Take the 2-minute tour ×
Christianity Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for committed Christians, experts in Christianity and those interested in learning more. It's 100% free, no registration required.

There are a number of places where Jesus refers to himself in the third person. The most common is when he uses the title 'Son of Man' (by my count, there are some 78 times Jesus uses that title in the gospels!). For example Matthew 16:13 (NIV):

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?"

I understand the significance of that title (e.g. Daniel 7:13-14) but why does Jesus use it so often to describe himself? Complicating matters in my mind is the fact that the various gospels seem to use 'Son of Man' and 'I' interchangably. For example, Mark 8:27 is a parallel passage to the one above but it says:

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, "Who do people say I am?"

One other major case of third person titles that intrigues me is in John 17 where Jesus is praying and refers to himself as God's son and 'Jesus Christ':

1After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed:

  "Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. 2For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. 3Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. 4I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. 5And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began."

Why does he suddenly refer to himself as Jesus Christ here but nowhere else?

share|improve this question
3  
Richard does that occasionally as well. –  Richard Oct 12 '11 at 14:28
    
Because he feared that his music lacked depth. –  TRiG Apr 8 '12 at 14:30
    
Also when Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit, He's technically speaking in the 3rd person as well. ;) –  2tim424 Mar 7 at 0:11
add comment

4 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

It is also known as the "Messianic Secret," that Jesus was not ready to fully disclose His identity until later on in His mministry.

Ben witherington III (a well known conservative NT scholar) holds that

  1. if Jesus were to let on too early who He was He would have been crucified before being able to get done whatever preaching and teaching and miracles He did get done.

  2. if Jesus' own followers didn't understand fully what He meant by calling Himself the son of man and the son of God, then how much more so everyone else? The full disclosure of who He was came after the resurrection (because no one understood that the Messiah would have to be crucified and then raised) when in John 21 Thomas calls Him "my Lord and my God!"

share|improve this answer
    
I agree with this, but it should be noted that the Messianic Secret extends to more than just speaking in the third person. See also this question –  Richard Oct 12 '11 at 14:44
    
Yep! But the Messianic Secret does include the third person perspective, the third person is just a manner of distancing oneself from one's own words and being! –  jchaffee Oct 12 '11 at 14:47
    
He would have been crucified before being able to get done whatever preaching and teaching and miracles He did get done This isn't actually scriptural, John 10:18: "No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself." Remember all those times they wanted to stone/kill Jesus but he would just walk right out past them? Jesus was in full control of His own death. –  Xeoncross Apr 14 at 18:24
add comment

I think a large part of His reason for doing this is to make shed more light on His identity. The title used reflects additional information about the person using it. So, to look at a few of Jesus's many titles:

  • "son of man" -> associates Jesus with the glorious figure seen in Daniel 7
  • "son of David" -> associates Jesus with the promise God made to David about a descendant who would sit on the throne forever
  • "son of God" -> describes Jesus as a king (since some of the kings of Israel were called "sons of God") although it is sometimes used in other ways by other people ("Son of the living God", "the Son of God") to refer to Jesus's divine nature.
  • "messiah" / "Christ" -> associates Jesus with prophecies about a prophet from God who would rescue Israel

So when Jesus used a particular title, it would evoke a particular image and bring to mind different ideas, even though they were all correct.

Short example of how this makes a difference. Say I'm trying to get into a fancy restaurant and the guy at the front is looking doubtful that I "fit in". I could say (assuming it was true):

  • I'm Richard, let me in.
  • I'm the son of the owner of this restaurant, let me in.
  • I'm cousin to the President, let me in.

They might all be true, but I'd be gaining something from the use of different titles.

Likewise, Jesus used different titles to show different aspects of Himself. Here is a great article on some of them (although it does miss a bit theologically).

share|improve this answer
2  
Heh. You overestimate my power to get into fancy restaurants! =D –  Richard Oct 12 '11 at 14:49
    
LOL. How about: I'm Richard, chosen by God to share in His eternal glory with Christ Jesus, saviour of the world. Let me in. –  Screamer Oct 13 '11 at 20:53
    
I don't mean to sound flippant - merely thinking that I don't have any titles of my own, but I can boast in the work of Christ. I doubt, though, that it would get me into any restaurants ;-) –  Screamer Oct 13 '11 at 20:55
    
+1 Thanks for the great answer. This gives good support for the use of titles and when/why various titles would be more appropriate. But it doesn't directly address use of first person...'I'm cousin to the President, let me in.' versus 'The cousin of the President wants to be let in' is a big different in my mind. –  Stephen McDaniel Oct 15 '11 at 3:42
    
In the right context, the 2 phrases you suggested can be similar, i.e. when I'm saying "The cousin of the President wants to be let in" and it's clear that I'm referring to me, then it is merely a different way of saying the same thing. Another example, kings often refer to themselves in the plural, "We are pleased with you" even though they're actually saying "I am pleased with you", but evoking a different tone. Remember that Jesus's prayers are more for our benefit reading them than His - he could have prayed all this in his head but WE learn something about him from his choice of words. –  Screamer Oct 15 '11 at 16:20
add comment

To add just one more thought to the answers already posted. Jesus didn’t seem to be about the business of glorifying himself. Not only in the verses quoted here, but throughout the New Testament, when Jesus spoke about himself it appears that he was deliberately taking the focus away from himself and directing the listener’s attention back toward God, the Father.

share|improve this answer
    
Agreed. His use of the titles is informative, not to pump Himself up but to make the Scriptures clearer to us. Jesus glorifies the Father, the Spirit brings glory to Jesus (John 16:14). Perfect humility. –  Screamer Oct 13 '11 at 20:59
add comment

The original questioner credited an Old Testament source, Daniel 7:13-14, as being significant in the use of the title "Son of Man". Clicking on the link takes one to the passage in the NIV, where there's also a footnote about the translation. The footnote reads:

Daniel 7:13 The Aramaic phrase bar enash means human being. The phrase son of man is retained here because of its use in the New Testament as a title of Jesus, probably based largely on this verse.

This is entirely circular. It seems to say that an incorrect translation here is likely the source of New Testament usage of "the Son of Man" as a title of Jesus. It also says that it's because of the incorrect New Testament usage that the translators of the NIV have retained "a son of man" in Daniel 7:13. It states that the correct rendering should just be: "human being".

The Biblegateway.com website allows you to display other translations side-by-side. The King James translations used the definite article and capital letters: "the Son of Man", which fits its usage as a title given to Jesus. The NIV translation retains a nod to the previous interpretation, but it's clear that the translators disagree with the interpretation given in the King James versions, by the use of the indefinite article "a" instead of "the", the removal of the capital letters, and with that footnote.

The Wikipedia article on Son of man indicates that in the Hebrew texts, when referring to the singular (son of man), the source is "ben-'adam" (literally, "son of adam"). The source in Daniel is the Aramaic "bar enash", not "ben-'adam", which the editors of the NIV have indicated should be rendered as "human being" and not "son of man", and definitely not "the Son of Man". Moreover, the use of the definite article in "the Son of Man" is said to be entirely new to the Greek texts and did not occur in the Old Testament at all.

Also, this source at The Jewish Encyclopaedia, while favoring the interpretation of Daniel 7:13 as a reference to the Messiah, claims that "son of man" is an often used expression of the time, used to refer to oneself. It has no divine connotations in such usage.

I've had a book I'd been meaning to read called Misquoting Jesus: The story behind who changed the Bible and why, by Bart D. Ehrman. One point from the back cover reads "The King James Bible was based on inferior manuscripts that in many cases do not accurately represent the meaning of the original text."

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.