Hello again! I hope you are enjoying these final days of November before the crush of December hits us all. It was good of you to return after that whole covenant household discussion.
One thing that we must determine when considering the differences between the Old and New Covenants is the significance of the types and shadows that existed under the former. The writer of Hebrews discusses this subject at length, and the way in which we interpret those words can have a major impact on how we view both covenants. Therefore, today’s question is,
What was the significance of the Old Covenant types and shadows?
There are five Greek words used in the New Testament that all seem to point to this idea of a “type”. The first is typos, which refers to a figure that is created by an impression. Metaphorically, it can refer to a form of something. The second is antitypos, which shares the same root and also refers to the process of forming something based on a pattern—but do note the prefix “anti”. The third is parabolē, which implies something that is compared to or has the likeness of something else. The fourth is hypodeigma, which can be a figure, sign, or example. The final such word is skia, which refers to a shadow, specifically in this case an image that is created from the shade of something else. (Any bolded English words in the block quotes of this article represent a translation of one of these five Greek words.)
The diversity of terms used to describe what is seemingly an identical concept increases the level of hermeneutical difficulty. Add to that the fact that the Old Testament does not usually hold up a sign for us that says, “This is actually a type!” We have to dig a bit deeper to discover what is meant to symbolize something else.
Our English translations of the New Testament do not often use the word “type” for something that is considered a type. There are only two occasions in the New American Standard Bible when this word appears. Let’s begin our investigation.
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. 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. But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many.
The Apostle Paul tells us here that Adam was a type of Christ. In what respect did Adam point to Christ? Based on the context of the passage, we can conclude that as Adam was a representative of all humanity, so Christ became a representative of all humanity. (The technical way of describing this is that Adam was the federal head of the Covenant of Works and Christ was the federal head of the Covenant of Grace. Those very concepts are based partially on this passage.) By no means was Adam exactly like Christ! Rather, he was like Christ only in the sense of being a representative for humanity. In fact, we are reminded here that Adam’s sin condemned the rest of us to death, while Christ’s righteousness provides saving grace. Christ was the better Adam: that is what is meant by using the word type. The other place where the NASB explicitly calls something a type is in the Book of Hebrews.
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; it was he to whom it was said, “In Isaac your descendants shall be called.” He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead, from which he also received him back as a type.
How was this incident in the life of Abraham typological? I believe that it symbolized future events on multiple levels. First, in offering his son as a sacrifice, Abraham was foreshadowing God the Father allowing His Son to be sacrificed for sin. Second, the provision of a replacement lamb symbolized the fact that Christ would become a sacrifice in our place. Third, I think it is possible based on how the author of Hebrews describes this event that it was also meant to be a type of Christ’s resurrection. I suppose these individual points are debatable, but there is no question that once again, the type was pointing forward to Christ and His saving work.
Beyond that basic meaning of type—a thing that pointed forward to Christ—scripture also uses those five Greek words I mentioned at the beginning to refer to parts of the Old Covenant that were essentially passing “shadows”, as in Paul’s words to the church in Colossae. “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.” (Colossians 2:16-17) In this case, there does not seem to be a clear link between the things that are mentioned and Christ’s atonement. Rather, Paul is using the term “shadow” to emphasize that these ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic Law were not requirements under the New Covenant. Christ is the substance. These other things are mere shadows.
This use of the type/shadow concept is where the confessionally Reformed derive their distinction between the substance and administration of the covenants. Hold on and I’ll get to that. We must first examine one other way the Bible uses these Greek words: in the sense of an example for us to either follow or avoid. When Jesus washed His disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, He referred to it as a hypodeigma, one of the words used for types and/or shadows. You will see it translated here as “example”: “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.” (John 13:15) Another passage gives us an example that we should not follow.
For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; and 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 were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness. Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and stood up to play.” Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.
1 Corinthians 10:1-11
Paul is pointing here to the experiences of the nation of Israel under the Mosaic Covenant and saying, “Don’t do what they did!” He even tells us that those stories in the Old Testament about Israel’s history “were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come”. What specifically are we warned against? First of all, craving what they craved: physical bread rather than the Bread of Life, and physical water rather than the living water of Christ. (I explore that concept in this article.) Second, we are warned against idolatry, which is a related point. Those people with whom God “was not well-pleased” did not seek after the true God by faith, but chased after earthly things. Third, we are warned against acting immorally, yet another example of failing to keep God’s commands. Fourth, we are warned against grumbling, which in the example of Israel was antithetical to faith. (I will revisit the passage above later in this series on covenants.)
Another lengthy passage in Hebrews chapter 4 discusses how the people of Israel had the good news preached to them—that is, that salvation was possible by faith—but they did not believe, and thus they did not enter God’s rest. Much as Paul seems to have referred to the promise of Christ made available to those under the Mosaic Law (“the rock was Christ”, 1 Corinthians 10:4), the author of Hebrews speaks of the salvation that was to come.
Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it. For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard…For if Joshua had given them rest, He would not have spoken of another day after that. So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience.
Hebrews 4:1-3, 8-11
The writer tells us that the people of Israel in the Old Testament had the good news preached to them, but they did not accept it. They did not have saving faith. Note that many of those people performed the proper sacrifices, but nevertheless they received nothing, because the sacrifices themselves were not the good news. The blood of animals was not enough to save. Rather, these types pointed forward to what would save: the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Only by having faith in God’s promise of a Savior did the people enter the rest that comes from Jesus Christ. Therefore, the example that we are to avoid in this case is hearing the gospel message and rejecting it.
We have now laid the groundwork for our examination and may continue on to the other things the Book of Hebrews has to say about types and shadows. This letter (which some believe is a dictated sermon) makes many distinctions between the Old and New Covenants, often using the language of temporary vs. eternal and earthly vs. heavenly. Let’s take these passages one by one in the order they appear in the book.
For the Law appoints men as high priests who are weak, but the word of the oath, which came after the Law, appoints a Son, made perfect forever. Now the main point in what has been said is this: we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices; so it is necessary that this high priest also have something to offer. Now if He were on earth, He would not be a priest at all, since there are those who offer the gifts according to the Law; who serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, just as Moses was warned by God when he was about to erect the tabernacle; for, “See,” He says, “that you make all things according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain.” But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second.
This passage contrasts the priesthood of Jesus Christ under the New Covenant with the Levitical priesthood that existed under the Old Covenant. The priests under the Law were “weak”. They served in a tabernacle that was only a “copy and shadow”. The covenant of which they were priests had faults and lesser promises. It was an inferior covenant. Nevertheless, it was not without a purpose. The Levitical priesthood pointed forward to the Mediator who was “made perfect forever”. This high priest, Jesus Christ, ministers in the “true tabernacle”. The sacrifice He offers is superior, and it is not according to the Law. His ministry is more excellent, His covenant is better, His promises are better. This is why a New Covenant was needed.
The types and shadows in this case were earthly things that pointed to heavenly things. They were not on the same level as the heavenly things, for they had faults. They were lacking, yet they taught a lesson. Let’s continue on to the next pertinent passage.
Now when these things have been so prepared, the priests are continually entering the outer tabernacle performing the divine worship, but into the second, only the high priest enters once a year, not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance. The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed while the outer tabernacle is still standing, which is a symbol for the present time. Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, since they relate only to food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation. But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
Here again we see how the things of the Old Covenant were simply types of what was to come. The author speaks of the high priest entering the holy place of the Tabernacle by the blood of animals, but he concludes that this was not enough, for “the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed while the outer tabernacle is still standing, which is a symbol for the present time”. Again, that word translated as “symbol” refers to a type. Only by the Spirit can we truly enter God’s presence, and this is what has taken place under the New Covenant, as symbolized by the tearing of the Temple veil on Good Friday (Mark 15:38). The Apostle Paul spoke about how a veil remained for those who relied on the Old Covenant rather than having faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ.
Therefore having such a hope, we use great boldness in our speech, and are not like Moses, who used to put a veil over his face so that the sons of Israel would not look intently at the end of what was fading away. But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ. But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart; but whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.
2 Corinthians 3:12-18
Returning now to the previous passage (Hebrews 9:6-14), we see that not only the Tabernacle and the Levitical priesthood but also the sacrifices themselves were inferior. These were things that “cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience”. They were “imposed until a time of reformation”, that is, the “good things to come”. Note again the continual contrast between the physical and the spiritual, or the earthly and the heavenly. Physical things pointed to spiritual things still to come through the work of Jesus Christ. Our Savior entered through a tabernacle “not made with human hands”. He gives us not the inferior blood of animals, but “His own blood”. His work was not temporary and fading, but “once for all” and “eternal”. The types of the Old Covenant may have cleansed the flesh, but only the blood of Jesus Christ and the work of the Spirit can “cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God”.
Therefore it was necessary for the copies of the things in the heavens to be cleansed with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; nor was it that He would offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood that is not his own.
Here again we see how the Book of Hebrews uses this concept of types and shadows to describe physical things under the Old Covenant that pointed to spiritual things under the New Covenant. Particularly, they are related to the saving work of Jesus Christ. The “copies” here on earth were cleansed with the animal sacrifices, but the “heavenly things” required a superior sacrifice. The holy place here on earth (the Tabernacle/Temple) was a “mere copy of the true one”, for Christ entered into the very presence of God and gives us direct access to heaven. He is our forever Mediator at the right hand of the Father, having earned that place by offering His own blood. That is why He gives us something infinitely better than what a human priest could ever achieve.
For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
This is an important passage, for it teaches us that the entirety of the Law contained “only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things”. All of those sacrifices could never “make perfect those who draw near”. Why? Because “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins”. What was necessary, argues the author of Hebrews, was a once for all sacrifice that truly cleansed, for a person who is sanctified does not need another sacrifice. That cleansing is permanent. Why then were those animal sacrifices offered if they couldn’t possibly remove a person’s sin? The writer tells us it was so that there would be “a reminder of sins year by year”. The sacrifices were not teaching them that the blood of animals could save, but that it couldn’t. Again, the type is pointing forward to something superior under Jesus Christ and the New Covenant.
Now that we have discussed the significance of the types and shadows under the Old Covenant, let’s take a look at some of the most important types that existed. In the chart below, I present 1) the biblical passage instituting the type, 2) the immediate lesson that it was meant to teach to people at the time, 3) the way in which it was fulfilled by the work of Jesus Christ and the New Covenant, and 4) some biblical passages that support my interpretation of the fulfillment.First, ethnic Israel or the physical progeny of Abraham. This was instituted in different passages in Genesis when God swore to make a great nation of Abraham. The immediate fulfillment of this was the ethnic nation of Israel, who were chosen to be God’s people not on the basis of any inherent righteousness, but because of God’s sovereign choice. Moses explained this to the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land.I have already discussed how the sacrifices, Tabernacle, and the Levitical Priesthood were types of things to come. This is made explicit in the Book of Hebrews. The other three are somewhat more controversial. Dispensationalists might take issue with my interpretation of ethnic Israel and the Promised Land, while the confessionally Reformed are likely to find something wanting in my interpretation of both ethnic Israel and circumcision. Nevertheless, I believe that all three were types in that they were physical signs of spiritual truths, they pointed forward to the saving work of Jesus Christ, they had their final fulfillment thanks to the New Covenant, and they are therefore set aside. Let’s take a look at them one by one.
For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the Lord brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
This was in line with the words that the Lord spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, when they were about to receive the Law.
You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’
However, while all those who were part of ethnic Israel were a chosen people of God in this sense, they were not all chosen of God in the sense of being elect. Rather, they served as a type of the true kingdom of priests that was to come, which would have no need of human mediators to make animal sacrifices, but would be united with the better Mediator: Jesus Christ. The New Testament contrasts unbelieving Jews, who rejected the Messiah and stumbled over the stumbling stone (Romans 9:30-33), with believing Jews and Gentiles, who are a royal priesthood, in the words of the Apostle Peter.
And coming to Him as to a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For this is contained in Scripture:
“Behold, I lay in Zion a choice stone, a precious corner stone,
And he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.”
This precious value, then, is for you who believe; but for those who disbelieve,
“The stone which the builders rejected,
This became the very corner stone,”
“A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense”;
for they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
1 Peter 2:4-10
In the Book of Romans, the Apostle Paul teaches that the greater promise contained within the Abrahamic Covenant was not for Abraham’s physical progeny, but rather his spiritual progeny: a people of all nations who would share in his faith. (Romans chapter 4) He even says that the promise, “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice,” (Genesis 22:18) was not talking about ethnic Israel, but about Jesus Christ, the seed of the woman who would bring salvation. (Genesis 3:15)
Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ. What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise.
This means that while the physical promises given to Abraham had a more immediate fulfillment with his physical progeny, the spiritual promises were fulfilled through his spiritual seed (Jesus Christ) for the benefit of his spiritual progeny (the elect). This is the true Israel which is chosen by God for salvation in Jesus Christ. In the middle of what is perhaps the strongest argument in scripture on behalf of divine predestination, Paul says the following.
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “through Isaac your descendants will be named.” That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants. For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
Therefore, I conclude that the choosing of Abraham’s physical descendants for certain physical blessings was a type of God’s election of his spiritual descendants for spiritual blessings. This leads us into the next type: the Promised Land. God pledged to give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s physical progeny as their inheritance.
On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying,
“To your descendants I have given this land,
From the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates:
the Kenite and the Kenizzite and the Kadmonite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Rephaim and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Girgashite and the Jebusite.
Elsewhere, the Lord promised Abraham, “I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.” (Genesis 17:6) When God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, He recalled His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and swore to keep His promise of a physical inheritance.
The Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and have given heed to their cry because of their taskmasters, for I am aware of their sufferings. So I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Amorite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite.”
These promises were gradually fulfilled until the reign of King Solomon, when Israel’s territory and influence covered all of these areas. However, that land was lost over time, and following the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D./C.E., the Jewish people were exiled for good. Some people are looking for them to gain that land back, but the writer of Hebrews points out that Abraham himself was looking for something beyond this physical inheritance.
By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised. Therefore there was born even of one man, and him as good as dead at that, as many descendants as the stars of heaven in number, and innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore. All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.
Here the author of Hebrews appeals once again to this typological contrast between the earthly and the heavenly. Yes, Abraham was seeking the physical land of Canaan that God had promised as an inheritance for him and his descendants. However, he was also seeking something greater, and he was seeking it by faith. This was the “city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God”. It was “a better country, that is, a heavenly one”. I truly believe that what the writer is describing here is not the physical inheritance of the Promised Land and the earthly Jerusalem, but the spiritual inheritance of God’s eternal promises and the New Jerusalem. Abraham and all his spiritual descendants seek that inheritance by faith, even as his physical descendants sought the land of Canaan.
The ancient Israelites were exiled from their physical inheritance because they failed to keep the commands of the Mosaic Covenant. However, we are offered something better under the New Covenant: not an earthly kingdom, but the kingdom of heaven. Not a kingdom of men, but the kingdom of God. This is our spiritual inheritance that can only be accessed through the Spirit of God. (John 3:1-8)
When Christ began His ministry, He proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2) He taught that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven”. (5:20) He contrasted unbelievers among Abraham’s physical descendants with Abraham’s believing spiritual descendants when He declared, “I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (8:11-12) The Old Testament had predicted that a descendant of David would sit on his throne forever (2 Samuel 7:8-17, Isaiah 9:7), and Jesus’ disciples fully expected Him to rule over the physical land of Israel at that time. (Acts 1:6) However, Jesus presented a different version of His kingdom to Pontius Pilate.
Therefore Pilate entered again into the Praetorium, and summoned Jesus and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me?” Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You to me; what have You done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.” Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”
The kingdom that is promised to Abraham’s spiritual descendants is not of this world. It will never pass away. The land of Canaan was a type of this eternal inheritance. Here are a few more verses that discuss this concept of the believer’s eternal inheritance in Christ.
- “In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory. In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.” (Ephesians 1:10b-14)
- “…so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light. For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 3:10-14)
- “For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.” (Hebrews 9:15)
- “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:3-5)
I believe that this spiritual inheritance is fulfilled in the eschatological promises of Revelation chapter 21, which describes the new Jerusalem: the heavenly city whose builder is God.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”… I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. In the daytime (for there will be no night there) its gates will never be closed; and they will bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it; and nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
Revelation 21:1-4, 22-27
That brings us to circumcision, the final type that I will discuss. I have heard the symbolism of this covenant sign described in a number of ways: as a reminder that Israel was set apart, as a promise that the Redeemer would come from Abraham’s male line, as a pledge that God would grant Abraham’s descendants the Promised Land, and as a call to the individual to keep the covenant conditions or be cut off from the covenant promises. All of these elements certainly exist within the sign of circumcision. However, there is a typological aspect of circumcision, which is mentioned less often; namely, that it pointed to the fact that the Messiah would be cut off for His people.
When he instituted the sign of circumcision, God used the language of being “cut off” to describe what would happen to Abraham’s physical descendants if they failed to keep this part of the covenant. “But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.” (Genesis 17:14) Interestingly, the Hebrew word translated here as “cut off” is actually karath, the same term that is used for cutting (i.e. making or instituting) a covenant. Even so, the Lord declared “thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.” (Genesis 17:13b)
To be cut off based on covenant disobedience meant that a person was removed from the covenant blessings. When the Mosaic Law was given to Abraham’s physical descendants, they were expected to abide by those commands in addition to the earlier ones. The Pentateuch is full of warnings that people who break God’s commands will be cut off from His people. Here are a few examples.
- “Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people.” (Exodus 31:14)
- “But the person who eats the flesh of the sacrifice of peace offerings which belong to the LORD, in his uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from his people.” (Leviticus 7:20)
- “But the man who is clean and is not on a journey, and yet neglects to observe the Passover, that person shall then be cut off from his people, for he did not present the offering of the LORD at its appointed time. That man will bear his sin.” (Numbers 9:13)
- “But the person who does anything defiantly, whether he is native or an alien, that one is blaspheming the LORD; and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken His commandment, that person shall be completely cut off; his guilt will be on him.” (Numbers 15:30-31)
What is perhaps more remarkable than this is that under the Mosaic Covenant, God stated that the entire nation could be cut off due to disobedience.
But if you or your sons indeed turn away from following Me, and do not keep My commandments and My statutes which I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land which I have given them, and the house which I have consecrated for My name, I will cast out of My sight. So Israel will become a proverb and a byword among all peoples.
1 Kings 9:6-7
The word used there is once again karath. It is the same word that appears in the Book of Jeremiah when the prophet writes, “Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘Behold, I am going to set My face against you for woe, even to cut off all Judah.’” (Jeremiah 44:11) This should not have been shocking, for the blessings of the Mosaic Covenant were tied to obedience, and none of them were able to maintain perfect obedience. They had sinful natures just like us. The scripture assures us, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” (James 2:10) The Prophet Isaiah likewise lamented his nation’s sin.
For all of us have become like one who is unclean,
And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment;
And all of us wither like a leaf,
And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on Your name,
Who arouses himself to take hold of You;
For You have hidden Your face from us
And have delivered us into the power of our iniquities.
The Mosaic Covenant would have been a complete failure if it was solely dependent on the actions of the people of Israel. Fortunately, that same sign of circumcision that condemned the unrighteousness of Abraham’s physical progeny contained a seed of hope. Yes, I said a “seed” because it was wrapped up in Abraham’s seed. Why did God ordain a covenant sign that was only given to males, when females were also called to keep the commands of His covenant? Because it was pointing forward to a male descendant of Abraham: the seed who would deliver the greater promise. By His atoning death, Jesus Christ made possible all the blessings that are given to the elect under the New Covenant. He also fulfilled the demands of every covenant God ever made, taking upon Himself the curses due to lawbreakers.
God had demanded perfect obedience of Adam as federal head of humanity. Though Adam failed, Christ fulfilled the commands. God promised Noah He would never again destroy the world with a flood, and therefore implied a means of salvation. This was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who through His sacrifice has spared us from destruction. God promised Abraham that in his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed, and this was fulfilled when Christ opened the way for Jews and Gentiles to both be reconciled to God by faith. God demanded perfect obedience of Abraham’s physical descendants under the Law, which was fully revealed in the Mosaic Covenant but had its beginning with the commands concerning circumcision. It was therefore necessary for Jesus to be born as a member of the Jewish nation and fulfill the Law of Moses.
Christ said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17) Jesus did what Israel could not. As He did not bear the sinful stain of Adam, He was able to be perfectly obedient. He met all the conditions of the Law. What is even more amazing is that He stood in to take the punishment of the Law. He was cut off for the nation of Israel. Listen to how the Prophet Isaiah speaks of the coming Servant who would make salvation possible for His people.
Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.
But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.
All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.
He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He did not open His mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth.
By oppression and judgment He was taken away;
And as for His generation, who considered
That He was cut off out of the land of the living
For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?
His grave was assigned with wicked men,
Yet He was with a rich man in His death,
Because He had done no violence,
Nor was there any deceit in His mouth.
But the Lord was pleased
To crush Him, putting Him to grief;
If He would render Himself as a guilt offering,
He will see His offspring,
He will prolong His days,
And the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand.
As a result of the anguish of His soul,
He will see it and be satisfied;
By His knowledge the Righteous One,
My Servant, will justify the many,
As He will bear their iniquities.
Jesus Christ was a representative for all humanity when He made that blessed exchange of our guilt for His righteousness: that is, He was the federal head of the new Covenant of Grace. However, He was also specifically a representative for the Jewish people. Isaiah asks who among Christ’s generation had considered, “That He was cut off out of the land of the living / For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?” Ah, how perfect it would be if the word there was karath! Sadly, it is a more generic term for cutting. Nevertheless, Isaiah states that the Servant will be “pierced through for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities”. He describes Israel as a nation of sheep that have all gone astray, “But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all / To fall on Him”.
Remember Isaiah’s context. He was writing to people who were under the Old Covenant—that is, the Mosaic Covenant. These people all deserved to be cut off for their sins and reap the curses of covenant disobedience. Yet God in His mercy had appointed all along that one man from the nation of Israel would be cut off vicariously for the rest, and that all who were united to Him by faith would be freed from that curse.
For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.” Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “The righteous man shall live by faith.” However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, “He who practices them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
Now, the Jewish people were under the Mosaic Law, but there was another type of law that included both Jews and Gentiles. Through Adam, we are all guilty of violating the Covenant of Works. Thus, we are all condemned by God’s laws, and we are all subject to a curse. This is why it is important to accept that there was a Covenant of Works. Christ took the condemnation for all of us, but in addition to reversing the curse of Adam, it was important that He should reverse the curse of the Mosaic Law. This helps to explain a rather interesting conversation that some of the Jewish leaders had after they heard of the resurrection of Lazarus.
Therefore the chief priests and the Pharisees convened a council, and were saying, “What are we doing? For this man is performing many signs. If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish.” Now he did not say this on his own initiative, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but in order that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. So from that day on they planned together to kill Him.
When these men heard about Jesus’ fame, they became concerned that the Romans would come and take away “our place”—which may well refer to the authority given to the Great Sanhedrin—and “our nation”. Indeed, the Romans ended up taking away both when they destroyed the Temple and forced the Jews into exile (eventually leading to the demise of the Great Sanhedrin), but in this passage, the high priest Caiaphas unwittingly makes a prophecy about the Mosaic Covenant. He selfishly remarks that “it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish”. I believe Caiaphas was thinking of politics and the need for the Jews to maintain control of their land (and avoid a nasty death), but the root of all their problems was their violation of the Law. This was why Christ certainly did need to die so the entire nation would not perish, both physically and spiritually. The Apostle John provides some commentary, saying that Jesus died not only for the Jewish nation, but for all “the children of God who are scattered abroad”. These are the elect of all nations who are united to Christ in the New Covenant and covered by His blood.
Therefore, circumcision was not simply a sign, but also a type. It pointed forward to the saving work of Jesus Christ. Like the other types, it has been fulfilled. For the Jews to rely on circumcision for righteousness after the saving death of Christ was essentially to reject His sacrifice and put themselves back under the Law, which would certainly result in their condemnation.
Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.
Circumcision is no longer of any value because it was a type, and to cling perpetually to that type is to reject the thing it prophesied. Every person who lives will either be cut off themselves or accept Christ being cut off on their behalf, but there is no need to maintain a type of something that has already happened. That is why we no longer makes sacrifices or rely on human priests. The type does not carry over into the New Covenant, because its promise has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. “For as many as are the promises of God, in Him they are yes; therefore also through Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us.” (2 Corinthians 1:20) This is why Paul does not speak of the sign of circumcision being essential, but rather the regeneration of the Spirit through union with Christ.
For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.
How are we made complete? In Christ. How are our hearts circumcised? In Christ. What does baptism symbolize? Our union with Christ in His death and resurrection. Who made us alive and forgave us? Christ. Who cancelled our debt? Christ. The Apostle Paul is proclaiming the importance of the “circumcision made without hands”, which is spiritual rather than physical. What needs to be cut away now is our sinful nature. We need to be made regenerate. There is no reason to cling to the type. The type does not save. It pointed to what saves. Now that the fullness of the gospel is here, the better promises have come into being, and the New Covenant is instituted in Christ’s blood, there is no need for the type of circumcision. (I will say much more about circumcision in later essays. This is only scratching the surface.)
I hope that this very long article has been helpful in our consideration of the types and shadows that existed under the Old (Mosaic) Covenant. I think you will find upon further inspection that not merely a few aspects of this covenant, but the entire thing was typological. That has significance for the rest of the questions I seek to answer. Come back next time.
All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.