At Sunday’s Mass (Feast of Christ the King) we read an important passage from Daniel 7. It is important not only for its prophecy but also because Jesus implicitly sets it as an interpretive key for His own ministry and mission and an explanation of why He calls Himself the “Son of Man” so frequently.
Many modern readers think that “Son of God” is both a higher and clearer title than “Son of Man.” However, as we will see below, the title “Son of God” could be ambiguous.
Let’s consider the passage from three different perspectives: its historical meaning, its Christological meaning, and its current meaning. Here is the text:
In the vision I [Daniel] saw during the night, the four winds of heaven stirred up the great sea, from which emerged four immense beasts, each different from the others. The first was like a lion, but with eagle’s wings. … The second was like a bear …. It was given the order, “Up, devour much flesh.” After this I looked and saw another beast, like a leopard; on its back were four wings like those of a bird, and it had four heads. To this beast dominion was given. After this, in the visions of the night I saw the fourth beast, different from all the others, terrifying, horrible, and of extraordinary strength; it had great iron teeth with which it devoured and crushed, and what was left it trampled with its feet.
I was considering the ten horns it had, when suddenly another, a little horn, sprang out of their midst, and three of the previous horns were torn away to make room for it. This horn had eyes like a man, and a mouth that spoke arrogantly.
As I watched, thrones were set up and the Ancient One took his throne. His clothing was snow bright, and the hair on his head as white as wool; His throne was flames of fire, with wheels of burning fire. A surging stream of fire flowed out from where he sat; Thousands upon thousands were ministering to him, and myriads upon myriads attended him.
The court was convened, and the books were opened. I watched, then, from the first of the arrogant words which the horn spoke, until the beast was slain, and its body thrown into the fire to be burnt up. The other beasts, which also lost their dominion, were granted a prolongation of life for a time and a season.
As the visions during the night continued, I saw One like a son of man coming, on the clouds of heaven; When he reached the Ancient One and was presented before him, He received dominion, glory, and kingship; nations and peoples of every language serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away, his kingship shall not be destroyed (Daniel 7:2-14).
Historical meaning – Daniel prophesied that four kingdoms would persecute God’s people. Each was represented by a beast similar in appearance to a known animal but with symbolic differences.
Most scholars interpret the kingdoms as Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. Indeed, each of these did persecute the ancient Jews (the Romans persecuted Christians as well). The last kingdom in the prophecy was particularly fierce and received special attention. A single horn (symbolizing power) is said to far eclipse the power of the other horns. This horn had eyes like a man and spoke arrogantly. God sat in judgment, finally casting this fourth kingdom into the abyss, the lake of fire. Sic semper tyrannis (thus always to tyrants). God the Father then ushered in “one like a Son of Man” who would rule all nations and have a kingdom that would never be destroyed or taken away.
Daniel prophesied what we have come to know as the Kingdom of God our Lord Jesus Christ, which is also the Church, the Body of Christ.
Christological meaning – It is primarily this passage that inspires Jesus’ use of the phrase “Son of Man” to refer to Himself. In effect, Jesus says, “I am the one of whom Daniel speaks. I am He who receives from the Father dominion, glory, and kingship. I am He of whom Daniel said, nations and peoples of every language serve him. I am He whose Kingdom is an everlasting kingdom that shall not be taken away, and my kingship shall not be destroyed.
To many modern ears, the title “Son of God” seems higher than “Son of Man.” Among the ancient Jews, though, “Son of God” could refer to an angel or a human. Further, ancient Jews did not conceive of God as having a son, so it might not seem unusual or significant that Jesus or anyone referred to himself as a son of God. In other words, the title “Son of God” could be ambiguous to ancient hearers. Jesus does call Himself “God’s son” (e.g., Jn 11:4; Jn 10:36), but the meaning is debated and the title was not always challenged by His listeners. However, the title “Son of Man” is unique in biblical literature and refers to the eternal ruler, the anointed one, the Christ, whose status and unassailable power is clearly set forth by Daniel.
In using the title Son of Man, Jesus asserts that He is the anointed and eternal ruler to whom Daniel pointed, that all things are His and all are subject to Him. This is a high Christology to say the least. Jesus is Eternal Christ and King.
Current meaning – The meaning for today is that Jesus will conquer any person, nation, or power that arrogantly asserts its dominance or oppresses His people. Psalm 2 says this of the Christ, the Messiah, who is our Lord Jesus:
Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, “Let us break these chains and throw off their shackles!”
The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.”
I will proclaim the Lord’s decree. He said to me, “You are my son; today I have become your father. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. And you will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.”
Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling. Lest he be angry and your way lead to destruction for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him! [Psalm 2]
So, all nations and things are subject to Christ and the Church, which as His Body shares in this indefectibility. Christ promised this:
And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it (Mat 16:18).
Gates are a symbol of power, and the power of Hell cannot destroy the Church. This does not mean that disciples will not suffer persecution, imprisonment, or even death, or that there will not be sin and foolishness in the Church. However, the Church is the indefectible Body of Christ, who was
[R]aised from the dead is seated at the Father’s right hand in the heavenly places, far above every principality, authority, power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And [the Father] put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the Church, which is his Body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Eph 1:20-23).
Why, then, is evil still so prevalent and why do the Lord’s enemies seem to prosper? Scripture says,
When God subjected all things to him, He left nothing outside of his control. Though at present, we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because He suffered death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting for God, for whom and through whom all things exist, to make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering (1 Cor 15:27-30).
Thus, the victory of the Lord over this world’s pride and arrogance, over nations and principalities that assert power unto evil, is often a paradoxical one. Pride is conquered by humility. In dying Jesus destroys death; in rising He restores life. Make no mistake, the victory has already been won and it is a total one. Although the battle plays out through history, the victory of all who suffer with the Lord for the truth is already secured.
Consider for a moment the darkest, most evil day ever: There was a darkening of the sun and an earthquake. The Son of Man hung lifeless from the cross. To any worldly observer he appeared to have lost; evil seemed to have been victorious. Just as Satan was running his victory lap around the cross, Jesus went down into the Devil’s trophy room, Sheol, and turned it out. While Satan was gloating, Jesus awakened the dead and summoned them to new life. The gates of Heaven swung open and slammed up against the gates of Hell. One of the prayers of exorcism rebukes Satan by reminding him that Jesus in horto superavit, spoliavit in cruce, et de sepulchro resurgens tua tropaea in regnum transtulit lucis (Jesus overcame you in the garden, despoiled you on the cross, and rising from the tomb, bore off your trophy into the Kingdom of Light).
Yes, the victory is total, but it is obtained paradoxically: through humble obedience and in the suffering of death. The victory is certain for all who are on the battlefield for the Lord.
As evidence, I propose the Church herself. During the lifetime of the Church, nations have risen and fallen, empires have come and gone, errors and heresies have flourished and then withered. Where is Caesar now? Where is Napoleon? Where is the USSR? They are all gone; we are still here preaching the Gospel and celebrating the sacraments. We have read the funeral rites over all who said they would bury us. Yes, we have endured their wrath, sat in their prisons, heard their threats, been hauled into their courts, and even been killed by them—but the Church is here, and they are gone. One by one all things are put under Christ’s feet. The Church has always had enemies within her as well, including clergy of every rank—but we are still here. It is clear that the Church is indefectible, but only by God’s grace!
Jesus Christ is the eternal King, and His kingdom shall never be destroyed. Daniel saw this in one “like a Son of Man” who received His kingdom from His Father. Jesus has proven that He is that Son of Man.
Christ reigns, Christ Rules. Eternal Victor, Eternal King. His kingdom is an everlasting Kingdom that shall not be taken away!
Get on the winning team! Understand that the victories and methods are sometimes paradoxical, but know by faith that the end is sure, the victory has already been won.