In Hebrew this is mainly a translation of the expression ben-ʼa·dhamʹ. Instead of referring to the person, Adam, ʼa·dhamʹ is here used generically for “mankind” so that the expression ben-ʼa·dhamʹ means, in essence, “a son of mankind, a human, an earthling son.” (Ps 80:17; 146:3; Jer 49:18, 33) The phrase is often employed in parallel with other Hebrew terms for “man,” namely, ʼish, meaning “a male person” (compare Nu 23:19; Job 35:8; Jer 50:40) and ʼenohshʹ, “a mortal man.” (Compare Ps 8:4; Isa 51:12; 56:2.) At Psalm 144:3 the “son of mortal man” is ben-ʼenohshʹ, while the Aramaic equivalent (bar ʼenashʹ) appears at Daniel 7:13.
In Greek the expression is hui·osʹ tou an·throʹpou, the latter part of the phrase representing the Greek generic word for “man” (anʹthro·pos).—Mt 16:27.
In the Hebrew Scriptures the most frequent occurrence of the expression is in the book of Ezekiel, where over 90 times God addresses the prophet as “son of man.” (Eze 2:1, 3, 6, 8) The designation as so used apparently serves to emphasize that the prophet is simply an earthling, thus heightening the contrast between the human spokesman and the Source of his message, the Most High God. The same designation is applied to the prophet Daniel at Daniel 8:17.
Christ Jesus, “the Son of Man.” In the Gospel accounts the expression is found nearly 80 times, applying in every case to Jesus Christ, being used by him to refer to himself. (Mt 8:20; 9:6; 10:23) The occurrences outside the Gospel accounts are at Acts 7:56; Hebrews 2:6; and Revelation 1:13; 14:14.
Jesus’ application of this expression to himself clearly showed that God’s Son was now indeed a human, having ‘become flesh’ (Joh 1:14), having ‘come to be out of a woman’ through his conception and birth to the Jewish virgin Mary. (Ga 4:4; Lu 1:34-36) Hence he had not simply materialized a human body as angels had previously done; he was not an incarnation but was actually a ‘son of mankind’ through his human mother.—Compare 1Jo 4:2, 3; 2Jo 7; see FLESH.
For this reason the apostle Paul could apply Psalm 8 as prophetic of Jesus Christ. In his letter to the Hebrews (2:5-9), Paul quoted the verses reading: “What is mortal man [ʼenohshʹ] that you keep him in mind, and the son of earthling man [ben-ʼa·dhamʹ] that you take care of him? You also proceeded to make him a little less than godlike ones [“a little lower than angels,” at Hebrews 2:7], and with glory and splendor you then crowned him. You make him dominate over the works of your hands; everything you have put under his feet.” (Ps 8:4-6; compare Ps 144:3.) Paul shows that, to fulfill this prophetic psalm, Jesus indeed was made “a little lower than angels,” becoming actually a mortal “son of earthling man,” that he might die as such and thereby “taste death for every man,” thereafter being crowned with glory and splendor by his Father, who resurrected him.—Heb 2:8, 9; compare Heb 2:14; Php 2:5-9.
The designation “Son of man,” therefore, also serves to identify Jesus Christ as the great Kinsman of mankind, having the power to redeem them from bondage to sin and death, as well as to identify him as the great Avenger of blood.—Le 25:48, 49; Nu 35:1-29; see AVENGER OF BLOOD; RANSOM; REPURCHASE, REPURCHASER.
Thus, Jesus’ being called the “Son of David” (Mt 1:1; 9:27) emphasizes his being the heir of the Kingdom covenant to be fulfilled in David’s line; his being called the “Son of man” calls attention to his being of the human race by virtue of his fleshly birth; his being called the “Son of God” stresses his being of divine origin, not descended from the sinner Adam or inheriting imperfection from him but having a fully righteous standing with God.—Mt 16:13-17.
What is “the sign of the Son of man”?
However, there is evidently another major reason for Jesus’ frequent use of the expression “Son of man” as applying to himself. This is with regard to the fulfillment of the prophecy recorded at Daniel 7:13, 14. In vision, Daniel saw “someone like a son of man” coming with the clouds of the heavens, gaining access to “the Ancient of Days,” and being granted “rulership and dignity and kingdom, that the peoples, national groups and languages should all serve even him,” his Kingdom being an enduring one.
Because the angelic interpretation of the vision in Daniel 7:18, 22, and 27 speaks of “the holy ones of the Supreme One” as taking possession of this Kingdom, many commentators have endeavored to show that the “son of man” is here a ‘corporate personality,’ that is, ‘the saints of God in their corporate aspect, regarded collectively as a people,’ ‘the glorified and ideal people of Israel.’ This reasoning, however, proves superficial in the light of the Christian Greek Scriptures. It fails to consider that Christ Jesus, God’s anointed King, made a ‘covenant for a kingdom’ with his followers that they might share with him in his Kingdom, and that, while they are to rule as kings and priests, it is under his headship and by his grant of authority. (Lu 22:28-30; Re 5:9, 10; 20:4-6) Thus, they receive ruling authority over the nations only because he has first received such authority from the Sovereign God.—Re 2:26, 27; 3:21.
The correct understanding is made more evident by Jesus’ own answer to the high priest’s interrogation, saying: “I am [the Christ, the Son of God]; and you persons will see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven.”—Mr 14:61, 62; Mt 26:63, 64.
Therefore the prophecy of the coming of the Son of man into the presence of the Ancient of Days, Jehovah God, clearly applies to an individual, the Messiah, Jesus Christ. The evidence is that it was so understood by the Jewish people. Rabbinic writings applied the prophecy to the Messiah. (Soncino Books of the Bible, edited by A. Cohen, 1951, commentary on Da 7:13) It was doubtless due to wanting some literal fulfillment of this prophecy that the Pharisees and Sadducees asked Jesus to “display to them a sign from heaven.” (Mt 16:1; Mr 8:11) After Jesus had died as a man and had been resurrected to spirit life, Stephen had a vision in which “the heavens opened up” and he saw “the Son of man standing at God’s right hand.” (Ac 7:56) This shows that Jesus Christ, although sacrificing his human nature as a ransom for mankind, rightly retains the Messianic designation “Son of man” in his heavenly position.
The first part of Jesus’ statement to the high priest about the coming of the Son of man spoke of him as “sitting at the right hand of power.” This is evidently an allusion to the prophetic Psalm 110, Jesus Christ having earlier shown that this psalm applied to him. (Mt 22:42-45) This psalm, as well as the apostle’s application of it at Hebrews 10:12, 13, reveals that there would be a waiting period for Jesus Christ before his Father would send him forth to “go subduing in the midst of [his] enemies.” It therefore appears that the fulfillment of the prophecy of Daniel 7:13, 14 comes, not at the time of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to heaven, but at the time of his being authorized by God to take action in vigorous expression of his kingly authority. The ‘coming of the Son of man to the Ancient of Days,’ then, apparently corresponds in time to the situation presented at Revelation 12:5-10, when the symbolic man-child is brought forth and caught up to God’s throne.
However, at Matthew 24:30 and Luke 21:27, Jesus prophesied regarding “the sign of the Son of man” immediately after mentioning celestial phenomena of the sort that the Bible associates with divine execution of judgment on wicked humans. (Compare Mt 24:29 and Lu 21:25, 26 with Isa 13:9, 10 and Joe 2:30, 31.) Since “all the tribes of the earth . . . will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” and will “beat themselves in lamentation,” it is evident that this refers to a time when a supernatural display of Jesus’ kingly power will strike fear into the hearts of humans who have not conformed to God’s will.
Further prophetic visions in Revelation (17:12-14; 19:11-21) show the exercise of full regnal power by the Messianic King over “peoples, national groups and languages” (Da 7:14), and hence the one “like a son of man” at Revelation 14:14 undoubtedly also represents Jesus Christ, as does the one so described at Revelation 1:13.