Learning and Living the God-centered life

One Biblical Doctrine at a time…

Understanding typology

Here is a good article written by David Murray on some of the basics of typology.

A picture is worth a thousand words.”


Pictures help us remember, understand, and look forward.

When we want to remember our wedding, we don’t get our diaries or journals out; we open the photo album. When we want to understand how a rocket works, we don’t get NASA’s instruction manual out; we look for some pictures. When we are looking forward to our vacation, we don’t look up Wikipedia; we look up Google images.

“A picture is worth a thousand words.” It helps us remember better, it helps us understand better, and it helps us anticipate the future better.

That’s why God used so many pictures in the Old Testament. Vivid visuals like the Passover lamb, or the flood, or the Tabernacle helped Israel remember better, understand better, and look forward better.

The study of how God used pictures to teach His people is usually called “Typology,” not the kind of word that we are terribly familiar with. Basically it means “Picture-ology.” Or as a famous blogger once put it “Visual Theology.”

Let’s try to define a type and see if it helps us to understand typology better:

A type is a real person, place, object, or event that God ordained to act as a predictive pattern or resemblance of Christ’s person and work.

Let’s unpack that a little:

  • A type is a real person, place, object or event: it is true, real, and factual (not made-up)
  • That God ordained: it does not resemble Christ’s person or work by mere coincidence but by divine plan (mere resemblance is not enough; it has to be divinely ordained resemblance)
  • To act as a predictive pattern or resemblance: the same truth is found in the original picture and the ultimate fulfillment
  • Of Christ’s person and work: the truth in the picture is enlarged, heightened, and clarified in the fulfillment by Christ.

In some ways Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are pictures of truth. The difference between OT and NT pictures is that OT pictures look forward to Christ’s person and work whereas NT pictures look back to Christ’s person and work.

Two disadvantages

Our 21st Century Western minds encounter two major obstacles when we come to think about OT Picture-ology.

First, we don’t do pictures. We are quite good at words and numbers – reading, science, technology, logic, and arithmetic. We like precision, clarity, and brevity.

But we don’t really do picture; art, symbol, metaphor, meditation, poetry, etc., are strange and suspect to most of us. Propositional theology = good; visual theology = bad!

That, of course, doesn’t help when it comes to interpreting the OT, which contains so many pictures, symbols and metaphors. However, pictures really played to the strengths of the original readers, the Israelites, who like most Eastern cultures of that day, were very familiar with the idea of using pictures, symbols, song, etc., to remember the past, learn in the present, and anticipate the future.

Second, we don’t fully appreciate how future-focused the Old Testament was. From Genesis 3:15 onwards, the expectation and anticipation of a Savior was being continually fostered by God and His servants. However much Israel were reminded of the past, and taught for the present, they were always peering over the horizon for the coming Savior, variously known as “the Seed of the woman,” “the Seed of Abraham,” and “the Son of David.” And they used the Old Testament types – persons, place, objects, events – as glasses to help them look in the right direction and look for the right person.

Take the Passover lamb as an example. It reminded Israel of God’s past deliverance. It also taught them vital present truths: (1) God’s anger against sin, (2) God’s anger can be turned away by the sacrificial blood of a perfect substitute, (3) God grants safety only to those who are “under” the blood, (4) God’s salvation redeems from bondage.

But Israelites with faith used the Passover Lamb as a lens to anticipate a greater, clearer and climactic expression of these truths in the future Messiah’s person and work. As John the Baptist said: “Behold the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world.”

Or take the Tabernacle. When the Israelites looked at it, they learned much about God – that God desired to live among them in a similar way to them – in tents. But Israelites with faith looked ahead to the Messiah’s person and work displaying and demonstrating these truths in an even greater and fuller measure. As John the Apostle said: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt (lit. tabernacled) among us.”

So whether you are reading about sacrifices, the priesthood, prophets, priests, kings, the Tabernacle, the Exodus, the Exile, the life of Joseph, the life of Ruth, the life of David, or whatever, you should always be asking yourself two questions.

1. What did this teach the Israelites about God?

2. What did this teach the Israelites to expect from God in the future?

It’s as if GOSPEL was spelled in 12-point font in the OT and in 1200-point in the NT! Or we might say it was pictured in the OT using thumbnails, but blown up to poster size in the New.