Typology in John: Some Preliminary Thoughts

We've begun a new study at CCC. With God's help, we intend to explore the riches of John's gospel over the next many months. Besides the obvious citations of Old Testament "fulfillment passages," John's gospel is loaded with allusions, thematic references, and typology drawn from the Old Testament. Of the many things we can learn through our study, none is more important than seeing how John read the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. Our focus for this blog post is John's use of typology. 

Over the past few years there has been an explosion of monographs, books, and  articles exploring what Jesus meant when he said that “everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44, emphasis added). 

We find a similar idea in John’s gospel when the apostle tells us that Nathanael found Philip and said to him, "We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph" (John 1:45, emphasis added). Again, in a confrontation with the Jews, Jesus says, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40, emphasis added). 

In the aforementioned texts (certainly, many others could be cited), Jesus gives us warrant for reading the Old Testament with a Christological reading strategy. To be sure, this is the only authority we need. Much more could and should be said, but space, time, and the incompetence of this writer requires restraint. 

What we want to explore is not the straightforward, predictive, explicit, and wonderful prophetic texts that declare certain aspects of Christ’s person and accomplishments from the Old Testament; rather what we are concerned to investigate is what has come to be called a “Christological reading of the text.” Or, more precisely, for our purposes in this brief post, we want to look at a subset of a Christological reading – “typology.”

A word or two of caution is, perhaps, in order. We are not to confuse typology with allegory. That is to say, we are not giving license to play “fast and loose” with the text by allowing the reader to assign any ole meaning he or she chooses. What we simply want to see is how New Testament authors read, at least on many occasions, the Old Testament. 

One additional caveat might be required - a Christological reading or a typological reading of biblical texts is not a novel approach in biblical hermeneutics (i.e., the art and science of discovering meaning in a text). It is a time-honored approach going back through the Reformation, early church Fathers, and, as assumed in this short article, practiced by the Canonical authors themselves. 

Perhaps it would help to offer a definition: Typology could be defined as - The idea that a person (e.g., Moses), an event (e.g., the exodus), an institution (e.g., the temple), and a narrative (e.g., Jonah) found in earlier portions of the text (e.g.Exodus) prefigure a subsequent reality in later sections of the text (e.g. John’s gospel). John’s first few chapters are loaded with examples of this, like Christ as the Lamb of God, Christ as Jacob’s ladder, and Christ as the new temple.

Sydney Greidanus is helpful in understanding typology: “God sovereignly acts in observable, historically-embedded patterns. For this reason the NT writers see Jesus as the final and ultimate instance (antitype) of earlier repeated patterns (types).” 

I might add that these “observable, historically-embedded patterns,” mentioned by Greidanus, are found in biblical texts. In short, as we study the Scriptures, we discover people, events, institutions, and narratives found in texts written millennia in advance prefiguring the person and work of Christ. 

Let’s explore a great example that we mentioned occurring in John chapter 1. The sacrificial system anticipates a final sacrifice (i.e., “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’” (John 1:29, emphasis added). It would be inconceivable to think we could understand New Testament references to “the Lamb of God” apart from Old Testament patterns (i.e., types) pointing forward to the antitype of Christ as “the Lamb of God.”

It would be obvious to any casual reader of the Old Testament that the practice of sacrificing lambs as “substitutes for sinners” is a ceremonial, religious rite found in the Law and the Prophets. What makes this fascinating and significant is not the bare fact of the practice itself; rather what makes this profoundly significant and meaningful is that it was always by the design of a providential God who was “dropping clues” in types (i.e., literal lambs) to the identity and purpose of His Christ (the antitype) who would arrive as planned to bring substance to the shadows many years later. 

Ardel Caneday elaborates: “The entire law-covenant was a copy, a shadow of the good things to come in the one to whom it typologically pointed (Hebrews 10:1–4). Just as the nation and all their recorded experiences from Egypt to exile and return was given typologically (cf. 1 Cor 10:1–13, emphasis added), God infused Israel’s experiences, events, places, institutions, worship, prophets, priesthood, kingship, tabernacle, temple, land, and the whole law itself with typological significance. All who resided under the law’s jurisdiction are instructed to look for him who would come to coalesce all the foreshadows in himself, fulfilling them all and bringing the law covenant to its designed climactic end for us upon whom the ends of the ages have come.”

We can do no better than to quote Graeme Goldsworthy on this oft neglected approach to reading the text of Scripture: “Typology is the technical term that relates to the way the Old Testament narratives, institutions, events, and persons foreshadow in various ways the person and work of Christ. It is generated by the testimony of Jesus and the New Testament writers that God’s unfolding plan in the historical experience of God’s people in the Old Testament is a shadow of the reality revealed in Christ. The type is often explicitly confirmed in the prophetic promise of the future. The New Testament shows in what various ways Christ is the antitype or fulfillment.”

What Caneday, Goldsworthy, and Greidanus are proposing is that the authors of the New Testament see in many of the Old Testament people, events, institutions, and narratives symbols of Christ! John’s gospel is a case in point. 

Therefore, when reading the Old Testament, it is certainly appropriate to read it “literally,” if, by that, we mean these people, events and institutions are corroborated by history. However, once those people, events, institutions, and narratives found their way into the canon of Scripture by the inspired author, they now point forward in profoundly significant ways to the person and accomplishments of Jesus Christ. So, we must always read and understand Old Testament texts, ultimately, through the “lens” of their final referent- Jesus, the Christ.

To grasp John’s gospel, it is essential we see that John has done just that. He is mining the quarry of the Old Testament and bringing out of it the necessary images from which we can comprehend the greatness of Jesus Christ. 

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Dennis Darville -Elder for preaching and leadership at Christ Covenant Church