An Introduction to Typology

When Jesus came into this world, He entered a scene that was thousands of years in the making. It was His making – intentionally crafted to reveal who He was and what He came to accomplish. The more we understand of how God set up this scene, the richer our picture of Jesus becomes.

Along with being foretold through direct prophecies in Scripture, Jesus was also foreshadowed through historic people (like Moses), institutions (like the sacrificial system), and events (like the exodus). These historic embodiments – sometimes referred to as “indirect” or “enacted” prophecies – introduce frameworks that help us make sense of Jesus’ coming and saving work on the cross.

These prefiguring patterns are referred to as “typology.” If that word is new to you, don’t let it trip you up. You can simply think of biblical typology as “promise-shaped patterns” divinely established throughout Scripture to help us recognize and understand who Jesus is and what He came to accomplish.[1] 

I like how Denise E. Johnson puts it:

“Long before [God] 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. Israel’s historical experiences of blessing and judgment, weal and woe, also prepared a rich symbolic ‘vocabulary,’ embedded in the dust and blood of real history: concepts and categories pre-designed to articulate the sufficiency and complexity of Jesus’ saving work.”[2]

This Christmas, we want to help you see and savor who Jesus is and why He came to earth by reflecting on several of these rich promise-shaped patterns found in Scripture. Over this upcoming series, we pray your hearts may be filled to the brim as we examine just how amazing our Savior is. 

Since this upcoming series will focus on typology, we thought it would be helpful to give a little more clarification on what typology is and why it is beneficial to study.

What is Typology?

In short: “Typology is God-ordained, author-intended historical correspondence and escalation in significance between people, events, and institutions across the Bible’s redemptive-historical story.”[3]

The phrase “typology” stems from the Greek word typos which in its most basic use refers to the impressing of a pattern – like a signet-ring impressing a seal onto hot wax. However, the term is mostly used in a figurative way to refer to things such as a model, copy, image, form, figure, example, or pattern.[4] 

It is worth noting that typology is not limited to passages where the word typos appears. The biblical authors direct our attention to these patterns in a variety of ways. Along with using other terms to signify correspondence (like “shadow-body” in Colossians 2:17), these connections are often elucidated through an assortment of literary devices (such as the repetition of rarely used words to link accounts).[5] The matter is further complicated by fact that the word typos is also used in ways unrelated to typology (see, for example, Acts 20:25; Romans 6:17; Philippians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 1:7; 2 Thessalonians 3:9; 1 Timothy 4:12). Thus, it is important to see that biblical typology is not tethered to the use or meaning of a particular word in Scripture.[6] It is much more nuanced and thus, at times, debated. 

Furthermore, typology does not always follow a straight line to Jesus. It often involves intervening types before it reaches its ultimate fulfillment. For example, Moses intentionally presents Noah as another Adam before the Adamic type is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus and subsequently extended to His people. Because of this, it is sometimes helpful to refer to types based on where they occur within the series of repetitions. Here are the terms most commonly used to distinguish these:

  1. Archetype, Prototype, or Type (the establishing pattern – Adam)
  2. Ectypes (the intervening repetitions – Noah, Abraham, Israel, and David as subsequent Adams)
  3. Antitype (the ultimate fulfillment – Jesus as “last/ultimate/final Adam”)

Having clarified some of these nuances, let’s look a little closer at the distinguishing features of typology.

Five Features that Characterize Biblical Typology[7] 

  1. Types are historical. They are not merely metaphors or symbols. They are rooted in the grand story of God providentially acting throughout history to save His people. Types are God-ordained patterns “embedded in the dust and blood of real history.”[8]
  2. Types are future-oriented. They create expectation by foreshadowing their ultimate fulfillment. They are promise-shaped and prophetic in nature. 
  3. Types are fulfilled with escalated significance. In other words, the final type (the antitype) is always more significant than the first type (the archetype). Biblical types move toward a climactic culmination centered around the person and work of Jesus. They are Christ-centered. As Paul writes, “For every one of God’s promises is ‘Yes’ in Him” (2 Corinthians 1:20 CSB).
  4.  Types are based in Scripture and elucidated by textual cues. They are divinely inspired, author-intended patterns constructed to reveal a foreshadowing pattern. Different than allegory, where the meaning of details is created by the reader and imposed on the text, typological parallels and their significance are revealed in the text. Thus, typology is discovered through a close grammatical-historical reading (and not a figural reading) of a text within its immediate and canonical context. 
  5.  Types unfold through the covenants.[9]  They develop through God’s progressive revelation. “They are shaped and interpreted by the covenantal structure of Scripture.”[10] As Emadi and Sequeira explain, “Types (i.e., the temple, the land, etc.) are part of God’s covenants, and covenants provide the interpretive context necessary to understand a type’s significance in redemptive history.”[11] 

To summarize typology in slightly different language: Types are God-ordained historical correspondences that provide promise-shaped patterns. God divinely inspired the biblical authors (starting with Moses in the first five books of the Bible) to draw our attention to these patterns so that we might more fully grasp the person and work of Jesus as He brings the Bible’s redemptive-historical story to its culmination. 

Typology plays a key role in the unifying logic of Scripture. As James M. Hamilton Jr. emphasizes, “Understanding typology is significant because without it we cannot understand the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old.”[12] It is that central to how the New Testament authors engaged with Scripture and reasoned from it.If you would like to explore typology further, I highly recommend James M. Hamilton Jr.’s newly released book, Typology—Understanding the Bible’s Promise-Shaped Patterns: How Old Testament Expectations are Fulfilled in Christ. I found it to be an engaging read as Hamilton outlines through a close examination of the text how a variety of these patterns develop throughout Scripture and find their fulfillment in Christ.

  1. This phrase comes from James M. Hamilton Jr., Typology—Understanding the Bible’s Promise-Shaped Patterns: How Old Testament Expectations are Fulfilled in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2022).
  2. Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007), 198–99.
  3. This definition is cited widely by James M. Hamilton Jr. and can be found in Typology—Understanding the Bible’s Promise-Shaped Patterns: How Old Testament Expectations are Fulfilled in Christ.
  4. Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, ed. Frederick W. Danker, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1019-1020.
  5. As Craig Evans and Lidija Novakovic state, “[Typology] is not limited to the presence of the term typos and its cognates. As a hermeneutical category, typology establishes a parallel or correspondence between a person, event or institution in the OT (the type), and another person, event or institution in the NT (the antitype), regardless of whether an author uses the typos terminology or provides an explicit link between the type and its antitype.” “Typology,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd ed. (ed. Joel B. Green, Jeannine K. Brown, and Nicholas Perrin; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2013), 986.
  6. In H. Wayne Johnson’s words: We run into trouble when we try “to answer hermeneutical questions about the nature of typology based on the lexicography of one word. This is asking too much for a number of reasons. First, it is questionable whether or not there is ‘one basic meaning’ for τύπος. The word is used to denote a mark (John 20:25), an idol or image (Acts 7:43), a pattern or model (Acts 7:44), an example (Phil 3:17 etc.) or type (Rom 5:14, clearly not an example). The diversity of English words used to render τύπος is not evidence of sloppiness in translation but an appreciation of the range of its meaning in various contexts. . . . Simply put, τύπος is not a technical term for ‘type.’ Neither is it a sine qua non for typology. Consequently, any attempt to establish the biblical definition of typology based purely on semasiological or lexical analysis is filled with problems.” See H. Wayne Johnson, “The Pauline Typology of Abraham in Galatians 3” (Ph.D. diss., Westminster Theological Seminary, 1993), 23, 25.
  7. These features are widely attested to though enumerated and phrased differently among scholars. This list is most dependent upon Sam Emadi and Aubrey Sequeira, “Biblical-Theological Exegesis and the Nature of Typology,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 21.1 (2017):11-34. I combined their separate categories for “author-intended” and “textual” into one category. In this way, I follow the enumeration found in their footnote concerning Gentry and Wellum in Kingdom through Covenant, 103.
  8. Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures, 198–99.
  9. I like how David Schrock illustrates this: “Put figuratively, the springs of typology begin in Eden, flow through the Patriarchs and collect in the Law’s stone containers; then, fermenting in these caskets, the waters begin to turn to wine. Through a process of formation, deformation, and reformation, the wine of typology ages until the time of Christ, when the old wineskins are broken and the new wine is ready. Through this aging process, the types repeat—sometimes rising to glorious heights (formation), sometimes falling to calamitous ruin (deformation), but always following the topography of Israel’s covenant history until God’s appointed season of “reformation” in Christ Jesus (cf. Heb 9:10). In this way, biblical types are truly topographical, as they rise and fall, bend and break with the biblical terrain.” Schrock has written an excellent article on this topic. It can be accessed at https://sbts-wordpress-uploads.s3.amazonaws.com/equip/uploads/2017/05/SBJT-21.1-Complete-Issue.pdf, see page 36.
  10. Sam Emadi and Aubrey Sequeira, “Biblical-Theological Exegesis and the Nature of Typology,” 32.
  11. Ibid., 24.
  12. James M. Hamilton Jr., “The Typology of David’s Rise to Power: Messianic Patterns in the Book of Samuel” presented as a Julius Brown Gay Lecture at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can access his paper at http://jimhamilton.files.wordpress.com/2008/03/the_typology_of_davids_rise_to_power2008-03-101.doc See page 2.

Leave a Comment