Jesus: flesh like ours – Part 2

Posted: December 4, 2011 by J in Bible

What does Paul mean by ‘God sent his son in the likeness of sinful flesh?’ (Romans 8:3). The word ‘likeness’ (homoioma) doesn’t settle the matter. What does the context suggest?

The theme of this passage is how God has introduced a new power (or law) to rescue us from the power (or law) of sin: the power of Jesus’ resurrection life in the Spirit.

the Spirit’s law of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. (8:2)

The law of Moses could never do this, because of the weakness of  ‘the flesh’ – of fallen sinful human nature. (8:3) This is a summary statement of chapter 7’s argument. That chapter ended with the appeal, ‘Who will rescue me from this body of death?’

But now God has achieved what the law could not – he has achieved the longed-for rescue from our human sinful state, from the body of death.

What the law could not do since it was limited by the flesh, God did. He condemned sin in the flesh by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and as a sin offering (8:3)

‘The flesh’ in this chapter stands for human nature under the power of sin – Paul uses it 13 times here, always meaning ‘corrupt humanity’.

So here’s the logic of the argument: ‘the flesh’ (sin’s power) was the problem the prevented us from living God’s way. So God made a way to destroy (or condemn) the flesh. He sent his own Son ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh’, and made him a sin offering, putting him to death. And by that death, in his Son’s own ‘flesh’ he destroyed sin’s power. That death was not just the death of Jesus’ flesh, it was the death of all ‘flesh’. Sinful humanity was put to death in Jesus’ body.

A few things to notice here:

1. God condemn sin ‘in the flesh’ i.e. in Jesus’ body. Paul definitely identifies Jesus as partaking of human ‘flesh’, with all that that word implies, i.e. humanity under the power of sin. Jesus shares in our ‘flesh’.

2. Jesus here takes an explicitly representative role. His flesh stands for all flesh.

3. That representative role relies on Jesus sharing the same flesh as the ones he represents. God cannot put ‘the flesh’ to death in Jesus, unless he is in that flesh.

Completing Paul’s argument, now that the flesh has been defeated in Jesus, humanity is rescued. Now there is a new power, the power of his resurrection (i.e. by the Spirit). And by that power we are able to follow God and do his will:

…in order that the commands of the law (of Moses) might be fulfilled in us, who walk not by the flesh but by the Spirit (8:4)

Later in the letter Paul will explain how love in the Christian community fulfils the law.



So what does Paul mean when he says ‘the likeness of sinful flesh’? Why does he include that word ‘likeness’ (homoioma) here? It’s  clearly not to do with outward appearances: that wouldn’t fit with Paul’s argument here. But we’ve seen that ‘likeness’ can mean ‘representation’. Idols represent real animals/people etc. That meaning would fit here very well. God sends his Son into flesh, but not just into flesh: into representative flesh. He sends Jesus into human flesh as a sin offering, to represent all the people in his death. ‘Likeness’ does not function as a distancing word (‘outward appearance’), but rather as a kind of intensifier.

If this is right, then Jesus was not just flesh. He was ‘the image’ of the flesh – its epitome, its summing up. If you want to know where to look to find flesh (humanity under sin’s power), look at Jesus before his death.

Looks like the Holman is much closer to expressing Paul’s meaning than all the other translations:

God condemned sin in the flesh by sending His own Son in flesh like ours under sin’s domain, and as a sin offering (8:3)


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