If we agree that typology unites the Bible, identifies who Jesus is, and reveals God’s progressive revelation (which I argued here), then it is vital to know how to recognize a type. Indeed, one of the of the reasons people doubt the validity of a given type (e.g., Joseph as type of Christ, or Noah’s ark as a type of salvation) is that they fear reading too much into the Old Testament. Perhaps, they have seen typology gone wild and have concluded that such interpretations are fanciful and forced. Indeed, while there are many poor examples of misinterpretation, typology remains a vital reality in the Bible. And it behooves us to ask again: “How do you recognize a true biblical type?”
In what follows, I’ve given 5 ways to help you do that. This list isn’t exhaustive and it (over)simplifies some very technical discussions, but for those just beginning to consider or reconsider typology, may it serve as a starting point for recognizing types in Scripture. (For a more comprehensive approach to detecting types, allusions, and patterns in Scripture, see G. K. Beale’s Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation, esp. chapters 3 and 4).
Five Ways to Detect Valid, Biblical Types
First, some types are explicitly identified.
For instance, in Romans 5:14 Adam is a type of Christ; Hebrews 8:5 calls the tabernacle a type of the true temple in heaven; and Peter says baptism “corresponds to” (i.e., is a type of) Noah’s watery deliverance (1 Pet 3:21). Likewise, even where the word “type” is not used, NT authors repeatedly identify typological relations: (a) Peter says that Jesus is a prophet like Moses in Acts 3:22–26 (cf. Deut 18:15–18), (b) Paul calls Jesus the Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7; cf. Exodus 12–13), and (c) Hebrews 5–7 compares Jesus to Melchizedek (cf. Gen 14; Ps 110). In fact, the whole book of Hebrews shows how New Testament Christians should see the how Old Testament shadows are fulfilled and surpassed in Christ.
Second, some types are connected to a series of biblical images.
After observing types which are explicitly mentioned, there are certain “macro-types” or “biblical threads” that progress through the whole Bible (on this see Graeme Goldsworthy, Christ-Centered Hermenutics, 253–56). Usually, these “typological chains” start with a historical person, event, or institution; they experience some form of escalation within the OT; then they find their greatest fulfillment in Christ and sometimes by extension the church. A few examples include the exodus/exile, tabernacle/temple, the promised land, priests and kings, and marriage and adultery. While each typological chain is developed in its own way, you can find each of these ‘types’ introduced in the Pentateuch, improved and/or deformed in the Prophets, and fulfilled in Christ (and his church). Therefore, when you read Scripture, biblical types often arise among these typological chains.
Third, some types are evidenced from linguistic and/or sequential correspondence.
All valid types must have significant correspondence. The question is, “What makes correspondence significant?” Is the color red enough to connect Rahab’s scarlet cord to the cross and Jesus’ blood? Some think so, but more textual warrant is needed. There must be something more than a superficial resemblance to make something a type. Therefore, two useful tests for discerning types are: (1) the test of linguistic correspondence, which asks if there are words or phrases shared between the type and antitype, and (2) the test of sequential correspondence, which looks for a common arrangement of events. While these tests may require some technical skills, they help us ask good questions about the biblical text. (For an excellent summation of these two tests and discussions about typology in general, see Jim Hamilton, Was Joseph a Type of Messiah?)
Fourth, some types are confirmed by their relationship to biblical covenants.
It is my contention that types and covenants (e.g., Noahic, Abraham, Sinai, Davidic) are interrelated. From one angle, covenants are comprised of multiple types. For instance, in the Sinai covenant, which dominates the landscape of OT Israel, we find a marriage-like covenant at the Mountain of God (Exod 19–20), where a mediator delivers the law of God to the people of God (Exod 21–24, 32–34), such that God would be able to dwell with Israel (Exod 25–40). Without even considering the typology of the redemption (i.e., the Passover, the victory at the Red Sea, water-giving rock, etc.), it is clear that the new covenant patterns itself on all the things just mentioned—a marriage-like covenant, mediated by a deliverer who writes the law of God on his people’s hearts, and who intends to lead them to dwell with him in his cosmic temple. Because of the covenantal context of the Bible, it is important to relate types and antitypes to specific covenants in the Bible; and conversely, those covenants help situate and clarify what is significant about the relationship between any given type and its greater antitype.
Fifth, some types aren’t types at all but another form of connection.
While typology is a significant way the NT applies the OT to Christ, it is not the only way. In fact, there are numerous ways. Some of these include promise-fulfillment (e.g., the prediction of the messiah’s birthplace in Micah 5:2 as fulfilled in Matthew 2:6), analogy (e.g., in the OT Israel was called God’s bride; in the NT the church becomes the bride of Christ), moral exhortation or ethical example (e.g., as in the way Paul warns the Corinthian church by means of citing Israel’s negative example, 1 Cor 10:1–13), longitudinal themes (i.e., motifs that run across the whole Bible [e.g., God’s presence, law, mediation, etc.]; sometimes these themes contain types, but not always), and contrast (e.g., in Hebrews Jesus is the superlative priest and therefore set in contrast to Aaron). Dismissing a type helps us see what is really going on in the passage, and it protects us from making everything a type. Therefore, the goal of rightly discerning types is not to make everything a type, but to see when a typological relationship is present how the Old Testament prefigures the New, and how the New Testament authors interpreted the Old.
Scratching the Surface, Saturating the Soul
All in all, these five “best practices” will help you get into the water of typology. Or better, they will help you swim in the water of God’s Word, an ocean filled with beautiful and challenging persons, events, and institutions that all reveal and conceal something of God’s glory (cf. Matt 13:10–17).
Still, recognizing types in Scripture is not just a matter of mechanics. It requires Spiritual illumination (1 John 2:27) and the ongoing renewal of your mind (Rom 12:1–2). Indeed, “seeing the connections” is something that takes time and occurs when your soul is saturated with Scripture and your eyes of faith have learned from the apostles that all the promises have found their ‘yes’ and ‘amen’ in Jesus Christ (2 Cor 1:20). It begins with a conviction that all Scripture is about Christ; it requires a mind constantly meditating on God’s word; and it recognizes that for all we have seen about God in the Bible, there is still more that we haven’t seen.
Indeed, until we see Christ face-to-face, let us know him more thoroughly and more delightfully by recognizing the biblical types that bear the shadow of his substance.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss