“Jesus,” I want to ask as I read through the Gospels, “Why do you keep talking in the third person?” “It’s weird,” I add. “I’m going to have a hard time introducing you to my friends.”
Sorry. I don’t mean to be sacrilegious. But Jesus’ peculiar way of referring to himself was one of the reasons I had a hard time getting to know him. As a teenager, I had a sort of crisis of faith. I didn’t doubt that God existed or anything like that. The crisis I had was that I found myself following someone—Jesus—that I didn’t really know. I couldn’t imagine him in my head, I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about half the time—I was frustrated and confused by the Gospels. And this “Son of Man” thing is one of the reasons why. It’s just hard to imagine Jesus as a regular sort of person, someone you could really sit down and have a conversation with, the way he seems to talk in the Gospels:
“The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”
“The Son of Man came eating and drinking.”
Somehow I just can’t imagine Jesus being a lot of fun at parties, even though the Gospels record that he went to quite a few of them. But isn’t that the way we so often picture Jesus? Stoic, unyielding, mystical, detached? I think we have a tendency to chalk these kinds of things up to Jesus’ divine nature. We come to Jesus expecting something weird, something foreign. “Jesus is God, so of course he’s going to talk and act a little differently.”
But when we shrug our shoulders and say “Jesus is just weird,” it keeps us from asking any more questions. And if we don’t ask, we won’t get answers. If we don’t dig any deeper, we miss the chance to learn something. If we don’t dig down and find out why Jesus refers to himself as “the Son of Man,” then this simple phrase actually becomes a barrier between us and Jesus, a wall that keeps us from understanding what he is trying to tell us. It makes Jesus seem weird and it makes it hard for us to explain who he is and what he is like to other people.
Jesus spent his entire childhood studying the Old Testament. His whole life was built on that foundation. So naturally, the Old Testament is the first place to look for some kind of idea as to where Jesus would have picked up such a strange turn of phrase.
A quick search through the Old Testament for the term “Son of Man” reveals that it’s not a very common phrase, but when it is used, it means nothing more than “a person.” Big revelation there: a “son of man” is a person. It’s a poetic way to refer to a human being. However, there is one book in the Old Testament in which “Son of Man” is used pretty frequently. It is used by God himself in reference to a prophet named Ezekiel—over and over.
In fact, the term “Son of Man” appears in the book of Ezekiel about ninety-four times, more than in all the rest of the books of the Bible combined. Prophets were weird. Jonah got eaten by a fish. Elijah outran a horse. But Ezekiel was probably the weirdest. He didn’t want to be; it wasn’t his fault. God just kept giving him weirder and weirder things to do.
God asked Ezekiel to build a little model of Jerusalem to act out its coming destruction. He asked him to lie on his side for over a year. He asked him to shave his head and act out a little drama with the hair. He asked him to bake nasty bread over a poop-fueled fire. All the while, God kept calling him “Son of Man.”
To put it in perspective, if someone came in to your church and announced that God had told him to cook nasty bread over a poop-fueled fire to teach everyone a lesson about the hard economic times that were coming, it wouldn’t be long before the police, the fire department, the health department, and the local mental institution got involved. (And, I’m sure you would not invite him into your small group.)
There’s another unique thing about Ezekiel that most people skip over. It’s his strange vision of God’s chariot, which is recorded in the first few chapters of his book. Ezekiel is the only prophet recorded in the Old Testament to have had a first-hand glimpse of God’s ride, and it was a life-changing experience for him.
God’s “chariot”—the same Hebrew word used today to mean “tank”—is apparently made of huge, incredibly scary creatures. Ezekiel described some of these creatures as chayot. Still today, in Hebrew, the word chayot can refer to a certain kind of angel. These aren’t the chubby little guys on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, though. Here is how Ezekiel (1:4-14) describes them (I’ll paraphrase and summarize a bit):
And out of the middle of the fire came some chayot. They looked kind of like people but with four faces, four wings, perfectly straight legs, and cow feet. They were really shiny. Under their wings they had hands. Each of them had one human face, one cow face, one eagle face, and one lion face. And there were glowing orbs going around between them, and they moved like lightning.
So now you know why, when people ask “Why doesn’t God just appear and show himself in his full glory,” God rejects their invitation—for the same reason you don’t show horror movies to a little kid. We would be paralyzed with fear. Looking at the way God has chosen to reveal himself to the world—through the humble carpenter, Jesus—I think God wants to show us a less frightening side of himself. For now, at least.
Anyway, most of us have never heard of these chayot—after all, they only appear in one place in the Bible. Right?
Remember when Jesus went out into the wilderness and fasted and was tempted by Satan for forty days?
Mark 1:12-13 records that event briefly: “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.”
The Gospel of Mark was originally written in Greek. The Greek word translated “wild animals” actually does mean “wild animals.” So even a Bible scholar would think, while reading Mark, that Jesus went out into the desert, and there were lions (or any kind of wild animal) and angels ministering to him, without being really sure what all of that means, though.
It’s only two verses. Mark’s pretty fast-paced. Matthew and Luke really expand a lot more on this section of Jesus’ life. So when we get to this section of Mark, we usually read right over it.
But Jesus didn’t speak that much Greek. Peter, the source for Mark’s gospel story, probably wasn’t that proficient in Greek either. He grew up speaking Aramaic or Hebrew, the languages of the Old Testament.
The word that was translated into Greek and then into English as “wild animals” was, in all probability, the Hebrew word chayot, which can be translated “living creatures,” “beasts,” or, the way Ezekiel used the word, something like “really scary-looking angels.”
Understanding this, the translators of the Delitzsch Hebrew-English Gospels rendered Mark 1:12-13 this way: “Quickly, the spirit brought him out to the wilderness. He was there in the wilderness forty days, and the satan tested him, and he was with the chayot, and the angels attended to him.” Is it possible that Jesus wasn’t fending off lions, tigers, and bears, but rather, that he had a supernatural vision of God’s chariot, like the one recorded in Ezekiel?
Perhaps that vision helped to shape Jesus’ self-understanding. He would have perceived from that experience that he, like Ezekiel, was an appointed prophet, a man with an important message from God. Perhaps he felt some affinity with Ezekiel, who was also in the position of being a human being—a “son of man”—whose destiny was marked with cosmic significance. I am sure that it was a life-changing experience. At any rate, knowing more about the Son of Man, chayot, and Jewish literature and language has helped me to understand Jesus a little better.
But this is just a tantalizing glimpse—one little piece of Jewish culture, one little piece of the Hebrew and Aramaic and thoroughly Jewish stream of tradition that Jesus lived and taught within. Imagine how much more lies beneath the surface of our English text. Imagine how much more meaningful Jesus’ words would have been to the people who first heard him, and who understood every allusion, every reference, every example, every illustration just the way he intended.
Now imagine that there is a whole world of scholarship out there that has dug down—sometimes literally—into ancient Jewish life and culture, and brought out thousands of these little glimpses. And because of all this research and discovery, we have the potential to understand Jesus better today than any generation before us—going back all the way to the earliest church fathers—because now we have found something we lost long ago: Jesus’ Jewishness.
And with this, with the knowledge that Jesus was Jewish, and with the light that his Jewish context sheds on the Gospels, we are equipped to know Jesus better and to be better disciples.