What does it mean that Jesus came in the likeness of sinful flesh?Romans 8:3–5 says, "For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit." That Jesus came "in the likeness of sinful flesh" refers to His human nature.
In general, when the Bible talks about "the flesh" it is referring to the sinful nature of humans. Ever since Adam and Eve sinned in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3), all people have been born with a sinful nature as their default, meaning, we all have a natural bent towards sinning (Romans 3:10, 23; 5:12). Being in "the likeness" of something means bearing a resemblance to it. So when Paul writes that Jesus came "in the likeness of sinful flesh," he means that Jesus came in the image of humanity. This is a reversal of God's original design, for we were first created in God's image (Genesis 1:26–27). Jesus came as a human in order to set things right. It is important to point out that Jesus did not have a sinful nature. He was fully human but also fully God. Jesus was conceived through the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin woman, Mary (Luke 1:35). As such, He did not inherit the sinful nature. He was in the likeness of sinful flesh, but in no way sinful Himself.
Notice that Romans 8 tells us why Jesus came in the likeness of sinful flesh— "for sin." Jesus' ultimate purpose in becoming human was the redemption of mankind. Jesus, as a human and on behalf of humans, came and fulfilled the law of God perfectly. He never sinned and He took the punishment all sinful humans deserve upon Himself, "so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21). When we accept God's grace for us by faith in Jesus Christ, we are saved and filled with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:8–9; John 14:17; Romans 8:9).
Jesus coming in the likeness of sinful flesh ultimately enables us to live by the Holy Spirit rather than succumb to the flesh. In Jesus, we consider ourselves "dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Romans 6:11; see Romans 6:6–11; Titus 2:11–14). In fact, Paul starts Romans 8 by letting us know: "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death" (Romans 8:1–2). We have the ability to be free from the sinful tendencies of our own flesh because Jesus came in the likeness of sinful flesh to defeat sin. Since Jesus lived in complete victory over sin and has total power over the flesh, when we are in Him, so can we (1 Timothy 1:15; 2 Peter 1:3–4).
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