Over the years the title of Son of Man that is used to describe Jesus has been debated about in regards to it’s possible meaning. Some say that it’s a title to show Jesus being humble, that he’s a simple human being or even that he’s the perfect human being. Jesus himself uses the title “Son of Man” to refer to himself around 80 times in the Text. Among those times Jesus is usually referring to the fact that the “Son of Man” will suffer and be killed or that the “Son of Man” will come again in glory and final judgment.
There is a great messianic prophecy found in the Hebrew scriptures that speaks of the coming “Son of Man:”
“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.”
The New Testament writers pick up on this prophecy in Daniel and also wrote about the “Son of Man” ( see Acts 7:56, Rev. 1:13-14, Rev. 14:14).
It’s interesting to look back in time at the conversations the rabbis were having just 200 years or so before Jesus. They were struggling to make sense of the deaths of those who were passionately following the God of Israel. For you see a short while after Antiochus seized the throne of the Seleucid Empire (175 BC) he ordered that those of the empire (including Israel) must worship Zeus as the supreme god. His people turned the Temple of God in Jerusalem into a temple for Zeus and demanded that the Jews no longer worship their God. By this time in their history the people of Israel had learned their lesson about worshiping other gods (exile to Babylon) and they refused. Here is what is written about this time in 2 Maccabees:
“Not long after this the king sent an Athenian senator to force the Jews to abandon the customs of their ancestors and live no longer by the laws of God; also to profane the temple in Jerusalem and dedicate it to Olympian Zeus, and that on Mount Gerizim to Zeus the Hospitable, as the inhabitants of the place requested…They also brought into the temple things that were forbidden, so that the altar was covered with abominable offerings prohibited by the laws. A man could not keep the sabbath or celebrate the traditional feasts, nor even admit that he was a Jew. At the suggestion of the citizens of Ptolemais, a decree was issued ordering the neighboring Greek cities to act in the same way against the Jews: oblige them to partake of the sacrifices, and put to death those who would not consent to adopt the customs of the Greeks. It was obvious, therefore, that disaster impended. Thus, two women who were arrested for having circumcised their children were publicly paraded about the city with their babies hanging at their breasts and then thrown down from the top of the city wall. Others, who had assembled in nearby caves to observe the sabbath in secret, were betrayed to Philip and all burned to death.” 6:1-11
The rabbis could grasp their punishment when they were worshiping other gods but how is the death of people because they are worshiping the God of Israel to make sense? The rabbis went back and looked at the Text and they saw the first righteous victim…Abel. Remember Abel was the son of Adam who was killed by his brother Cain. In Hebrew Adam means man or human. So Abel was known as “ben adam”… son of man or son of human.
The rabbis also noticed the Text in Genesis 4:10, “The Lord said, What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” What’s interesting is that the Hebrew word for blood that was used was in the plural form so it should read “Your brother’s ‘bloods‘ cries out to God from the ground.” The rabbis suggested that not only does Abel’s blood cry out to God, but all the blood of the righteous that would have come from him cry out for justice to God from earth. So Abel became the representative figure for all those righteous individuals who had been killed for being faithful (Matthew 23:35).
The Jews also looked at another passage about the shedding of blood which said: “And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” (Genesis 9:5b-6) They noted in this passage that a human being was also supposed to bring justice if a life was taken. So, how would God bring justice to Abel, the son of Adam that had been killed? By bringing another “Son of Adam” who would be the judge.
The expectation among the people of Israel was that the coming “Son of Man” would rise to power, serve as judge for the righteous who had been killed and bring justice to those who had killed them. But what is at the core of Jesus’ message…forgiveness. He taught that justice will be brought through forgiveness. Like Abel, Jesus will die a righteous death, but it is also his death that will bring justice by serving as a substitute for those who took the lives of the righteous. A substitute for you and I as well.