WHAT JESUS SAID ABOUT HIMSELF
WE have discussed the deity of Christ as it is attested by Jesus Himself in the Sermon on the Mount. We have seen that in the very passage to which unbelievers appeal in support of their view that Jesus kept Himself out of His gospel and merely presented a program of life to be followed first by Him and then by His followers—in that very passage Jesus presents Himself as possessed of an authority that goes far beyond that of any prophet and is in truth an authority that belongs only to God. At the close of our last talk, we were speaking particularly of the passage near the end of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus presents Himself as the one who is to sit at the last day on the judgment-seat of God and determine the eternal destinies of all the world
This is by no means the only passage in the Gospels where Jesus so presents Himself as the final judge. Indeed, it is probably because of this thought of Himself as the final judge that He uses one of His favorite titles to designate Himself—namely, the title “the Son of man.”
Our first impulse might be to say that the title is a designation of the humanity of Jesus as distinguished from His deity. He was both God and man, and that, we may be tempted to say, is what He meant when He called Himself Son of man as well as Son of God.
If that view of the title were correct, it would certainly be a very lofty title, and it would certainly not be in any contradiction with the deity of Christ. But, as a matter of fact, it is unlikely that the title, “the Son of man,” on the lips of Jesus has this meaning at all. It is unlikely that it is intended to designate the humanity of our Lord as distinguished from His deity. It is on the whole unlikely that there is any contrast in the Gospels between the title “Son of man” and the title “Son of God.” People who use these titles to designate the two natures of Jesus as both man and God, who call attention, in other words, to the fact that He was both “Son of man” and “Son of God,” are probably wrong in their interpretation of the title, right though they unquestionably are in holding that Jesus was both God and man.
The true key to the title, “Son of man,” on the lips of our Lord is probably to be found in the seventh chapter of the Book of Daniel, where “one like unto a son of man” appears in the presence of the “ancient of days” and receives an everlasting dominion. When this person is said to be “like unto a son of man,” that is not said because He is a man in contrast with God. The contrast is rather with the beasts—lion, bear, leopard, and unnamed beast—that represent the world empires preceding the kingdom of the one like unto a son of man. After the successive appearance of those kingdoms represented by figures designated as being each like the figure of some beast, there arises a Kingdom whose ruler appears in the vision as a man. That Kingdom unlike those other kingdoms is to be everlasting.
This passage in the Book of Daniel had an important influence upon subsequent Messianic expectations among the Jews. In the so-called Ethiopic Book of Enoch, for example,—a book which of course is not in the Bible and does not at all deserve to be there—the title “the Son of man” occurs frequently as the designation of a heavenly personage already existing in heaven but destined to appear in great glory to be the judge of all the world. Now we certainly do not mean for one moment that our Lord made any use of that so-called Book of Enoch. But the thing that is likely is that that book does give evidence of the use among the Jews of the great passage in the seventh chapter of Daniel. On the basis of that passage the coming Deliverer had come to be called—in certain Jewish circles at least—“the Son of man,” and had come to be thought of as destined to appear with the clouds of heaven and be the judge of all the earth. What our Lord did when He called Himself “the Son of man” was to place the stamp of approval upon this Jewish expectation because it was really in accordance with the Old. Testament, and then to apply it to Himself.
It is altogether probable, then, that the title “the Son of man” on the lips of Jesus is distinctly a Messianic title. It does not designate the humanity of Jesus as distinguished from His deity, but it designates Him as being that transcendent, heavenly Person who was to come one day with the clouds of heaven and be the final judge of all the world.
A notable passage in the Book of Acts confirms this view of the title “the Son of man.” In Acts 7:55 f., it is said, of the dying martyr Stephen:
Here the reference to the seventh chapter of Daniel is perfectly plain. Stephen sees essentially the same vision as that which the prophet Daniel had seen; he sees that heavenly figure, the Son of man, appearing in glory in the presence of God.
As Jesus uses the title, the origin of the title is just as clear as it is in the words of the dying Stephen. So, for example, in Mk. 8:38 (with the parallel passages):
So also in Mk. 13:26 (with the parallel passages):
In such passages the reference to the great scene in the seventh chapter of Daniel is perfectly clear.
In other passages, it is true; the reference to that scene is not so direct. Jesus sometimes uses the title, the Son of man, where He is speaking not of His exaltation but of His humiliation. So in Matt. 8:20, where it is said that the “Son of man hath not where to lay his head.” So also in the great passage, Mk. ’10:45, where Jesus says, regarding His atoning death, that “the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” But we may fairly hold that the use of the title in these passages is intended to contrast the stupendous dignity properly belonging to the Son of man, the judge and ruler of all the world, with His present humble life. The real pathos of those passages is found in the fact that it was not any ordinary man who had not where to lay His head, and that it was not any ordinary man who came not to be ministered unto but to minister, but the heavenly Son of man, that stupendous figure, who was now more homeless than the foxes and the birds!
Here and there, as Jesus uses the title, there may possibly be a special reference to the humanity of the one so designated, but such passages at the most are rare, and the prevailing significance of the title is that it identifies Jesus with the heavenly Messiah, the stupendous figure spoken of in the seventh chapter of Daniel whose kingdom would be an everlasting kingdom.
That, I may say in passing, is the prevailing opinion today among scholars of widely different shades of opinion, both believers and unbelievers. Here and there a defender of another view of the title appears, but I think it may be said that the prevailing view among careful scholars is what I have just indicated. For a full discussion of this subject I want to refer you to a book to which I have been much indebted—the learned book of Dr. Geerhardus Vos on “The Self-Disclosure of Jesus.”
What particularly needs to be said, however, is that whatever view be taken of the origin and meaning of the term, the Son of man, it is at any rate clear that Jesus of Nazareth certainly did claim that He would one day sit on the judgment-seat of God to decide the eternal destinies of men. That claim appears, as we observed very clearly, in the Sermon on the Mount. You cannot get away from it even in the supposedly purely ethical parts of Jesus’ teaching. It runs all through the Gospels. Every historian, whether he is a Christian or not, ought to take account of this strange fact—that a certain Jesus, a man who lived in the first century in Palestine, was actually convinced, as He looked out upon the men who thronged about Him, that He would one day sit on the judgment-seat of God and be their judge and the judge and ruler of all the world.
What are you going to do with that claim of Jesus? If you hold it to be true, then Jesus is your King and Lord. If you hold it to be false, then I do not see how in the world you can go on taking Him as a worthy example for your life.
The conviction of Jesus that He would at the last judgment decide the eternal destinies of men was joined with the conviction that He could determine those eternal destinies here and now. He claimed to be able to forgive sins. His opponents got the point of that claim; they got it far better than certain modern persons who trip along so lightly over the things that the Gospels contain. “Why doth this man thus speak?” they said. “He blasphemeth: who can forgive sins but one, even God?” (Mk. 2:7). They were right. None can forgive sins but God only. Jesus was a blasphemer if He was a mere man. At that point the enemies saw clear. You may accept the lofty claims of Jesus. You may take Him as very God. Or else you must reject Him as a miserable, deluded enthusiast. There is really no middle ground. Jesus refuses to be pressed into the mould of a mere religious teacher.
Thus we have seen that Jesus’ claim of deity runs all through the Gospels. It does not appear merely in this passage or that, but is really presupposed in every word that Jesus uttered and in everything that He did.
There was, it is true, a period in His ministry when He did not make His own person for the most part the express subject of His teaching. It was always the background of His teaching and His work; without it everything that He said and did becomes unintelligible. But during a large part of His Galilean ministry, as described by the Synoptic Gospels, He seems not often to have set forth the mystery of His own person in any detailed way.
That lack is wonderfully supplied by the Gospel according to John, which was written by a man who stood in the innermost circle of the disciples of our Lord. But what I want you to observe particularly is that there is no opposition at this point between the Fourth Gospel and the other three. The Christ who is so gloriously set forth in the Gospel according to John is exactly the Christ who is everywhere presupposed in the Synoptic Gospels. Far from being in any contradiction with the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel according to John, with its rich report of the teaching of our Lord about His own person, provides the key which enables us the better to understand what we are told in Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Here and there, moreover, we have in the Synoptic Gospels just the kind of teaching of our Lord about Himself as that which appears so fully reported by the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel according to John. That is notably the case with a famous passage in the eleventh chapter of Matthew, which has a close parallel in the tenth chapter of Luke. “All things are delivered unto me of my Father,” says Jesus: “and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him.” (Matt. 11:27). Here we have not only the substance of the teaching that appears so fully in the Fourth Gospel but even the form of it. “The Father,” “the Son”—how often those terms appear set over against each other in the Gospel according to John just exactly as they are set over against each other here!
Just consider how wonderfully rich is the content of this verse in its report of the teaching of Jesus about Himself! “No man knoweth the Father but the Son”—that in itself is a very stupendous utterance. It designates Jesus as truly knowing God, and as the only one who knows Him. We think instinctively, as we read, of the words in the Gospel according to John: “No man hath seen God at any time; God only-begotten, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” (John 1:18). How wonderful is such a knowledge of God! Think of it, my friends. Jesus of Nazareth, a man walking upon this earth, said as He talked to His contemporaries: “No one knoweth God save me.” How is such rich knowledge of God possible to any but God Himself?
But that is not all that there is in this saying. No, the saying goes far beyond that. “No one knoweth the Father but the Son”—that is wonderful enough. But that is not all. There is something still more stupendous in this verse. It is this: “No one knoweth the Son but the Father.”
Just think what these words mean, my friends. They mean that there are mysteries in the person, Jesus, which none but the infinite and eternal God can know. The two persons, the Father and the Son, are here put in a strange reciprocal relationship. They are both mysterious to all others, but they are known, and fully known, to each other. The Son knows the depths of the Father’s being, and the Father knows the depths of the being of the Son. An ineffable mutual knowledge prevails between these two.
What does that mean? It means what is really implied in the Gospels from beginning to end. It means that that strange man who is known to history as Jesus of Nazareth was no mere man, but infinite and eternal and unchangeable God. In this wonderful verse, the twenty-seventh verse of the eleventh chapter of Matthew, we have in summary and in implication the great doctrine of the deity of our Lord, and when we put it together with Jesus’ teaching regarding the Holy Spirit we have the full wonderful teaching of Scripture regarding the three persons in one God.
I have not time in the present talk to speak to you longer about that doctrine; I have not time to set forth further the richness of the Scripture testimony to the deity of our blessed Lord. But there is one thing that I do want to drive home at once.
It is this—that this mysterious verse of which we have just been speaking does not appear as some excrescence in the Gospel picture of Jesus but as an integral part of the whole. When we come upon this “Christological” passage in our reading of the Gospel of Matthew, this passage which has been called “the Johannine passage” because it is so much like the Gospel, according to John, do we feel anything like a shock? Do we feel as though we were transplanted into another atmosphere? Do we feel as though we were suddenly dealing with another Christ?
I tell you, my friends, we do not. No, we are dealing with the same Christ as the Christ with whom we have been dealing all through the Gospel according to Matthew; we are dealing with exactly the same Christ as the Christ who spoke, for example, the Sermon on the Mount. We are dealing with the same Christ as the Christ who according to all four Gospels spoke words of solemn warning but also words of an infinite tenderness and grace.
What is the context of this verse with which we have been dealing in the present talk—this verse which sets forth in such stupendous fashion the majesty of the person of our Lord? Just let me read it to you before we part:
Then follow the words of which we have spoken, the words in which Jesus speaks of that ineffable relation between the Father and the Son. Then what follows? Does something follow that reveals some later theology of the Church, something that fails to show the unmistakable, characteristic, inimitable quality of Jesus’ authentic teaching? Judge for yourselves, my friends. Here is what follows upon that stupendous testimony to the deity of Christ:
Are those the words of some falsifier who put upon the lips of Jesus words that Jesus never spoke? Are those the words of some religious genius who used the name of Jesus as the medium through which he might convey his teaching to the world?
Oh, no, my friends; no religious genius ever spoke words like these. These are words such as never man spake.
How sweet these words are on the lips of Jesus! How abominable they would be on the lips of any other! “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”—who could speak those words without mocking and deceiving those who hear? I will tell you. Only He who said in the same breath: “No man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son.” The plain fact is that that gracious invitation of Jesus—an invitation so sweetly repeated again and again in the Gospels by Him who was sent to seek and to save that which was lost—the plain fact is that that invitation is a divine invitation. The one who uttered it was a deceiver or He was God.
Yet, it is objected, there are so many who will not accept the invitation; there are so many learned men who will not believe Jesus when He advances these stupendous claims. Yes, I know. They are very many and they are very learned.
But did not Jesus Himself say so; did not Jesus Himself say that there were many learned persons who would very learnedly reject Him when He offered Himself as their Saviour and Lord? “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.”
Which are you, my friends? Do you belong to the wise and prudent, of whom our Lord spoke? Do you belong to those who rely upon the wisdom of this world and turn aside from Christ? Or are you among the babes? Will you come to Jesus weak and helpless; will you come to Him as a very little child? Are you weary and heavy laden? Will you come to Him that He may give you rest?
John Gresham Machen (1881-1937), was an American Presbyterian scholar and apologist. Born in Baltimore, he was educated at Johns Hopkins, Princeton University and Theological Seminary, Marburg, and Gottingen. He was ordained in 1914. He taught NT at Princeton Seminary from 1906 to 1929, apart from a brief period of YMCA service in France. As a defender of the classic Reformed position, he was influenced by his teacher B.B. Warfield. When Warfield died in 1921, the mantle of leadership for the “Princeton Theology” fell upon Machen. He resigned in 1929 due to the Liberal realignment of the seminary. Machen was a principal founder of Westminster Theological Seminary (1929) and what is now the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1936). He served as president and professor of NT at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA from 1929 to 1937.
In 1935 he was tried and found guilty of insubordination by a presbytery convened at Trenton, New Jersey, on charges brought by the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. It condemned him for activities in connection with an independent mission board. He was forbidden to defend himself and was suspended from the Presbyterian (PCUSA) ministry. Machen is regarded by friend and foe as a leading conservative apologist in the modernist-fundamentalist era. Among his most significant publications are The Origin of Paul's Religion (1927); Christianity and Liberalism (1923): most definitive of his thought; New Testament for Beginners (1923); and The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930).