What Is the Significance of Biblical Typology?
A type (from the Greek word typos) is a person, event, or institution in the redemptive history of the Old Testament that prefigures a corresponding but greater reality in the New Testament. A type is thus a copy, a pattern, or a model that signifies an even greater reality. The greater reality to which a type points and in which it finds its fulfillment is referred to as an antitype. The writer of Hebrews specifically employs the word antitype to refer to the greatness of the heavenly sanctuary of which the Holy Land, the Holy City, and the holy temple are merely types or shadows (Hebrews 9:23-24).
First, in Hebrews, as in the rest of the New Testament, the Old Testament history of Israel is interpreted as a succession of types that find ultimate fulfillment in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord. As such, far from being peripheral, typology is central to a proper interpretation of the infallible Word of God. Indeed, throughout the New Testament Jesus is revealed as the antitype of the Hebrew prophets through his preaching of repentance, his ministry of healing, his concern for the poor and the social outcasts, and his death near Jerusalem (Luke 13:33). This, of course, is not to confuse the biblical principle of typology with an allegorical method of biblical interpretation that ignores or rejects the historical nature of the Old Testament narratives. On the contrary, typology is firmly rooted in historical fact and always involves historical correspondence.
Furthermore, biblical typology, as evidenced in the writings of the New Testament, always involves a heightening of the type in the antitype. It is not simply that Jesus replaces the temple as a new but otherwise equal substitute. No, Jesus is far greater than the temple! It is not as though Jesus is simply another in the line of prophets with Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. No, Jesus is much greater than the prophets! The new covenant is not a mere “plan B” that God instituted as a parenthesis between two phases of his redemptive work with Israel. The new covenant is far greater than the old covenant—”a better covenant” (Hebrews 7:22)—rendering the old “obsolete” (Hebrews 8:13)! Just as Joshua is a type of Jesus who leads the true children of Israel into the eternal land of promise, so King David is a type of the “King of kings and Lord of lords” who forever rules and reigns from the New Jerusalem in faithfulness and in truth (Revelation 19:16). In each case, the lesser is fulfilled and rendered obsolete by the greater.
Finally, it is important to point out that antitypes themselves may also function as types of future realities. Communion, for example, is the antitype of the Passover meal. Each year the Jews celebrated Passover in remembrance of God’s sparing the firstborn sons in the homes of the Israelite families that were marked by the blood of the Passover lamb (see Luke 22; cf. Exodus 11-12). Jesus’ celebration of the Passover meal with his disciples on the night of his arrest symbolically points to the fact that he is the ultimate Passover Lamb “who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Though the Last Supper and the corresponding sacrament of communion serve as the antitype of the Passover meal, they also point forward to their ultimate fulfillment in “the wedding supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9; cf. Luke 22:15-18). On that glorious day the purified bride—true Israel—will be united with her Bridegroom in the new heaven and the new earth (Revelation 21:1-2). Thus the fulfillment of the promise is itself a guarantee of the final consummation of the kingdom of God. In sum, as eschatology is the thread that weaves the tapestry of Scripture into a glorious mosaic; typology is the material out of which that thread is spun.
For further study, see Hank Hanegraaff, The Apocalypse Code: Find Out What the Bible Really Says about the End Times…and Why It Matters Today (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007).
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? (Hebrews 10:1-2).