Jesus’ insistence that “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, Matthew 20:28) is a perennial favorite of many Christians, and rightly so. This saying gets swiftly to the essential thrust of Jesus’ identity and mission. It explicitly connects the atonement with love and service. It furnishes us with evidence that Jesus is worthy to be trusted, that he will not abuse the power and influence we have entrusted to him over our lives nor ever selfishly dominate us in any way that is finally contrary to our own welfare. In a word, a passage like this vividly embodies why we love and follow Jesus.
Yet in its original historical context, this cozy utterance would have aroused considerable controversy and offense from Jesus’ target audience.
Jesus’ words, properly construed, would not have created nearly as attractive and affable an impression as we tend to receive from them. Why? In large part because such a conception of the identity and mission of the “Son of Man” ran radically counter to the expectation that had been fostered among the people of God through the Old Testament Scriptures—particularly as to what this “Son of Man” would be and do on behalf of Israel.
Here we find one more sterling example of new wine not fitting into the old wineskins (Mark 2:21-22). Jesus simply cannot be exhaustively contained within the categories and prospects of the Judaism of his day. There is significant continuity with the OT hope, of course; yet there is massive discontinuity as well. Jesus’ self-conception and sense of vocation burst and explode many of the traditional expectations. Who the “Son of Man” will be and what he will do becomes the dissonant source of just such a conflict in Jesus’ ministry.
A little background is in order on the title “Son of Man,” given that it appears so frequently in the four Gospels. It is probably accurate to say that this phrase has stirred up more debate in the past century of biblical scholarship than any other title or designation applied to Jesus in the writings of early Christianity. There are at least three prominent reasons for this state of affairs:
First, though this overarching pattern is generally missed by contemporary readers of the Gospels, “Son of Man” is a title that appears only on Jesus’ own lips. No one else ever ascribes this designation to him—not the demons, not the hostile religious leaders, not the crowds, not even his own disciples! Terms such as Son of God, Messiah/Christ, Chosen One, Lord, Rabbi, Son of David, and Holy One of God are frequently bandied about by others in reference to Jesus, yet never “Son of Man” (*the one apparent exception to this, John 12:34, turns out to not actually be an exception—in the immediate context the crowds are merely parroting back to Jesus his own use of the phrase earlier, and they are not even sure who Jesus is referring to; cf. 12:23). On the other hand, Jesus seems inhibited with respect to cashing in on the advantages of these other titles. For instance, he does not refer to himself as “Christ” directly in his ministry (though of course he approves of others labeling him with this title, and at times draws sideways, implicit connections between it and his own divine calling).
This curious pattern has rightly won the attention of modern scholars. What accounts for the favored status that “Son of Man” apparently possessed in Jesus’ own self-consciousness, and likewise what accounts for the almost total absence of the term in the early church after Jesus’ death and resurrection (the only occurrences outside of the Gospels are in Acts 7:56 and Revelation1:13, 14:14)? Whatever the meaning of “Son of Man” turns out to be, it was quite obviously at the heart of Jesus’ own self-conception. To understand Jesus, we must understand how and why he bound up his own public identity with this phrase.
Second, while most scholars believe the background of “Son of Man” lay in the Old Testament, there is very little consensus at to what that background itself consists of. Is it a generic designation for “human being” (cf. Psalm 8)? If so, is “Son of Man” an allusion to Adam—and in what way? Or should the phrase be connected to Ezekiel’s prophetic ministry, as “son of man” is repeatedly used for Ezekiel? Or is Jesus’ use of “Son of Man” meant to implicitly connect his own mission with that of the mysterious figure found in Daniel 7, who is presented before the Ancient of Days and who restores the kingdom to Israel in triumph over their enemies? While this last option is the most popular (and I agree with it), another possibility would be that the phrase even in Daniel 7 is already building on ancient convictions about the purposes and tasks of both Adam (humanity) and Israel (the new humanity). But I cannot pursue this here; N. T. Wright’s works are a helpful place to begin such study.
Third, the fascinating observation has been made that the equivalent to “Son of Man” in Aramaic (the language Jesus primarily spoke) is bar enasha. Interestingly, in Aramaic this phrase was a common idiom meaning (generically) “someone” or “that guy” or “I”. Therefore a number of scholars have–wrongly, in my mind–argued that this Aramaic background completely accounts for Jesus’ use of the phrase in his historical ministry, and that any OT connections it now appears to have in certain scenes or sayings in the Gospels are fictitious creations of the early Christians, conjured up retrospectively in light of their newfound Easter faith.
My view, given without any defense here, is that Jesus himself most likely perceived the potential ambiguity the phrase “Son of Man” would convey to his audiences and, taking advantage of this fact, intentionally weaved it into the larger pattern we see in the Gospels: namely, into the hiddenness and mystery that Jesus weaves to shroud his messianic identity and vocation until his death and resurrection (Mark 9:9, 12). “Son of Man” becomes a central ingredient in veiling his identity until Golgotha, thus curbing the damaging misinterpretations of Jesus that would surely result if more bold, explicit titles (like “Messiah”) gained too much steam in the public opinion prior to his suffering in Jerusalem.
I contended earlier that Jesus’ claim that “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” would have been provocative and controversial. Once Jesus’ subtle allusion to Daniel 7 in this familiar quote is recognized, it should not be difficult to see why such is the case.
Daniel 7 is all about the incoming arrival of the kingdom of God. Don’t let the vividly strange imagery fool you or misdirect your attention from this chief point. The “beasts” (i.e. the pagan Gentile nations) are oppressing the saints of the Most High (i.e. Israel)—that is, things are not the way they are supposed to be in God’s good creation—and in the midst of this terrible conflict a figure with the appearance of a son of man comes to the Ancient of Days (God) and receives authority to bring in God’s kingdom, henceforth ruling over all the nations in righteousness on behalf of Israel. A great reversal takes place, ushering in God’s reign over the earth through His chosen people. The people of God are vindicated and the wicked are silenced. Though disputed, I think it fairly clear that the son of man figure is the Davidic king, the messiah (anointed one) who represents Israel before the Lord (note how in 7:17 the nations/beasts are figuratively represented by their “kings” as well). We learn later in the chapter (7:22, 26-27) that what is true of the son of man is also de facto true for Israel. They share in the blessings of the reign of his kingdom. Crucially, it is this whole scenario that would have been called to mind by Jesus’ saying for his Jewish audience. The hopes of Israel were intimately bound up with the coming of the Son of Man.
The centerpiece of Daniel 7 is an apocalyptic vision in which the son of man figure formally receives global authority and the everlasting kingdom from the God of Israel. It is here that Jesus’ words would have provoked disbelief or even anger. Consider how Jesus echoes—yet willfully undermines—this long-expected pattern:
“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him. And to him was given authority and glory and a kingdom, so that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14)
“The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45; cf. Matthew 20:28)
Do you see it? A fair summary of Daniel 7:13-14, indeed, would go something like this: “The Son of Man comes to be served.” In Daniel, the coming of the Son of Man leads directly to all the nations of the world bowing down to serve this figure. Absolutely nothing is said of his service to the “beasts”. Yet when Jesus arrives on the scene, dropping hints left and right that he conceives of himself as this eagerly awaited Son of Man, he nevertheless goes on to insist that he has not come to be served, but rather to serve others by laying down his life for them. This is not what anyone expected from the Son of Man! On the surface of it, in fact, it might appear as if Jesus is flatly contradicting the OT Scriptures.
Yet the resolution to this apparent conundrum is not hard to locate, especially if we have been awakened to the reoccuring propensity Jesus has to flip upside-down the mainstream expectations of his day. On the one hand, the Gospels and the rest of the NT leave no doubt that Jesus did come to be served, in the sense that all people are called to believe in him, follow him, and worship him (cf. Matthew 28:16-20, Romans 14:9, II Corinthians 5:15, etc.). Yet on the other hand, there are a host of passages affirming that Jesus expresses his lordship precisely by serving others (Luke 12:35-40, Romans 15:8, etc.). Perhaps nowhere are these two themes brought together more adeptly than in Philippians 2:5-11.
In this famous “Christ Hymn” Paul dramatically links Jesus’ service to others with their subsequent service to him. It is because Jesus was obedient unto death—even death on a cross, for us—that God (note the crucial “therefore” in 2:9) highly exalted him, so that everything in creation might henceforth serve and love him. The vision of Daniel 7 is coming true—the entire universe is destined to one day serve this glorious Son of Man—yet the manner in which it comes to pass is not what anyone was expecting. Jesus wins the service of others precisely through his service on behalf of others—not through compulsion or military force or deceitful shrewdness or hostile threats.
Think of the nature of your own professed allegiance to Jesus Christ (if you have not yet bowed down to the Man of Sorrows, I plead with you to seriously consider whether he warrants your loyalty and affection more than whatever object you currently lavish them upon does). Why is it that we Christians at some point in our lives decided to become followers of Jesus, and why is it that we follow him still? I ask myself this question regularly: why do I still buy this? What is so persuasive, so compelling about the gospel? Why haven’t I walked away yet for something or someone else than Jesus (John 6:66-69)? At the end of the day, my response is magnificently obvious. How could I turn away from the One who laid down his life for me, who sacrificed everything he possessed for my sake? In a word, my service of Jesus is singularly propelled by the meteroic impact of his service towards me. I love him, because he first loved me. I serve him, because he first served me.
Let me conclude with a final example of this remarkable dynamic. In his exhilarating work The Rise of Christianity, historian Rodney Stark argues convincingly that much of the impetus behind the explosive growth and expansion of the church in the earliest centuries came from this servant attitude of Christ being displayed tangibly, even at considerable cost, in the lives of his followers. Stark recounts that when the dreaded plague would erupt in towns in any outpost of the Roman Empire, mercilessly decimating the population, often it was only the Christians who would stay behind in significant numbers to care for the sick and dying.
Two things resulted from this. First, innumerable Christians forfeited their lives and died in the plagues when they could have easily been spared by fleeing. Second, a shockingly high percentage of those people who survived—and exponentially higher numbers outlasted the plagues on account of the Christians who stayed behind, given that factors as basic as fresh water or food or clean towels drastically increased the odds of survival—converted to Christianity. The more Christians poured out their lives in committed service to the ultimate well-being of other human beings, the more the lordship of Jesus Christ was gladly recognized by those who benefited from such sacrificial, humble service. It is no different today. The call remains the same for all of Jesus’ followers. The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve—and in so doing, he has won the loving obedience of millions throughout history who call upon his name with joy. His rescued people are sent into the world with the same mission of sacrificial service. The kingdom will come in no other way.