What is biblical typology?

Erkki Koskenniemi
Reija Becks

Biblical typology – What is Typological Bible Exegesis?

There are many Bible passages that may be difficult to obey. Of all the Bible instructions that I know, there is, at any rate, one that seems to be very easy: “Remember Lot’s wife”! (Luke 17:32).

Reading the account of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), I understand what that command means when interpreted literally: if God decides to destroy the city where you live and sends angels to take you out of there to safety before the destruction, and you are commanded not to look back, then do not look back! It is very rarely that a Christian will encounter a situation like this. If faced by it, maybe we would even be able to obey the command.

In truth, we all understand that the words of Jesus must be understood in a different way. ‘Sodom’ is no longer a city, but it means this world. ‘Leaving Sodom’ is no longer walking away but separating oneself spiritually from the evil world. ‘Looking back’ is not just glancing over your shoulder but returning to the old way of life that you were freed from.

The story of Sodom introduces the Bible reader to one New Testament passage in which an Old Testament text is not explained literally. There are several of these non-literal interpretation methods. One of them is called typological. It involves finding in the Old Testament text a type, or a prefiguration, of something greater and more important. In this text, ‘Sodom’ is a type, or a prefiguration, of the world and ‘leaving it’ is our spiritual walk. This type – that we are on our way – is very much present also elsewhere in the New Testament and in the teachings and in the hymn tradition of the church, too.

Many methods of illustration

The typological interpretation, i.e., interpretation based on types, is very common in the New Testament texts and among the early Church Fathers. According to it there is, as it were, a draft, a pattern, or a blueprint in the Old Testament, and the finished work of art, fabric, or building is seen in the New Testament. The earliest known sermon, after the New Testament, is by Melito, the bishop of Sardis. This is how he describes the mystery of Passover in his excellent sermon “On the Passover”:

"Beloved, no speech or event takes place without a pattern or design; every event and speech involves a pattern – that which is spoken, a pattern, and that which happens, a prefiguration – in order that as the event is disclosed through the prefiguration, so also the speech may be brought to expression through its outline.

Without the model, no work of art arises. Is not that which is to come into existence seen through the model which typifies it? For this reason a pattern of that which is to be is made either out of wax, or out of clay, or out of wood, in order that by the smallness of the model, destined to be destroyed, might be seen that thing which is to arise from it – higher than it in size, and mightier than it in power, and more beautiful than it in appearance, and more elaborate than it in ornamentation."

Melito had learnt the typological interpretation of the Bible from the pages of the New Testament. The average Bible reader has much to learn from this.

Out of Egypt and all the way to the Promised land!

Probably the best-known type used in the New Testament is the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt. It, too, is about our spiritual life. In the New Testament, this type is used both by Paul (1 Cor 10) and the unknown writer of the Epistle of Hebrews (Hebrews 3-4). The same pattern can be seen in both: Israel was captive in Egypt, God set the people free under the leadership of Moses, and they started their journey to the Promised Land. Similarly, all human beings have been slaves in the land of sin and death, God set us free under the leadership of Christ, and we have started our journey towards heaven. However, the journey is long and dangerous, and walking it, we face many difficulties and temptations. That is why many drop out and do not complete the walk – and this is the central point of the warning in both New Testament passages.

So, in this story, Egypt is a type of the world, and the whole story is used to remind Christians of the fact that we are still on the way. The typological interpretation model is easy to understand.

The bronze serpent and Jesus Christ

There is a typological Bible interpretation also in the background of the Bible verse which Luther called the Gospel in miniature (John 3:16). When the people of Israel were once more rebelling against God, they got fiery serpents among them as their punishment. People bitten by those venomous snakes died painfully. As the people prayed to God in their distress, Moses was assigned to make a bronze serpent and lift it on a pole, and anyone who would come to look at the serpent was healed and escaped death. The miniature gospel has this story in its background:

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

The pattern is now clear: a serpent has bitten every human being and injected the poison of sin into us. That poison kills us and leads us to destruction. Our only hope is to look to Christ, whom God has set as our healing bronze serpent. Anyone who believes in him will find eternal life.

Two Adams

In Romans 5, Paul speaks about Adam and sets him as a type of Christ. It is discussed in an extensive passage (5:12-19) in which the apostle says, for instance:

“For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” (ESV)

So, Christ is the new Adam and marks the start of a new era. The first Adam fell into sin and deserved sin, death, and destruction to fall upon him. These heirlooms he gave to his children, and we received them from our ancestors through successive generations; every one of us will die because we are sinners, and our destiny is destruction. Only the new Adam, Christ, who was worthy of holiness, life, and eternal salvation, can help us here. This Adam will not destroy all mankind but grants life to it and carries out the original plan of creation – the human being living in unity with God.

Plenty of types

The Old Testament is full on persons and things that open up as types, when we look at them from the New Testament perspective. The above-mentioned bishop Melito advises us in his sermon “On the Passover”:

"Accordingly, if you desire to see the mystery of the Lord,
pay close attention to Abel who likewise was put to death,
to Isaac who likewise was bound hand and foot,
to Joseph who likewise was sold,
to Moses who likewise was exposed,
to David who likewise was hunted down,
to the prophets who likewise suffered because they were the Lord's anointed."

Melito knew his Bible and was able to list examples. It may be safe to confine oneself to only those things that in the New Testament are considered types, and there are plenty of those. Romans 8:32 sets Abraham’s uncompleted sacrifice as a type of the sacrifice on Calvary. Christ sets as his type Jonah, who was in the belly of a great fish (Matthew 12:40). Noah, who built the ark, is a type of a person to whom faith has given eyes of faith (Hebrews 11:7), and his ark is a type of baptism (1 Peter 3:18-22), and manna is a type of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 10:3).

There are countless examples – understanding types opens the Bible for us from a new perspective and teaches us to bring together the Old Testament and the New Testament.