“When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?””
Prior to this point in Matthew’s narrative, Jesus has used the term “Son of Man” nine times to refer to Himself (Matt 8:20, 9:6, 10:23, 11:19, 12:8, 32, 40, 13:37, 41). This is the 10th time the term comes up, and He will use it twenty more times in this Gospel account. Clearly, Jesus wanted those who follow Him to be aware of who He thought He was, and “Son of Man” was the term He felt best described Himself.
“Son of Man” is an Old Testament scriptural term. It comes up once in Numbers, once in Job and a few times in Psalms. But it comes up 91 times in Ezekiel and twice more in Daniel. Literally “ben-Adam”, Son of Man refers to a male progeny of Adam. In that sense, the term is almost a derogatory one from God’s standpoint.
Numbers 23:19 uses it in reference to mankind’s unreliability. Job 25:6 uses it in reference to mankind’s inability. The Psalmist first uses it in reference to mankind’s ranking in authority (Ps 8:4). These are all instances where the term is referring to humankind as a whole. But when “Son of Man” refers to God’s servant, it has a very different meaning. In Ezekiel as in Daniel, the connotation becomes one of “the best humankind can get”. The same is true in Psalm 80:17, “Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself.”
To this point Commentator G. Van Groningen noted, “when used of an individual person, who is spoken of as Yahweh’s agent, it points to humankind created royal, restored to a regal position, and called to serve as Yahweh’s human representative on behalf of human beings.” That is the context in which Jesus uses it of Himself.
In so doing, He takes upon Himself a term that hints at His Messianic role of redemption: He literally is the one who takes what was fallen and redeems it to God’s original (and highest) purpose.
Jesus was not only always aware of who He was, He was always aware of His role. His role (who He was sent to be – the one who redeems) and identity (who the Father said He was – God’s Son) were united, allowing Him to minister wholeheartedly from a position of strength and self-awareness. Knowing His disciples would one day need to carry on His ministry, Jesus knew His disciples would likewise need to be firm in their identity and self-awareness.
That awareness starts with being cognizant of God, and cognizant of God’s calling. So the question He asks is critical. They cannot know who they were and what they were called to be without first knowing who He is and what He had come to be. But rather than ask that question without context, He first asks who others think He is. It is a question that is most appropriate, given the context of where they are – both geographically and in their discipleship journey!
Essential to understanding Jesus’ identity is recognition of his divine agency.Andrew T. Lincoln
The question of our identity can only be rightly answered when we know Christ’s identity. For then and only then can we rightly ascertain who we are in relation to Christ, and our core identity is found not in ourselves by ourselves, but in relationship – and in relationship to God.