My car has this great feature where I can pick a genre of music to play from my iPod. Recently, I picked "Soundtrack," and it's been randomly selecting songs from the movie discs I've uploaded. This morning, as I was out and about, the song "Son of Man" from Disney's Tarzan came up. (There is a point here, I promise.)
I've often heard "Son of Man" was Jesus' favorite designation for himself, evidenced by the fact he used it so often–more than 80 times in the Gospels. While in the story of Tarzan, the term is used to differentiate him from the apes, it appears to me Jesus used the term to associate himself with humanity. Commoners and kings asked "Who is this man?" (see Lk 5:21; 7:49; 9:9, for example), and marveled at the miracles he performed, with some even acknowledging he was "from God" (see Jn 3:2; 9:33; 16:30). Yet, Jesus used the term "Son of Man" over and over again to reiterate his humanity, not his Godliness. If I'd been him (and we're all thankful I'm not), I'd have had something to prove. I'd have wanted to validate my deity. You're expecting a human; I'd want to show you I'm God. But that's not how the humble Incarnate Word did things. He knew He was God; He expected to show them He was now also human. Approachable. Compassionate. In touch. Real.
Oddly enough, the most frequent uses of that term come when he is discussing the end times: the gathering of the saved and judgment of the world. The second largest number of references to himself as "Son of Man" are in connection with his suffering, death and resurrection. At first glance, it seems rather non-sequitur to me. Those are things we just don't "get." We can only wrap our minds so far around abstract and transcendental ideas like heaven, sanctification and stuff like that. Why, then, is he using such a tangible term as "Son of Man"?
I think there are at least two reasons: 1) He knew the term "Son of God" was a hot-button issue. There are only a very few times in the Gospels where Jesus calls himself this. (Mt 27:43; Lk 22:70; Jn 10:36; 11:4 were all I could find. However, the remaining 21 times that phrase is referenced, it is spoken by Satan himself, demons, a high priest, a Roman centurion, an angel, John, Nathanael, and Martha. Some to challenge him, others to affirm their belief in him.) Why should he regularly use a term which will frighten, offend or distance people from the love he wants to show them? The subject matter of the end times and salvation are already obtuse enough; it's just good PR to use a term that's familiar, something with which prople can connect and understand. 2) He wanted us to know his humanity (only because he lived sinlessly) is what validated his role as Judge and Redeemer. He emphasized his humanity because most of us need something tactile to get us started in our faith journey. Very few of us have purely spiritual experiences leading to our salvation. Most us have a person, or people, who connect us to God, whether by the words they say or the life they lead. By living the human experience, God became his own testimony for others. Because he made it through with his holiness intact, he is qualified to judge; because the cords of death could not keep him, he is capable of saving us from its eternal grasp.
Honestly, until now, I've always thought Jesus did himself a disservice by calling himself, "Son of Man," because it didn't express the fullness of Who he is. But no one can look on his fullness and live (Ex 33:20). He was doing us a favor.
"Son of Man's a man for all to see."