The Son of Man and the return of Jesus

Many of Jesus’ teachings on the second coming revolve around his favorite self-designation: Son of Man. In fact, Jesus uses the title Son of Man roughly eighty times in the Gospels to refer to himself. While Jesus prefers to use this title rather than Son of God or Messiah to identify himself, it shouldn’t be assumed he has any doubts about his identity or wishes to be coy with his followers. His use of Son of Man is purposeful.

Jesus clearly reveals his deity at strategic times. For example, he applies the divine name I AM to himself (John 8:58). He claims equality with the Father (John 10:30). He receives worship (John 20:28). He forgives sins (Mark 2:1-12). He teaches with divine authority (Mark 1:21-22). He affirms in advance what the apostles write concerning his deity (John 1:1-3, 14; cf. Phil. 2:5-11; Col. 1:15-16; 2:9; Heb. 1:1-4). And he fulfills the attributes unique to God (Matt. 28:18-20; John 1:1; 5:22; 16:30; Heb. 1:8; 13:8).

It seems the term Son of Man accomplishes two primary goals. First, it illustrates that Jesus shares humanity with us. In Philippians 2:5-8, Paul spells out the humble manner in which the eternal Son of God adds sinless humanity to his deity. But a second goal is of equal importance. In calling himself Son of Man, especially in front of Israel’s religious elite, he reveals himself as the divine being of Daniel 7:13-14:

I continued watching in the night visions, and suddenly one like a son of man was coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was escorted before him. He was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, so that those of every people, nation, and language should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will not be destroyed (emphasis added).

Jesus is especially careful to identify himself as the Son of Man so his listeners understand he is the one Daniel sees, who receives an eternal kingdom. Nowhere is this stated more plainly than in the house of Caiaphas, the high priest, on the night of Jesus’ arrest. The high priest tells Jesus, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” 

“You have said it,” Jesus replies. “But I tell you, in the future you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” 

Caiaphas goes ballistic. He tears his robes and declares, “He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? See, now you’ve heard the blasphemy” (Matt. 26:63-65).

The religious leaders, in concert with the Romans, carry out what God has already ordained: the death of the Son of Man for our sins. Rather than a humiliating defeat, the cross and the grave are milestones on the pathway to victory over Satan, sin, and death. Because of this, we may rest assured that when the Son of Man returns, he will fulfill Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man, receiving an eternal kingdom and ruling over it.

In many other Scriptures, Jesus employs Son of Man language to depict his return. Consider the following samples (emphases added):

Matthew 16:27-28 – “For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will reward each according to what he has done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (cf. Luke 9:26-27). 

Matthew 24:27 – “For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”  

Matthew 24:29-31 – “Immediately after the distress of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not shed its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the peoples of the earth will mourn; and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. He will send out his angels with a loud trumpet, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.”

Matthew 24:37 – “As the days of Noah were, so the coming of the Son of Man will be.” 

Matthew 25:31-32 – “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate them one from another, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”  

Mark 8:38 – “For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” 

Mark 14:62 – “I am [Messiah, Son of the Blessed One],” said Jesus, “and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” 

Luke 12:40 – “You also be ready, because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” 

Luke 18:8 – I tell you that he will swiftly grant them justice. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” 

Luke 21:27 – Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” 

Luke 21:34-36 – “Be on your guard, so that your minds are not dulled from carousing, drunkenness, and worries of life, or that day will come on you unexpectedly like a trap. For it will come on all who live on the face of the whole earth. But be alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place and to stand before the Son of Man.” 

John 5:25-29 – “Truly I tell you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so also he has granted to the Son to have life in himself. And he has granted him the right to pass judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not be amazed at this, because a time is coming when all who are in the graves will hear his voice and come out ​— ​those who have done good things, to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked things, to the resurrection of condemnation.” 

Note some common threads in these passages related to the Son of Man’s return:

  • Jesus is coming in the glory of his Father – glory being a term often identified with deity in Scripture (e.g., Exod. 16:10; 40:34-35; Lev. 9:23).
  • He’s coming with/on the clouds of heaven, a further reference to his deity. Clouds often are associated with theophanies, or manifestations of God (e.g., Exod. 24:15-18). Jesus ascends into heaven in a cloud, and is promised to return in a similar manner (Acts 1:9-11). Meanwhile, believers are surrounded by a heavenly cloud of witnesses to the divine work of God – great heroes of the faith (Heb. 12:1).
  • He’s coming with the holy angels. Among other duties, such as delivering divine messages, angels carry the spirits of believers to rest in the afterlife (Luke 16:22), and they execute God’s judgment (Gen. 19:13).
  • He’s coming visibly; every eye will see him (Rev. 1:7; cf. Zech. 12:10). This is no mere theophany, in which the invisible God temporarily breaks into the physical realm; it is the incarnate Christ coming back in his physical, glorified body.
  • He’s coming in divine authority. The Father has placed all authority in the hands of his Son (Matt. 28:19). 
  • He’s coming suddenly. The apostle Paul writes that our resurrection and glorification at the sounding of the trumpet are “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15:52). 
  • He’s coming unexpectedly. Several of Jesus’ parables of the kingdom of heaven focus on his surprising return and the need for our readiness (e.g., Matt. 24:36-44).
  • He’s coming in judgment, which the Father has placed in his hands (John 5:22).

There can be no doubt that Jesus, the Son of Man, has promised to return one day and fulfill the yet-unfulfilled prophecies pertaining to the kingdom he received from the Ancient of Days.

Next: John’s testimony from Patmos

Copyright 2021 by Rob Phillips