by J. Rodman Williams, Ph.d.
There is one supremely urgent question in life which every person must answer. It was asked by Jesus Himself: "But who do you say that I am?" (Matthew 16:15). It is finally not "What do others say?" but "What do you say?" That alone really counts.
On the surface it is admittedly a strange question. Indeed, coming from the lips of anyone but Jesus of Nazareth it would seem absurd. "Who am I?" asked by someone else could not even be taken seriously. "Why, of course, you are a man, a human being, just like all other human beings—who do you think you are?" might be the reply. But with this person Jesus we know one cannot answer so easily, for there is mystery. Yet we know we must answer—and we sense that what we say is fearfully important.
In order to get at an answer to Jesus’ probing question, "But who do you say that I am?" let us consider the matter under two headings: Jesus Christ as the Son of man, and Jesus Christ as the Son of God.
I. The Son of Man
It is striking to note that Jesus—before asking, "But who do you say I am?"—raised the question, "Who do men say that the Son of man is?" (Matthew 16:13). Thereby He designates Himself "the Son of man." Later in this same narrative Jesus twice uses the title again for Himself. "For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father…the Son of man coming in his kingdom" (Matthew 16:27, 28). Hence whatever might and ought to be said about Jesus as the Son of God (as in Matthew 16:16) does not replace the name and significance of Jesus as the Son of man.
The name by which Jesus almost invariably calls Himself in the New Testament is "the Son of man." He applies this name to Himself over eighty times—so commonly as to be almost overlooked.
"The Son of man came not to be served but to serve." "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head." "The Son of man came eating and drinking." "After two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of man will be delivered up." And so on, again and again. There is no need to multiply references. To open one’s New Testament to almost any page in the four Gospels is to find this self-designation of Jesus as "the Son of man."
It is therefore regrettable that we so seldom use that title for Jesus. It was the phrase that came naturally to Him, one that expressed His complete identification with all humanity. It is interesting to note that the disciples never raised a question about the title, for doubtless it seemed to them to fall so easily, so properly, so truly from His lips.
Centuries before, the phrase "Son of man" (without the article the) had been used frequently in the book of Ezekiel as a title of address by God to the prophet—"Son of man, stand upon your feet…Son of man, I sent you to the people…" (Ezekiel 2:1, 3, and thereafter some ninety times in the book). The phrase in Ezekiel is a way of expressing the prophet’s humanity and His identification with other people. Other passages such as the familiar words of Psalm 8—"What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?"—show that the phrase is another way of saying "man."
This backward glance at the Old Testament makes it clear why the disciples probably never gave a second thought to Jesus’ calling Himself "the Son of man." For, unmistakably, there was never in their minds any question of His complete humanity. They were all sons of men; so was He.
In light of that fact it seems strange that one of the early heresies in the church denied that Jesus was really a man. This heresy was known as Docetism. It vigorously affirmed that Jesus was God and only God, and that He just seemed to be human.
What a vast departure from the New Testament! For nowhere, especially in the Gospels, is there any question of Jesus’ real humanity. The disciples lived with Him day by day. They ate with Him, they walked with Him, they slept with Him, they saw Him weep, they watched Him pray. Surely He was man—man through and through.
Now let us examine that title again, "the Son of man," and note the significance of the article the. Ezekiel was addressed as "son of man"; Jesus refers to Himself as "the Son of man." This may at first seem of no particular import. Yet surely it is, for it says something about Jesus’ humanity that can be said of no other man: He was the man—man fully and completely as God intended man should be!
In Genesis man is spoken of as being made "in the image of God." And yet man, from Adam on, ceases to image the divine, because his sin mars the image. Man made to love God and his neighbor disobeys God (Genesis 3), and soon thereafter is destroying his brother (Genesis 4). Man becomes therefore inhuman, or subhuman, and it is only when Jesus Christ appears in the world that man once again is truly man, truly himself.
Recall for a moment the scene of Jesus standing before Pontius Pilate wherein Pilate says to the crowd, "Here is the man!" (John 19:5). One senses that it is not Jesus on trial, but Pilate; for here is manhood supreme that judges and shames all other men. "Here is the man!"—man who alone of all mankind has never turned aside from doing God’s will, regardless of the cost; man who alone of all mankind has never ceased to love His neighbor, be he friend or foe. "Here is the man!" Behold Him whose eye is undimmed, courage undaunted, sacrifice unlimited—yes, to the very end.
This is the "second Adam," who does not fall, who not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There is no sin in Him coming from the tempter’s lure. Indeed, it was not easy, for He likewise was tested and tried by every wile and subtlety. Yet always He remained firm. Unlike Adam He constantly obeyed the Father’s command—and so until death was perfect in obedience, perfect in faith, perfect in love. Even His worst enemies could find no real fault in Him.
In the words of the poet:
O man’s best Man, O love's best love,
O perfect life in perfect labor writ,
O all men’s Comrade, Servant, King, or Priest—
What if or yet, what mole, what flaw, what lapse,
What least defect or shadow of defect,
What rumor, tattled by an enemy,
Or inference loose, what lack of grace
Even in torture’s grasp, or sleep’s, or death’s—
Oh, what amiss may I forgive in Thee,
Jesus, good Paragon, Thou Crystal Christ?
(Sidney Lanier, "The Crystal Christ.)
"Man’s best Man," "Crystal Christ"—man who shows us the wonder of what it is to be truly human, who gives us the perfect pattern. Jesus, the Son of man—that we each might be a son of man living like Him to the glory of God and the service of all others.
Let us then never fail to stress the importance of the humanity of Jesus. For until He came, there was no paragon, no example, no man as God would have all men be. There was no one who lived life in all its possible abundance and fullness and joy. But now that He has come, we have a Guide, a Pioneer, a Leader, whom to follow in His teachings and His example is to know life that really endures. Of course, there is self-denial and sacrifice in it, for did He not say, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Matthew 16:24).
But in that very self-denial is liberation from bondage to self; in that very sacrifice to the cross is the joy of a new life being resurrected from the dead.
II. The Son of God
To recognize Jesus as "the Son of man" is of great significance for what has yet to be said. For it is against this background that He raises the all-important question: "But who do you say that I am?"
The disciples have already replied to His first question, "Who do men say that the Son of man is?" that "Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." In other words, Jesus was unquestionably a prophet and among the greatest—if not the greatest—in the eyes of the people. Jesus was a human being, but also a prophet, which, by definition, means a spokesman for God.
Then comes that piercing question, "But who do you say that I am?" And by that very question two things are implied: first, the answer others are giving is not adequate; second, it is highly important that they speak for themselves. Thereupon Simon Peter replies for the disciples, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16).
The answer, as given in Matthew, is unmistakable. Though Jesus is the Son of man and among the mighty prophets, He is much more. He is also the Messiah, and as the Messiah is the Son of God.
Let us hasten to observe that what Peter said about Jesus as the Christ is quite amazing. For though many people hoped for a Messiah, they never went beyond thinking of a Son of man, of the line of David, who would restore His people to power and prosperity. They never thought of Him as somehow also "the Son of God." Indeed, so imbued were they with the Old Testament teaching "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord" (Deuteronomy 6:4) that to consider the Son of God was hardly possible. Yet here is Simon Peter, nourished on the Old Testament, saying, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
If such is amazing, let us note further: Jesus, the humble Son of man, does not rebuke Peter as if he were indulging in fantasy. Rather does Jesus reply: "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven." No rebuke—indeed, that comes later when Peter wants to restrain Jesus from the cross—no rebuke, rather a blessing.
Jesus Christ is "the Son of man"—and continues so to be as the rest of the narrative unfolds—but at the same time He accepts the testimony that He is "the Son of God." And the latter, He adds, only comes by revelation from above; "flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father."
Unfortunately there have been people since the beginning of the Christian era who have been unwilling to accept Jesus as the Son of God. (We have already mentioned the Docetists who, contrariwise, would not accept Him as the Son of man.) Others, from disbelieving Jews to so-called liberal Christians, have not wanted to admit Him to be the Son of God. The Jew has often been unwilling to accept Christ's divinity because it seems to deny the unity of God; the liberal Christian, because it seems to deny the unity of man. How can Christ be the Son of God and God still be one? the Jew asks. How can Christ be the Son of God and at the same time man? the doubting liberal wants to know. In both cases the divinity of Christ seems to be unreasonable. Hear this: That is exactly the way it is bound to be, for according to Jesus Himself, this truth goes beyond reason. This fact of the divine sonship comes by revelation instead.
Hence whenever a person says, "I cannot accept the divinity of Jesus Christ because it doesn't make sense," it only shows that he is making reason his final guide rather than revelation. He is therefore making what he thinks more important than what God's revelation discloses.
Furthermore, this also betrays the fact that Christian experience has not gone very deep. Those who knew Jesus only casually, as did the multitudes, could go no farther than calling Him teacher or prophet. But for those who were closest—His own disciples—there was the growing realization that He had to be more than any human category could express.
Of course there were the "mighty works" (or miracles) that He sometimes did, but miracles were not any real proof of His divinity. For had not Old Testament prophets done mighty works too—Moses and the parting of the Red Sea, Elijah and the fire from heaven consuming the offering of Israel, Elisha and the raising of the Shunammite's son from the dead, and many others? Miracles were no proof of divinity. Nor did Jesus ever perform a miracle to prove His identity. Indeed, they were always done to meet human need.
Did they then believe He was divine because He told them so? No, not basically. As already noted, He consistently referred to Himself as "the Son of man" and not as "the Son of God."
The answer is that it was neither mighty deeds nor self-attestation that revealed the deeper secret of His nature. The revelation rather came through His life, His person, and what they felt happening to themselves in His presence. Of course, they knew that He was a man, essentially as human as any one of them. However, a change began to occur in their lives that only God could bring about. They knew their sins had been forgiven—a thing only God can do; they felt a love and compassion far beyond any man’s capacity; they began to feel new life stirring in their hearts that only God can bring. Truly He was man, and yet there was something else: somehow God was there too.
Down through the centuries people have been finding the same thing true about Jesus Christ. You may begin by following Him as only a man, but if you stay with Him long enough He finally gets hold of you. Someday, like doubting Thomas, with all doubts gone, you fall at His feet saying, "My Lord and my God" (John 20:28).
Let one further thing be underscored: the belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, is not only life-changing for the individual; it is also the very rock on which the Church is founded. For did not Jesus say in the words that followed Peter’s confession of faith, "On this rock I will build my church and the powers of death shall not prevail against it"? We must never then allow this rock to be shifted by the skepticism of any age—else the Church will be confounded and the powers of death will surely prevail.
Let us end as we began. The one question in life of supreme urgency is not "Who do men say that the Son of man is?" It is rather the next question of Jesus, "But who do you say that I am?" Can you not only say, "O man’s best Man," but also, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God"? If so, then come the wondrous words of Jesus in reply, "Blessed are you!" And you are on your way—part of the true Church of the living God, with Him to live and abide forever! Amen.
Content Copyright ©1999 by J.
Rodman Williams, Ph.D.