What does it mean that Jesus was made in the likeness of sinful flesh?
by Matt Slick
"For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh," (Rom. 8:3).
Does Jesus being made in the likeness of sinful flesh mean that Jesus had a sinful nature? Does it mean he was fallen in his flesh, but never sinned? Or, does it mean that his flesh was sinful but his spirit was not? These questions will be answered in different ways depending on who you're talking to, but the right answer is easy.
When it says that Jesus was made in the likeness of sinful flesh, the Bible is not saying he was sinful or that he possessed anything sinful within himself. Instead, it means he was in the likeness of human, sinful flesh, not that he was sinful or that he possessed a sin nature either in his human or divine nature. That is why it says, "in the likeness of sinful flesh." He was not sinful. He was not fallen. He did not have something sinful as part of himself, whether it be flesh or spirit.
Is sinful flesh a defect?
Can we say that Paul the apostle had sinful flesh? Of course. Would we say that possessing sinful flesh was a defect? Again, yes; after all, sinful flesh is not a good and holy thing. If that is the case, then if Jesus' flesh was "sinful" then he would have possessed a defect (unless you want to say his "sinful flesh" was not part of what he is). But that is a problem because Deuteronomy 17:1 says, "You shall not sacrifice to the Lord your God an ox or a sheep which has a blemish or any defect, for that is a detestable thing to the Lord your God." Therefore, if Jesus possessed sinful flesh, he had a defect. That would mean he could not be a proper sacrifice for sins.
Sinful flesh invalidates the sacrifice
"For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement," (Leviticus 17:11).
If someone were to say that Jesus possessed sinful flesh then does the flesh include blood? After all, blood runs through the flesh of the person. If Jesus possessed sinful flesh, that would include his blood which in turn would mean that the blood sacrifice of Jesus was, essentially, sinful. This just cannot be.
Flesh itself is not sinful
Flesh is not sinful. My hand does not sin anymore than my foot does. Sin is an action, a rebellion and breaking of the law of God (1 John 3:4). Sin occurs in the heart. Evil (Zech. 8:17), greed (2 Pet. 2:14), anger (Ec. 7:9), pride (Isa. 14:13), hate (Leviticus 19:17), etc., are all conditions of the heart. It is the person who breaks the Law, not his hand. Sin is an action performed by a living being, not by a foot. So sinful flesh necessitates that it is the carnal aspect of a person, the fallen part of his soul/spirit, not his physical flesh. Physical flesh is affected by sin because it decays and dies. So, we have to ask what is meant by someone saying that Jesus possessed sinful flesh.
Communication of the Properties and being tempted
The doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum teaches us that the attributes of both natures are ascribed to the single person of Jesus. In other words, the attributes of humanity and divinity were both claimed by Christ. Jesus was both hungry and knew people's hearts. He slept and yet he was with God the Father before the foundation of the world (John 17:5). This means that the properties of both natures were ascribed to the single person of Jesus. This is important because the holiness of the divine nature (impossibility of sinning) must be ascribed to the person of Jesus. Therefore, Jesus could have been tempted, offered a temptation, but not be tempted in his nature. Nevertheless, we have to ask how the person of Jesus could possess characteristic of sinful flesh and also the characteristic of holiness at the same time. Aren't they opposites, and how can both be possessed by the same being; namely Jesus?
But, other verses say....
Some will respond by quoting other verses where "likeness" means being something, not just like it. They say the word "likeness" means something in one context, so it can mean the same thing in another. This is a dangerous approach to Scripture - which we'll examine later. Let's look at two verses that are also quoted before we tackle that error.
- Romans 6:5, "For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection."
- This is talking about us being baptized "into death" (v. 4) and crucified with Christ (v. 6). Christ is our representative, and when he died we were in him (1 Corinthians 15:22, Federal Headship). Therefore, we were crucified with Christ. This is how we are united with him in the likeness of his death.
- Philippians 2:7 "but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men."
- In this context, it would seem that "likeness" is not saying it was similar to being a man, but that Jesus actually was a man. That makes sense because that is what the context requires. But that context is different than the context of Romans 8:3. Philippians 2:7 says the likeness of men. Romans 8:3 says the likeness of sinful flesh. The former is literal where the latter is figurative.
- The context is the incarnation of The Word. We have to understand that when it is talking about Jesus Christ emptying himself, it is talking about The Word (John 1:1,14) that became flesh. Technically speaking, Jesus (the human) did not exist until the incarnation, with the conception where the preincarnate Word entered the womb of Mary, was united with the human nature in the single person of Christ (hypostatic union). The Word was made in the likeness of men. So, Jesus was made in the likeness of men in that sense.
Though I have already provided a brief analysis of context, some maintain that the Greek word for "likeness" is the same in all three verses (Rom. 6:5; 8:3; Phil. 2:7), and since they relate to Jesus and his humanity in each case, then they must mean the same thing in each case. Therefore, they will say that Jesus had sinful flesh, though he never sinned. But their argument is unsound because words mean what they mean in context. Let me illustrate.
The word "green" can mean young, naive, sick, envious, fresh, color, etc., depending on context. Let's look at three sentences that deal with Mike in relation to Bob.
- Mike is green after eating at Bob's house. (sick)
- Mike is green after seeing Bob's house. (envy)
- Mike is green after painting at Bob's house. (color)
In each case "green" is described as Mike's condition after an encounter with Bob, but each has a different meaning even though the word is the same in each case. Obviously, context determines meaning, and to assert that "likeness" must mean the same thing in Rom. 6:5, 8:3, and Phil. 2:7 is a potentially dangerous mistake since it does not allow the Scriptures to speak contextually. So, let's look at these three verses in context.
When it says Jesus was made in the likeness of sinful flesh, that in no way says Jesus possessed anything sinful in his humanity or divinity. Otherwise, he would have a defect and could not be a proper sacrifice for sins. Furthermore, a person's flesh includes the blood. Would it then be sinful blood? If so, that is a problem. According to Leviticus 17:11 the blood is what is offered for the sacrifice. The idea of Jesus having sinful flesh would include sinful blood, which of course could not be a proper sacrifice for our sins.
So, the idea of saying that Jesus partook in sinful flesh, in the sense that his flesh was actually fallen, is false.
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