Jesus made this statement in response to a 'teacher of the law' who approached him to say “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”
Why did Jesus refer to himself as the “son of man?” Why would someone who was teaching others about God call himself a “son of man?”
Many have been confused by Jesus' use of “son of man.” Some have referred to this as some kind of kingship over mankind. This would be akin to claiming that either God is man and/or man is God. This interpretation is simply not accurate.
Furthermore, why would being a "son of man" - a son of a man - be a distinctive title? Any male is a son of a man. There is no meaning to this phrase. Thus either Jesus described himself without distinction - which is a contradiction in itself - or "son of man" is a mistranslation.
Here the Greek word that has been translated to “son” is υἱός (huios). According to the lexicon, this may indicate a relationship of offspring, but only "in a restricted sense, the male offspring." The lexicon also explains that υἱός (huios) can also be "used to describe one who depends on another or is his follower." And what is a "follower" and "one who depends upon another?" A devoted follower, or a dedicated, loving servant.
We can also see that this Greek word υἱός (huios) was also used in this way by Jesus in other verses:
-In Matthew 8:12, υἱός (huios) is translated to "subjects":
"But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
-In Matthew 9:15 and Luke 5:32, υἱός (huios) is translated to "guests" (or "attendants" in other versions):
"How can the guests (or attendants) of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast."
-In Matthew 12:27, υἱός (huios) is translated to "your people":
"And if I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges."
-In Luke 20:34, υἱός (huios) is translated to "people":
"The people of this age marry and are given in marriage."
We can see from these uses and others that υἱός (huios) can also be used to describe someone who is subservient to another, or follows another, as in "the subjects of the kingdom," the "attendants of the bridegroom," or "the people of this age."
In John 12:36 it is used in the phrase "sons of light":
"Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you may become sons of light."
Since light does not give birth to anyone, we can see again that the word υἱός (huios) was frequently used to describe someone who is deferential or subservient to something or someone.
And because the Greek ἄνθρωπος means "of man" or "of mankind," the correct interpretation of υἱός τοῦ ἄνθρωπος would therefore be that Jesus is calling himself a servant of mankind, or a servant of humanity.
He is putting himself in the position of a servant of humanity because he is desiring to deliver God's message to humankind. One might not understand how an exalted person like Jesus could humble himself to be a servant of humanity. This is in fact the position a loving servant of God takes. God's loving servants often take the humble position of serving those who have fallen by helping them reclaim their lost love for God. In the spiritual realm, this is an exalted activity.
It should be noted that the “son” in "son of God" is also derived from υἱός (huios) (υἱός τοῦ θεοῦ). The same translation of υἱός is appropriate here: This means that υἱός τοῦ θεοῦto is better translated to "loving servant of God" or "devoted follower of God."
This has been confirmed elsewhere:
The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified His servant Jesus. (Acts 3:13)
This reference to Jesus as God's servant or devoted follower is repeated elsewhere, such as in Acts 3:26 and Acts 20:12. In these verses, "son" is being translated from the Greek word παῖς (pais). The Greek παῖς (pais) is also understood to refer to an intimate servant - a closely held servant, in other words.
We must consider this issue carefully, and not be swayed by organizations who desire our membership utilizing particular dogma. Consider this statement by God in Isaiah:
“You are My witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and My servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe Me and understand that I am He. Before Me no god was formed, nor will there be one after Me. I, even I, and the Lord, and apart from Me there is no Savior.” (Isaiah 43:10-11)
This is a very clear statement made by God, referring to Isaiah has His servant, also applies to Jesus: Jesus is God's servant, and God is our ultimate Savior.
This means that Jesus is God's representative, and God is ultimately doing the saving.
We see this process all the time in life - for example, a government will send an ambassador to another country, or a business will send one of their key people or even their lawyer to a business meeting to represent the business owner.
Jesus clarifies elsewhere that God is directing his service:
"For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it." (John 12:49)
Thus when Jesus says that he has "no place to lay his head," he is saying that as a servant of humanity, he has no ownership or physical place to offer those that are following him. He considers himself a humble servant and not a proprietor.
Notice also that Jesus speaks of himself in the third person. Why is this? It is because Jesus sees that this is his role: the servant of humanity.
Jesus thus presented to the teacher of the law that he had no physical temple or monastery to offer the man. 'Teachers of the law' during the time of Jesus usually were given quarters to live along with their ecclesiastical duties on behalf of the organized temples. This tradition persists to this day among ecclesiastical sects of Judaism and Christianity.
Jesus was illustrating that he could not offer the teacher of the law such accommodation, nor did he consider an accommodation as important as the service he was doing for the benefit of others. Jesus only had the Truth to give to others, and that Truth had nothing to do with accommodation, or joining an organization for that matter.
This is an important point about Jesus’ methodology of teaching. He certainly had the opportunity to organize the crowds that were following him into a big institution, complete with buildings, temples and living quarters. But this was not important to Jesus. He wanted people to pray to God personally, embrace God personally, and come to know and love God from whatever situation they were in. This did not require a joining of a particular group or sect.
Note that Jesus could have said to the teacher of the law something like "yes, come join my organization and quit your current one." Rather, he warned the person that he could offer no such institutional organization or those accommodations they supply. He was delivering the Word of God, not a place to stay. His core teaching was not joining a religion, but loving God. This is why Jesus said:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Matt. 22:37-38)
This commentary is adapted from the Real Teachings of Jesus.