10 Things You Should Know about Biblical Typology

This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.

1. The Old Testament is all about Jesus.

In Luke 24:44–47 Jesus himself says that the Old Testament is about him:

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

2. There is only one way of salvation all the way through the Bible, namely Christ himself.

The Bible says in 1 Timothy 2:5 that there is only one mediator:

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus . . .

So all the people and other objects (animal sacrifices, tabernacle) that serve a mediatorial function in the Old Testament point to the one mediator. People in the Old Testament did not fully understand the way we understand. But God gave them a hope in the promise of the one mediator. They were saved in basically the same way that we are, though they knew less, and they looked forward rather than backward to the time when Christ would accomplish salvation.

Jesus confirms that he is the exclusive way to the Father in John 14:6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Biblical Typology

Vern S. Poythress

In Biblical Typology, scholar Vern S. Poythress teaches readers how to find and interpret types in the Old Testament that point to Christ, the church, and the consummation to deepen their understanding of the Bible and the wisdom of God.

3. We need God's help to see how the Old Testament is about Jesus.

Jesus taught the disciples on the road to Emmaus, as recorded in Luke 24:13–27. Before that, they were discouraged and confused. They did not understand (Luke 24:25). Afterward they were transformed: “did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32). Jesus also promised the gift of the Holy Spirit to teach them the truth (John 14:26; John 16:13).

4. God gives us the help we need through the teaching of the apostles and the illumination of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

How do we come to understand how the Old Testament is about Jesus? Jesus's own words in Luke 24 and elsewhere in the Gospels are relevant. But Jesus also commissioned the apostles and gave the gift of the Holy Spirit to them so that they could preach with his power and explain the meaning of Jesus's life, death, and resurrection (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8). We see this preaching taking place in Acts. And in the writings of the New Testament we have a permanent written word of God, which includes writings from the apostles and from “apostolic men” like Luke who were associated with the apostles. With Christ's authority, they instruct us about the ways in which the Old Testament points to Christ.

5. One key element in the Old Testament is the presence of “types.”

“Types” are symbols that point forward to a fulfillment. The climactic fulfillment is found in Jesus Christ himself. Subordinately, because the church and its members are united to Christ, there is fulfillment in us. Finally, there is fulfillment in the consummation, the new heaven and the new earth, when it will be fully displayed that Christ is “all in all” (Eph. 1:23).

The full meaning of the symbols of the Old Testament becomes available only when we see the fulfillment in Christ.

A symbol already has a special meaning when God first presents it in biblical history. For example, the revelation through Moses sets up a system of priests. The priests are symbolic personages. They symbolize that the people of Israel, as a sinful people, need to access God through the priests. The priests serve as mediators who are especially consecrated and made holy so that they can approach God's presence. Hebrews 5–10 discusses extensively how the Old Testament priests were symbols on earth, shadows or prefigures of the final priesthood of Christ. It is Christ who is holy, not merely on the level of symbol, but the level of reality. It is Christ who has ascended to the right hand of God and who grants us access to God's heavenly presence:

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (Heb. 10:19–22).

6. The meaning of a type is revealed progressively.

The whole system of priesthood already had symbolic meaning in the time of Moses. But its meaning is more fully revealed when Christ comes, and we see the person for whom the symbolism was designed. Christ fulfills it spectacularly, beyond what anyone might have expected. The shadow or prefigurement, in this case the Old Testament priesthood, genuinely shows the meaning of Christ's priesthood by depicting it beforehand. At the same time, by God's own design, it is inferior to Christ. It thereby says to Israelites that it is incomplete, even inadequate, when viewed in itself. It needs something more. Something greater is to come. Israelites can be stirred up for longing for that completion. But it is not possible fully to discern everything about the fulfillment until the fulfillment actually comes. What was formerly in shadow becomes fully manifested in Christ. The glory therefore belongs to Christ, not to the Old Testament priesthood.

The progress of revelation makes sense because God has a plan of salvation that spans all of history. God reveals his instruction gradually, over time. The full meaning of the symbols of the Old Testament becomes available only when we see the fulfillment in Christ. But we also know that God has planned the whole of history from the beginning. So in God's mind the meaning is already there, even though the full disclosure is spread over time.

7. We need to pay attention to what God said to people in Old Testament times.

God communicated effectively to people in Old Testament times. Some people, of course, were hard hearted. But others believed, as Hebrews 11 reminds us. What God said to them is not something that he later abandons. Rather, he adds to it, over time, until the great time of fulfillment in the New Testament: “on whom [us who belong to New Testament times] the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11). So it is wise when we study the Old Testament to consider carefully what God was saying back then and there. He was speaking first of all to them. It is also written for our instruction:

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Rom. 15:4)

The Old Testament is going to instruct us properly only if we pay careful attention. And that means understanding what God was saying in order to instruct and nourish the people of previous ages.

8. God makes more meaning available to us now.

Christ has accomplished his work, and that accomplishment is explained in God's own authoritative words in the New Testament. So, as a second step, we can consider how God adds to the earlier instruction over time, and how the whole plan of salvation comes to its climactic fulfillment in Christ, and then in us who are united to Christ.

9. The Old Testament applies to us, here and now, we who are believers in Christ.

Through faith, the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ. So we benefit from who Christ is and what he has done in history, in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Therefore, the types in the Old Testament can be applied to our Christian living, once we see how they point to fulfillment in Christ.

10. You can grow in your discernment of Old Testament types.

To understand and discern more deeply, you can follow points 7–9 (just above) in succession. First, ask what the symbol meant in its own time period (point 7). Then, ask how its meaning is fulfilled in Christ, given the themes like mediation and salvation that run through the whole Bible. Pay attention to the instruction in the whole New Testament (point 8). Third, ask how the meaning applies to you, if you are united to Christ (point 9).

Vern S. Poythress is the author of Biblical Typology: How the Old Testament Points to Christ, His Church, and the Consummation.

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