A Hero Foreseen
Jesus most commonly referred to himself as "The Son of Man." This strikes modern readers as a strange thing because our concern is typically whether or not he was the "Son of God." So why would Jesus emphasize his humanity like this?
The answer is that Jesus is referring to a character from another part of the Bible, specifically Daniel chapter 7. In that chapter, Daniel saw "one like a Son of Man," a figure who became very important in Jewish beliefs about the Messiah. So in order for us to understand who Jesus was claiming to be, we need to understand what was going on in this crucially important chapter of the Bible.
First, there is the setting. Daniel has a dream during the first year of Belshazzar in Babylon. The Kingdom of Babylon still exists as a major empire at this point, and important moments from the history of Babylon will be revisited. But from there, the vision is going to expand it's scope.
"Daniel said: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea. Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea." (Daniel 7:2-3 NIV) The "Great Sea" he mentions here is most likely the Mediterranean Sea, the region of the world that will be affected by the events he is about to describe.
So the vision continues, and Daniel sees this assortment of beasts. The first is a winged lion, symbolizing Babylon. The follows a bear holding some recently eaten ribs in it's mouth, and then a leopard with four heads. Then, a fourth beast arrives that is too strange for Daniel to describe aside from the fact that it is terrible. And a prominent horn springs up from the head of this beast, strangely demonstrating independent thought, identity, and the ability to speak. As Daniel goes through the vision, we are not mean to understand that he is predicting the existence of an actual lion with wings that walks upright (Daniel 7:5), but we are to understand that the winged lion was a fitting representation of Babylon.
When we see these kinds of beasts, what we are encountering is a kind of symbolism that is important for understanding apocalyptic literature. Beasts in this writing style are often used to symbolic kingdoms or political powers. In this particular case, they are Gentile (non-Hebrew) political powers. When Bible readers eventually get to Revelation 13 and read about the infamous "Beast" whose mark is the number 666, we are to understand that beast in the same terms that we understand the beasts in Daniel - this is a political entity, a superpower. These symbols aren't meant to frighten or confuse us; they are meant to communicate.
So what is going on here? What is the point of all these beasts and how does it relate in any way to Jesus?
The second half of the vision introduces us to a new character who is remarkably different from the beasts. Daniel sees God - called "The Ancient of Days" - seated on his throne in heaven. There is a court session in place - a judgment - and the evil powers of this world are going to be dealt with. There is a river of fire pouring out from the presence of God and his throne, and it ultimately destroys the powers of the beasts.
Then, there is a cloud is rising up before the throne, and it is carrying a human figure - Daniel calls him "one like a Son of Man." His human looking figure comes before the Ancient of Days and is given the authority the rule over God's world, and even the right to be worshipped by all nations of the world forever. (Daniel 7:13-14)
This incredible scene points forward to a figure who would be given authority by God to rule the world, and it would coincide with the overthrowing of the evil, violent, oppressive powers that brought so much violence and destruction.
For Daniel, this vision was perplexing and intense (Daniel 7:28), but for his people afterwards it would be a hopeful message. He and his people were living in exile in a foreign land. They were under the power and authority of Babylon, and God had already showed Daniel (in chapter 2) that more kingdoms would rule the world after Babylon. To know that the Son of Man would eventually receive rulership of the world from God was good news. Daniel foresaw the coming of the Messiah.
So when Jesus steps onto the scene hundreds of years later, he calls himself the Son of Man, using the language from Daniel 7. In using this name for himself, Jesus was not primarily emphasizing the fact that he was human. Most people could tell that. Rather, he was claiming to be the one from Daniel's vision - the one who had power and authority from God to rule the world, to be worshipped as God, to stand before the presence of the Ancient of Days, and to rule forever.
Jesus claiming to be the Son of Man was Jesus claiming to be Lord of all. He was claiming to be an important prophetic figure that the people of Israel had been told to expect ever since the time of their exile.
When we look at the chaos of the world around us, it is easy to become discouraged. It may seem that there is only mayhem and conflict - power struggles among wealthy, influential people that seem so far beyond our ability to change. But throughout history, God has promised that he has an end in sight, that there is someone who has the authority over all of history, and whose kingdom will not end. That someone is the Son of Man - Jesus himself.
- If you heard the phrase "Son of Man" without the context of this chapter, what would you think it meant?
- Read Daniel 7:19-25. Summarize in your own words as simply as possible what is being predicted here. What, especially, will the little horn do?
- Read Daniel 7:26-27. Given the way this is worded, and everything we know about the oppression that the people of Israel faced, what kinds of expectations would these verses have given them about the Messiah? Who would the Messiah come to save?
- Does this expectation match the things that Jesus did in the New Testament? Why or why not?
- Read Daniel 7:9-10. What are some things you notice are significant in the way that the Ancient of Days is described? Why would God be associated with so much frightening imagery, like a river of fire or flames shooting out of his throne?
- Compare the chain of events described here in chapter 7 with those in chapter 2. What similarities do you see?
- Can you identify what kingdoms are symbolized in these chapters, besides Babylon being the obvious one? Feel free to use outside sources.
- This chapter may seem difficult to apply to your own life. Think of some ways you might connect to this. Where do you fit in this story?
- What forces or powers have you seen at work in the world that disturb you? What do you feel you have no power over?
- What do you think of world history? Is it mostly a positive story, mostly negative, or somewhere in between?
- Do you feel like the world is getting better or getting worse? Why?
- Do you think your own country is capable of acting like a wild, violent beast? Why or why not?
- Does the fact that God will one day bring the powers that be into judgment give you peace of mind about the things that go wrong in this world? Or do you find that answer unsatisfying? How did Daniel feel about the whole vision? (see 7:15, 28)
- Based on Daniel 7:15 and 7:28, is it ok to now understand prophecy or to find it challenging?