Typology: What It Is and Why We Need It


typologyWhat is typology?  

In yesterday’s sermon on Numbers 20, we ran into something known as typology. As it has been variously defined in church history, typology occurs in the Bible when an historical person, event, or institution—in this case a water-giving rock—foreshadows the coming Son of God. As with Exodus 17, this life-giving, water-streaming rock is a type of Christ, at least according to the apostle Paul.

Writing in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul recounts a number of events in Israel’s history (see vv. 1–13), including this rock. He writes, “All were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (vv. 3–4). In these words, Paul makes the stunning claim that the Rock was to be identified with the Lord, and since Christ is the Lord (cf. 1 Cor 8:6), the Rock is to be identified with Christ.

Two verses later, he adds, “Now these things took place as examples (typoi) for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (v. 6). Most versions rightly translate typoi as “examples” but you can see from the Greek word that the examples Paul has in mind were types, a word he uses elsewhere to relate Adam and Christ (Rom 5:14), a word Peter uses to speak of Noah’s baptism (1 Pet 3:21), and a word used in Hebrews to relate the tabernacle on earth with the one in heaven (Heb 8:5).

On the basis of passages like these, Christians going back to the early church have rightly seen (and looked for) ‘types’ of Christ in the Old Testament. But at the same time, questions have arisen to ask: What is a type?

That is the question I want to answer today in broad and simple strokes. I recognize that large tomes and complex articles have been written on the subject, but for those just getting acquainted with the idea, I want to introduce typology as simply as I can.

What is a Type?

First, “type” is a biblical word. As already indicated the multiple New Testament writers used the term. However, they used other words as well. For them the Law and its festivals were “shadows,” while Christ was the substance (Col 2:17; Heb 10:1). In Matthew, Jesus “fulfilled” countless Old Testament passages (1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 3:15; 4:14; 5:17; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14, 3; 21:4; 26:54, 56; 27:9 ; cf. Luke 1:45; 22:37). Likewise, Paul spoke of all the old promises finding their “Yes” and “Amen” in Christ (2 Cor 1:20). While not reading Christ back into the Old Testament, the apostles followed Jesus’ method of interpretation to read the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings as speaking about him (Luke 24:27).

Second, biblical types are historical, not metaphysical mysteries. While philosophers like Plato, Plotinus, and Philo used typology to speak of metaphysical realities in other realms, biblical typology is a matter of history. In the Old Testament God introduced persons, events, and institutions to bring Israel to an understanding of salvation. Over time, these types were repeated and often improved. This is called “escalation.” Then, in the fullness of time, Christ himself became the fulfillment of earlier types, such that when the apostles preached and wrote, they littered their gospel message with Old Testament language and imagery.

Third, types must be discernible from the Biblical text and not just the fanciful imagination of the interpreter. In church history there has been debate about what makes a type and how Christians might recognize them in Scripture. In another post, I’ll point to a couple ways to identify types, but suffice it to say, a type is an historical person, event, or institution that is designed by God to foreshadow the later, greater antitype, the Substance by which the type gets its shape and beneficence. Accordingly, you can see how most types must relate to the person and work of Jesus Christ, as well as the new covenant he mediates.

What Does Typology Do?

While is important to understand what a type is, it is equally important to understand what a type does. Like all God’s speech-acts, types do something. And here are three things that types do and why all Christians should be familiar with biblical typology.

First, typology unites the New Testament to the Old Testament, and vice versa.. Looking back on the Old Testament, John could see how the serpent lifted up in Numbers 21 foreshadowed Christ (see John 3:14-15), and Paul could read the story of Sarah and Hagar as written allegorically. (N.B. Paul didn’t interpret Genesis allegorically [like Augustine did]; he rightly recognized the typological intent of Genesis, mediated by the prophetic interpretation of Isaiah [see Isaiah 54]). Therefore, coupled with Christ’s own method of interpretation, the apostles had every reason to believe that God orchestrated history to foreshadow Christ. Just as the prophets were inspired by the Spirit to write of Christ’s sufferings and subsequent glories (1 Pet 1:10–12), so God orchestrated biblical types—persons, events, and institutions whose full meaning couldn’t be ascertained until the coming of Christ.

Second, typology identifies who Jesus is. For the Apostles typology became a predominant way to explain the Messiah’s identity. Birthed in Jewish soil, when the apostles spoke of Christ as prophet, priest, and king, they intended to connect him with Moses (Deut 18:18; Acts 3:22–26), Melchizedek (Genesis 14; Psalm 110; Hebrews 5 –7), and David (Psalm 2; Matt 1:1; Rom 1:4), respectively. Likewise, when John says that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), typology is at work to explain Jesus’ identity. Just the same, any faithful Christology must rightly apply the types and shadows to Jesus.

Third, typology reveals the wisdom of God’s progressive revelation. As one unified story of salvation, the Bible reveals a systems of types and shadows that range from Adam to the Last Adam, from the Garden of Eden located on the mountain of God to holy Mount Zion which becomes a Garden-City. In the center of it all is Jesus Christ. As God’s final and full revelation (Heb 1:1–2) and the One who unifies heaven and earth and thereine (Eph 1:10), it is not surprising that God would create the world, history, and the Bible to reflect his Son and progressively reveal the One whose Word holds together all things.

The Church Needs Typology

In fact, this is exactly what God has done. Beginning with the protoevangelium (Gen 3:15), God has been saving his people by means faith in his gracious promises. While the Old Testament saints could not understand the virgin birth or the Roman crucifix, they did (from the very beginning) believe in the shadows of the cross—a God who would provide a substitutionary sacrifice and One who could raise the dead to life. This is why Paul speaks of the gospel preached beforehand (Gal 3:8). Through type and shadow God proclaimed to Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Now, situated on the other end of redemptive history, we must understand how these types worked so that we can rightly interpret God’s word and appropriately respond to God’s Son. In this way, typology is a legitimate, necessary, and fruitful means of knowing the God who made the world to glorify and resemble his Son. Paul saw this when he considered the Rock in the desert. And we too should learn how to see Christ in all Scripture.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss


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