Monday, July 21, 2014

Who Is This Son of Man? (John 12:32, 32-34)


What is in a name? William Shakespeare asked the question famously in Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” You probably have several names by which you are known to others. Recently we had some title work done on a vehicle that cost us more than we expected. Donia had filled out the paperwork, and I am known to her as Russ. But, to the State of North Carolina, I am James Russell. We had to pay extra to correct that paperwork. To my parents, I’m known as “Son,” to my kids, “Dad,” to you, “Pastor.” Some of you probably even have a few more creative names for me. Once you realize how long this sermon is going to be today, you may have even more.  

When we read the New Testament, we find that Jesus has many names and titles. He had a simple, yet significant name: Jesus. “Christ” is not His last name, but His title: He is Jesus the Christ. Other titles are ascribed to Him: Lord, Lamb of God, Savior, Prince of Peace, King of Kings, Son of God, and so on. Seven times in the Gospel of John, He uses metaphoric titles to describe Himself: Light of the World, Bread of Life, the Resurrection and the Life, Good Shepherd, True Vine, the Door of the Sheep, the Way, the Truth and the Life. But when Jesus speaks of Himself, most often there is one phrase that is used. He refers to Himself most often as “the Son of Man.” Interestingly, in the Gospels, no one else ever calls Him that, and no one else is ever called that. It is His preferred term of self-designation. He doesn’t ask others to call Him that, but He calls Himself this in all four Gospels. In fact, the title is used by Jesus to refer to Himself over 80 times in the Gospels, 11 times in the Gospel According to John. In the two times in John’s Gospel that the term is used by others, both in 12:34, they are simply making reference to His own use of the phrase.

Now, of all the titles that Jesus could have used to refer to Himself, and of the several that He did use to refer to Himself, why is it that “Son of Man” was seemingly His favorite? To answer that question, we have to understand that Jesus did not coin the phrase. It was in use long before Jesus’ birth, and by the time of His earthly ministry, it had certain undeniable connotations. We find the phrase “son of man” in the Old Testament some 106 times. In a good number of them, the phrase is simply a way of referring to a human being. For example, in Jeremiah 50:40, God pronounces judgment upon a nation saying, “No man will live there, nor will any son of man reside in it.”

The lion’s share of uses in the Old Testament is found in Ezekiel (90 of 106 occurrences). Throughout Ezekiel, God uses “son of man” to address the prophet. In this sense, the phrase means something like “a man,” but it seems to mean something more. It is not just a man, or any man, but a certain man – God’s chosen and called prophet, who stands in the gap for God, to speak for Him and call people back to Himself. He is a man, but he is a particular man on a mission for God.

Then we come to Daniel, which is the most significant of all in the development of the idea of the “son of man.” In Daniel, the prophet saw a vision of the rise and fall of earthly powers, represented by great beasts, and then finally he saw the Ancient of Days, God Himself, enthroned and attended by many thousands of angels. And then in Daniel 7:13-14, the prophet says that he saw

One like a Son of Man was coming, and He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations and men of every language might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed.

In this passage, it is obvious that the “Son of Man” whom Daniel saw was not just a mere man. He was before the throne of God and was given glory and an everlasting Kingdom over all peoples, nations and tongues that all the earth might worship and serve Him. And it was based on this passage that the concept of the “Son of Man” began to take shape. In the Jewish writings that arose between the times of the Old and New Testaments, “Son of Man” began to be used as a formal title for the Messiah. Many Old Testament texts were understood anew based on this development.

So, when Jesus came onto the scene of human history in His earthly ministry, He could have rightly employed any number of titles to refer to Himself, and all of them would have been accurate. He could have called Himself the Son of God, and even seemed to subtly identify Himself as such and allow others to call Him that. He could have called Himself the Messiah or Christ (which is simply the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word Messiah), which He did on a small number of occasions, and He allowed others to call Him this. He could have even called Himself God, and certainly a number of His statements were tantamount to this very claim. But most often, Jesus called Himself the Son of Man. This phrase said everything He wanted to say about Himself, if one had the perception enough to hear and understand it. It also avoided the potential controversies that could have arisen by using some of the other phrases, and which in fact, did arise whenever those terms were being tossed around. The word “Messiah” or “Christ” meant different things to different people, and most of those ideas were wrong. Many assumed that Messiah was a military warrior who was coming to overthrow the oppression of the Romans and establish a political, nationalistic empire for Israel. Jesus had come to do far more than this! One scholar writes, “Jesus was in constant danger of being forced into limited or illegitimate messianic role (John 6:15). … With the term [Son of Man] Jesus dissociated his nature and mission from purely earthly, nationalistic notions.”[1]

“Son of Man” was precise enough to identify Jesus as the divine Messiah foretold in Daniel, the God who had become a man through the miracle of the incarnation, and who, like Ezekiel, was God’s chosen and called final prophet to call the people to repentance and pronounce the coming judgment. There is no other single title that could express the fullness of His nature – fully God and fully man – like “Son of Man.” As one scholar says, “Jesus used the term as a messianic title for himself, so that he could speak modestly about his person and mission, yet convey the exalted content he wished to reveal about himself.”[2]

While the saying was lost on many of Jesus’ hearers, there were plenty of folks who understood exactly who Jesus was claiming to be when He called Himself the Son of Man. Their question in verse 34 indicates that they understood that “Son of Man” was equivalent to “Christ.” They figured that much out, but there was something that they could not figure out. They correctly understood that Jesus meant, when He said that He would be lifted up, that He was going to die. And this did not fit into their theology of a Messiah. Their understanding was that the Christ was to remain forever, not die. And so they ask this profound question: “Who is this Son of Man?” In other words, “What kind of Son of Man do you claim to be, that you should be both the everlasting Christ and the one who is going to die?” This question is significant, not just for them, but for the whole world, including each of us. The answer to this question determines how we spend our lives here in this temporal world and how we will spend them in eternity. I would venture to say that of all the questions asked in the Bible, this ranks among the most important, and it is one of the most important questions that any of us could ask as well. So, let’s explore how the Bible answers this question.

I. The Son of Man is the Christ who remains forever.

If you live long enough in this world, you come to learn the hard lesson that there are few things that “last.” Things are always changing. Relationships change, governments change, institutions change, cultures change. And with every change, there are sometimes gains, and often there are more losses than gains. We lose people we love. We lose things we trust. We lose objects of hope and certainty. We are constantly reminded of the lack of permanence in the things of this world. And that sense of permanence is what we all seem to be longing for. We want something that lasts forever. In that, we would find security, peace and rest. God’s Word has promised that there is Someone and something that will last forever. There is a Savior who was to come into the world and usher in an everlasting Kingdom. This is what the people were longing for. It is what we are all longing for.

The crowd around Jesus knew their Bibles to a degree. They said, “We have heard out of the Law that the Christ is to remain forever.” Now, they don’t cite chapter and verse. In fact, there were not chapters and verses in the Scriptures at that point. They developed gradually between the 1200s and the 1600s. The people refer to “the Law,” which we could understand as the Pentateuch or Torah (the first five books of Moses), but they are speaking more generally about the whole Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. Often “the Law” is an umbrella term that encompasses all three divisions of the Old Testament: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (sometimes referred to as “the Psalms,” because the Psalms are the largest part of it).

Well, in fact, the Scriptures had foretold that the Christ would remain forever. Consider some of the prophecies:
·         2 Samuel 7:12-13 – When God made His covenant with David, He said, “When your days are complete and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of His kingdom forever.” This passage begins the understanding that the Messiah would be a descendant of David.
·         Isaiah 9:6-7 – “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.”
·         Ezekiel 37:25 – “They will live on the land that I gave to Jacob My servant, in which your fathers lived; and they will live on it, they, and their sons and their sons’ sons, forever; and David My servant will be their prince forever.” (Of course, since this prophecy came long after David’s death, the idea is that a descendant of David, which Jesus was, would reign forever.)
·         Daniel 2:44 – “In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever.”
·         Daniel 7:13-14 – The passage we looked at before in the introduction, says of the Son of Man, “His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed.”
·         Psalm 110:1-4 – A messianic prophecy, the most frequently quoted Old Testament passage in the New Testament: “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.’ The Lord will stretch forth Your strong scepter from Zion, saying, ‘Rule in the midst of Your enemies.’ … The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind, ‘You are a priest forever According to the order of Melchizedek.’”

So, as Andreas Kostenberger writes, “Probably reference is made not so much to any one passage as it is to the general thrust of Old Testament messianic teaching.”[3] In this sense, they are absolutely correct: the Christ will be one who remains forever. And Jesus came into the world as this everlasting Christ. When His birth was announced to Mary, the angel Gabriel said, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:32-33).

Jesus spoke of Himself as having come into the world from God the Father in heaven. In John 3:13, He said, “No one has ever ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.” In this and other passages, He was teaching that He had no beginning – that He was eternally preexistent. And He also taught that He had no end, and would remain forever as prophet, priest, king, and judge. In John 5:26-27, He said, “For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself; and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man.” In Matthew 24:30, He says that the Son of Man will come “on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.” And in Matthew 25:31, He says, “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne,” and then He says He will exercise judgment over all the nations. In Revelation 11:15, the announcement goes forth from heaven: “The Kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.”

So, who is this Son of Man? Well, as the Scriptures plainly foretold, He is the Christ who remains forever. And this is Jesus. But, here is where there question gains strength. If He is to remain forever, how then can it be said of Him that He will be lifted up? That brings us to the second point here.

II. The Son of Man is the Christ who is lifted up.

When Jesus said in verse 32 that He would be lifted up, John tells us in verse 33 that He was indicating the kind of death by which He was to die: crucifixion. The cross of Jesus Christ is the core of the Christian faith. Remove the cross, and we have no message, and no meaning for existence. Thus, the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1:23 that Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified. It strikes the hearers of this message as strange. A crucified Christ? A God who messed around and got Himself killed? It is no wonder that in the early days of the church, one cynic inscribed graffiti on a wall in Rome depicting a man with the head of a donkey dying on a cross, with another before the cross in a posture of worship with this inscription: “Alexamanos worships his God.” That’s what the world thinks of our worship of a crucified Christ. Indeed, Paul says that we preach Christ crucified, “to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness.” There was no room in the minds of most in that day, and in the minds of very few today, for a Christ who was crucified. After all, had not the Scriptures had foretold a Christ who would remain forever?

As we have already seen, the Scriptures had indeed foretold of such an eternal Christ. But, the mindset of this crowd around Jesus here seems to reflect at best a very selective reading of the Scriptures. For, as we shall see, the same Scriptures also foretold of a suffering Savior who would die for the sins of His people. In Luke 24, Jesus told His followers, “‘O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. … He said to them, ‘These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled … Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again the third day.’” (Luke 24: 25-27, 44). Notice His emphasis on the word all: ALL the prophets, ALL the Scriptures, ALL things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms. When Jesus referred to the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms, He was referring to the entirety of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament or the Tanakh. The Hebrew Bible is called the Tanakh because that word in Hebrew is an acrostic for the three divisions: the Law (the Torah), the Prophets (the Nevi’im), and the Writings (the Ketuvim, of which the Psalms comprised the largest portion). T-N-K: Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim; Law, Prophets, Writings. They made it a word: Tanahk. It means the entire Hebrew Bible, which we refer to as the Old Testament. Jesus said that it was necessary for ALL the things which were written about Him in ALL the Scriptures to take place. He had not come to fulfill a part of them – the “remaining forever” part. He also had to fulfill the parts that foretold His suffering and death. Let’s consider some of the many passages that foretell this:

  • Genesis 3:15, the first promise of salvation following the first sin, in which the Lord says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise Him on the heel.” Thus, the promised Redeemer, the seed of woman would suffer as He dealt the fatal blow to Satan.
  • Daniel 9:24-27, in which the prophet speaks of a period of 70 “weeks” of years, that is, 70 series of 7-years, saying that from the time of the decree for the restoration of Jerusalem to the coming of Messiah the Prince will be 69 weeks, or 483 years. If they would calculate the years, it would bring them to the precise time at which the Lord Jesus was born. But then Daniel says that after this, the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing, and another prince will come and destroy the city and the sanctuary. Of course, this would happen in 70 AD, though the people of Jesus’ day would have hardly believed it. But, Daniel’s prophecy, in hindsight is clear that by the year 70 AD, Messiah would have both come, and been cut off, or died.
  • Zechariah 12:10, where the Lord says, “I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like bitter weeping over a firstborn.”

But then we come to the high-water marks of Hebrew prophecy and poetry. Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 are both prophecies, and they are both poems. One was written by King David, the other by Isaiah the prophet, two of the most significant men in Hebrew history. We need to keep in mind that neither of these men ever witnessed a crucifixion. That form of execution did not exist during their lifetimes. Yet, listen to how clearly the depicted the suffering and the death of the Messiah.

Here are some of the most poignant verses of the 22nd Psalm, written approximately 1,000 years before Jesus died:

1  My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? (you recognize these words, which Jesus would speak on the cross as He died) …

6 But I am a worm and not a man, A reproach of men and despised by the people. 7 All who see me sneer at me; They separate with the lip, they wag the head, saying, 8 "Commit yourself to the Lord; let Him deliver him; Let Him rescue him, because He delights in him." (which of course is exactly what the people said to Jesus as He died)

9 Yet You are He who brought me forth from the womb; You made me trust when upon my mother's breasts. 10 Upon You I was cast from birth; You have been my God from my mother's womb. 11  Be not far from me, for trouble is near; For there is none to help. …

14 I am poured out like water, And all my bones are out of joint; My heart is like wax; It is melted within me. 15 My strength is dried up like a potsherd, And my tongue cleaves to my jaws; And You lay me in the dust of death. (and you recall how Jesus’ heart poured out blood and water as He died; and how He said that He was thirsty while He was on the cross)

16 For dogs (which was a standard Hebrew term for Gentiles) have surrounded me; A band of evildoers has encompassed me; They pierced my hands and my feet. 17 I can count all my bones. They look, they stare at me; (This is a vivid depiction of a crucifixion from someone who never had seen one; remember that none of Jesus’ bones were broken on the cross. So torn apart was His body that the bones were visible)

18 They divide my garments among them, And for my clothing they cast lots. (which, of course, they did with Jesus’ garments)
We are omitting much of the Psalm for time’s sake today, but we shouldn’t have to. Every line of it points to the Christ who was to be crucified. And then we enter the holy of holies of all biblical prophecy and poetry, Isaiah 53. It was written 700 years before Christ came and died. Yet, consider the vividness of the prophet’s words in these verses:
3 He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. 4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. 6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him. 7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment He was taken away; And as for His generation, who considered That He was cut off out of the land of the living For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due? 9 His grave was assigned with wicked men, Yet He was with a rich man in His death, Because He had done no violence, Nor was there any deceit in His mouth. 10 But the Lord was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand. 11 As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, And He will divide the booty with the strong; Because He poured out Himself to death, And was numbered with the transgressors; Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, And interceded for the transgressors.

It should be apparent by this point that the Scriptures plainly foretold that this Christ who would remain forever would also suffer and die! So, how can a crucified Christ also be the Christ who remains forever? It would be impossible if it were not for one simple fact: He rose from the dead. Death was not the end for Jesus. On the third day, He rose again. He told His disciples on many occasions that He would suffer, die, and rise again. For instance, in Matthew 17:22, He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men; and they will kill Him, and He will be raised on the third day.” The resurrection is the answer to the question of the skeptics in the crowd in our text. Through His resurrection from the dead, Jesus is the Son of Man who is both the Christ who remains forever and the Christ who was lifted up. He can be lifted up on the cross to die for our sins, and yet remain forever, because He is alive after death through His glorious resurrection.

You see, both truths are essential. The word “Gospel” means “Good News.” But it would not be “good news” at all if only one of these facts were true. If Jesus remained forever as King and Judge of all nations, without being lifted up to die for sinners, there would be no redemption, no forgiveness, no hope for any of us other than the deserved fate of eternal hell. If He was lifted up to die, but does not remain forever, then sin and death win, and we are (in the words of 1 Corinthians 15), still in our sins, and of all men most to be pitied. But because He was lifted up to die for our sins, there is salvation and the promise, not only that He remains forever, but all of us who believe in Him can enjoy being in His presence forever.

What kind of Son of Man is this? It is an important question. At some point, I suppose that every person who has ever heard of Jesus has to ask this question. Not everyone comes down to the same answer. Frankly, many are just dead wrong. In Matthew 16, Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They answered, “Some say John the Baptist, and others Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” Today, the answers vary even more. Some say a prophet, some say a teacher, some say a martyr, some say a good man, some say a fraud and a charlatan. But then Jesus asked His disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” That is an important question. Who do you say that He is? Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” How would you answer? More important than how you would answer is how Jesus Himself would answer. Who is this Son of Man? He is the Christ who was lifted up to die for our sins, and He is the Christ who remains forever. If your answer to who He is differs from His, then you are either claiming that Jesus is a liar, or else you are wrong. This is a terribly important matter to get right or wrong! All of life in this world and the world to come hangs on the answer to this question. So, do you believe that Jesus, the Son of Man, is the Christ – the One who was lifted up to die to save you from sin, and the One who remains forever as Lord, as King, as Priest, and as Judge?



[1] J. Julius Scott, “Son of Man,” Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology (ed. Walter Elwell; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 412.
[2] James C. DeYoung, “Son of Man,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (ed. Walter Elwell; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 4:1983.
[3] Andreas Kostenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 386. 

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