And he saith unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye shall see the heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.John 1:51 ASV
It always implied a solemn and emphatic statement of some great truth. No other New Testament writer ever used this solemn double “Amen.”
But what is the great truth enunciated here?
The words certainly point to the vision of Jacob who saw the ladder from earth to heaven with angelic traffic in both directions; and, if a spiritual meaning is sought, which seems mandatory, Jesus here identified himself as the Ladder bridging the gulf between God and man.
In Nathaniel’s confession, the prominence of “King of Israel” pointed to the secular and political views usually held regarding the promised Messiah, and in this verse Jesus emphasized the great spiritual objectives of his earthly visitation. (See Genesis 28:12.)
The emphasis upon “Son of man” here, rather than upon “Son of God” was probably due to Jesus’ purpose of reserving emphasis on the latter until the time of Peter’s confession (Matthew 16:13f).
A little further attention to the title Son of man is in order.
THE SON OF MAN
The title “Son of man” was used at least forty times by Jesus, twelve times in this Gospel; and, with the exception of Stephen’s use of it (Acts 7:56), it is found only in our Lord’s reference to himself.
There are two questions of the deepest significance that arise from Jesus’ use of this title:
(1) did he use it in such a manner as to diminish his claim of absolute divinity? and
(2) why did he favor this title as distinguished from “Son of God,” which was more popularly associated generally with the coming Messiah?
It is evident that THE Son of man cannot be any mortal being. The Greek words so translated cannot mean “A Son of man,” but definitely and emphatically, THE SON OF MAN.
In this conversation with Nathaniel, it is evident that Jesus intended the title “Son of man” to be understood in exactly the same sense as “Son of God.”
This follows from the fact that, taking the conversation as a whole, the two titles are used synonymously and interchangeably, without any suggestion whatever that Christ rejected either “Son of God” or “King of Israel” as being properly applied to himself.
It is as though our Lord had said, “Yes, Nathaniel, you are correct; but for the present, let us use the title Son of man.”
Why did Jesus prefer this title?
It was clearly for the purpose of preventing such a thing that Jesus so often used the other title, “Son of man,” a title which was not generally known and understood by the people and which was thus free of the connotation of an earthly kingship of Israel.
It was absolutely imperative for our Lord to have avoided any semblance of claiming the literal Solomonic throne of Israel; for, if he had been unsuccessful in such avoidance, the Pharisees might have been able to get him crucified for sedition.
It will be remembered that that is exactly what they tried to do anyway; but so completely had Jesus thwarted them, that they finally admitted to Pilate that they desired his condemnation for claiming to be the Son of God (John 19:7).
That Jesus did positively intend that “Son of man” should be understood in a unique and supernatural sense is proved by his own use of the title, as follows:
He used the title:
(1) in connection with his power to forgive sins (Matthew 9:6)
(2) of his lordship over the sabbath (Matthew 12:8)
(3) of his second advent in glory (Matthew 19:28)
(4) of his resurrection (Matthew 17:23)
(5) of his seeking and saving that which is lost (Luke 19:10)
(6) and of his coming in the final judgment (Matthew 26:64).
The frustrated hatred and enmity of the Pharisees at his trial before Caiaphas reached a point of frenzy over this very title.
At the climax of the trial, Caiaphas placed Jesus under oath, saying, “Tell us, art thou the Christ, the Son of God?” (Matthew 26:63).
In his reply, Jesus used the other terms: “Thou shalt see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64).
The Sanhedrin accepted Son of man as equivalent to Son of God on that occasion and certified to Pilate that he had “made himself the Son of God” (John 19:7).
From these and many other considerations, therefore, it must be concluded that the answer to the second question raised at the first of this analysis is that Jesus preferred “Son of man” because of that title’s being free of any possible misrepresentation.
The very learned, such as the Pharisees, well knew it as a valid and proper designation of the divine Messiah; but it is clear that the multitudes did not so recognize it (John 12:34).
This chapter is singularly rich in names (epithets) applied to the Lord Jesus Christ.
He numbers up the following twenty-one:
The True Light,
The Only Begotten of the Father,
Full of Grace and Truth,
The Only Begotten Son,
The Lamb of God,
The Son of God,
The Son of Joseph,
The King of Israel,
The Son of Man.