Paul says that God sent his Son to Israel “in the likeness of sinful flesh” and probably “as a sin offering”. By so doing 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” (Rom. 8:3–4).
I maintain that the phrase “in the likeness of sinful flesh” is not a reference to the paradoxical ontology of incarnation but a more realistic, though somewhat opaque, allusion to the fact that Jesus was wrongly crucified as a malefactor, a bad guy.1
Attempts to avoid the apparent docetism of the expression, therefore, are misplaced. Moo, for example, says that it cannot mean that Christ had only the “appearance” of flesh. He suggests that homoiōma here
probably has the nuance of “form” rather than “likeness” or “copy.” In other words, the word does not suggest superficial or outward similarity, but inward and real participation or “expression.”2
But if homoiōma means “form”, then Paul must be talking about Jesus’ external or physical appearance, not some inner quality, which I think is exactly the point. He simply means that Jesus looked like a criminal, an insurrectionist, an agitator, a militant, a false prophet, a false messiah, a threat to the security of Israel. Paul is here a former member of the Pharisaic elite remembering the historical circumstances of Jesus’ death.
The idea is not altogether unique to Paul. The author of Wisdom of Solomon describes the persecution of righteous Jews by the wicked (Wis. 2:12-20). The righteous have suffered and died, but they had a hope of immortality. In the eyes of those who watched them suffer, they were being punished—as wrongdoers. But “in the time of their visitation they will shine out, and as sparks through the stubble, they will run about. They will judge nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will be king over them for ever” (Wis. 3:7–8). This is not just the language of Daniel 12:2-3; it is the essence of New Testament eschatology.
It may also be that Jesus himself deliberately contributed to the impression of sinfulness.
In a series of very helpful posts (listed below) outlining ways in which a more historical reading of the Bible might be “applied” in the life of the church today, Phil Ledgerwood draws attention to Jesus’ instruction to the disciples, after the last supper, no longer to go out empty handed but to take swords with them (Lk. 22:35-38). The reason for the change in policy? That this prophecy might be fulfilled in him: “And he was numbered with the lawless (anomōn)” (Luke 22:37). As Phil puts it:
Now, he’s asking his disciples to buy swords. Why? Because, at least as far as Luke’s text is concerned, he has to be associated with criminals (presumably so that he’ll be arrested) and his disciples carrying weapons around will do the trick. And they scrounge up a couple of swords and that’s good enough to make it work.
I think he may be right.
Jesus is not interested in the practicalities of their mission. He does not explain that they will need to protect themselves against robbers or wild animals. His point is only that he and they must be perceived as “lawless”, and it looks to me as though this is the same sort of carefully stage-managed, dangerous provocation as the entry into Jerusalem on a colt and the protest in the temple (Lk. 19:28-40, 45-48). Jesus is a master of prophetic theatre.
The “servant” of Isaiah 53:11-12 LXX bears the sins of many in Israel, is given over to death, and is “reckoned among the lawless”. A zealous Jew like Paul would have regarded Jesus as a “prophet who teaches lawless things (anoma), who will be destroyed from the people (Is. 9:14-15 LXX). He eventually came to believe that he was given up for the sins of his people, a sin offering, a propitiation (Gal. 1:4; Rom. 3:25; 8:3).
The Hebrew word translated “transgressors” in English versions of Isaiah’s text is poshʿim, which has clear overtones of rebellion or revolt. For example: “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled (poshʿim) against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (Is. 66:24 ESV). In other words, Jesus is saying that he will have the appearance of someone who is leading a revolt against God and the political order that he has put in place.
One of the disciples (Luke doesn’t tell us it was Peter) gets a little carried away with his role in this dramatisation of Isaiah 53:12 and strikes the servant of the high priest on the side of the head—a clear, if ineffectual, blow against the political order that God has put in place (Lk. 22:49). Jesus promptly calls time and heals the wounded servant. But he makes sure that they all get the point of the little show that they have put on:
Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.” (Luke 22:52–53)
His “as against a robber” equates to Paul’s “in the likeness of sinful flesh”—except that “robber” is probably an inadequate translation. In this politically charged scenario a lēistēs is much more likely to be a rebel.
Barabbas, who had “committed murder in the insurrection” and was currently imprisoned with the “rebels” (stasiastōn), is referred to by John as lēistēs (Mk. 15:7; Jn. 18:40). We should not miss the profound soteriological significance of the fact that Jesus died “in the likeness of sinful flesh” in the place of a man who had led a violent revolt against Rome.
And, of course, Jesus was crucified as a disgraced messianic pretender, alongside two other lēistai (Matt. 27:38; Mk. 15:27), one of whom at least saw through the disguise, beyond the “likeness of sinful flesh”, and recognised that Jesus had done nothing wrong (Lk. 23:40-41).