus as the one “of whom Moses...and also the prophets wrote” (John 1:45). Philip was a Jew and as such he would have taken great care in making such a claim, knowing fully its power to cause a stir; to invoke Moses as his anchor in describing who Jesus was to Nathaniel is a powerful statement that should not be overlooked. With the scene set, Jesus indeed introduced himself to Nathaniel as the SM albeit in curious fashion. Jesus told Nathaniel that he would see “heaven opened and God’s angels ascending and descending on the SM” (John 1:51). With this statement, Jesus referenced Genesis 28:12 wherein Jacob saw a ladder stretching toward heaven in a dream with angels ascending and descending on it. Jesus was making the dramatic claim that he replaces the ladder, he is the path between heaven and earth. Philip was correct: Jesus was indeed the Messianic SM “of whom Moses...and also the prophets wrote.”

The SM’s “mobility” (i.e., his ability to ascend and descend) was a repeated theme in John (that could also allude to the SM in Daniel 7:13-14, wherein the SM came into the presence of the Ancient of Days). Jesus referenced his ascension as he challenged Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews (John 3:1). He was most likely a teacher and yet he could not understand even the earthly sayings of Jesus. Jesus acknowledged his lack of understanding and expressed that if Nicodemus couldn’t even understand earthly things how could he possibly understand heavenly things? Jesus then proceeded to give an example of a heavenly “thing,” wherein he once again referenced the ascension of the SM (which is, as we have discussed, indeed a heavenly and difficult concept to grasp). A similar situation occurred later in John 6, only this time with his disciples. The backdrop of the interaction we will discuss is critical to understand: Jesus had just finished feeding the 5,000 (John 6:12) and he was now attempting to explain to his disciples that the bread with which they were fed was the bread meant for the belly. Their focus, he insisted, should not be on the bread that perishes, but rather on the “bread that will endure to eternal life,” which only the SM can – and will – provide (John 6:27). Despite this helpful precursor to Jesus’ long explanation – containing an explicit “I AM” allusion to Exodus 3:14 – his disciples still did not understand (or want to understand) for they claimed this concept (Jesus as the bread of life they must eat) a “hard saying” (John 6:60). However, Jesus challenged them even further, claiming that this is a small thing compared to the SM ascending once again to where he was before. Clearly, by referring to where he was “before,” Jesus insinuated that he – the SM – was not a mere human being, as the disciples may have assumed he was saying, but was instead insisting that the SM is a heavenly, eternal being (this, in no way, should be construed as denying Jesus as fully human). This is what Jesus meant by ascending to where he was before.

Again, by using the term SM, we can see how Jesus leveraged a term over the course of his ministry subtle enough to avoid hasty persecution but not so subtle as to draw no interest from his disciples, allowing him to pour into the term his own content that his disciples could not have known from Old Testament Scriptures alone. 

According to John, as Jesus’ ministry began to draw to a close, he became more explicit in describing who he truly was, especially regarding the SM. The first extremely clear example of this is in John 8:28. Although throughout John’s gospel Jesus intimated that he was the SM of the Old Testament Scriptures, in John 8:28 Jesus boldly and with more clarity than ever before linked himself with Yahweh, the I AM of Exodus 3:14. The statement of John 8:28 removed all doubt from the disciples’ mind; Jesus declared the lifting up of the SM will prove to them that “I AM” (Greek: ἐγώ εἰμι; Transliteration: ego eimi). It should not be lost on you, therefore, that this is an I AM statement hearkening back to Exodus 3:14, and it is unquestionably purposefully linked to the SM; Jesus is the SM, Yahweh, I AM.

Though much more could be said about the SM in John’s gospel, we will close this topic of our study with a brief overview of the emphasis on realized eschatology in John and its connection to the SM. John focused quite heavily on a realized eschatology and by extension an urgency to believe in Jesus Christ, the SM. In John 3:15, Jesus said that whoever believed in the SM would have eternal life (“eternal life” was John’s phrase of choice for salvation). In John 6:29, Jesus answered the disciples’ sincere question regarding what they must do to be doing the works of God with a thought-provoking statement: the work of God is belief in whom he has sent (i.e., Jesus, the SM). Therefore, the “work” required is no work at all, but faith. Indeed, this must correspond to the blessing Abraham received through belief (Genesis 15:6). Again, just after having clearly described himself as the divine SM, Jesus expressed that only those who abide in his word will be set free (John 8:29-30). Jesus granted sight to the man born blind because he believed that Jesus was the SM and worshipped him (John 9:35-38). Jesus told his disciples that the hour had come for the SM to be glorified, and that whoever believed in him would be with him where he was (John 12:25-26). Through these statements it should be obvious to the one who seeks that Jesus is indeed the SM in whom one must believe to have eternal life, to be granted salvation.

It is your responsibility, Christian, to assume this level of urgency in both believing and sharing your belief with others, for the Son of Man will return, and soon.

Don't miss Part 4 of Son of Man in the New Testament, wherein we will complete our study by exploring some of the Son of Man occurrences outside of the Gospels. Sign up for our newsletter and be notified of its posting! Like and share on Facebook with those you believe will benefit.