Biblical Typology: What Is It and Why Do We Need It?

In preaching a sermon a few years ago on Numbers 20, we ran into something known as typology. As it has been variously defined in church history, typology occurs in the Bible when an historical person, event, or institution — in this case, a water-giving rock — foreshadows the coming Son of God. As with Exodus 17, this life-giving, water-streaming rock is a type of Christ, at least according to the apostle Paul.

Writing in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul recounts a number of events in Israel’s history (vv. 1-13), including this rock. He writes, “All were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (vv. 3-4). In these words, Paul makes the stunning claim that the Rock was to be identified with the Lord, and since Christ is the Lord (cf. 1 Cor. 8:6), the Rock is to be identified with Christ.

Two verses later, he adds, “Now these things took place as examples (typoi) for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (v. 6). Most versions rightly translate typoi as “examples,” but you can see from the Greek word that the examples Paul has in mind were types, a word he uses elsewhere to relate Adam and Christ (Rom. 5:14), a word Peter uses to speak of Noah’s baptism (1 Peter 3:21), and a word used in Hebrews to relate the tabernacle on earth with the one in heaven (Heb. 8:5).

On the basis of passages like these, Christians going back to the early church have rightly seen (and looked for) “types” of Christ in the Old Testament. But at the same time, questions have arisen to ask: What is a type?

Though many scholarly volumes have been written on it, I want to introduce typology as simply as I can because it helps us to see the centrality of Christ and His redeeming work for sinners in the entire Bible.


“Type” is a biblical word. Multiple New Testament writers used the term. However, they used other words as well. For them the Law and its festivals were “shadows,” while Christ was the substance (Col. 2:17; Heb. 10:1). In Matthew, Jesus “fulfilled” countless Old Testament passages (1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 3:15; 4:14; 5:17; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14, 3; 21:4; 26:54, 56; 27:9; cf. Luke 1:45; 22:37). Likewise, Paul spoke of all the old promises finding their “yes” and “amen” in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). While not reading Christ back into the Old Testament, the apostles followed Jesus’s method of interpretation to read the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings as speaking about Him (Luke 24:27).

Biblical types are historical realities, not metaphysical mysteries. While philosophers like Plato, Plotinus, and Philo used typology to speak of metaphysical realities in other realms, biblical typology is a matter of history. In the Old Testament, God introduced persons, events, and institutions to bring Israel to an understanding of salvation. Over time, these types were repeated and often improved. This is called “escalation.” Then, in the fullness of time, Christ Himself became the fulfillment of earlier types, such that when the apostles preached and wrote, they littered their gospel message with Old Testament language and imagery.

Types must be discernible from the biblical text and not just the fanciful imagination of the interpreter. In church history, there has been debate about what makes a type and how Christians might recognize them in Scripture. A type is an historical person, event, or institution that is designed by God to foreshadow the later, greater anti-type, the Substance by which the type gets its shape and beneficence. Accordingly, you can see how most types must relate to the person and work of Jesus Christ, as well as the new covenant He mediates.


While it’s important to understand what a type is, it is equally important to understand what a type does. Like all God’s speech-acts, types do something. And here are three things that types do and why all Christians should be familiar with biblical typology.

First, typology unites the New Testament to the Old Testament, and vice versa. Looking back on the Old Testament, John could see how the serpent lifted up in Numbers 21 foreshadowed Christ (John 3:14–15), and Paul could read the story of Sarah and Hagar as written allegorically. Therefore, coupled with Christ’s own method of interpretation, the apostles had every reason to believe that God orchestrated history to foreshadow Christ. Just as the prophets were inspired by the Spirit to write of Christ’s sufferings and subsequent glories (1 Peter 1:10–12), so God orchestrated biblical types — persons, events, and institutions whose full meaning couldn’t be ascertained until the coming of Christ.

Second, typology identifies who Jesus is. For the apostles, typology became a predominant way to explain the Messiah’s identity. Birthed in Jewish soil, when the apostles spoke of Christ as prophet, priest, and king, they intended to connect Him with Moses (Deut. 18:18; Acts 3:22–26), Melchizedek (Gen. 14; Psalm 110; Heb. 5–7), and David (Psalm 2; Matt. 1:1; Rom. 1:4), respectively. Likewise, when John says Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), typology is at work to explain Jesus’s identity. Any faithful Christology must rightly apply the types and shadows to Jesus.

Third, typology reveals the wisdom of God’s progressive revelation. As one unified story of salvation, the Bible reveals a system of types and shadows that range from Adam to the Last Adam, from the Garden of Eden located on the mountain of God to holy Mount Zion, which becomes a Garden-City. In the center of it all is Jesus Christ. As God’s final and full revelation (Heb. 1:1–2) and the One who unifies heaven and earth (Eph. 1:10), it’s not surprising that God would create the world, history, and the Bible to reflect His Son and progressively reveal the One whose Word holds together all things.


Situated on the other end of redemptive history, we must understand how these types worked so we can rightly interpret God’s word and appropriately respond to God’s Son. In this way, typology is a legitimate, necessary, and fruitful means of knowing the God who made the world to glorify and resemble His Son.

It’s not just a topic of fascination for seminary students and pastors, it’s help in understanding Scripture that every Christian needs, one that gives them eyes to see the face of the glory of God in Christ Jesus in all 66 books of the Bible. Paul saw this when he considered the Rock in the desert. And we, too, should learn how to see Christ in all Scripture.

— David Schrock (Ph.D., Southern Seminary) serves as lead Pastor of Preaching and Theology at Occoquan Bible Church in Woodbridge, Va. He is author of several books, including The Royal Priesthood and the Glory of God (Crossway) and is adjunct professor of theology at Indianapolis Theological Seminary. He also leads “Christ Over All,” a fellowship of pastor-theologians dedicated to helping the church see Christ as Lord and everything else under His feet.