Definition of a type
A type is a special form of prophecy in which the Old Testament is interpreted in the light of the New Testament. A type is a historical person, object, event or institution in the Old Testament which in some way foreshadows a particular aspect of the person or work of Christ in the New Testament. A type must be intended by God and must pictorially foreshadow some aspect of the redemption that was achieved through Christ’s incarnation.
It is important to note that a true type must have a historical basis in the Old Testament, so it was a reality experienced by the people of Israel with real meaning to them. This distinguishes it from an allegory, which is a fictitious story with a deeper spiritual meaning, which does not normally have any historical basis. A type is also distinctly different from a symbol, in that a type is a form of prophecy which pictorially foreshadows some aspect of future redemption. A symbol, however, is a pictorial way of portraying a present spiritual reality and does not necessarily need any future fulfilment.
The Greek word used for “type”
The English word “type” is translated from the Greek word “tupos”, which literally means the mark or impression made on a soft substance by a blow. It is derived from the verb “to strike” and has a wide range of meanings in the New Testament. For example, it is used in this literal way for the mark of the nails in the hands of Jesus (Jn 20:25). It is used as an idolatrous image struck on metal (Acts 7:43), and more figuratively for the “example” Paul set for the believers to imitate (2 Thess 3:9), and as a “warning” for them to avoid (1 Cor 10:6). In a technical theological sense it is used only when Adam is described by Paul as a “type” of the one who was to come (Rom 5:14). It is likely that Paul was using a theological term already familiar to his readers, as typology had probably already been used regularly by Jewish teachers in their interpretation of the Scriptures.
The N.T. also uses the word “antitupos”, meaning “antitype”, in which the type in the O.T. foreshadows the antitype in the N.T. In this way, Noah’s flood was the type that prefigured the antitype of baptism (1 Pet 3:21). However, the author of Hebrews reverses the concept and sees the earthly tabernacle as the antitype of the heavenly sanctuary (Heb 9:24).
The debate over typology
Among biblical scholars there is a wide range of opinions over typology, ranging from those who completely reject typology, to those who detect types of Christ everywhere in the O.T.
In the older interpretation of O.T., the tendency was to ignore the original message of the text and any meaning the events had to the people of Israel. Instead, interpreters jumped immediately to a typological interpretation, so every part of the O.T. directly described Christ or some aspect of the Christian life. This approach is still common today in the church. It is popular and can be devotionally inspiring, but tends to become rather subjective, as there was no objective way of identifying a type. Amongst the Catholics and Orthodox, there is a tendency to identify the sacraments, particularly the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, in the O.T. stories.
With the rise of rationalism in the 19th century, typology was rejected as being old-fashioned. This was particularly because scholars denied that God could foretell the future, so prophecy and typology was thought to be impossible. This led to the N.T. becoming detached from its O.T. roots, and a loss of the overall plan of salvation through the entire Scriptures.
In neo-orthodox circles associated with Karl Barth, the tendency was to disbelieve any historical truth of the O.T. stories, but to claim that they contained a deeper more mystical kind of spiritual truth. It was not important to know whether or not the story actually happened historically, so many people influenced by neo-orthodoxy would be attracted to a typological interpretation of the text. However, this is not true typology, as a true type has to have a genuine historical basis.
A more conservative evangelical approach is to say that types must be specifically defined by the N.T. This, however, may be a too severely limited view of typology, as patterns of God’s working can be clearly seen in history. These began in the O.T., and continued and came to fulfilment in the N.T., climaxing in the life and ministry of Christ.
Justification for typology
The justification for typology is to be found in the N.T. itself, in that although it never denies the historical truth of the O.T. events, it often teaches that they have a deeper spiritual message in which they foreshadow the greater redemption achieved by Jesus.
Jesus told the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus that the law of Moses, the prophets and the Psalms contained things written about himself (Lk 24:44). Because he included the law of Moses, which does not contain a large quantity of prophetic material, it is likely that Jesus himself understood the law typologically, and encouraged his followers to treat it in the same way.
In his letters, Paul often used O.T. sacrificial language to describe the death of Christ (Eph 5:2), and implied that Christ was present with the people of Israel in the wilderness (1 Cor 10:4). It is particularly in the book of Hebrews that types in the O.T. are used to teach about the spiritual realities to be found in Christ, particularly including Jesus as the great high priest (ch 7), a better sanctuary (ch 8) and as the perfect once and for all sacrifice (ch 9). The author of Hebrews implies that there is more typological teaching from the tabernacle than he states (9:5), and similarly from the story of Melchizedek, because he rebukes his readers for failing to recognise it (5:11).
The presence of types shows the unity of God’s plan of salvation and of the continuity from the O.T. into the N.T. The same God inspired both, and both proclaim the same message of salvation. This was foreshadowed in the O.T. through the historical experiences of Israel and revealed in the incarnation of Christ in the New.
Principles for identifying types
Typology has often come into disrepute among scholars because of its excessive use on a popular level, so it is necessary to determine some guidelines for their identification. Superficial similarities do not constitute a type, such as ones based on numbers or colours. For example Rahab’s scarlet cord (Josh 2:18) should not be considered to be a type of the blood of Christ, as the only connection between the two is the common colour, otherwise there is no spiritual significance. A type has to have some redemptive meaning historically to the people of Israel, and thus it foreshadowed the greater redemption achieved by Christ.
Our identification of types should be guided by the way the Spirit-inspired N.T. writers used typology. They tended to make parallels with major truths, rather than discussing minute details. For example, although the tabernacle as a whole is seen as a type of Christ, it would not be correct to seek deep spiritual meaning in all the detailed instructions for its construction. Types should illustrate clearly taught N.T. truths, rather than being a source of new doctrines; Jesus, the anti-type, is always greater than the type (Mt 12:41). To avoid excessive over-spiritualisation it is important to remember that the type was part of the historical experience of Israel, so it is necessary to seek its original meaning in the context of the O.T. book, before claiming a typological meaning.
Individuals identified as types
A number of individual people are identified as types in the N.T., including Adam, and Jonah. Many commentators have seen parallels between the life of Joseph and the life of Christ, but Joseph is never identified as a type, and is only rarely mentioned in the N.T.
Adam is the only person who is expressly identified as a type of Christ in the N.T. (Rom 5:14). Adam was a type of Christ in that his single action had universal impact, and this prefigured the universal impact of Christ’s single act. However, Adam’s act had negative impact, contrasted with the positive impact of Christ’s act, so the typology in this passage is used to contrast Adam with Christ, rather than to compare them. Adam’s single act of sin led to condemnation and death for all, which is contrasted with Christ’s single act of righteousness which led to righteousness and life for all (Rom 5:14-19). Adam was the head of the old creation, compared with Christ as the head of the new creation, so Paul could consider all people as being either “dying in Adam”, or “ being made alive in Christ” (1 Cor 15:22).
When the scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign, the only sign he would give them was the sign of the prophet Jonah. In the same way that Jonah spent three days and nights in the fish, so also the Son of Man will spend three days and nights in the heart of the earth (Mt 12:39). We should note that Jews counted time inclusively, so three days and nights described any portion of three days, and not necessarily precisely seventy-two hours. Jesus compared Jonah’s experience in history with his own coming death and burial, even though the original account of Jonah merely describes events in his life without any hint of any future relevance. In this same chapter, Matthew makes a typological comparison with three important aspects of Israel’s spiritual history, saying that “something greater than the temple (v6), Jonah (v41) and Solomon (v42) is here”. Through this, he shows that Jesus is superior to, and is the successor of, God’s appointed leaders of Israel’s in the past: the priest, prophet and wise man.
Events in the O.T. considered as types
a. Crossing Red Sea, manna and water from rock
When writing to the Corinthians, Paul refers to a number of events in the wilderness wanderings to bring a warning to the church in Corinth. It appears that they had a superstitious, even magical, trust in the power of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper, thinking that through these they will be able to stand against temptation (1 Cor 10:12), or as a protection if they ate food offered to idols when they attended pagan meals. He says that the Israelites were baptised into Moses when they crossed the Red Sea (1 Cor 10:1-2). The Israelites passed through the waters from death to life in the same way that believers in Christ pass through the waters of baptism showing they have passed from death to life. He also states that they ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink when they ate the manna (Ex 16) and drank the water from the rock (Ex 17), even saying that the rock was Christ (v4). The food and drink were “spiritual” because God supernaturally provided them in the wilderness, as well as them being a type or analogy of the Lord’s Supper, the special spiritual food for Christians.
He then brings a warning to the Corinthians, that this spiritual food did not protect them from the judgement of God when they were struck down in the wilderness for their idolatry and disobedience (v5). In the same way, eating the Lord’s supper will not protect them from their idolatry. He clearly identifies these events as types when he says that they are warnings for us, using the Greek word “tupos”, or type (v6,11).
Objects as types
a. The serpent in the wilderness
When speaking to Nicodemus, Jesus parallelled his lifting up (to the cross) with Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness (John 3:14-15, Num 21:9). Just as the people in the wilderness were saved from death by looking up to the snake on the pole, it is necessary that Jesus will be lifted up, so people will be saved by looking up to, and believing in him. The lifted-up serpent becomes a picture, or type, of the lifted-up Jesus. The renewal of natural life achieved by looking up to the serpent is compared with the renewal of spiritual life attained by looking up to Jesus on the cross. In the O.T. story, most Jews should have understood that it was Yahweh who saved them following their obedience to his word, rather than the serpent (Wis 16:5-7). However, Hezekiah later destroyed this bronze serpent because people had worshipped it as an idol with magical powers (2 Kg 18:4).
O.T. institutions identified as types in the N.T.
a. The sacrificial system
Consistently through the New Testament, the death of Jesus is understood as a fulfilment of the Jewish sacrificial system, so it too can be safely identified as a type. In the law of Moses, the Jews were commanded to perform animal sacrifices to make atonement for unintentional sin, so they would be forgiven (Lev 4:20). It should be noted that for the majority of deliberate transgressions, the penalty was death (eg. Ex 21:12). However, according to the author of Hebrews, the O.T. sacrificial system was intended to be merely a shadow of what was to come (Heb 10:1). The sacrifices were ineffective to cleanse from sin, but only acted as a reminder of sin (10:2-4,11), and were only intended to be temporary (9:10). They are contrasted with the once and for all sacrifice of Christ, which was effective to cleanse the conscience from sin (10:12). The writer of Hebrews also draws a parallel between the burning of the sin offering outside the camp (Lev 4:12) with the suffering of Jesus outside the city gate of Jerusalem (Heb 13:12). From this, he exhorts his readers to follow his example and to be willing to suffer disgrace as he did by committing themselves totally to him regardless of the consequences.
b. The Passover Lamb
One of the clearest types is the Passover Lamb. In the original account, the lamb was slain, and its blood spread on the door-posts, so the angel of death would “pass over” the houses of the Israelites. By doing this, they were physically saved by the blood of the lamb, when the firstborn of the Egyptians were killed (Ex 12:12-13). When dealing with the issue of immorality in the church in Corinth, Paul draws a message from two aspects of the Passover ritual. Firstly, he describes Christ as “our paschal lamb who has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7), so we are spiritually saved by the blood of Christ, and receive new life through him. Then, also, just as the Israelites had to clear out the old yeast before celebrating the Passover festival (Ex 12:19), so Paul calls the believers to remove the yeast of immorality from the church.
Parallels are even drawn out from small details of the Passover ritual. Just as the Passover lamb (Ex 12:5), as well as the other sacrifices (eg. Lev 1:10), had to be without blemish, Peter described Jesus as a lamb without defect or blemish, by whose precious blood we were ransomed from our past lives (1 Pet 1:19). Also, not a bone of the lamb was to be broken (Ex 12:46), so John noted that when the legs of Jesus were not broken by the Roman soldiers as a fulfilment of scripture (Jn 19:34,36). John sets the crucifixion of Jesus on the Day of Preparation for the Passover (Jn 19:14,31,42), the day the Passover lambs were killed (Mk 14:12), thus making the identification of Jesus as the true Passover lamb.
Types in Matthew’s Gospel
The most extensive use of typology in the N.T. is to be found in the Gospel of Matthew and the Book of Hebrews. As these are probably the most Jewish books in the N.T., it would suggest that the use of typology was familiar to Jewish readers. Matthew uses typology extensively to affirm his message the all the hopes and expectations of Israel find their fulfilment in Jesus. Jesus is the true king David, and the true Moses, and the true Israel.
In Matthew’s account of the birth narratives, one theme that he brings out is that Jesus retraced the route of exodus. One example is when he quotes Hosea, “out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos11:1, Matt 2:15). Although Hosea was originally remembering God showing his love for his people by delivering them out of Egypt, Matthew sees this as a prophecy that was being fulfilled when Jesus and his family fled to Egypt to escape from Herod the Great. Matthew considers that Jesus is the true Israel who is bringing a new Exodus, so Israel’s experiences were a type of Jesus’s experiences. The practical lesson is that to belong to Israel, a person must belong to Jesus.
Types in the Book of Hebrews
As noted above, the author of the Book of Hebrews makes continuous use of typology to show the superiority of Jesus over the institutions of the old covenant. Each institution was good in its historical situation when they were originally established by God. Each one of them can be identified as types as they all foreshadowed the coming of Jesus, the redemption he attained, and the new covenant he established. Through this, he fulfilled their purposes and brought them to an end.
The divine origin of types is shown when Moses was shown the pattern (type) of the tabernacle on the mountain (Heb 8:5), and was told to make the tabernacle according to the pattern he had seen (Acts 7:44). Christ, as the great high priest, passed through the greater and perfect tent, and entered in to the Holy Place with his own blood (Heb 9:11). It appears that Moses actually saw something physical on the mountain (Ex 25:9, 40), rather than merely receiving verbal instructions for the building of the tabernacle. It is possible he was permitted to see God’s heavenly dwelling place, and then instructed to make an earthly copy of it, which would become God’s dwelling place in the midst of Israel (Ex 25:4). In this understanding, the Levitical priests served in the replica or shadow of the heavenly sanctuary, where Christ served as the great high priest. The tabernacle also foreshadowed the presence of God with his people in the new covenant. In the former, only the high priest could enter into the Holy of Holies (Heb 9:25), but in the new, we are all urged to draw near with boldness to the throne of grace (4:16), because we can enter the heavenly sanctuary by the blood of Jesus (10:19-20).
Types not specifically identified in the N.T.
As noted above, some evangelical scholars limit types to those expressly identified in the N.T. However, it is possible that there are other types in addition to those. One is the Scapegoat on the Day of Atonement. Through the laying on of hands, all the sins of Israel were transferred onto the head of the goat, which was then sent out into the wilderness, away from the camp of Israel, hence taking all their iniquities away (Lev 16:22). This can be seen as a type of Christ, who bore all our sins and took them away.
The study of types in the O.T. gives a rich and inspiring insight into the person and ministry of Christ, especially his sacrificial death. Typology shows the continuity between the two testaments, that God’s plan of redemption started through his workings in the history of the people of Israel, and came to its climax and fulfilment through the death of Christ. However, there are excesses to avoid if the Biblical text is to be handled with integrity.
Ashley, T.R. The Book of Numbers. New International Commentary on the Old Testament (NICOT). Eerdmans 1993.
Bruce, F.F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT). Eerdmans 1990.
Bruce, F.F. The Gospel of John. Eerdmans 1983.
Bruce, F.F. Typology in Illustrated Bible Dictionary. ed. JD Douglas. IVP 1986. Green, Scot McKnight, I Howard Marshall. IVP 1992.
C.A. Evans Typology in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Ed Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, I Howard Marshall. IVP 1992.
Fee, G.D. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT). Eerdmans 1987.
France, R.T. Matthew. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (TNTC). IVP 1985.
France, R.T. Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher. IVP 1989.
Ladd, G.E. A Theology of the New Testament. Eerdmans 1996.
Moo, D. The Epistle to the Romans. New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT). Eerdmans 1996.
Morris, L. The Gospel According to Matthew. Pillar Commentary. Eerdmans 1992.
Payne, J. Barton, Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy. Baker 1973.
Rad, G von, Old Testament Theology. Harper and Row 1962.
Vos. G, Biblical Theology. Banner of Truth 1948.