Typology is the study of images of Jesus in the Scripture and in the world. A “type” is any person or thing or event which God designs and uses as an image or illustration of Jesus and his kingdom. In essence, God creates a type to say, “This is what Jesus is like, and therefore it is what I am like.”
Scripture specifically identifies many types of Jesus in the Old Testament. The New Testament writers understood characters like Adam, Noah, and David to be types of Jesus. They also look back at things or places such as the Tabernacle or Mt. Zion and argue that these are types, teaching us what Jesus is like. Offices such as prophet, priest, and king are seen as types which point to Jesus.
The ancient nation of Israel itself is a type of Christ. Events such as the exodus, the exile, the destruction of Babylon, and many other events in Israel’s history are seen as miniature dramas of Jesus and his salvation and judgment.
The author of the Book of Hebrews writes to convince his readers to leave the Jewish sacrificial system for the sake of following Jesus. His argument is that the entire purpose and function of the Old Testament system was to provide imagery that would teach God’s people about Jesus and his Sacrifice. So to forsake Jesus for the sake of the system would be to cherish a signpost for the sake of the destination.
The Bible uses images which are often opposites to illustrate who Jesus is; he is the Lion and the Lamb, the King and the Servant, the Priest and the Sacrifice, the Prophet and the Word, the Teacher and the Teaching.
The Bible also uses hundreds of images from creation as types of Christ: fire, mountains, lions, lambs, wind, gold, water, milk, honey, snow, birth – all of these the Scripture uses as pictures of the Messiah.
The underlying biblical assumption is that these things do not just happen to have similarities to Jesus, but that God has created and designed these images for the purpose of reflecting the character of Christ.
So the Tabernacle is not merely a metaphor of Jesus; it is a type. The difference between metaphors and types is that God creates and designs types precisely to be pictures of Jesus. The primary purpose and meaning of a type is to display Christ.
Moses does not just happen to be similar to Jesus. Rather, God created him and raised him up to be a picture of the coming Savior, Jesus.
But the question is this: how far do we take typology?
We have all most likely heard preachers or bloggers create crazy extrapolations of Old Testament stories, attempting to twist them so that they have something to do with Jesus. This is often outlandish and far fetched.
One of my professors compares typology to driving. Everyone going faster than you is a maniac, and everyone going slower than you is a moron. The same thing is true about typology. People who are more reluctant about identifying types are no fun, and people who think every rock and tree is a picture of Jesus are out of their mind.
So, to avoid these extremes, should we simply stick to the types which the Bible explicitly identifies?
On one hand, I sympathize with my friends who love the Scripture and hate to see the context of its voice and message disregarded. On the other hand, I find the claims and assumptions of the New Testament writers and of Jesus himself impossible to come to terms with in a way that would limit the extent to which Jesus is discovered in the Scripture and in the world.
I am convinced we can take the New Testament’s claims about Jesus seriously without needing to take cheap shortcuts or cut corners to work out all their implications. We can believe that all things are created by him, through him, and for him (Col 1:15), and we can believe that the Hebrew Bible is all about him (John 5:39), while trusting that he will for the rest of our lives and throughout eternity continue to teach us how this is so.
The purpose of this book is to attempt to give us a starting place, and to send us on a committed and disciplined journey to seeking the presence and meaning of Jesus in all of our life and on every page of our Bible.
One of the earliest types in Scripture is Noah. His father Lamech makes this comment in Genesis 5:
“Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands.”
Such expectation for Noah. Here is the one who will bring us relief! Yes, the ground has been cursed and humanity has fallen. But here is the one who will save us from the curse!
Where did Lamech get the idea that there was someone coming who would bring relief from the fall?
If you are a reader following the storyline of Genesis, you already know that it was God himself who promised such a coming one, when he said to the serpent in Genesis 3:15:
“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
There is one coming, an offspring of the woman Eve, who will destroy the serpent who had brought about all the pain and evil in the world. This is the coming one Lamech was expecting.
Eve probably expected her first son Cain to be the coming one (Gen 4:1). But this hope was destroyed when Cain murdered Abel, his brother.
This same hope is glimpsed over and over again in the Hebrew Bible, each time with the same disappointment and letdown, yet each time with another promise that the hope is still coming.
Judge after judge. King after king. Priest after priest. Prophet after prophet.
Story after story in the Hebrew Bible gives us a glimpse of the hope of the coming one who would crush the serpent’s head. The beginning of each story causes us to ask, “Is this the one? Is this the promise of Genesis 3:15?”
But one after another the characters fail or fall short.
Take Noah, for instance. He does indeed lead a kind of cosmic salvation for a small group of people while God judges the world in the flood. He and his family and a preserved collection of animals are saved from destruction.
But in Genesis 9, in the new world after the flood, the story ends with a sad picture of Noah getting drunk and his son Ham shaming him. After all this, not much has changed. Disappointment.
The emotions of expectation and letdown and disappointment are utterly human.
How often do we look forward to things and only find ourselves dissatisfied at their arrival?
I was ten years old when the computer game Red Alert was released.
Command & Conquer, the prequel to Red Alert, was perhaps the greatest Real Time Strategy computer games (google it) ever created. You can play GDI (the good guys) or Nod (the bad guys). You harvest resources (called Tiberium) and then create an army to destroy the enemy. It’s great, as you must by now be imagining.
I played C&C with my older brothers when I was a kid. Most of the time all our computers would be taken by my brothers and their friends. But sometimes one would be available and I could join in on the game.
Then, Command and Conquer: Red Alert was announced to be released. This was the long awaited sequel to C&C. As a kid I spent hours reading about Red Alert and looking at screenshots on the internet. I would have dreams about this game.
My family would check Walmart and Target to see if the game was available. There were several disappointing trips.
But I vividly remember sitting in our office when my brother rushed in past me saying, “I got a cool game!” It was here. I couldn’t believe it. We installed the program on our networked PCs and fired up a multiplayer LAN party (google it). As I created my army in wonder of all the new troops and units and features I thought to myself, “I can’t believe it’s here. I must be dreaming.”
After Red Alert came Age of Empires. Then Age of Conquerors. Then Warcraft III.
But believe it or not I don’t play computer games anymore. Providentially, I started playing guitar before World of Warcraft was released.
Our lives are saturated with expectation and letdown.
We look forward to new video games, to Amazon packages, to meals, to hikes, to vacations, to marriage, to children, to retirement, and to all sorts of things and experiences. Our life is built out of expectations. We function on hope. Hope is why we keep working, keep waking up, etc. We go to parties because we expect them to be fun, or we expect to meet someone interesting. We go to work because we expect to be paid or to find fulfillment or human approval.
Yet our lives are continually flooded with letdown, just like the entire system of Old Testament types. Even when we successfully achieve the things we hope to gain we find ourselves dissatisfied and looking to other things.
I believe that the similarity between Old Testament types and our daily expectations is no coincidence.
In this way, things like a new job, Red Alert, beer with an old friend, a new episode of a favorite TV show, a newborn baby, and the building blocks of our daily life bear a similarity to Old Testament types of Christ. These are things we look to in which we expect relief and satisfaction and freedom and fun and security. But, like the Old Testament types, these things are only shadows and glimpses of Jesus.
The similarity is not a coincidence. Rather, Jesus is teaching us how he is intimately connected to even mundane things in our life, just like he was intimately connected to King David.
The Bible teaches us not only how to read the Old Testament as a book which points to Jesus, but also how to read our entire life like a book that points to Jesus. We read the Bible to discover Jesus, so that we would understand also how to look at our life and discover Jesus.
Kevin Vanhoozer says it like this: “Jesus Christ is the hermeneutical key not only to the history of Israel but to the history of the whole world, and hence the meaning of life, for he is the Logos through whom all things were created.”
In other words, just as Jesus is a key to interpreting all the images and pictures and stories and characters from the Old Testament, so he is also the key to understanding all the people, the work, the traffic, and the context you find yourself in today.
Just as Jesus is the greater and more perfect Noah, Joseph, Tabernacle, David, Jerusalem, and Mt. Zion, so he is the greater and more perfect Marriage (Eph 5). He is the greater and more perfect Bread (John 6). And so he is the greater and more perfect Steph Curry, Jon Foreman, and Kanye West. And just as the Jewish people were foolish to forsake Jesus for the sake of Moses, so we are foolish to forsake Jesus for the sake of any of our modern heroes.
Perhaps the most profound voice on typology is the 18th century American theologian Jonathan Edwards.
Edwards kept a journal in which he recorded observations of types in creation which point to Christ and his kingdom.
Consider his reflection on human breathing:
“In its being so contrived, that the life of man should be continually maintained by breath, respect was had to the continual influence of the Spirit of God that maintains the life of the soul.”
Here Edwards is drawing a comparison between the way humans need oxygen to stay alive and the way humans need the Holy Spirit to stay alive spiritually.
While preachers today might use human breathing to illustrate the Holy Spirit, Edwards believed that breathing does not just happen to be a good sermon illustration. Rather, God designed human breathing as a picture or a “type” which illustrates the way people need Christ’s Spirit to stay alive spiritually.
Can you see Edwards’ vision of reality?
Nothing just happens to be. We don’t just happen to require oxygen to stay alive. We don’t just happen to have to brush our teeth every day. We don’t just happen to have to work to support a family. We don’t just happen to get sick. Rather, God designed these things with the intent and purpose of teaching us about Jesus and his kingdom.
Edwards believed that “the whole universe, heaven and earth, air and seas, and the divine constitution and history of the holy Scriptures, be full of images of divine things, as full as a language is of words…” and that “…there is room for persons to be learning more and more of this language and seeing more of that which is declared in it to the end of the world without discovering all.”
Edwards understood reality to be a language created by God, and the Scripture is a our tutor which teaches us the ABCs of this language. As we walk with Jesus we get better and better at speaking this language, and understanding the fabric of the love of God and glory of Jesus in the world all around us.
To see Jesus in our world we must first know what Jesus looks like. We must be familiar with his character and goodness and beauty. Only when we know Jesus will we be able to discover him in our world. Outlandish types don’t usually come from a misunderstanding of bread, mountains, kings, or other images from our world. Bad typology comes from not knowing what Jesus is like.
This is why the Scripture is our starting place. The Bible teaches us who Jesus is and what he is like. Once we meet and know Jesus in the Scripture we will be able to see him in the world around us. The Scripture is God’s way of saying, “This is how I look at life and history and people.”
So the best way to start doing typology is to meditate on the types which are already in the Bible. How is bread and water like Jesus? How is light like Jesus? How is a shepherd like Jesus? What do these images teach us about Christ? How is a marriage a picture of Jesus and his Church?
If we see in Scripture that Jesus is a mountain providing safety, we may also imagine how Jesus is similar to locks, fences at the zoo, airbags, computer passwords, insurance policies, seatbelts, and all sorts of other things which provide a feeling of safety.
If we see that Jesus is bread and water providing satisfaction and sustenance, we may also imagine how Jesus is similar to digesting a good book or savoring Radiohead.
If we see that Jesus is the light of the world, we can imagine how Jesus is similar to anything that clarifies vision: underwater goggles, Lasik surgery, polarized sunglasses, and even the act of cleaning your glasses’ lens with your shirt.
If we meditate on the reality that Jesus is the Son of God, we might even imagine how every relationship in existence is in some sense a type of Christ, since he has always existed in eternal relationship and love with the Father in the Holy Spirit, even before the creation of the world.
In this way the Scripture is a “a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19). The Scripture is a light to help us see Jesus in our world.
Typology may be used like a sledgehammer to remove the mundane and insignificant from our lives.
Humans were created as God’s sons and daughters. The Father has supersaturated our world with his meaning and purpose and life, to be enjoyed and savored every moment of our existence. If we could only taste the God-intended meaning of each moment he gives us, we would be ruined with joy.
But we have become alienated and disoriented. We interpret most of our daily moments as boring or irrelevant.
Life consists of entering and exiting rooms, getting groceries, riding bikes, having conversation, playing sports, working with tools and machinery, doing dishes, playing computer games, dealing with insecurity, enjoying food, and millions of other things that make up our day to day. But we tend to find these things insignificant. Life just happens to be full of those sorts of things. There’s nothing special about them. It’s just life. Or at least we have trained ourselves to think.
We fail to consider why air conditioning is comforting or why coffee is stimulating. We take these qualities for granted.
Every day or so we put dishes into the wash, start a cycle, and then put dishes in the cupboard, only to do the same thing once again. We do this hundreds of times in a lifetime but rarely ask our sovereign Father who guides every moment and detail in our life, “Why?” We tend to think the begrudging daily tasks as well as the little pleasures in life just happen to be there.
But the Bible offers a different narrative. According to the Scripture, everything we know and experience is part of a world created by, for, and through Jesus himself. According to Scripture, the intimacy of Christ himself is the meaning and purpose of all these tasks and pleasures, big or small.
The created world we experience did not come into existence from randomness. God has a pattern. God has a plan. God has a prototype. A template. Everything was created through his Son.
You do not just happen to enjoy food. You were created to enjoy food so that you would understand what Jesus is like, the one who satisfies your soul.
The sunshine does not just happen to cheer you up. You were created to enjoy sunshine so that you would understand what Jesus is like, the one who brings warmth and light into our life.
So rejoice when you eat. Rejoice when you enjoy a sunny day. Because Jesus is exceedingly good. And do not grumble when you do the dishes, because Jesus is good. So “rejoice in the Lord always” and “give thanks in every circumstance.”