Types: Shadows, Symbols, and their Substance

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets,
Jesus explained to them the things concerning himself
in all the (Old Testament) Scriptures

(Luke 24:27)

You study the (Old Testament) Scriptures diligently
because you think that in them you have eternal life.

And yet these are the very Scriptures that testify about me.
(John 5:39)

From infancy you have known the (Old Testament) Holy Scriptures,
which are able to make you wise for salvation
through faith in Jesus Christ.

(2Timothy 3:15)

Jesus’ conversation with a couple of oblivious disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24 ought to define how we read our Old Testament. His denunciation of the Pharisees in John 5 should be the key interpretive principle for our entire Bible. Paul’s exhortation to Timothy should show us how the first three generations of Christians (Jesus – Paul – Timothy) approached their Old Testaments.

I think we know this. But as I mentioned previously, too many of us are afraid. We’re afraid of making interpretive errors. We're afraid of making the Bible say something it doesn't say (there's certainly too much of that going around already).  I believe that we instinctively know that the Old Testament points us to Christ, but simultaneously know that the solution is not to see Jesus' blood every time the color red is mentioned, or just casually supply the name “Jesus” in place of “David”.

Christians know that the Old Testament prepares us for and anticipates the work of Jesus. And we should read our Old Testaments accordingly. But we need help. We need tools.

I’d like to take this opportunity to briefly explain three methods on legitimately interpreting Christ and his Gospel in the Old Testament. Please understand that this is not meant to be exhaustive. Think of it more as a primer (as in elementary introduction, not the first coat before painting… well… that image actually works too…)

Three ways I will endeavor to cover for interpreting Christ and the Gospel the Old Testament in the coming weeks are:

Shadows and Substance: What is Typology?

The Big Story: What is Redemptive History?

One of These is not Like the Others: What is Biblical Contrast?

In this article, we’ll look at the way of typology.

Types are: Persons, Institutions, and events of the OT which are regarded as divinely established models or pre-representations of corresponding realities (antitypes) in the New Testament salvation history. (Walther Eichrodt)

In other words, the Old Testament is full of real people, real festivals, real history, each having its own real meaning – but some of which has an additional greater, symbolic meaning that points forward to Christ and his Gospel.

We recognize some of these instinctively.

Take the Passover Lamb, for example. When we read Exodus 12, we realize that a real lamb was slain, and that its real blood was spread over the real doorposts of real Hebrews. But we realize that there is a greater symbolic purpose for the Passover event; that it points us forward to Jesus, our true and greater Passover Lamb, whose blood protects us from eternal death.

Now here’s the key – as a Christian, when I read Exodus 12, I don’t shut off my brain and forget that the Gospel ever happened! Jesus changes how I read Exodus 12. I don’t walk away from Exodus 12 thinking, “Boy, it’s a good thing those Hebrews obeyed!”. Rather, I come away from Exodus 12 in worship to Jesus, thanking him for his blood that was spilled on my behalf.

I hear of Jesus and the Gospel directly from Exodus 12.

Sometimes, like the Passover Lamb, types are blatantly obvious from either their clear New Testament referent, or just plain familiarity. When we read of Moses lifting up the bronze serpent, we think of Christ being lifted up on the cross (Jn. 3:14). When we read about Adam, the original image bearer of God, we (should) instinctively think of Christ, who is the perfect image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15). These are shadows of a deeper reality. The Lamb, the bronze serpent, and even Adam himself serve us as pre-representations of God’s work in and through Jesus.

But there are so many more!

When you read of Noah’s Ark, do you think primarily of a floating zoo? Or do you see God’s unique and divinely appointed means of salvation from the flood of his wrath, open to all who will believe (even if very few end up responding)?

When David slays Goliath, are you encouraged that (with God’s help of course) little guys can do big things too? Or do you see God’s anointed Shepherd-King defeat God’s enemy, and an army of people who can now enjoy the benefits of their champion’s victory, even though they couldn’t lift a finger to help themselves?

Like anything in life, growing in the discipline of noticing types in the Old Testament takes practice. The more you deliberately work at it, the more you’ll develop an instinct.

Here are four tips to get you started on your way:


Know and love the Gospel

A primer to the primer: If you don’t know the gospel, how can you expect to recognize it when you see it?  Do you notice gospel-heavy passages when you read them in the New Testament? Maybe take a moment and answer this question on paper: What is the Gospel? For many of us, we may think we know, but trying to explain it in a logical, cogent statement might be harder than we realize. Know the Gospel. Love the Gospel. Tell yourself the Gospel every day, multiple times a day. Before long you’ll begin seeing its shadows all over the Old Testament.


Look for the Type in the Central Message of the Text

If you’re straining the details of a passage to find Christ, you’ve probably taken a wrong turn. Look for the Gospel in the main purpose of the passage. (Again, looking at a passage and being able to summarize its main purpose requires practice!) Consider for instance the setting up of the Tabernacle, which takes up almost the entire second half of the book of Exodus. It’s tempting there to strain at the details and come up with interpretations like, “The white veil means Christ’s holiness” or, “The crimson in the curtain means Christ’s blood”.  These observations are dubious at best.

A much better approach is to observe the central message; the entire purpose of the tabernacle, and the temple after it. The tabernacle existed to facilitate God’s presence among a sinful people. It symbolized God’s otherwise unapproachable dwelling amongst his creation. Jesus is the reality to which this shadow points. In Christ, the dwelling of God is finally with his people. In Christ, the thrice-holy God can finally live among sinful human beings.   

Remember that Types Escalate

We’ll talk more about this when we look at the way of Biblical Contrast. Suffice it to say for now, that when we consider Old Testament types, we need to remember that the point is not just to see theologically stimulating connections between Old and New Testaments. We have to ask why Jesus and his Gospel are better. We must see how Jesus and his Gospel are superior.

"The tabernacle symbolizes the presence of God. Jesus is the presence of God. Cool deal."

NO! You can’t stop there. Jesus provides access to the presence of God in a way the tabernacle and temple never could have hoped to accomplish. In Christ the dividing wall separating Jew and Gentile is broken down (Eph. 2:14)! In Christ the veil separating us from the holy of holies is torn apart (Matt. 27:51)! Jesus is not only anticipated by the tabernacle and temple, he is superior to the tabernacle and temple!

I believe our greatest teacher here is the book of Hebrews. If you don’t get anything else from this article, get this: Read and reread the book of Hebrews. It will teach you how to do this better than anyone out there (and has the extra benefit of being, you know, inspired by the Holy Spirit of God…)

Which brings me to my final suggestion:

Reverse Engineer Clear Passages

If you are new to interpreting Christ in the Old Testament, a great place to start is with Types that are clearly presented the New Testament. Again, my best suggestion is the book of Hebrews, but there are plenty of other places to start as well.

We know, for example, that Jesus himself saw the bronze serpent of Moses as symbolic for his work on the cross (Jn. 3:14). So if from the words of Jesus himself, we know this is a legitimate Type of Christ, then a way to learn is by reverse engineering. Go back to Numbers 21. Read the story in its original context. Look for the central message. Don’t strain the details. Ask how the entire event might symbolize the work of Jesus on the cross. What about Numbers 21 led Jesus to compare it to himself?

Gradually, as you enjoy Numbers 21, you’ll see that it’s not just a matter of saying, “They put the snake on a pole, and they put Jesus on a cross. There, that’s the gospel.” What a cheap way of looking at this beautiful passage… that's really about people suffering under a curse they brought on themselves, met by a God of compassion, who provides a way of salvation from death; that by putting on display the object of their curse, if they would simply look in faith, they would be healed.

Now, have at it!

Again, this isn’t meant to be exhaustive. But I really believe these tools will get you started down a beautiful journey of noticing shadows and symbols throughout your Old Testament, and how they lead us to Jesus!