Dishonoring a person’s name is an insult. But, did you know that dishonoring the Name of God can be a serious—and possibly fatal—offense (Exodus 20:7; Leviticus 19:12; 22:2, 32; Psalms 74:10, 18; 139:20; Ezekiel 43:7–8; Malachi 1:6)? Are you aware that sometimes the Name of God was encapsulated in how He identified His people (Deuteronomy 28:10; 2 Chronicles 7:14; Isaiah 43:6–7; Micah 4:5; 5:4)? Did you know that He is revealed to us via His Name (Exodus 3:13–15; 33:19; 34:5–7; 6:3; Genesis 14:18–20; 17:1; 21:33; 32:29–30; Judges 13:17–18; Jeremiah 16:21), and that His Name declares His presence in our lives (Numbers 6:22–27; Deuteronomy 12:5–7; 1 Kings 8:15–21; 2 Chronicles 6:4–11; Nehemiah 1:9; Psalm 20:1; 54:1; 74:7; 75:1; Isaiah 30:27; John 17:11–12)?
Readers of the Word will recognize early on that the Bible lists many names for God. Unlike us, God is infinite, and therefore, a single title representing one aspect of His being is insufficient. He doesn’t have a destiny in the way that we do. Instead, humanity and the world are destined to dip and climax in whatever waves of history come into conformity with His fixed, inflexible will. Unlike us, He is stable and immutable, so His Name will never “change” from one to another like “Abram” to “Abraham.” Rather, He has numerous names that always simultaneously apply as each identifies and describes merely one facet of His whole being.
Even then, with what some scholars identify as the existence of more than a thousand names of God—as enormous a number as that is for us to wrap our heads around—the unfathomably complex and infinite Person of God could not be efficiently summarized in any human language…not even if we pooled every word from every culture of the world. This is because the God of the Bible, though revealed in the Bible, is not limited to what we make of His self-revelation. The conclusions mankind comes to while studying the Word and the character of God are, even by the brightest and sincerest theologians, still interpretations of God’s self-revelation, conducted by men and women who are affected by the Fall. Therefore, we can’t count on any list of His names to be all-comprehensive, forever-conclusive, and complete.
That said, it continues to be important for believers to have at least the most basic, healthy understanding of the varying titles of God and what they describe, simply because, while He owes us nothing and we are forever indebted to Him, He still provided a way for us to comprehend His nature and His ways as much as we can. That was His gesture, His own “reaching out to us” that He gifted us with in the interest of drawing us into an increasingly intimate relationship with Him. Holman weighs in:
The name of God holds an important key to understanding the doctrine of God and the doctrine of revelation. The name of God is a personal disclosure and reveals His relationship with His people. His name is known only because He chooses to make it known. To the Hebrew mind, God was both hidden and revealed, transcendent and immanent. Even though He was mysterious, lofty, and unapproachable, He bridged the gap with mankind by revealing His name.[i]
The sharing of the Lord’s Name with us is no small matter, as shown in the fact that even one of the Ten Commandments addresses the correct respect for and use of it. It’s therefore asking very little for us to take the hand He offered and draw nearer to Him in understanding who He is through what He is called, and then to honor that, and keep it holy (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11).
In that interest, we’ll touch on just a few of what I believe are the most fundamental and doctrine-central names of God. (Keep in mind that, although some might speak to us more powerfully or personally than others, the lens we should view these through requires us to understand that every Name of God is “synonymous with his person, his presence and his power, and is therefore held in the highest honour.”[ii] We can’t accept the titles/layers of God that we like, but reject those that we don’t find as appealing.)
The Hebrew el or El is most simply translated as “god” or “God,” though that interpretation alone is a bit ambiguous and attempts to weave a massive, ancient concept into the fabric of our contemporary culture. It is true that the word was used in various little-g god references outside of Yahwism (and, in those cases, was uttered far more casually), but, when in reference to the Hebrew God, it held an air of warning. Simply saying “El means God” depletes the fullness of what that primitive Semitic root—that first uttered sound by the Jews—would have implied to the Yahweh-fearing listener in the beginning.
Today, we say “God” as if it’s just another vocabulary word. We get a break in traffic and say, “Thank God.” We see cousin Sally’s preposterous new haircut and say, “Oh my God…” We stub our toe on the counter and say, “God, that hurt!” In church, the pastor makes jokes, “My wife told me not to have a doughnut today, but I asked God and He said it was alright.” Whether any of these uses is disrespectful or sinful is between the reader and, well, God. The point here is not to expose bad habits, but to express how desensitized we are (culturally if not individually) to the most common references to “God.” The original treatment of that word in Hebrew would have been sacred, and its impact on its listeners would have been dramatic. The sound “El” instilled “a mysterious dread or reverence” to the earliest Jews.[iii] In one syllable, it announced an invisible accountability, a pair of watchful eyes from an entity you couldn’t escape and could never possibly dare to challenge.
Not surprisingly then, “El” became the ultimate prefix for more specific, descriptive references to God, such as:
El Shaddai, “God Almighty”: This was used when God forged the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17:1–2) and when He provided a name to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 6:3). Though the original meaning and etymology of shaddai is technically unknown, the most popular two theories are that it derives from: 1) sha (“the one who”) and dai (“is sufficient”), or 2) shadad (“to overpower, to deal violently, or to devastate”).
Despite potential ambiguity of the original meaning, however, the translators behind the LXX (Septuagint)—men who were far less removed from Semitic lingual roots than we are today—translated shaddai to the Greek Pantokrator (“All Ruler” or “Sovereign One”). Additionally, scholars have studied its appearance throughout the Word and noted that the context is always associated with Someone all-powerful, omnipresent, omniscient, and far above mere humanity in His power and supervision of the universe.[iv] In that regard, “God Almighty” seems as appropriate a transition into English as anything else in our secondary language, though again, the depreciation of respect for that title in our culture is a tragedy.
El Elyon, “Most High God” (or “God Most High”): By itself, the Hebrew elyon is an adjective meaning “highest.” When joined to “El,” it clearly designates a God who is exalted far above any other god or being anywhere in the cosmos or beyond. In many scholarly reference materials, the title El Elyon is first and foremost mentioned for its appearance in Genesis 14:18–22, the string of verses that most profoundly assigns Melchizedek as the “priest of the most high God.”
El Olam, “Everlasting God” (or “Eternal God”): Not only was olam a term used to imply the never-ending “beyond” of the afterlife in a literal sense, but it could also be used figuratively as an homage to royalty, as we see in 1 Kings 1:31:
Then Bathsheba bowed with her face to the earth, and did reverence to the king, and said, “Let my lord king David live for ever [olam].”
As a suffix to “El” and a name for Yahweh, Olam “designates the ‘fullness’ (totality) of the experience of time and space.”[v] In other words, He is the only Being who can claim that He has experienced this extreme extent of eternality. Unlike us, El has had no beginning, and He will have no end. He is the “fullness” of the eternal God: “from everlasting [olam] to everlasting [olam], thou art God” (Psalm 90:2).
Many other examples could be given of the Lord’s titles as they describe His unspeakable enormity and magnitude over and above anything the wildest of human imaginations could conceive. Three other well-known references among these are Adonai (“Lord”; more specific to biblical contexts would be “Lord with Complete and Total Authority”), El Roi (“God Who Sees Me”; the tone is that He sees everything), and El-Berith (“God of the Covenant”).
The Tetragrammaton (four-lettered name), appearing in our alphabet as YHWH, is made up of the Hebrew consonants yod, he, and waw, followed by another he. It’s widely known that the pronunciation of this name is merely the best guess of even the most brilliant, scholarly minds. The short explanation for this is that ancient Hebrew manuscripts were written consonantally—that is, without vowels. The reason we came to eventually know what vowels would/should be inserted into all the other Hebrew words is because the Scriptures were read aloud and the pronunciations were passed down throughout generations of oral tradition. Then, the Masoretes transcribed all the holy texts sometime before AD 900, inserting vowels as the Hebrews would have pronounced them. This translation became the Masoretic Text so heavily prized in the academic world today.
However, because YHWH—the most direct and personal Name of God in all of Scripture—was so sacred, there was no oral tradition or pronunciation history that carried on into the Masoretic generations. Historically, when a rabbi arrived at this word when reading Scripture, he would verbally adjust the text on the spot (called qere perpetuum reading), saying instead Adonai or an equivalent instead of the consecrated Name that was written. It has therefore remained a mystery what the first vowels (and vowel sounds) would have been (or sounded like) in YHWH, and therefore how to pronounce it.
According to some scholars, the decided “Yahweh” configuration we’re familiar with today draws its roots all the way back to the time of the Amorites, when historical evidence shows similar derivatives of divine titles, such as yah, yahu, and yahwi. Others claim it connects to Aramaic in ancient Egypt, when the divine name appears as yhw, which would have been pronounced “yahu.” The four letters, when transliterated to Latin equivalents (likely in AD 1518 by Petrus Galatinus—confessor to Pope Leo X), became JHVH; then, adding the transliterated vowel sounds of the stand-in Adonai, we arrived at “Jehovah.”
But apart from letters and sounds, the word’s meaning is, quite unbelievably, unknown…at least on a purely technical level. Sure, a multitude of lay sources claim to know the secret, and most agree with the most widely accepted theories. But for each of those sources, another—such as The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary—brings the overly ambitious world of academia back to reality, reminding us that “the meaning of the name is unknown.”[vi] One would think that something as important as at least one solid record of the very personal Name of God would be kicking around somewhere throughout the globe’s ancient biblical and historical documents. Many guesses have been put forth, such as one that connects to haway, an earlier form of the Hebrew verb hayah (“to be”). This, among several other similar ideas, points to a serious and reasonable possibility that Yahweh/Jehovah was originally an ontological term: simply the state of being, one who is, one who exists. This aligns with the Lord’s vital self-revelation in Exodus 3:14, when that exact name appears in Hebrew: “And God said unto Moses, I Am [YHWH] That I Am [YHWH]: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I Am hath sent me unto you.” Collectively, it expresses that God simply is, He didn’t rely on anyone to create Him or place Him in a position of authority, and He doesn’t owe anybody an explanation for why He wants things the way He does.
If this is, in fact, what the name YHWH intends to communicate, then it makes a lot of sense what that would have meant to earlier generations of humanity. To use Moses as an example: Strutting in and demanding that an old-world leader as powerful as Pharaoh to simply let his slaves go free is the purest definition of insanity to anyone alive in that day. That messenger would have to have been sent by a ruler far more powerful than Pharaoh—one with soldiers in much grander numbers and more cutting-edge military equipment than the Egyptian king at his most threatening hour—for it to even be considered worthy of an audience with the throne. This other ruler who sent Moses would have to be of the most impressive and royal earthly bloodline, with riches that bore witness to his successful leadership and allies in all surrounding territories who would jump at the chance to back him in any crusade he saw fit to launch. Anything less would be laughable.
Suddenly, the name YHWH makes the rest of that list seem tiny.
For Moses and Aaron, the Ruler who sent them was the great “I Am”: The One whose Name is by its very nature ontological; the One who “simply is” and owes no explanation, existing in and of His own power, who was there before the beginning and who will remain for all eternity…and whose army is therefore all of creation, manifesting in whatever series of devastating plagues He sends with a mere nod in Pharaoh’s direction.
That is what YHWH most likely meant. It’s far more than just saying “He is what He is,” as if God is capricious and refuses to self-reveal. The entire Bible is an account of God’s self-revelation—one that He doesn’t owe us, but provides to us anyway, that communicates an extension of His willingness to reach to earth and develop a true relationship with His creation.
The very fact that the sound of the word was too sacred to repeat aloud—for so many generations that the pronunciation, spelling, and root meaning were eventually lost—speaks volumes for what the ancients believed about the power behind it. They held that:
The name held magical power. One who knew the name [Yahweh] could wield power over [God] and summon him to his/her aid, e.g., against one’s enemies. The importance of the name is underscored by the story of Jacob wrestling with a divine being who was reticent to reveal his name to Jacob (Gen 32:24–30; cf. Judg 14:17–20).[vii]
And certainly, the ancient belief that one could wield power over God by saying the “magic” word is preposterous, but the authority held by the Name Yahweh/Jehovah is demonstrably certain. Scripture recognizes YHWH specifically as the:
- Thrower of lightning and the voice of thunder (Exodus 19:16–19; 20:18; Psalms 18:14; Job 37:5; Amos 1:2; Habakkuk 3:11);
- Regulator of the rain (Gen 2:5; 1 Kings 17);
- Governor over all lakes, rivers, and the sea (Exodus 14:21; Jonah; Josh 3:16–17);
- God over all the mountains (Exodus 19; 1 Kings 20:3);
- God over all the deserts (Judges 5:4);
- One who appears as fire, and who commands fire like a weapon (Exodus 13:21; 1 Kings 18:38);
- …and many more demonstrations of supremacy.[viii]
And, similar to El, YHWH eventually became the first half of some very powerful compounds, such as:
- Jehovah Jireh, “The Lord Will Provide”
- Jehovah Nissi, “The Lord Is My Banner”
- Jehovah Mekaddesh, “The Lord Sanctifies”
- Jehovah Shalom, “The Lord Is Peace”
- Jehovah Sabaoth, “The Lord of Hosts”
- Jehovah Rohi, “The Lord Is My Shepherd”
- Jehovah Shammah, “The Lord Is There”
- Jehovah Tsidkenu, “The Lord Is Our Righteousness” (remember this one for later, in our discussion of Melchizedek)
Names from Human Terms
Another entire subsection could be placed here discussing at length where so many other names of God appear in Scripture, what they mean, their context, and how these names and the details around them can breathe life into our relationship with God in the same way that studying El or Yahweh/Jehovah can/has. For space reasons, however, here’s the most basic list. I strongly encourage you to do some digging on your own. For each of these titles (and so many others not on this list!), God is taking on a description that is closer to our human experience than El or YHWH. He is allowing Himself to be imagined in human word-picture terms so that we can connect with who He is and what He does in our own limited understanding.
“Rock” (Deuteronomy 32:18; Psalm 19:14; Isaiah 26:4): The idea of God as a “rock” is not to be taken lightly or misunderstood. It’s not the same as calling God a thing we would pick up and throw, like a pebble, or as saying that He’s anything like a heavy, motionless being apparently serving no purpose but to be opulent and commanding. (The latter of these two images does sound a little like the “absent landlord” god of the deists, however.)
The symbolism here is of a mighty, giant stone that no mere human could move, one not washed away in the tide or given over to mood swings, but strong, immutable, and impenetrable. God was the Rock of Israel, and He is the Rock of our salvation. He can be counted on to never move or change concerning His promises to us. If we build our relationship with God on sand, just like a house, it will fall away. A relationship with God built upon rock, however, will last forever (Matthew 7:24–27). Thankfully for us, He is the kind of Rock that can be counted on when we build such a thing.
“Refuge,” (Psalm 9:9; Jeremiah 17:17) “Fortress” (Psalm 18:2; Nahum 1:7), and “Shield” (Genesis 15:1; Psalm 84:11): A fortress or refuge of strength for us, or the shield in our arms over our hearts, behind which we can seek safety from our enemies. God is stronghold and He is protection, as these names reveal.
“Sun” (Psalm 84:11): God is, Himself, the source of all light. As Creator, He is the source of life, also. As far back as the time of the earliest humans (and in every culture from Adam down, as anthropology studies indicate), the sun has been seen as the most powerful force in existence from our earthly perspective. The oldest anthropological data we have shows that the earliest, non-Hebrew cultures believed the sun to be a god itself, rising and setting regularly only if the people down below pay the right kind of spiritual homage (which obviously differed from culture to culture).
In an extreme, yet beautiful contrast to the beliefs of those primitive peoples, the psalmist here calls the Hebrew God “a sun” that will not withhold any good thing “from them that walk uprightly.”
“Refiner” (Malachi 3:2–3): Like the finest metals in the ancient times that had to be plucked from the ore veins and put through a purification system to rid it of debris and dross, God is our purifier. He is the Refiner who helps us in the process of sanctification and holiness. Without the God of perfect goodness, there would be no refinement for the fallen world.
Specific to the Holy Spirit
Whereas many of the names shared so far could effectively apply to all Persons of the Trinity equally (though the historical context of the El and YHWH references were often allusions to Father God’s relationship with Israel), there is a short, fascinating list of names that are specific to the Holy Spirit. At times, these names are even acknowledged in the Old Testament, showing quite beautifully that the Spirit, though written about more in the New Testament than in the Old, has been active from the beginning (as the Word says in Genesis 1:1–2).
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It’s likely that anyone reading this book has some familiarity with the New Testament, at least to the point that he or she has heard all about the astounding intervention of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost and the mighty wonders He enacted through the disciples. If so, you would also know that the Spirit’s miraculous intervention carries on through the end of the Book and into our daily lives today. You would also be familiar with the fact that the Spirit is called “Comforter” and “Counselor” (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; Romans 8:26; and others). You may also know that when He appeared to Mary, He was called the “Power of the Highest” (Luke 1:35). But being reminded of a few of these other titles can be helpful in getting us thinking outside “the box” regarding the Holy Spirit. Let the following sink in:
“Breath of the Almighty” (Job 33:4): The context of this verse in Job leads scholars to believe credit is being given to the Holy Spirit, directly, for the act of breathing life into creation (a role typically reserved for God the Father in most casual sermons today). The takeaway can easily be that the Holy Spirit’s role is more active than we sometimes think in our relationship with God.
“Good Spirit” (Nehemiah 9:20; Psalm 143:10): Even as far back as the time when the books of Nehemiah and the Psalms were written, the writers of the Word leaned on the help and guidance from the Spirit of God.
“The Spirit of Might” (Isaiah 11:2): This Old Testament verse refers to the helps that the Holy Spirit will minister unto the coming Messiah. It lists six others—rest, wisdom, understanding, counsel, the spirit of knowledge, and of the fear of the Lord—rounding out to seven, the Lord’s number.
However, thanks to much modern teaching on the Person of the Spirit, we tend to be familiar with His associations with rest, wisdom, understanding, knowledge, etc., but we forget sometimes that He is the Spirit of Might! The word alone inspires imagery of a soldier outfitted in the armor of God, setting His brow against the enemy who knows in advance he will be trampled under the weight of God’s limitless power.
I might offer another, human-coined title in light of that reflection: He is the “Spirit I Want On My Side”!
“The Spirit of Adoption” (Romans 8:15): This reference is more than just precious. It speaks to an internal longing many young people have today to know that “healthy father figure” that we have addressed so many times in our culture in the last couple of decades. But also, if certain scholars and linguist experts are correct, the Abba at the end of this verse referring to the Holy Spirit as the Adopter actually means “Papa” or “Daddy.”[ix] (Advocates of this view acknowledge that theirs is not the “only” explanation for the ancient use of the Aramaic/Hebrew abba in this instance, and that the usage here might be more formal [“Father”], but that the term was certainly used in common language between sons and fathers at the time, so it’s unlikely to be dismissed or unproven as well.) If this is true, we not only have a great Father in God and the Person of the Spirit, we have a great “Papa,” too, which adds a whole other layer of treasurable intimacy our Lord freely gives to His children—the adoptees.
“The Spirit of Judgment” and “The Spirit of Burning” (Isaiah 4:4; 28:6): Even Jesus acknowledged that the Spirit would convict and judge the entire world (John 16:8). Here in Isaiah, we get a glimpse of the Holy Spirit in His position of Judge by fire, a purification or cleansing of sorts. Yet a deeper analysis of this messianic, prophetic verse doesn’t just identify the Holy Spirit as an angered, righteous arbiter doling out what evil people deserve on the Day of Christ, but instead as One with the intent to preserve the people of God—the Remnant who were for God and with God from the beginning.
Specific to the Son
Much like the Spirit, God the Son appears in our corporate thoughts in a way that only partially recognizes who He is. Typically, we know that He is the Resurrection and the Life (John 11:25); the Almighty (Revelation 1:8); the Author and Finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2); the Bread of Life (John 6:32–35); the Bridegroom (Matthew 9:15; John 3:29; Revelation 21:9); the Chosen of God (Luke 23:35); the Cornerstone (Isaiah 28:16; Psalm 118:22; Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:6); the Door (John 10:9); the Head of the Church (Ephesians 5:23); the High Priest/Apostle (Hebrews 3:1, 2); the Image of the Invisible God (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15); the Light of the World (John 8:12); the Lion of the Tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:9, 10; Revelation 5:5); and many others.
These glorious names are only magnified when we’re reminded that He is humbly called “the carpenter” (Mark 6:3).
But, like with the Spirit, let’s not assume we know enough about Him that it isn’t worthy of our taking time to check back in on what else He might be known for. Consider these other names by which He is called:
“Bright Morning Star” (Revelation 22:16): I personally love this one. Scholars often make the connection, but not everyone in the Church sees the obvious juxtaposition between this title for Jesus and the enemy, who is called “morning star” and “son of the dawn” (Isaiah 14:12).
The context of the reference in Isaiah is of a fallen star; the context in the messianic verse is of our beautiful Messiah, the “offspring of David,” correcting the Church in the last days. One (the enemy) is always trying to “look like” the other (Jesus), and he continues to fall short of fooling true followers of the real One (Christ).
“Emmanuel”/“Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14–8:8; Matthew 1:23): This term means “God [is] with Us.” The first time a young believer hears that Jesus is “Immanuel, God with us,” it might sound complicated and raise questions about how God can any more be “with us” now that Jesus is ascended back to the Father (and therefore whether the label is now moot), or it can sound too simple, as if it only refers to the event of the Incarnation. Actually, it’s both, and more.
Jesus condescended Himself to become a human (much like a human might become an ant in order to save an anthill, as many preachers and teachers relate), and this act alone is one of the most complicated theological concepts within Christianity. When He was here, physically, He was literally “God with [i.e., amidst] us” at the time. But His work on the cross united us with His Father, whose standards of holiness could not previously allow for the perfect relationship because of our sin. In that regard, Jesus’ sacrifice literally joined us, even in our fallen state, to God, and He is now “with us” as a result of the Messiah.
“The Father” (Isaiah 9:6; 1 John 1:1–3): This is not a reference to Jesus being just “one with” the Father, as He is in the High Priestly Prayer of John 17 (also John 10:30; 14:9). These verses refer to Jesus, the Son, as “the Father.” Yet, as mind-blowing as this concept is—and as much as it appears to be confusing one of Jesus’ definitive titles with the Father Person of the Trinity (which is not the case)—what is being communicated here is fundamentally awe-inspiring.
“Father,” when in reference to the Son, “speaks of his concern (Ps. 65:5), care and discipline (Ps. 103:13; Prov. 3:12; Isa. 63:16; 64:8); cf. Ps. 72:4, 12–14; Isa. 11:4.”[x] In other words, though the Son is not the Father in respect to His role in the Trinity, Jesus’ perfect behavior on earth set a “fatherly” example for the rest of us regarding how we should live and love the way He did, showing (inasmuch as we humans can) that level of “concern, care, and discipline” in our lives and when interacting with others around us.
“Firstborn” (Hebrews 12:23; Revelation 1:5): Similar to the “Father” references, Jesus is here depicted as our oldest brother (also see Hebrews 2:11; this context makes it more clear that He is the Firstborn of Christianity as the original member of the brethren). Biblically speaking, being the oldest brother makes Him the heir of the Father’s blessings, as well. (Unlike in the Jacob and Esau story, however, no one can trick the Father into accidentally giving His blessings to another!)
Interestingly, the firstborn son of every Hebrew family was saved by the first Passover during the Exodus by the blood of a lamb. Jesus, Himself, was the Lamb whose blood was shed once and for all (John 1:29, 36; 1 Peter 1:19; Revelation 5:6–12; 7:17), thereby becoming the Passover sacrifice who died so we all might live. But our oldest brother was raised after three days, and, like the eldest of a Hebrew family that night in Egypt, would not be owned by the grave!
What a cool thought—Jesus, our “older brother.” It’s endearing and sweet to think of Him in that way! (See how studying the names of God can revolutionize our Christian concepts? His character has so many layers! It’s important that we don’t get stuck in a rut with our pet theologies and forget that He’s bigger than our grandest perceptions.)
“Word” (John 1:1, 14): Jesus is literally the Word. This means that He is the walking, talking, example-setting speech of the Father, and of all standards of holiness.
“Son of Man” (throughout the New Testament): Have you ever wondered why Jesus called Himself the “Son of Man”? Why “man”? Why not always “Son of God”?
One popular explanation is that “the Son of Man” identifies the human aspect of His mission. According to this view, He set aside His divinity in the sense that He came to be an unfallen man (as opposed to men in general) who would lay down His life for humanity as a sacrifice, thereby connecting Him to His prophetically human-messianic role. For example, the book of Revelation refers to “one like a son of man” that also reflects the dual role of Son of God and Son of Man. In Daniel 7:13, the prophet also foresaw “one like the son of man” in a more ethereal light as He received all glory and power from the Ancient of Days (the Father). So this title was protoevangium (protos, “first,” and evangelion, “good news” or “Gospel”; a term therefore meaning a prophetic, pre-Gospel message or signal [such as the crushing of the serpent’s head in Genesis 3:15]). “Son of Man” foresaw that the Messiah would become a man, born of a woman for First Advent purposes, but that He would also be “the second [or last] Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45) in that He was unfallen and the offspring of God—a part of the Trinity, etc. (More on the “Last Adam” title in a moment; it’s my favorite!)
However, next to this truly respectable and theological rationalization of “Son of Man” is a surprising turn of events since 1947, when the Dead Sea Scrolls provided “the other side of the story.” Christian apologist Dr. William Menzies (no relation to the earlier film producer by the same name who died in the 1950s) explains:
Even the term Son of Man…has been better understood in more recent times with the finding of ancient manuscripts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. This term was not at all a reference to the humanity of Jesus, as many scholars previously understood. Instead, it is a powerful assertion of His deity and messiah-ship. The term Son of Man was [historically, for Israel] another way of referring to the triumph of the Messiah! Jesus not only claimed to forgive sins, but by describing himself as the Son of Man He also claimed to be the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. He claimed to be the Anointed of God for whom Israel had longed and yearned. Is it not striking that almost without exception this is the designation He used of himself?
It is also important to note that Jesus received worship. When the Magi saw Him, “they bowed down and worshiped him” (Matthew 2:11). When the blind man whom Jesus had healed expressed his belief in the Son of Man, he worshiped Jesus (John 9:38).[xi]
If Dr. Menzies (and other scholars who have taken this position since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls) is correct, then Jesus wasn’t nearly as quiet about His messianic mission as we previously thought. In the past, reading so many times that He called Himself merely “Son of Man” gave the impression that He was keeping His true identity as the Son of God on the down low so as not to arouse suspicion and more opposition than necessary before due time. But if the Jews had long believed that the “Son of Man” was going to be the promised Messiah, then Jesus was quite open about who He was—at least as that applied to His people. (The Jews would have understood it far more than, say, the Romans.) Another useful purpose of the term was that it had not—as had many other messianic names—been dragged through the muck of misinterpretation by religious authorities and married to the “soldier messiah who would take down Rome” idea that the oral traditions had started to solidify in the minds of the Jews. “The Son of Man” was clean, exempt from miscalculation, and therefore perfect for Christ to claim while also openly asserting who He truly was. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible explains:
[“Son of Man” was not about] his human nature or humanity, as some church fathers or contemporary scholars believe. Rather, it reflects on the heavenly origin and divine dignity of Jesus.… Jesus used the term as a messianic title for himself…with considerable originality because the term was not fraught with popular misconceptions concerning messiahship.[xii]
With those “misconceptions” in mind, understand that almost every other word, phrase, or name that could have been chosen to describe the Messiah while He lived would have conveyed something that was no longer accurate to His being or mission, at least regarding how those alternative choices would have landed on a Jewish audience’s ears. So convinced were the Jews that Jesus was going to be a different kind of Savior than He was, He chose to stick with a “clean” term, one that had a reference to humanity in the title. That is not to say, however, that the use of “Man” was in any way linked to humanity historically.
We too often look at just what the Bible says, divorcing its texts from their historical context. For instance, Ezekiel preferred the phrase “Son of Man” ninety-three times in reference to humanity in the Jews’ earlier history (e.g., Ezekiel 2:1; 3:1; 4:1; 5:1; 6:2; 7:2; and so on). Old Testament poetic parallelism did the same (Numbers 23:19; Job 16:21; 25:6; 35:8; Psalms 8:4; 80:17; 146:3; Isaiah 51:12; 56:2; Jeremiah 49:18, 33; 50:40; 51:43; and on it goes). Alone, these references could make “Man” in the phrase “Son of Man” more emphatic and central to pop culture’s definition or interpretation of the term than it should be. But outside of what we today consider to be Scripture, the apocryphal books the Hebrews also studied mentioned this “Son of Man” figure as a consistently mighty, “authoritative heavenly figure [who] appears at God’s side to judge the world and bring salvation.”[xiii] Concepts like these are from texts such as 1 Enoch 46–71 (which contains the Jewish culture’s most crucial “Son of Man” sayings) and 4 Ezra 13, neither of which is included in today’s canon and therefore is given much less attention by biblical interpreters as time goes on. However, these ancient apocryphal texts played “a major role in the Jewish concept of the Messiah.”[xiv]
Perhaps most easily put: “Son of Man,” without glancing backward to history, sounds like a simple reference to something human while in contrast to the deity that Jesus was (and is, obviously). And this is why we have modern scholars stating that this Name of Jesus identifies the human aspect of His mission when it doesn’t. To the original audience, God’s covenant people, the Hebrews, the term “Son of Man” was intrinsically and unbreakably woven to mean “Son of God”—the concept of a coming Messiah Savior. It therefore pointed to the opposite of a human mission.
Yeah, but all the scholars are basically saying the same thing, aren’t they? I mean, isn’t this kind of a silly semantics game?
Not really, especially not to any new believers who might be reading this book. The Jews, as Dr. Menzies stated, always understood “Son of Man” to be a direct reference to the triumphs of the Messiah because of how the Messiah figure was described in Daniel, Ezekiel, and other apocryphal works important to their culture and cultural identity. Those precious people who may be a little newer to the faith than others might be earnestly trying to seek Jesus through the Gospels and finding themselves tripping on why, more than any other Name, Jesus calls Himself “Man.” They may be wondering why, if Jesus knew who He was and truly believed it, He would keep choosing to reveal Himself as a being no more powerful than another Adam. For any such readers, once the history is explained more deeply than many contemporary sources do, then Jesus suddenly comes to life off the pages of the Gospels like one who boldly owns His purpose amidst the Jews instead of trying to hide it in ambiguous terms.
As to whether Jesus and Adam had anything in common, however, that much is clear upon studying the next name on our list.
“Last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45): I will conclude our list with this one, because it is, quite frankly, a staggering fact that will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about humanity. Donna Howell, an author who works with Defender Publishing, recently shared something with me from one of her Bible and theology classes that floored me. When we think of Jesus as the Last Adam, we commonly understand that Adam brought sin and death, and Jesus, also wholly human, brought forgiveness and life, and the contrast of these two characters makes one the first, and the other the last. (That is an oversimplification, I know; I just want to draw attention to this powerful concept.) However, when we think like scholars do, we realize this verse might just as well be referring to the idea that Adam and Jesus shared another trait: They were the only two humans who ever existed on earth…at least as far as that aligns with what God the Father originally created. Adam was perfect before the Fall, and nobody after him was perfect until Jesus; Jesus was perfect always, and since then, none of us have been. In their perfection—and in the form that God first intended—they were what humans were supposed to be in the beginning. Consider this quote by Dr. Millard J. Erickson, author of almost thirty books in systematic theology, including the revolutionary 1985 work, Christian Theology:
In thinking about the incarnation, we must begin not with the traditional conceptions of humanity and deity, but with the recognition that the two are most fully known in Jesus Christ.… For the humanity of Jesus was not the humanity of sinful human beings, but the humanity possessed by Adam and Eve from their creation and before their fall. There is no doubt, then, as to Jesus’ humanity. The question is not whether Jesus was fully human, but whether we are. He was not merely as human as we are; he was more human than we are.[xv]
Imagine that: Adam and Jesus were the only people in history who were “fully” human. Adam ended his life “not fully human,” based on the forbidden fruit sin stain that contorted his otherwise perfect design. That means Jesus was the only human who began, lived, and completed His life as the kind of human God originally made. The rest of us… The only way I can put it is that we have a sort of spiritual genetic mutation that makes us “less than human” on this side of eternity.
UP NEXT: Zeitgeist 2025 And The Mystery of Melchizedek
[i] Brand, C., et al (Eds.), Holman Illustrated, 1171.
[ii] Manser, M. H., Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies (London: Martin Manser, 2009), under heading, “name of God, significance of.”
[iii] Brand, C., et al, Holman Illustrated, 1172.
[iv] Baker Encyclopedia, 882–883.
[v] Freedman, D. N. (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary: Vol. 6 (New York: Doubleday, 1992) 1,004.
[vi] Ibid., 1,011.
[vii] Ibid., 1012.
[ix] Ibid., 7.
[x] J. A. Motyer, Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary: Vol. 20 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999) 102.
[xi] Dr. William Menzies, Apologetics 4th ed. (Springfield, MO: Global University Press; 2004) 123; emphasis added.
[xii] Baker Encyclopedia, 1,983.
[xiii] J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), under heading “Son of Man.”
[xv] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985) 736; emphasis added.