Romans 8:3—Was Jesus actually in human flesh or only in its likeness?

Problem: Paul asserts that Jesus was made “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” but he does not assert that Jesus is human flesh. Yet the Bible speaks repeatedly of Jesus being incarnated in human flesh, that is, of being truly human, not just like a human.

Solution: Jesus was not just similar to humans—He was human. He did not come simply in something like of human flesh. He came in real human flesh. On this the Scriptures are clear. John declared, “The Word [Christ] became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Later, he warned that anyone who “does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God” (1 John 4:3; cf. 2 John 7). Likewise, Paul insisted that “God was manifested in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3:16).

Elsewhere in the same book Paul uses the phrase “likeness” to mean being actually like, not just similar (Rom. 1:23; 5:14; 6:5). So, it may be that Paul intended no difference between “likeness” and “the same as.” Or, perhaps when Paul affirmed (in Rom. 8:3) that Jesus was only in the “likeness” of it, he was not speaking of human flesh as such, but of “sinful human flesh.” Jesus was exactly like human flesh but only similar to sinful human flesh, since He had no sin (Heb. 4:15; 1 Peter 3:18; 1 John 3:3).

In any event, in Philippians 2 Paul speaks of Christ being “in the likeness of men” as meaning the same as being human (v. 7). So even without the qualifier “sinful,” Paul speaks of Jesus’ “likeness” to humans as meaning the same as “being human.”

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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.