3 For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh,
in the likeness of sinful flesh,
This phrase shows how God dealt with judicial condemnation of sin on behalf of man. He dealt with the issue by sending His Son to die on the cross. Jesus, who existed for eternity, stepped foot on earth in a human body to die for our sins.
The “flesh” here is the human body. God did not send Jesus in “sinful flesh” but in its “likeness.” Jesus never had a sin capacity. The Greek puts emphasis on the word “likeness,” which carries the idea of form rather than just resemblance. Jesus’ body was the same kind of body that Adam had. Adam’s body and his followers ended with “sinful flesh” because the sin capacity was resident in them because of the fall. The sin capacity was not in the nature of man before the fall in the original creation of man. When Jesus took on true humanity (“flesh”), He did not take on resemblance but the reality of humanity. He had the identity of humanity but without sin.
Jesus did not inherit the sin capacity from Adam because He did not have a human father and was birthed by Mary directly through the Holy Spirit.
Paul does not give in this phrase a full clarification of the incarnation. The context is about how He saved sinners by His death on the cross. Jesus had a likeness in appearance but a distinction in essence from “sinful flesh.” The “flesh” of Jesus was both real and sinless.
Christ took upon Himself a physical nature that was subject to infirmities that sin brought upon it but not to sin itself. That is why He could identity with our weaknesses (He 4:15).
Therefore, Christ was sent not in sinful flesh but in the likeness of sinful flesh. God also sent Him in the flesh, not sinful flesh. Jesus assumed human nature without sin or an act of sin. This separation from the sin capacity or from an act of sin was indispensable for Him to save sinners from their sin. The Father could then offer Him as a Lamb without blemish or spot.
Paul did not say that Jesus came “in sinful flesh” (that is, omitting the word “likeness”). Nor did he say that Jesus came “in the likeness of flesh” (that is, omitting the word “sinful”)—a belief known today as Docetism, which holds that Christ only had the appearance of human flesh but did not possess it truly. Paul did not simply use the phrase “in the likeness of flesh,” because he wanted to distinguish how Adam came into the world before the fall as someone who had not yet sinned, but who would sin. Therefore, Christ did not come in sinful flesh or in the likeness of flesh, but in the likeness of “sinful flesh.”
Jesus came with true humanity but without a sin capacity.
Paul’s statement of “in the likeness of sinful flesh” is very precise. If he had said that Jesus came “in the likeness of flesh,” it would have given the impression that Jesus only appeared to come in human form but not physically (Docetism). On the other hand, if Paul had written the phrase as Jesus coming “in sinful flesh,” he would have attributed a sin capacity to Jesus. No, Jesus had true humanity but without sin. Paul kept both of these ideas in tension.
Ga 4: 4 But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.