Finding and Preaching Christ in the Old Testament: Typology

Today’s post is the third in a series where we’re looking at finding and preaching Christ in the Old Testament. In a previous post we saw that according to the New Testament the Old Testament bears witness to Jesus Christ. Today we will begin to examine the nature of the Old Testament’s witness.

The Old Testament’s witness to Christ is not as clear or detailed as the New Testament’s, yet it is an essential component of the Bible’s presentation of who Jesus is and the salvation he accomplished. One key way in which the Old Testament bears witness to the person and work of Christ is through the use of typology.

What is Typology?

Typology is concerned with the relationship between types and antitypes. A type prefigures or foreshadows a person, event, or institution. An antitype fulfills or completes the type. As it relates to the OT’s witness to the person and work of Christ, typology involves the idea that God designed certain people, events, offices, and institutions in the OT to prefigure or foreshadow Christ and his redemptive work.1 Dennis Johnson writes,

The God who creates, reigns, redeems, and judges in history, and who speaks in Scripture, abounds in surprising ingenuity, but is also a wise planner who works by pattern and gives human beings, created in his image and recreated in the image of the Son, glimpses into the patterns of his planning. Long before he sent his Son to bring rescue in the “fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4), he sovereignly designed events, institutions, and individual leaders to provide foretastes of the feast, whetting Israel’s appetite for the coming Savior and salvation.2

Typology in the New Testament

Both the New and Old Testaments are replete with typology. Johnson has identified five categories of typological interpretation in the NT, three of which are highlighted below.3

First, there are instances where the NT explicitly refers to an OT person or event as typological of Christ or an aspect of his redemptive work. Included in this category are Adam (Rom. 5:14; cf. 1 Cor. 15), Israel in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:6, 11), the flood (1 Pet. 3:21), and the OT sacrificial system (Heb. 10:1).4

Second, the NT declares various OT passages to be fulfilled by Christ.5 Matthew records five events from Jesus’ conception, birth, and early childhood that fulfill the OT (1:22-23, citing Isa. 7:14; 2:5-6, citing Mic. 5:2; 2:15, citing Hos. 11:1; 2:17-18, citing Jer. 31:15; 2:23, possibly alluding to several OT passages).6 Throughout the rest of his Gospel, Matthew highlights a number of events in Jesus’ life and ministry that fulfill OT passages. For example, Jesus fulfilled the OT by taking up residence in Capernaum (4:13-16, citing Isa. 9:1-2), by casting out demons and healing the sick (8:17, citing Isa. 53:4; 12:17-21, citing Isa. 42:1-3), by speaking in parables (13:14-15, citing Isa. 6:9,10; 13:35, citing Ps. 78:2), and by entering Jerusalem on a colt (21:4, citing Zech. 9:9).

Third, there are instances of unmistakable allusions to the OT that are applied to Christ. Johnson writes that in this category “belong Old Testament events, persons, or individuals identified as typological of Christ and his church not by means of a direct citation but through unmistakable and undeniable allusions.” Examples that belong to this category include Jesus’ comparison of his crucifixion to the lifting up of the bronze serpent (John 3:14-15, cf. Num. 21:4-9) and Luke’s allusions to the prophetic ministries of Elijah and Elisha (see Luke 7-9).7

Typology in the Old Testament

David L. Baker has noted that the Old Testament also employs typology. Earlier individuals and events are presented as patterns or types of God’s future redemptive actions. Moses is a type of the great prophet whom God will send to his people (Deut. 18:15, 18). David is a type of the king whom God will raise up (Isa. 11:1; 55:3-4; Jer. 23:5; Ezek. 34:23-24; Amos 9:11), and Isaiah anticipates a new exodus that is patterned after and supersedes the exodus from Egypt (Isa. 43:16-21; 48:20-21; 51:9-11; 52:11-12).8 Thus, there are OT precedents for the NT’s typological interpretation of OT individuals, events, offices, and institutions.9

Clearing Up Some Confusion

Typology must not be confused with allegory. Typology is concerned with historical people, events, and institutions not words. Allegory, on the other hand, is largely unconcerned with the historical events themselves, and instead searches for the deeper spiritual meaning behind the events. Also, typology implies a real theological or historical correspondence between the typological person, event, or institution and its antitype.10 This correspondence between a type and antitype is rooted in God’s sovereign ordering of history and the divine inspiration of Scripture.

An Example of the Old Testament’s Typological Witness to Jesus Christ

In order to illustrate how OT types point to Christ, the example of Moses will be considered in more detail. As has already been observed, the OT interprets Moses as a type of the prophet whom God will send to his people: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen” (Deut. 18:15, ESV). The NT identifies Jesus of Nazareth as the fulfillment of this OT type (Acts 3:22-24). Like Moses, Jesus was appointed by God to speak to the people what God had commanded him (John 12:49; cf. Deut. 18:18).11 Yet, Jesus is superior to Moses. He does not merely speak God’s words, he is the Word of God, God’s fullest and final revelation (John 1:1-3, 14, 18; Rev. 19:13; Heb. 1:1-2).

The correspondence between Moses and Christ is more extensive than merely Jesus’ fulfillment of the Deuteronomy passage. There are thematic and theological parallels between the two that reveal the richness of Moses’ typological witness to the person and work of Christ.

  • Moses delivered the people of God from bondage to an oppressive ruler (Ex. 3:7-10). Jesus has delivered his people from bondage to sin, death, and the Devil (Rom. 6:6; Heb. 2:14-15).
  • Moses was the mediator of the old covenant—a covenant ratified with the blood of animals (Ex. 24:8). Jesus is the mediator of a better covenant—a covenant ratified with his own blood (Heb. 8:6; 9:15; Mark 14:24).12
  • Under the covenant that Moses mediated, God’s law was written on tablets of stone (Ex. 24:12). Under the covenant that Jesus mediates, God’s law is written on human hearts (Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 11:19-20).
  • The covenant Moses mediated was weak, ineffective, and temporary (Heb. 7:18-19; 8:13; 10:1). The covenant Jesus mediates is enacted on superior promises and results in eternal salvation (Heb. 8:6, 8-12; 9:11-2, 15).

There is much more that could be said concerning the typological relationship between Moses and Christ.13 However, the preceding example demonstrates clearly enough how God designed OT people, events, offices, and institutions to both provide a context for understanding the person and work of Christ and to point forward to him.

  1. G. R. Osborne, “Type; Typology,” in ISBE, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 4:930; Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, 77. []
  2. Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007), 198-1999. [↩]
  3. Ibid., 199. The two categories not discussed here are 1) subtle and debatable allusions to OT events, persons, and institutions and 2) general OT patterns fulfilled in Christ and his work. Johnson considers these two categories of typology to be valid, but less obvious than the others discussed above. [↩]
  4. Ibid., 200-206. [↩]
  5. Ibid., 207-209. [↩]
  6. For a helpful discussion of how these events fulfill OT passages, see Christopher J.H. Wright, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 55-64. [↩]
  7. Johnson, 209-211. [↩]
  8. David L. Baker. Two Testaments, One Bible: The Theological Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), 171. [↩]
  9. Johnson, 219. [↩]
  10. Baker, 179-180; Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, 77. [↩]
  11. Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 135-136; Andreas J. Köstenberger, “John,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 483. [↩]
  12. Richard D. Phillips, Hebrews (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2006), 315–317. [↩]
  13. For more parallels between Moses and Christ, see Hebrews 3:1-4:13 and 12:18-29. [↩]