Whatever the expression “Son of God” implies about Christ in relation to God, it follows that the comparable phrase “son of man” implies something similar in relation to man. The biblical idiom “son of man” is simply a roundabout way of saying “man” or “human being” (cf. Num. 23:19; Psa. 8:4),1 obviously connecting Jesus to the human race. Irrespective of what else might be said about this expression, the Lord clearly favored it as a self-designation. While the terminology itself does not intrinsically convey any special sense of divinity or messianic identification,2 its application to Jesus and use in conjunction with the title “Son of God” seems to give it a distinctive nuance.
The Humanness of Jesus
Although we tend to place great stress on the Lord’s role as God’s Son, it is interesting that the New Testament seems to place even greater stress on his role as the son of man. Jesus is explicitly referred to as “man” no less than thirty-six times in the New Testament, and as “the son of man” an impressive eighty-two times (almost entirely as a self-description).3 The humanity of our Lord is one of the most significant yet often underappreciated doctrines of the Bible. While the importance of Christ’s deity must never be downplayed, the fact remains that “the Logos became flesh” (John 1:14), and the overwhelming emphasis of scripture appears to be on this aspect of his being.4 In fact, a critical tenet of the Christian faith is the acknowledgement of “Jesus Christ having come in flesh” (1 John 4:2; cf. 2 John 7).
Oneness with Humanity
The Hebrews epistle explains that Christ’s brotherhood with humanity was necessary in order for him to suffer and die for our sins, as well as to help in the human plight, to be a merciful and faithful high priest, and to sympathize with our struggles, trials, and weaknesses (2:9-18). But to what extent was he willing to take on our frail human form? The writer of Hebrews uses the expression katà pánta (2:17), “in all things” (NKJV) or “in every respect” (ESV); thus Jesus was subject to the human experience from every conceivable angle (hunger, thirst, pain, stress, grief, et al.).5 The implication is that he, as the result of his incarnation, had no undue advantage over the rest of mankind. This is emphasized further in 4:15, which states: “for we do not have a high priest unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but having been tempted in every way [katà pánta] as we are …”
To be tempted is to be enticed to sin. If it were not possible for Christ to have sinned, the word “tempted” is void of all meaning. Although God cannot be tempted by evil (Jas. 1:13), Jesus apparently emptied [kenóō] himself (Phil. 2:7) of divine attributes like the inability to be tempted. Before we pursue this further, let’s make sure we understand the fundamental difference between “attributes” and “essence,” and what is and is not implied here.
The divine essence of Jesus has never changed or ceased to exist. He has always been and always will be fully divine (see Deity of Christ). While essence defines who one inherently is, attributes are simply observable manifestations. For example, what is a human? An initial response might be to list human attributes, like the ability to walk upright and to think, reason, and communicate. But what about a person in a coma or an unborn baby, unable to walk upright, think, reason, and communicate? Is this person not human or perhaps less than human? One’s essence or nature is unaffected by whether or not attributes are manifested.
In order to redeem lost humanity, the Lord Jesus Christ had to become one of us in every way (katà pánta), which is the message of Heb. 2:9-18. While maintaining his divine essence, he had to give up the rights, privileges, advantages, prerogatives, and powers of deity. Note that (a) God cannot be tempted (Jas. 1:13), yet Jesus was tempted (Heb. 4:15); (b) God is self-sufficient (Psa. 115:3), yet Jesus was not (John 5:19); (c) God does not get weary (Isa. 40:28), yet Jesus did (John 4:6); (d) God is omnipresent (Psa. 139), but Jesus was not (John 4:3-4; 5:1; 7:1); (e) God is all-knowing (Psa. 147:5), yet Jesus was not (Mark 13:32).6
This was the inevitable reality of taking on human flesh. His inherent oneness with God never ended, but his assumed oneness with humankind made him every bit as human as the rest of us. The fact remains that “the Logos became flesh” (John 1:14). “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses Jesus Christ having come in flesh is of God” (1 John 4:2). “Because many deceivers have entered into the world, those not confessing Jesus Christ coming in flesh; this is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 John 7).
But What About His Miracles?
The miraculous powers demonstrated by Christ were no more innate than the miracles performed by anyone else. According to scripture, these supernatural abilities were given to him by the Father through the Spirit (Acts 10:38; cf. Matt. 9:8; 12:28; Luke 3:22; 4:1, 14-19; John 3:2; 5:36; Acts 2:22). These gifts were necessary to confirm his identity and his message, but in his daily living as a flesh-and-blood human being, Jesus was like you and me in every way.
An Example to Humanity
Even though Jesus was confronted with every enticement known to man, Hebrews 4:15 goes on to affirm that he was “without sin.” But how can this be? If Jesus were truly like all other human beings, having absolutely no advantage, how was he able to combat temptation so successfully when the rest of us are all too familiar with defeat? It had nothing to do with his divine nature (since he was tempted) or with supernatural intervention. Peter, for example, was filled with the Spirit and had the ability to perform miracles, but this did not render him incapable of sinning (cf. Gal. 2:11-14).
Christ’s sinless perfection was attributable to nothing more than his complete submission to the Father’s will. Man struggles with sin when he relies too much on his own strength and wisdom and is determined to pursue selfish desires. Jesus, however, could honestly say, “I can of myself do nothing … I do not seek my own will but the will of the Father who sent me” (John 5:30; cf. 6:38; 8:29).
A key to overcoming temptation, as practiced and taught by our Lord, is a consistent prayer life (cf. Luke 11:1-4; 22:39-46). Should we assume that Jesus had more time than we do to devote to prayer? A casual reading of the Gospels illustrates how extraordinarily busy he was (Mark 1:45; 2:1-2; 3:7-10, 20; 5:24; 6:30-34; et al.), yet he frequently withdrew from his hectic schedule to commune with the heavenly Father (Luke 5:16). Although the Lord seldom had time to pray, he always made time to pray, even if it meant getting up earlier in the morning (Mark 1:35) or staying up through the night (Luke 6:12). One can always find time for things that are really important. Perhaps we struggle so much with sin because we do not pray as often or as fervently as Jesus did (cf. Heb. 5:7). We learn from his example that if one is too busy to pray, he is too busy not to pray!
An Everlasting Benefit to Humanity
Jesus has not only proven that temptation can be conquered in the human life, he has clearly demonstrated how it can be accomplished. If we are genuinely committed to walking just as he walked (1 John 2:6), we will gladly exchange the impediments of laziness, pride, and selfishness for complete devotion to the will of God. The only reason for allowing sin to be victorious in our lives is the foolish choice of neglecting to utilize what is readily available in Christ. Temptation is admittedly a constant threat that will plague us until our last breath is taken. But because of the Lord’s victory over it, the dreadful throne of judgment now becomes the approachable “throne of grace,” from which we may boldly “obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).7
Because Jesus is both God and man, he is the perfect mediator between God and men (1 Tim. 2:5). While eternally divine, the Father-Son relationship began when Jesus was conceived and born as a flesh-and-blood human being, and the Son has been subject to the Father since the incarnation (cf. 1 Cor. 15:28). In other words, Jesus became the Son of God when he became the son of man. Though existing in the form of God, he humbled himself by taking on human flesh (John 1:1, 14; Phil. 2:5-8). Jesus as “the Son of God” has a twofold implication in relation to God: equality (of nature) and subordination (of role). Jesus as “the son of man” implies his oneness with humanity; “for even the son of man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
1 See also Psa. 4:2; 8:4; 31:19; 33:13; 57:4; 58:1; 80:17; 144:3; 145:12; 146:3; Eccl. 1:13; 2:3, 8; 3:10, 18, 19; 8:11; 9:3, 12; Dan. 10:10, 18; Joel 1:12; Mic. 5:7. Daniel is called “son of man” once (Dan. 8:17), while Ezekiel is so designated a whopping ninety-three times (Ezek. 2:1, 3, 6; etc.). In the prophecy of Daniel 7:13-14, this expression is not used as a messianic title but as a description of one who is “like a son of man,” i.e., human-like in contrast to the beastly creatures described earlier in the text (vv. 3-8). Cf. Rev. 1:13; 14:14.
2 There is no indication the Jews equated the Messiah with this title. “There is little evidence to show that in pre-Christian Judaism the term ‘Son of Man’ was used as a messianic title” (C. H. Dodd, Interpreting the Fourth Gospel 241, cf. 243).
3 Outside the Gospels the phrase “son of man” occurs only in Acts 7:56; Heb. 2:6; Rev. 1:13; 14:14. Combining all four Gospels, Jesus is explicitly called “the Son of God” thirty-one times and “the son of man” eighty-three times (72.8%). In the Gospel according to John, even though the stated purpose is to verify “that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God” (20:31), the Lord is called “the son of man” twelve times (1:51; 3:14; 5:27; 6:27, 53, 62; 8:28; 9:35; 12:23, 34; 13:31), more than he is explicitly called “the Son of God,” and he is referred to simply as “a man” no less than sixteen times (4:29; 5:12; 6:52; 7:15, 27; 8:40; 9:11, 16, 24; 10:33, 41; 11:47, 50; 18:17, 29; 19:5).
4 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation. Raymond E. Brown observes, “Those who have problems with the humanity of Jesus are often not even aware of their bias. Theoretically it is just as serious a deviation from Christian dogma to underplay the humanity of Jesus as to underplay his divinity; but since opponents of Christianity deny the divinity, believing Christians are far more sensitive about limitations placed on the divinity than they are about limitations placed on the humanity. Realistically, it may well be that most Christians tolerate only as much humanity as they deem consonant with their view of the divinity” (An Introduction to New Testament Christology 27, emp. in the text).
5 Matt. 4:2; Mark 3:5; Luke 22:44; John 2:14-17; 4:6; 11:33, 35; 19:28; etc.
6 Jesus explicitly acknowledged that he didn’t know the timing of his return (Matt. 24:36). It also appears that he didn’t immediately know who touched the hem of his garment (Mark 5:30-33; Luke 8:45-47), and he didn’t automatically know what was offered him to drink on the cross (Matt. 27:34).
7 K. L. Moore, “Tempted as We Are,” Gospel Advocate 11 (Nov. 2005): 14-15.