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Typology in Leviticus A Foreshadowing of the New Covenant

When we attempt reading the Bible from end to end for the first time, we breeze through the exciting narrative of Genesis and Exodus, then we come to Leviticus and wonder, what are all these rituals and ceremonies about, and why should we bother to read about them. After all, these ancient sacrifices and offerings and the Jewish festivals appear to have nothing to do with us anyway. Why can’t we just skip to the New Testament where we can read about Christ, salvation and other themes that are relevant to us?

Actually, when properly understood, the OT (and Leviticus in particular) has much to say about Christ, the Church, and our salvation.  Moses, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, presents these various themes by way of expectation.  The festivals, sacrificial system and the holiness code of Leviticus anticipate, and provide a basis for a fuller understanding of many NT themes.  In fact, we can’t fully appreciate many NT themes and doctrines without seeing their original purpose in the OT.  This is why the NT writers refer to Leviticus almost one hundred times, most prominently in the book of Hebrews.

Paul wrote to the NT church at Corinth that the experiences of the Israelites in the wilderness served as “examples for us” and were written down for our instruction (1Cor 10:6,11).  The Greek word that Paul used for “example” is typos, from which we derive our English word “type”.  While the rituals and ceremonies of Leviticus have an immediate significance, such as to reveal various truths about G-d and the human condition, they also serve as foreshadows, prefigures or “types” of a particular person, object or event in the NT.

What is Typology?

In theology, a “type” (Gk typos – see Rom 5:14) is a special picture or symbol which G-d designs and places at a certain time in history which points forward to a larger or ultimate fulfillment at a later time in history.  In relationship to our present time, this later time could now be in the past or still in the future.  Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of most of the OT shadows, although some can point elsewhere.  For example, as the dwelling place of G-d, the temple prefigures both Christ (Jn 2:21) and the church (1Cor 3:16-17), and the OT Jerusalem often foreshadows the new heavenly Jerusalem (Rev 21).

The person, object or event that is foreshadowed, symbolized, represented by or identified with an earlier type is called an “antitype” of the original type.  In our example, Christ and the church are considered antitypes of the temple.

We might also mention that some theologians use the terms “type” and “symbol” interchangeably, which others differentiate between the two.  In the latter case, a “symbol” is held to represent someone or something that exists at the present time, while a “type” points toward a future person, object or event.

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Types Found in Leviticus

The usage of types with Leviticus is as dense as any book in the Bible.  For the purpose of this article, we’ll briefly summarize those which prefigure some of the major themes of the NT.  Additional information regarding types can be found in our articles on the Sacrificial System, the Festivals, and various other OT themes.

The first seven chapters of Leviticus are devoted to the Sacrificial System.  The sacrifices were a constant reminder of the contrast between the holiness of G-d and the sinfulness of man.  We also see the love and grace of G-d providing a method of restoring the relationship that is damaged by our sin.  There were two basic categories of sacrifices or offerings.  The first is the atoning sacrifice (burnt, sin, and guilt) which offered compensation for various sins through the shedding of blood.  These offerings point forward to the perfect final sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, where He shed His blood for our sins (Heb 9:25-26).  The death of the animals on behalf of the worshiper pictures the vicarious death of Christ so that we might live.  The non-atoning sacrifices (grain and peace) were offered to worship, honor and express thanks to G-d.  These look forward to Jesus honoring the Father with His perfect obedient and sinless life, and His works bringing peace between G-d and man.

The sacrificial ceremonies also contain many elements or details which foreshadow or prefigure an attribute or work of Christ, such as the requirement of an unblemished animal (perfect holiness of Christ – Heb 7:26), the firstfruits of the harvest (Christ as the first resurrection – 1Cor 15:20-23), and animals carried outside the camp (Jesus crucified outside Jerusalem – Heb 13:11-12), just to list a few.  In addition, the continuously burning alter fires (6:13) symbolize the insufficient efficacy of the repeated sacrifices in contrast with the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice (Heb 10:1-10).

The priesthood in chapters 8-10 is also a type of Jesus the Christ, who is our final high priest (Heb 4:14, 7:11-8:7).  The duty of the OT priest was to represent G-d before the people by the teaching of the Law.  The priests also represented the people before G-d in making atonement for their sins by administering the sacrifices.  The priest first offered up a sacrifice for himself, then for the people.  Jesus, as our High Priest, offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice once for all (Heb 9:6-14, 10:10).  He now sits at the Father’s right hand, making interceding and mediating on our behalf (Jn 14:6, Heb 7:25, 10:12, 1Tim 2:5).

The various laws and regulations concerning cleanness and uncleanness in chapters 11-15 symbolize holiness and sin respectively.  An Israelites cleansing prefigures the sinner’s healings and cleansing of sin by Christ (Lk 5:12-14, Heb 9:11-14).

For the Jewish people, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) in chapter 16 (and 23:26-32) was the most solemn day of the year.  It was the only day that the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies to sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice on the mercy seat, and then only after undergoing special purifying rituals.  The offering involved two goats, one that was slain on the alter, and another (the scapegoat) that was driven into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people.  Yom Kippur, of course, looked forward to the ultimate Day of Atonement at Calvary, where the blood of Jesus washed away the sins of those who had or would believe in Him.

In chapter 17, we see instructions regarding the blood, which as the symbol of life (17:14), represented the life of the sinner.  This of course, looks forward to the blood of Jesus being poured out at Calvary, bringing atonement for our sins (Eph 1:7, Col 1:20, Heb 9:12,14), allowing us to enter into the Holy of Holies (Heb 10:19).

In chapters 18-22, we find moral laws, calls for holiness, and regulations for priests and offerings.  Much of these instructions foreshadow the attributes of Christ.  The command to separate oneself from the pagan activities of the surrounding nations (18:3) prefigures the holiness of Christ (7:26) and Christians (2Cor 6:14).  The call for perfect obedience to the law (18:5) and for holiness (19:2) also anticipates the perfect obedience and holiness of Jesus.  The consequences of sin (chapter 20) is ultimately fulfilled by unbelievers (Rev 20:14-15), but remedied by the atoning death of Christ for believers (1Pe 2:24).  The priesthood (chapter 21) prefigures not only the priesthood of the Messiah (Heb 7:26-27), but also the priesthood of the spiritual sons of Abraham (1Pe 2:5,9, Rev 1:6, 5:10).  The offering of an animal without blemish (22:17-25) heralds the offering of the sinless Christ (2Cor 5:21).

We now come to the Jewish feasts and festivals instituted by G-d in chapter 23.  The Passover (23:4-8) prefigures the Lord’s Supper (Mt 26:26-28) and the substitutionary death of Christ (1Cor 5:7), which we now celebrate as Easter.  Firstfruits (23:9-14) looks forward to the resurrection of Christ (1Cor 15:20-23).  The Feast of Weeks the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Ac 2:1-11), thus forming the Church.  We’ve already mentioned the Day of Atonement (23:26-32) above when we came to chapter 16.  The Feasts of Trumpets (23:23-25) calls the people to repentance and awaits the coming of the Messiah (Mt 24:29-31) and the re-gathering of the dispersed people of Israel (Zech 14).  Finally, the Feast of Booths, or Tabernacles (23:33-44) pre-figures Christ dwelling with His people (Jn 1:14) and looks forward to the millennial rest of Israel (Am 9:11-15, Zech 14:16-21) and all nations (Rev 7:9-12).  In the Gospel of John, the apostle bases part of his contention that Jesus is the Messiah upon His fulfillment  of the various messianic hopes associated with the Jewish festivals.

In rules for the Tabernacle (chapter 24), the continually burning lamps prefigure Jesus as the light of the world (Jn 1:4-9, 3:19, 8:12, 9:5), and bread represents Christ as the bread of life (Jn 6:35,48-51).  The Tabernacle itself prefigures the Temple, which in turn prefigures Christ and the Church as mentioned in the “What is Typology” chapter above.

In chapter 25, the Sabbath Year points to the final rest awaiting the saints at the final consummation of the Kingdom (Heb 4:9-11, Rev 21:1-22:5).  Every 50 years, a year of liberty known as the Year of Jubilee was proclaimed throughout the land to all inhabitants (25:10).  During this year of agricultural rest for the land, all property was returned to the original owner, debts were cancelled, and all Hebrew servants were freed.  This year foreshadows the aforementioned coming rest in addition to the liberty that is given by Christ (Is 61:1-2, Lk 4:18-21).  Finally, we come to the concept of the Kinsman Redeemer, one who was willing and able to free a debtor by paying the ransom price.  Probably the best OT example of this is Boaz in the book of Ruth.  These OT redeemers pictured the ultimate Kinsman Redeemer, Jesus Christ, who was both willing and able to pay the ransom price for us (His life) in order to set us free from our debt of sin and death.

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