On Types and Shadows

Print depicting Esther accusing Haman at the banquet; 1564, The British Museum

17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son
18 it was he to whom it was said, “In Isaac your descendants shall be called.” 
19 He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead, from which he also received him back as a type. 
20 By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau, even regarding things to come.

Hebrews 11:17-20

If you read my post yesterday, perhaps it made you a bit uncomfortable. It made me a bit uncomfortable too! How could anyone possibly say that in the person and decrees of King Ahaseurus, a man whom historians knew as a lover of women and wine – how could anyone say that in this man God the Father is unfolding His own Person and Purposes?

So many of us have been taught to think too highly of the Biblical characters, to fix our eyes on the type rather than the antitype, the fulfillment. We are taught to assume that God mainly or even only uses the most faithful, the most moral, the holiest, the most courageous people in His plans. If we are good enough, perhaps He’ll use us too! Dare to be a Daniel!

Sinclair Ferguson explains this way of reading the Bible like this,

The preacher has looked into the text principally to find himself and his congregation, not to find Christ. The sermon is consequently about ‘people in the Gospels’ rather than about Jesus Christ who is the gospel. The real question the preacher has been interested in asking and answering, is not ‘How do we find Christ in this Gospel?’ but ‘Where am I in this story? What have I got to do?’ 

We peer into the Bible’s stories to find ourselves, to make ourselves feel that we too can be good enough, holy enough, faithful enough. This is where a solid understanding of typology comes in.

Put simply, reading the Bible typologically means that 1. We keep our eyes fixed on the aim of God’s story and 2. We view each story through the lens of that aim, considering how God is using each story to progressively fill in details, to illustrate His masterpiece. It’s not that the righteousness or unrighteousness of a Biblical character is meaningless. But it does mean that their righteousness is not the righteousness we need. We don’t need Ahaseurus to be a model for us. We are to look beyond him to the model that we do need, to the Person and the glory that is ours both now and on that great day (Isa. 27:13).

Paul shows us how to do this in quite a few places. In Romans 5, for example, he draws our eye through Adam as type, to the antitype, the fullfilment found in Jesus Christ Himself.

Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.

Romans 5:14

And even Paul himself can be viewed as a type! As Paul says, imitate me as I imitate Christ. The accounts we have of Paul’s journeys in Acts should therefore be read not just as a diary. No, much more, as a means again to view God’s overall plans to build His Kingdom. These plans extend beyond Paul’s time, not just to our time as well but to the time before Paul, even to all of God’s redemptive history, to that day when Jesus returns.

There is much more to say, not least the how of typology. I encourage you to read the full article by Sinclair Ferguson on Biblical Theology. It’s well worth your time. I also highly recommend the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. This hefty book is an encyclopedia of much of the Bible’s rich imagery, symbolism, metaphors, figures of speech and literary patterns. But it also has substantial gaps, which suits me very well indeed.


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