scripture study

Typology in a Nut shell: What is Typology?


If you’ve been in church within the last thirty years you’ve seen, bad or good, typology. If you’ve been in church only the last five years you probably don’t have a clue what it is.

Typology is the study of pictures or patterns that function in some sort of predictive way—though not necessarily foretelling the future. That doesn’t make a lot of sense and it’s really way too simplistic so I’ll have to explain it in three levels while first telling you why this is important.

If you read Tolkien’s books you’ll find that the stuff that happens in Lord of the Rings already sort of happened to other characters in other books that he wrote. It’s not that Tolkien was running out of ideas. Tolkien as world-creator wanted to show that the events that happened to one character would play out to another character in a greater way. It highlights that what happens to those later characters is really important.

The same thing happens in the Bible. The World-Creator, God, ties it all together by weaving lives. Typology in the Bible helps us understand the main subject (Christ according to Luke 24:25-27) with a whole mess of different pictures.

Like I said before, this is done on (at least, though I’ll only mention) three levels.

Level one: the picture that looks like what it models

Imagine you see a hummingbird flying from flower to flower, wings fluttering super-fast. Then you see one of my kids running from toy to toy, arms flapping. You see some impressive similarities.

The Bible uses pictures at this level. So do preachers, though sometimes they do it in a bad way.

They might say that the picture really stands for what they’re talking about when they have no real basis.

Rahab’s red cord is really a picture of the blood of Christ, they might say. Or the fifty rings on the tabernacle really stand for the fifty days to Pentecost where it joins the two curtains of Jew and Gentile to make one tent.

Or the reason David took five stones is because of what they taught: 1 (The One God), 2 (Christ’s two natures), 3 (the trinity), 4 (all of creation), 5 (G-R-A-C-E). It would have been better if he took seven since six is the number of man and seven is the number of perfection!

But there’s a right way to do Level One Typology. Christ will say in John 3:14 that Moses lifted a serpent in the wilderness and that the son of man would be lifted up in the same way. He was talking about Moses lifting the brass serpent in the wilderness back in Numbers 21:4-9. He wasn’t saying that Moses did a vertical action and so the son of man will do a vertical action. He’s recalling the whole event.

The people were dying. The poison from the snakes was coursing through their veins. They couldn’t do anything. But God provided something. Moses lifted the solution before the people and they had to turn from their situation, stop looking at their own impending disaster, and look to God’s provision of the lifted up serpent. When they looked at it, they would immediately be saved and would have life.

That pictures the exact situation with Christ. I know a teacher who calls this level prototypes or thought-models. You look at them to see how they work and then you look at Christ. Very helpful when done right.

Level 2: The picture that acts like what it will model

Level 1 typology is easy if you stick close to what the text is doing without forcing meanings. And although the Bible encourages looking deeper into those sort of things (look at Hebrews 9 how it begins talking about the items within the tabernacle) the New Testament writers spent a lot of their textual time in Level 2 Typology.

It’s better to illustrate Level 2 typology before explaining it.

If you go to a street fair and see a bunch of dudes sitting along a table in a familiar pattern with one sitting in the middle with a gold plate behind his head, you’d know that they’re acting out something. But, when you see DaVinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper you’ll know exactly what they were doing.

That’s my own example. Now let’s see it in Scripture.

Check out Hos 11:1. It’s talking about when the nation of Israel was called out of Egypt. If you look at how God speaks about Israel in Exodus 4:22 you’ll see that God calls Israel his Son. His Son was called out of Egypt. His Son went out into the Wilderness. And his Son repeatedly failed. That’s what Hosea 11:2-4 goes on to say.

Now check out Matthew 2:13-15 we see Joseph and Mary fleeing to Egypt to hide from Herod and the reason is that it was to fulfill what was said in Hosea: out of Egypt I have called my son.

There are a few ways to handle this.

One wrong way is to say that Matthew (and the rest of the authors in the New Testament because they all do this a lot) just got it wrong: they liked to pull stuff out of context as proof-texts.

Or you can wrongly say that Hosea 11:1 really does predict that Jesus was going to Egypt when the context says no such thing.

Or you can look at it the right way: Jesus, as God’s Son—the True Israel—is walking in Ancient Israel’s footsteps by going down into Egypt. What wound up happening to Israel? Well, they left Egypt after going down into the water and coming out the other side safely. Then they went out into the wilderness and were tested for 40 years—and they failed. When persecution came they repeatedly buckled. That generation died in the wilderness.

Here comes Jesus, God’s Son, who goes down to Egypt. He then is silent for a few years until his baptism where he goes to the water and comes up on the other side. Then he heads out into the wilderness for 40 days of testing. He passes. Then he comes back to be persecuted!

This second level of typology is all about showing Christ as the True Israel or the True Prophet or the True David. It’s all over the New Testament. This is typology at it’s most common where you see how Christ follows the mold and then does better.

Level 3:The picture that misses what it models

Okay that last one was pretty hard and it’s not how we usually think about Scripture. This one is tougher and not used often though you do see it in places like Galatians 3 or Hebrews 9.

This kind is like the old Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck cartoons. Something scary would happen and off would go Daffy running through the wall leaving a duck-shaped hole. This is an impact silhouette. The wall is there but the hole needs filling with this specific character.

Level 3 Typology is a Christ shaped hole in the pages of Scripture. But again, this is better illustrated.

Check out the entire book of Leviticus. It opens with sacrifices. It gives you meticulous detail what to bring and how to offer it. Then it gives you more sacrifices. Then it tells you what you can’t offer. It does it chapter after chapter and then, all of a  sudden, it repeats everything but this time with instructions to the priests. Then it tells you stories about priests who come up to God with strange fire—and they’re killed! Then it tells you about sacrifices the community offers year by year.

What is that all about? Well to Israel it was outright instruction on where they would approach God (the tabernacle), what they would bring (a sacrifice) and how they would approach Him (with blood once a year). They couldn’t get near God without blood or they would die.

There’s a huge hole though. The only person who could get in to God was the priest and every year there would have to be more sacrifices to get access to God. As long as there was a tabernacle and sacrifices, they would have to go through that channel.

Hebrews 9 talks about it: a place of worship, a sacrifice, and an approach to God. It looks back at the entire book of Leviticus but then shows that it wasn’t enough. Animal sacrifices were good enough for some covenants but a covenant that finally dealt with sin needed to put the people under the curse—and then they’d be wiped out. Only Christ could fill that hole with the cross and the resurrection. By dying and rising again he fills a need that the Levitical code never addressed.

Now it stands as a further picture: the way to God was not open as long as the tabernacle was standing. Therefore, that that which is old is fading away in light of Christ’s fulfillment. We Christians have full access to God because of the blood and sacrifice of Jesus.

Whew, that last one is hard. It doesn’t happen super often in Scripture. Like I said, you’ll see it in a few places but those places take a lot of teasing out to get what it’s saying without getting wacky.

Go and Look For It

Hopefully this will help you avoid some of the more egregious typology (the bad stuff that teaches as fact the imaginations of men like numerology, the meanings of colors, or imbuing shapes with meanings) while allowing us to see metaphors, types, and analogies that constantly point us to the necessity of Christ’s death and resurrection.

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