"Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets." (Matt. 16:14)Jesus' question has two components. The first component is naturally that Jesus had a concern regarding how the people perceived him. Why does this matter?
We can see by his disciples' answer that in these times, there was a lot of speculation regarding who a person is outside of their name and visible role. We see from this and his disciples' answer that the general population believed in the transmigration of the soul - or reincarnation.
Why else would they believe that Jesus was these other people? Those past prophets - even John the Baptist - had passed away. So how could Jesus be them?
The only way Jesus could be these personalities was if their spirit-person transmigrated into Jesus' body. There is no other way. Their physical bodies had certainly decomposed within a tomb somewhere. But their spirit-person - the soul as some describe it - left that body.
Jesus in fact, also taught the transmigration of the living being. Consider this question his disciples asked him:
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2)Certainly since the man could have caused the blindness of his current body by sinning in a previous lifetime, there is a common acceptance of the transmigration of the spirit-person. That is, unless the spirit-person perfects their relationship with the Supreme Being and goes home to Him after the death of the body.
This is why Jesus was teaching. He was trying to bring those around him - and all of us - back home to the spiritual realm. He wants us to not return to this hellish material world and take on another physical body. He wants us to heed his instructions and come to know, love and serve the Supreme Being.
And he doesn't want his followers to confuse him with the Supreme Being:
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." (Matt. 7:21)So in other words, we could call Jesus "lord" yet miss the entire point of his teachings: To love and serve God. (Doing someone's will means caring for them and serving them.)
The second component of Jesus' question lies within his self-identification as “the son of man.” What is the meaning of this self-identification? And why is Jesus referring to himself in the third person? Why doesn't he say "Who do people say I am"?
Because Jesus is speaking of a role - a role that he is currently occupying.
What is a “son of man” anyway? While a man can certainly have a son, does it make sense that Jesus is describing himself as a son of a man? That is hardly a distinguishing role, because every male human is a son of a man.
The word "son" is translated from the Greek word υἱός (huios). This can indicate a relationship of father/son only in the context of a physical family, confirmed by the lexicon: "in a restricted sense, the male offspring (one born by a father and of a mother)."
The lexicon also explains that the word also means: "one who depends on another or is his follower." This means, in context, a "devoted follower" or "loving servant."
With regard to the word "man" in "son of man", the Greek word ἄνθρωπος (anthrōpos) can certainly refer to man, but it can also refer to “mankind,” or "humanity."
Using this, and understanding that Jesus was working for the welfare of humanity, we find that the correct translation of υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου (τοῦ means "of"), would be:
"Servant of humanity"
This meaning is consistent with the use of υἱός (huios) as "servant" in other verses. For example, here is a New King James Version translation of a verse from Acts:
"To you first, God, having raised up His servant Jesus, sent Him to bless you, in turning every one of you away from his iniquities." (Acts 3:26 NKJV)whereas the old King James version says:
"Unto you first God, having raised up His son Jesus, sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities." (Acts 3:26 KJV)Thus also means, from other verses, that Jesus is more appropriately described as the "loving servant of God" rather than the "son of God."
Consider this text from Genesis:
When men began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. (Genesis 6:1-3)So here we have many "sons of God" as well as "daughters of men." Who are the "sons of God" here? Did God give birth to a limited number of "sons"? Certainly God is not impotent. The translation has simply been misconstrued. These were "servants of God." Consider this statement which uses the same Hebrew word (in bold) mistranslated in some other verses to "son":
All these now join their brothers the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the LORD our Lord.While Jesus is serving the Supreme Being, Jesus is also describing his role as “servant of humanity.” This is consistent Jesus' mission to save people and bring us home to the Supreme Being.
Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses. (2 Corinthians 6:3-5)
Jesus was not the only servant of God to also be addressed as "son of man" [servant of humanity] when it came to their purpose of teaching people about God. This is confirmed when Ezekiel states:
Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around Him. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. When I saw it, I fell facedown, and I heard the voice of one speaking.If Jesus is the only “son of man” then why is Ezekiel being addressed this way? It is because “son of man” means “servant of humanity:” One who serves all of humanity, just as God was asking Ezekiel to do.
He said to me, "son of man [servant of humanity], stand up on your feet and I will speak to you." As He spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me. He said: "Son of man [servant of humanity], I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their fathers have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says.' And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious house—they will know that a prophet has been among them. And you, son of man [servant of humanity], do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house. You must speak My words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious. But you, son of man [servant of humanity], listen to what I say to you. Do not rebel like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you." (Ezekiel 1:28-2:7)
Let's consider an analogy. Let's say that someone is locked up in jail. The judge sends a message via a courier to the jailhouse to release the prisoner. As the courier enters the jailhouse, the prisoner recognizes the courier. He remembers seeing the courier in the jailhouse, carrying the messages from the judge. The courier is greeted with great respect and appreciation by the prisoner, because what the courier delivered, released the prisoner.
In the same way, God's messenger dutifully delivers the message from the Supreme Being that He wants us back. As the messenger does this, he sees himself as not only God's messenger: He sees himself as the servant of those he is delivering the message to.
Jesus confirms this position:
“Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)
(For a translation of Jesus' statements from the Book of Matthew without institutional sectarian influence, see the Gospels of Jesus - translated from the original Greek texts.)