Typology as a Scriptural Pattern of
The previous blog discussed biblical terms that sometimes signal a typological relationship between a person, event, or institution in the Old Testament and its fulfillment in the New Testament. But even though New Testament typological use of the Old abounds, the terminology we discussed is sparse. So we must tune our ear to the Bible’s implicit typological methodology of advancing revelation throughout redemptive history.
Even within the Old Testament itself, we can see a pattern of inner-biblical exegesis where later writers employ a typological understanding of earlier events. In turn, the New Testament authors employ pervasive typology in their use of the Old.1
For example, Paul treats Israel’s wilderness history as an example (τυπικῶς/typikōs) written for us (1 Cor 10:11). More importantly, the typological approach is the only method that can do justice to how Jesus and Paul teach us to read the Old Testament. Jesus rebuked his disciples and instructed them in the Emmaus encounters:
Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?” Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
Then he said, “When I was with you before, I told you that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. And he said, “Yes, it was written long ago that the Messiah would suffer and die and rise from the dead on the third day. It was also written that this message would be proclaimed in the authority of his name to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem: ‘There is forgiveness of sins for all who repent.'” (Luke 24:25–27, 44–47, NLT)
Jesus mentions no particular Old Testament predictions about the crucifixion and resurrection; rather, he points to the entirety of the Old Testament as a witness to himself. He speaks of “all the Scriptures.” First, he uses a twofold label, “the writings of Moses and all the prophets”; then he uses a threefold label, “the law of Moses and the prophets and the Psalms.” This same method enabled Paul to say, “all Scripture”—that is, the entire Old Testament—is not only “inspired by God” and thus authoritative revelation for its original audience, but also “useful” for Christian preaching, teaching, and discipleship (2 Tim 3:16).
With or without using specific technical vocabulary, Scripture frequently displays a typological relationship between things “alike in principle but diverse in form.”2
- A priesthood “in the order of Melchizedek,” who didn’t inherit the priesthood, typifies Jesus Christ’s eternal priesthood.3
- Old Testament priests served in a sanctuary that was “only a copy, a shadow of the real one in heaven” (Heb 8:5); however, “Christ did not enter into a holy place made with human hands, which was only a copy of the true one in heaven. He entered into heaven itself” (Heb 9:24).
- Christian baptism corresponds to Noah’s salvation through the flood (1 Pet 3:21).
- Jesus Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of various aspects of Israel’s cultic and corporate life: he fulfills what was symbolized by their prophets (Deut 18), priests (Heb 7), kings (2 Sam 7; 1 Chr 17), Passover (1 Cor 5:7); exodus (Matt 2:15; quoting Hos 11:1), wilderness food and water (John 6:31–33; 1 Cor 10:4), and temple (John 2:19; Heb 7).
Even within the Old Testament itself we can see signs of a typological understanding:
- The promised land is a veritable new Eden that flows with milk and honey; in turn, eschatological blessing picks up those same motifs.4
- The tabernacle and temple can be depicted with Edenic imagery; in turn, the eschatological paradise proves to be a supersized temple-paradise.5
- Isaiah foretells the return from Babylonian exile using the motif of a second exodus (Isa 11:11–12, 16).
- The future Messiah is not only “David’s branch,”6 but even a second “David.”7
I conclude that typological interpretation and reapplication is the biblical mode of integrating biblical theology within the Old Testament itself, and then between the Old and New Testaments when that stage arrives in progressive revelation.
Proper Constitution of a Type
Fairbairn says, “The realities of the Gospel are the ultimate objects which were contemplated by the mind of God when planning the economy of successive dispensations.”8 In other words, God himself established the typological relationships; they are not just something we ourselves establish as a reading strategy.
Even though the Old Testament types were inferior to the form of their New Testament fulfillment, they could “prepare the way for the introduction of these ultimate objects.” This preparatory instruction taught the Old Testament people of God first. But it prefigured truth that God revealed for our benefit too. So Fairbairn describes a key qualification for anything in the Old Testament to be considered a type:
[It] ought not to be regarded as employed simply for the sake of those who lived during its continuance…. [It must] have been fitted to tell with beneficial effect on the spiritual state of the Church in her more advanced state of existence, after she had actually attained to those better things in themselves.9
For example, Paul insisted that the Old Testament legislation and events were recorded for our instruction:10 “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right” (2 Tim 3:16, NLT).
About now, some of you readers are perhaps getting a little doubtful about my focus on typology as the method of inner-biblical exegesis. And the more aware you are of the history of so-called typology, the more guarded you will become about anything called “typology.” The next few blogs will survey the history of typology and its disreputable cousin “allegorization.”
Questions & Reflections
- Can you think of inner-biblical “exodus” typology, places in the Old and New Testaments that reflect typologically on the exodus as a pattern for God’s subsequent redemptive works?
- Can you think of other Old Testament events or institutions that the Bible itself treats typologically later in redemptive history?
- The two key works on typology and NT use of the OT: Patrick Fairbairn, The Typology of Scripture (Funk & Wagnalls, 1900; reprint, 2 vols. in 1, Baker 1989); Leonhard Goppelt, Typos: The Typological Interpretation of the Old Testament in the New (Eerdmans, 1982).
- Fairbairn, Typology 1.44.
- Ps 110:4; Heb 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:11, 17.
- E.g., Exod 3:8, 17; 13:5; 33:3; Jer 11:5; 32:22; Ezek 20:6, 15.
- Gregory K. Beale, “Eden, the Temple, and the Christian Church’s Mission in the New Creation,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48.1 (March 2005), 5–31.
- Isa 11:1–5; Jer 23:5–6; 33:15.
- Jer 30:9; Ezek 34:23–24; 37:24; Hos 3:5.
- Fairbairn, Typology, 1.47.
- Fairbairn, Typology 1.48–49.
- 1 Cor 9:10; 10:11, also Rom 4:23; 15:4.