The term “the Son of Man” appears to have been the preferred self-designation of Jesus. It is found on the lips of Jesus some 32 times in the Gospel of Matthew, 15 times in the Gospel of Mark, 26 times in the Gospel Luke, and 12 times in the Gospel of John. In fact, except for one place in the Gospel of John (John 12.34), the expression is never used in the Gospels by anyone other than Jesus. And even in that passage in John, the expression is only taken up by others by way of inquiry into its meaning: “We have heard out of the law that the Christ lives forever; and why do you say, the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” So what is the meaning of this term so favored by Jesus to describe himself?
There is much debate as to what Jesus meant by this self-appellation. In fact, this is one of the most contested subjects in scholarly New Testament studies. But if we recognize that Jesus was a first century Jew steeped in the Hebrew (and Aramaic) scriptures, then I think it is likely that Jesus meant one of two things by this title, or even both things at once.
First, he may have meant to describe himself as simply a human being. The Hebrew expression “son of man” (ben-‘adam) appears 107 times in the Hebrew Bible. It occurs 93 times in Ezekiel and 14 times elsewhere. As generally used in those scriptures, the phrase denotes a human being generally, with special reference to the weakness and frailty of human beings (see Job 25.6; Psalms 8.4; 144.3; 146.3; Isaiah 51.12). In Ezekiel, the title is frequently given to the prophet probably to remind him of his human weakness. So, at the time of Jesus, calling oneself “son of man” may have been a common way to humbly say one is merely another human being like others; and this may have been what Jesus meant by calling himself “the Son of Man.” That is, he may have been humbly expressing his solidarity with us as human beings who are weak and dependent upon God, i.e. the spirit of God, for all things. This would fit with the repeated emphasis we find in the New Testament, especially in the Gospels, that Jesus lived and ministered by the power of God’s spirit, which was given to him by God without measure. However, against this interpretation is the fact that Jesus does not merely call himself “son of man” or “a son of man,” but “the son of man.” Perhaps, then, he means to say he is the representative human being (with nevertheless the same general limitations as other human beings), similar to the way Paul calls Jesus “the second Adam” and “the last Adam” (Romans 5; 1 Corinthians 15). This would make sense of the general usage of “son of man” in the Hebrew scriptures without overlooking the fact that Jesus used the article (“the”) in the designation for himself.
Second, it is possible that in calling himself “the Son of Man” Jesus intended to identify himself as the Messianic figure described in the vision of Daniel 7. In the Seventh Chapter of Daniel, we read,
“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language honored him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
One occasion where Jesus seems to identify himself with this “one like a son of man” in Daniel 7 is recorded in Mark 14.61. That passage records that during the Sanhedrin trial of Jesus, when the high priest asked Jesus: “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus responded “I am: and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” It would make sense for Jesus to identify himself with the “one like a son of man” figure in Daniel 7, since Jesus believed he was the Messiah (anointed one, i.e. king) who would be given authority, glory, and sovereign power by God, just as the Apostles later proclaimed that this had indeed come to pass. Consistently, they taught that God coronated (that is, installed, or “crowned”) Jesus lord, king, or messiah/christ (=anointed one = king or lord) at the resurrection-ascension of Jesus. Peter says, “God has made [i.e. appointed] Jesus both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2), and Paul says, “God highly exalted him [i.e. coronated] and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow . . . and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God” (Philippians 2).
In sum, then, Jesus called himself “the Son of Man” probably to identify himself as the representative, weak, dependent-upon-God human being, and/or to identify himself as the Messianic “one like a son of man” spoken of in Daniel 7, one whom God would make Lord over all things, excepting only God (1 Corinthians 15:28). If this is correct, then, significantly, in large measure this title overlaps with the “Son of God” title, which as I explain (here) was also used by Jesus and the Apostles to designate Jesus as the (ultimate) Messiah (not as God).