What is typology? How can we use it responsibly in Bible study?

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FERGUSON: I’ll start by helping with the answer to the last part of the question: “How can I do typology in a responsible way?” First, stick to the clear indications from the New Testament regarding how typology operates.

Before going any further, I should explain what typology is. The Greek word typos means, among other things, “a shape.” A typewriter is the shape of a letter leaving an impress. Some people may not know what a typewriter is, and I’m showing my years, but that is how it works. The shape leaves an impress. The idea of typology has to do with New Testament indications of patterns and people in the Old Testament who were, in a sense, created to serve as pre-figured shapes of what Christ would do.

Adam is one clear example of an Old Testament person who is said to be a type of Christ. He is the head of the human race. He represents us. We fall in Adam. Where is the connection to Christ? Jesus is the head of the new humanity. He represents us, and we are raised up and redeemed in Him. Nevertheless, there are differences. For example, in Romans 5:12–21 Paul says that Adam was a type of Christ, but he was a type of Christ in reverse.

We can also see patterns in the Old Testament. For example, Matthew tells us that when Jesus was taken in exile to Egypt and then brought back, He was fulfilling the prophecy of Hosea, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos. 11:1; Matt. 2:15). Hosea was speaking about the way God called Israel, His son, out of Egypt. There is a pattern in the sense that what God was doing in the Exodus was a real, historical event, but it also foreshadowed what Christ would do. It gave us a picture, like a pop-up picture book version of what was coming. Christ would go into the wilderness. He would face temptation. He would lead His people into the promised land. So, the first thing to do is work with the secure ways in which the New Testament connects to the Old Testament.

Second, there is a broader kind of typology, perhaps not what you would call a “formal typology.” For example, as we think about union with Christ, we are united to Christ through faith as those who live after His death and resurrection. Those who went before, under the old covenant, were also united to Christ through faith, but the Christ who was to come. Because of our union with Christ, we find in our own lives the pattern of Christ’s death and resurrection—sufferings and glory—worked out in our lives. Just as that is true of us, we can see how the lives of Old Testament believers took the same shape as indications that they were united to Christ. In the world in which they lived prior to Christ’s coming, in a sense, they bore witness to Christ.

One great illustration is Joseph. His was a life of going down into suffering and then up in resurrection. At the end of the book of Genesis, the reason for all that was so he would save many people. Although the New Testament does not officially mention Joseph as a type of Christ, you can see the typological pattern taking place.

My advice is to have good controls on the way you do typology. The best way is to begin with the clear teaching of the New Testament rather than to start making up types from the Old Testament.

This transcript is from a live Ask Ligonier event with Sinclair Ferguson and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email ask@ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.