What is typology? In essence, it is the way that God used history to bring His promises to life. God’s plan of redemption, brought to its fullness in the work of Christ, was not carried through history by the words of prophecy alone. Rather, it touched down in the experience of God’s people as particular individuals and events illustrated the promises of God in the covenant of grace. More specifically, the person and work of Jesus Christ was imprinted on the history that led to His incarnation. People and events in Israel’s history offered prophetic glimpses of the coming Savior and His work, reassuring them of the promise of His coming. This makes typology a vital link between the Old and New Testaments, which reassures us today of the continuing power and relevance of the Old Testament as a revelation of Jesus Christ.
The Greek word typos is used variously in the New Testament, usually translated as “form,” “image,” “pattern,” or “example.” In 1 Timothy 4:12, for instance, the Apostle Paul exhorts Timothy to “set the believers an example (typos) in speech, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” Some texts, however, use typos as a more precise term to designate elements or patterns in Old Testament history that were designed to foreshadow New Testament realities. Paul refers to Adam as a “type of the one who was to come,” explaining how Adam foreshadowed Christ as a representative of mankind (Rom. 5:14–21). The writer of Hebrews, contrasting the heavenly high-priestly ministry of Jesus with the earthly ministry of human priests, characterized the latter as those “who serve a copy (typos) and shadow of the heavenly things” (Heb. 8:4–5). A type is a foreshadow of something or someone greater, which we call the antitype.
Not every superficial parallel between the Old and New Testaments is an instance of typology, but only those that substantively foreshadow the redemptive work of God through Christ. Other examples include David (Matt. 22:41–45), Jonah and Solomon (Matt. 12:39–42), Moses (Heb. 3:1–6), Melchizedek (Heb. 7:1–19), the tabernacle and its sacrifices (Heb. 9:1–15), and the Temple (John 2:18–22). By a simple metaphor, Paul posits the typology vested in the Paschal Lamb: “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7).
We may wonder how mere men, with all their flaws and sins, could serve as historical types of the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is important to recognize that there will be significant elements of contrast between the type and antitype, which is part of what defines their relationship. Jesus Christ outshines whatever points to Him. When any mere man or earthly institution is given the lofty purpose to prefigure Christ, we should expect to find a principal point of correspondence bundled in myriad details of contrast. A type is not only meant to reflect its antitype but to bring praise to what is perfect through its own imperfection. Therefore, the study of Old Testament types is not an end unto itself. It achieves its purpose, and we receive its benefit, only if the Lord Jesus Christ is exalted as He should be.
The purpose of biblical typology may be discerned from two different outlooks—namely, from old covenant and new covenant vantage points. From the former perspective, typology served to breathe life into the promises of God by personifying and illuminating the promise of redemption. We may think of types as living sermon illustrations that brought the words of prophecy to life. Types are what gave the covenant promises their movement and embodiment in history, so that divine promises became palpable and anticipation became experiential. It is truly a wondrous method of divine reassurance that reflections of Christ were built into the very fabric of history, and that history itself was moving toward its crescendo in Him.
From the vantage point of the new covenant, we can appreciate the fact that our heavenly Father has, in a sense, painted the impression of His Son on the canvas of history. Christ has come in the flesh, but Old Testament types preserve historical reflections of Him that retain their own power to move our hearts and strengthen our faith. Typology adds historical depth to our understanding of the person and work of Christ. Just as a painting augments and interprets certain features of its subject, typology draws our attention to the features of the gospel that God Himself intended to accentuate over the course of history. Therefore, the unique value of typology is not lessened by the coming of Christ. If anything, it continues to add to our complete understanding of His person and work (see Luke 24:27, 44).
Drawing these points together, we may define biblical typology as God’s selective use of Old Testament people, events, and institutions to serve as living prophecies of His covenant promises, centering upon the person and work of Jesus Christ, for the reassurance of the faith of His people in all ages.