Why Jesus? – Part Thirteen

(If you’re just joining us, you’ll need to start with Part One for the series to make sense.)

In the first two weeks of this series, we looked at Israel’s defining story, and their hope of a true return from exile when God’s promises to his people would finally be fulfilled. Last week, we saw how Jesus presented himself as the Messiah (“anointed one”) who would bring about the fulfilment of that hope – by his words which announced the arrival of the kingdom, by his miraculous deeds which fulfilled the prophetic expectations of the kingdom, and by his parables which (among other things) subverted Israel’s expectations of the kingdom and brought him into conflict with the Jewish leadership.

Today, we look at two features of the Jewish hope we traced in week two of the series that we haven’t touched on so far in our discussion of Jesus. They relate to two of the titles often given to or used by Jesus.

Son of David

To be fair, the idea of Jesus as God’s “anointed one” (Messiah in Hebrew, Christ in Greek) has been at the forefront of our discussion. But we haven’t highlighted the fact that God’s anointed one – if his promises made to David are to be made good – must come from David’s line. (You know, the whole your throne will be established forever thing, from 2 Sam 7:16.) And so we find attention being drawn to this by various ways in the Gospels.

Firstly, there’s the genealogies. (Those long lists of people who, in the King James translation at least, seemed to do an awful lot of begetting, whatever that is. And while we’re on the subject – note that it’s gene-a-logy, not gene-o-logy; public service announcement concluded.) In Matthew and Luke we see lists of Jesus’ ancestors, showing that he traces his line back through to King David. Not only that, but Matthew shows how it’s all happened conveniently in groups of fourteen (=2 x 7) from one key event to the next:

Matt 1:17 Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah.

If you’re a first-century Jew and superstitious about numbers (which they were), that’s important. It’s a bit of a hint that it’s time for the next part of the story. (Abraham kicked off Plan A, if you remember from our telling of Israel’s story; after a false start with Saul, David kicked off Plan B; the exile signalled the failure of Plan B; and so fourteen generations later, the time is sure ripe for God to bring about the next phase, right??)

Secondly, you might have noticed how often Jesus is referred to in terms that relate to God’s covenant with David – especially by those in Israel who had started to think that, just maybe, this could be the Messiah. For example:

Matt 9:27 As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!”

Why is this significant? Think back to that whole the-blind-will-see thing in Isaiah, which was tied up with Israel’s expectation that God would restore their nation, and David’s line. You can see the blind dudes’ logic (even if they can’t): if this is the Messiah, we’d like to get some of that Isaiah-juice thank you very much!

Matt 12:22-23 Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”

What made the people ask could this be the Son of David?  They didn’t yet have Michelangelo’s sculpture to compare Jesus’ facial features to, so it must have been more about what he’s just done. The blind shall see, the mute tongue will shout for joy. Oh look, it’s the Messiah!And of course there’s the key moment where Jesus turns up on a donkey, riding into Jerusalem like a conquering king. What does the crowd shout?

Matt 21:9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

It’s not just the explicit phrase “Son of David” either. There’s also another, common phrase, that’s also associated with the Messiah:

John 11:27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
John 20:31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Now we mostly associate that phrase “Son of God” with Jesus’ identity as the second member of the Trinity. (And there are some occasions when that seems to be the sentiment behind it: for example, when Jesus has just walked on water without ninja-shoes, the disciples worship him and say, “Truly you are the Son of God”. If you’re a good Jew, you don’t worship a king; only God himself.) But most of the time in the Gospels, that phrase is more about Jesus’ identity as a king from the line of David – since that title was used in the Bible (and in the ancient world generally) for a king:

Psalm 2:7 I will proclaim the LORD’s decree: He said to me [David], “You are my son; today I have become your father.”
2 Sam 7:14 [God to David, about Solomon:] I will be his father, and he will be my son.

So here, Jesus fulfils the expectation that God would act through his anointed one (from David’s line) to bring about the return from exile and the reestablishment of David’s throne.

Son of Man

This next one’s a little tricky. Why? Because we don’t have quite enough evidence to be confident about how first-century Jews would have understood the term “Son of Man” as Jesus used it. It’s Jesus’ favourite phrase to use when talking about himself in the third person (he would have made a good US sports star), and he may well be deliberately ambiguous most of the time. What did he mean – and what would his audience have understood – when he called himself “Son of Man”?

In the Hebrew Scriptures, “son of man” is often a poetic synonym for “human.” For example:

Psalm 8:4-6 What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet,

Here it’s clearly talking about humanity – and the context is about us as image-bearers. Is Jesus referring to himself as the True Image Bearer? Probably.

What about in Ezekiel:

Ezek 2:1, 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you.”… And he said to me, “Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me…”

Ezekiel functions as a representative human, through whom God will deliver his prophetic message to a rebellious people. Sound like Jesus? Yep.

But then there’s this, which you might remember buried back in part seven of our series:

Dan 7:13 In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

This figure who is in the presence of God in heaven, yet looks like a human, and will exercise God’s authority and power – could Jesus be referring to this, too? You bet. But would his audience have picked that up? That’s the hard part, as we don’t know how much of this little vision in Daniel was a part of Jewish expectations in connection with the return from exile and restoration of Israel. This “Son of Man” figure also turns up in one of the Jewish writings of the period, called The Similitudes of Ethiopic Enoch. I’m guessing you’re not all that familiar with it, so here’s an extract (nerd-alert: feel free to skim/skip):

Sim. Eth. En. 46:1-4 There I beheld the Ancient of days, whose head was like white wool, and with him another, whose countenance resembled that of man. His countenance was full of grace, like that of one of the holy angels. Then I inquired of one of the angels, who went with me, and who showed me every secret thing, concerning this Son of man; who he was; whence he was and why he accompanied the Ancient of days. He answered and said to me, This is the Son of man, to whom righteousness belongs; with whom righteousness has dwelt; and who will reveal all the treasures of that which is concealed: for the Lord of spirits has chosen him; and his portion has surpassed all before the Lord of spirits in everlasting uprightness. This Son of man, whom you behold, shall raise up kings and the mighty from their dwelling places, and the powerful from their thrones; shall loosen the bridles of the powerful, and break in pieces the teeth of sinners. He shall hurl kings from their thrones and their dominions; because they will not exalt and praise him, nor humble themselves before him, by whom their kingdoms were granted to them…

And it bangs on a bit like that for quite a while, but you get the idea. So the question is: how much did everyday Jews connect this “Son of Man” figure with the coming rule of God? We don’t know for sure, but at least some of the leadership did, judging by their reaction in this key scene:

Matt 26:63-65 The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” “You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy.”

So we see that in the eyes of at least some Jews, the return-from-exile and restoration of Israel would involve a divine “Son of Man” figure who would come with God’s judgement and authority.

But how would he exercise that authority? Was he here to kick butt (like Ethiopic Enoch envisioned), or to do something else? That’s the subject of the next two days.

To think about

Has your understanding of the phrases “Son of God” and “Son of Man” changed? If so, how?

What does it mean for Jesus to be the “Son of Man” in the sense of being the True Image-Bearer?

Post responses and questions

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