The Use and Abuse of Typology in Messianic Prophecy

In his book, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament (Knowing God Through the Old Testament Set), Christopher Wright describes the importance of typology and how it is used in relation to prophecy. He says:

The word typology is sometimes used to describe this way of viewing the relationship between the Old Testament and Jesus. The images, patterns and models that the Old Testament provides for understanding him are called types. The New Testament equivalents or parallels are then called antitypes. – Wright, Christopher J. H,  Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament (Knowing God Through the Old Testament Set)  InterVarsity Press.

Some of the features of typology are the following:

  1. The prophets did not so much make singular predictions but gave themes or patterns and that these themes have several manifestations or fulfillments in the course of human history.
  2. The type and the antitype have a natural correspondence or resemblance. The initial one is called the type (e.g., person, thing, event) and the fulfillment is designated the antitype..
  3. The type has historical reality (e.g., Paul declares that Adam “is a figure (a type) of him that was to come”, i.e., the Messiah).
  4. The type is a prefiguring or foreshadowing of the antitype. It is predictive/prophetic; it looks ahead and points to the antitype.

Let me give some examples of typological prophecies which fall under three headings:

Institutions

1.The Passover, for instance, with its spotless lamb (Exodus 12:5) which was slain without any bones being broken (12:46).  In this case, the Passover Lamb in the Jewish Scriptures is the type while the antitype is the Messiah (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7), who was without spot or blemish (1 Peter 1:19) and who was slain  and also had none of his bones broken (John 19:33ff).

2.The feast of the firstfruits (Leviticus 23:10), i.e., Shavuot was a celebration in which the initial produce of the harvest was offered to God as a token of the full crop to follow. In this case, the type (the Feast of first fruits) is fulfilled in the antitype which is the resurrection of the Messiah who is the “first fruits” offered to God (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23).

3.The Tabernacle and Temple were both central features of the Jewish sacrificial system. They both were initiated by God and were a means where the Jewish people could approach God. In the Bible, the Shechinah is the visible manifestation of the presence of God in which He descends to dwell among men. The Shechinah glory is seen in a variety of visible manifestations such as light, fire, a cloud, the Angel of the Lord, or a combination of all of these. The glory of God would descend in both the Tabernacle and Temple as well.

Therefore, in relation to the coming of the Messiah, the Shechinah takes on greater significance in John 1: 1-14. As John says, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” “Dwelt” ( σκήνωμα), means to “live or camp in a tent” or figuratively in the New Testament to”dwell, take up one’s residence, come to reside (among).” So i John 1:14 literally says,” the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us. Therefore, both the Tabernacle and the Temple were types in the Jewish Scriptures that are fulfilled in the anti-type which is the person of Jesus.

Persons

The Binding of Isaac Story

The Binding of Isaac or the “Akedah” tells the account of when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Because of Abraham’s faith God would be able to resurrect the slain Isaac. The sacrifice of Isaac is the type in that the Messiah is the antitype in the following respects: (1) They both involve the sacrifice by a father of his only son; (2) They both symbolize a complete dedication on the part of the offerer; (3) It speaks of both a death and resurrection.

King David

Even though we have already mentioned this King David was was type of the Messiah in that he was a son of God in the sense of being a Davidic King who was a ruler and who had an intimate relationship with God. But the role of King David pointed towards a greater king who is the antitype- the Messiah.

Let’s look at Romans 1:1-5

“Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints:Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

We see the following:

Paul says through the resurrection, Jesus is installed (by God) as the Son of God (Rom. 1:4). Paul is not saying Jesus is being appointed as The Son of God is a change in Jesus’ essense. The appointment is not in terms of his nature but in terms of his work as a mediator—the messianic age has dawned. Jesus is the Lord—the anti-type of the previous “sons” in the Old Testament (Adam, David, Israel).

Melchizedek

Melchizedek was both king of Salem and a priest of God—at the same time (Genesis 14:18-20)and a a type of  Messiah.  Jesus as the anti-type  began to reign on David’s throne and to simultaneously function as our high priest (cf. Psalm 110:4; Zechariah 6:12, 13; Hebrews 5:5-10; 6:20; 7:1-17).

Wright goes on to discuss the abuse of typology in Christian circles.  I have seen a lot of this myself. He says:

The older view of typology fell into disfavor because it was solely concerned with finding “prefigurations” of Christ all over the Old Testament. The idea was that the central feature of a “type” was that it prefigured Christ. But this was handled not as something observed afterward in the light of Christ but rather as the very reason for existence of whatever was being regarded as a “type.” So a “type,” in this view, was any event, institution or person in the Old Testament that had been arranged by God for the primary purpose of foreshadowing Christ. This had two unfortunate side effects. First, it usually meant that the interpreter of the Old Testament failed to find much reality and meaning in the events and persons of the Old Testament in themselves. There was no need to spend time understanding and interpreting the texts in their own Israelite historical context and background or to ask what they meant to those people at that time. You could just jump straight to Christ, because that is where you would find the supposed “real” meaning. This ends up with a very “Platonic” view of the Old Testament. That is, it is really only a collection of “shadows” of something else. Such a way of reading the Bible devalues the historical reality and validity of Old Testament Israel and all that God did in and through and for them. Second, this kind of typology had a tendency to indulge in fanciful attempts to interpret every detail of an Old Testament “type” as in some way a foreshadowing of some other obscure detail about Jesus. Once you had severed the event, institution or person from its actual historical roots in Israel, then the details would no longer be seen as simply part of the story as the Old Testament narrator told it. Since the “real meaning” was actually to be found in Jesus and the New Testament, all the details must have some hidden significance that could be applied to Christ. preacher to bring such meanings out, like a magician bringing rabbits out of a hat to the astonished gasps of admiring readers or listeners. All the colored threads of the tabernacle could signify something about Jesus. The five stones that David picked up represent the five wounds of Christ, or the five loaves he used to feed the crowd, or the five ministries that Christ has given to the church. He took them out of a stream, which was the Holy Spirit. And so on. This way of handling the Hebrew text is quite rightly now regarded as invalid and subjective.- Wright, Christopher J. H,  Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament (Knowing God Through the Old Testament Set)  InterVarsity Press.

Conclusion

Typology is a helpful way of understanding how God worked with Israel’s history and how it relates to the person and work of Jesus. However, as Wright says, we need to exercise caution in our own approach to the use of typology.

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