The forward-pointing nature of Old Testament people, institutions, and events
An ancient way of reading the Old Testament involves discerning how various people, institutions, and events point forward to what God does later in redemptive history. Throughout church history, Christian interpreters have insisted that God designed earlier things recorded in Scripture to correspond to and escalate toward later things recorded in Scripture.
Welcome to the subject of typology. The word “type” refers to an impression or shape of something. Christological types are Old Testament people, institutions, or events that are shaped by God in a certain way for the purpose of anticipating the person and work of the Messiah. Think of a type as a kind of outline that’s filled in later. Or think of it as a shadow that’s cast by christological light shining into the Old Testament era.
Let’s get to some examples.
In Matthew 12, Jesus said, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40). Jesus is drawing a comparison with correspondences, and he himself is the escalation of Jonah’s descent and ascent. Jonah is a type of Christ.
In John 3, Jesus said, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). In this case, the bronze serpent in the wilderness is a type of Christ. All who look to the serpent lived physically, and all who look to Christ live spiritually (and ultimately physically at the resurrection). Correspondences and escalation.
The fulfillment of the type is the called the antitype. The word antitype sounds bad: are we against typology? But the word doesn’t mean that. The prefix anti- is not about being “against” a type in a hostile sense. Anti- can mean “opposite,” and that’s the intent with the word “antitype”: something earlier in redemptive history is considered a type of something that’s later in redemptive history, as if type and antitype are on opposite ends of the timeline. The antitype is the later fulfillment of the earlier type.
In the above examples, the prophet Jonah lived after the political fracture of Israel’s promised land but before the northern part was destroyed by Assyria, and Moses raised up the bronze serpent during the wilderness wandering of Israel before they had even inherited the promised land. By God’s design, this earlier person and this earlier thing had a forward-pointing purpose. The bronze serpent and Jonah were types, and Christ was the antitype.
In my book 40 Questions About Typology and Allegory, I offer a longer definition of typology that I hope encompasses the kinds of types that are discernible in the Old Testament. A biblical type is a person, office, place, institution, event, or thing in salvation history that anticipates, shares correspondences with, escalates toward, and resolves in its antitype.
In Luke 24, Jesus taught that the Old Testament pointed to him. He told his disciples: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).
The New Testament identifies many types of Christ. Adam, Moses, the tabernacle, the priesthood, David, Solomon, the temple, the sacrificial lamb, the bronze serpent, and Jonah are all examples of types identified by New Testament authors.
But here are some questions to complicate matters. Have the New Testament authors identified all of the Old Testament types? Or are there more christological types to discern? Can we identify Old Testament types (that weren’t identified in the New Testament) if we are not inspired apostles? What sort of criteria should we look for and apply?
The answers to these questions (and more) will be in coming posts.
For now, let’s keep this clear in our minds: the reason the Old Testament exists is because of God’s plan to send his Son. Old Testament types are like John the Baptist: they prepare the way for the Lord.
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