John’s Gospel: “Who Is this Son of Man”? Introduction

(John 12:34 ESV) So the crowd answered him, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?”

Beginning in January and continuing through May, our adult Bible classes will be studying the Gospel of John. The teens and campus ministries may well do so as well.

This will be a verse-by-verse, textual study but it will have a central theme: “Who is this Son of Man?” We’re certainly also interested in Jesus’ teachings and the events of Jesus’ life, but we’ll center the discussion on the personality and character of Jesus.

In the Creation 2.0 series, which we finished in Bible class in November, we considered God’s plan to transform his people into the image of Jesus, which is the image of God.

If it’s God’s plan to transform us to become like Jesus, we really need to study what Jesus is like. Indeed, nothing could be more important. It’s not enough to merely obey his commands. We must become like him.

Ray Vander Laan teaches that a talmid, that is, a disciple in First Century Judaism, not only learned his rabbi’s sayings, he wanted — more than anything else — to become just like his rabbi.

Now, that doesn’t mean we necessarily become sandal wearing itinerant preachers wandering the hills of Palestine. Rather, it’s the personality and character of Jesus we are to emulate.

Personally, I’ve never been part of such a study. Our Western bias is to read the Gospels as rule books, looking for instructions — which is not entirely wrong but misses much of the point. If the authors only wanted us to learn the rules, they’d have written rule books.

But they wrote stories — true stories. And these stories reveal Jesus interacting with his family, his friends, his disciples, religious leaders, political leaders, and even God himself. Plainly, the authors intend for us to get to know Jesus the person.

John’s Gospel starts by introducing Jesus as the Cosmic Jesus, through whom God created the heavens and the earth, co-eternal with God the Father.

Soon, we are introduced to Jesus the Messiah (Greek: christos = Christ), the king long promised by the prophets to come sit on David’s throne to restore God’s kingdom, ending the Jews’ exile and separation from God, bringing the outpouring of the Spirit.

Then, we’re introduced to Jesus the rabbi, the teacher who calls disciples (talmidim = plural for talmid) to teach them.

Finally, we’re introduced to Jesus, the son of Mary, the obedient son, who honors his mother’s wish that wine be provided for a wedding feast, to avoid embarrassing her friends.

In one and a half chapters, John’s Gospel takes us from the Christ, a member of the Godhead, the powerful, august, and holy, to Jesus, worried about whether the father of the groom, perhaps only a friend of a friend, runs out of wine for his guests — from the unimaginably other, far beyond our comprehension or even imaginings, to the ordinary. From magnificent to common. The Christ who can create or destroy the universe with a thought, who cares enough to be sure a friend of his mother hosts a good party.

Thus, John’s Gospel wrestles with — even revels — in the contrasts between the Second Member of the Godhead and the very human Jesus of Nazareth.

It’s fine, even good, to consider the metaphysics of this. The early church went to great lengths to sort out how Jesus could have been both God and man. It’s a fertile, worthwhile study. It’s just not this quarter’s study.

Rather than intellectualizing Jesus, dissecting his eternal and finite pieces, we’ll focus on Jesus the person — who is both God and man.

The Son of Man

Therefore, the theme of the series is “Who is this Son of Man?” taken from John 12:34. And that means we ought to reflect a bit on the phrase “Son of Man.” The phrase appears 13 times in John.

If we were to render it in Hebrew, we’d get “son of adam.” Adam refers both to the husband of Eve, as a proper noun, and to “man” as a common noun (which helps explain C. S. Lewis’s use of “son of Adam” in the Chronicles of Narnia). In First Century Aramaic, the phrase meant essentially “human,” due to such passages as —

(Num 23:19 ESV)  God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?

(Job 16:20-21 ESV) 20 My friends scorn me; my eye pours out tears to God,  21 that he would argue the case of a man with God, as a son of man does with his neighbor.

(Psa 8:3-4 ESV)  3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,  4 what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?

And so we begin there. When Jesus is referred to as “Son of Man,” one meaning is that he is human.

But then there’s this passage from Daniel —

(Dan 7:13-14 ESV) 3 “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.  14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”

The First Century Jews, quite sensibly, took this as a messianic prophecy, and so “Son of Man” can also refer to the one “like a son of man” who would be presented to God and given rule over God’s Kingdom — the Messiah. However, in Jesus’ day, the phrase was not used as a synonym for the Messiah. Jesus produced that change.

And so it’s a term Jesus chose for himself, doubtlessly in part for its ambiguity and for his humility. If he is the “son of man,” he is a human. Indeed, the Old Testament often uses “son of man” to refer to humans in contrast to God himself. It’s a term of humility before God — emphasizing the contrast.

But then, because of Daniel’s prophecy, it’s also a reference to the Messiah, who would be elevated to rule the world. Indeed, in John, when Jesus uses the phrase, he is generally speaking of himself as a member of the Godhead — using an intentionally humble term to refer to himself as God.

Hence, “Son of Man” is wonderfully ambiguous, a way to claim to be the Messiah without being crucified too soon — but also a way to express the thought that he is truly human while also truly God, that is, that Jesus could be humble, finite, tempted, and suffer and yet still be truly God.

Indeed, the lesson is ultimately that God himself is humble and concerned with the common. After all, if Jesus is humble and interested in the little things that matter to mere humans, so is God.

And so, let’s read the text asking what sort of person was he? What were his passions? How did he interact with people? Did he have a sense of humor? Was he good company? Who is this Son of Man?

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