Lesson 1: Christ Prefigured in the Old Testament

There are many levels of Christ's prefigurement in the Old Testament. It is not simply a matter of specific prophetic texts, although these are important. Rather, the entire historical narrative of the Old Testament depicts the Messiah who is to bring about the restoration of Israel. (Note that the term "messiah" is the Hebrew word for the "anointed one", rendered as "Christ" in Greek.) In this lesson, we will examine central types of Christ. The language of "types" here refers to the typological meaning of the Bible. Types are persons, events, or things from the narrative of Scripture that point to Christ.

The Kingdom of God

At the heart of the Old Testament narrative is God's sustained plan to bring about his holy kingdom. As all kingdoms require land and people, so God's holy kingdom requires a holy land and a holy people. What does this mean? Holy people describes a people without stain or impurity, full of righteousness and justice (the Greek work dikaiosune can be translated as both), who can stand before God without shame. Holy land refers to the place made holy because God himself dwells there. Thus, as we will see later, the concept of holy land is not merely geographical. This can be seen in the first chapters of Genesis in which Adam and Eve were originally holy people in a holy land, a land in which God himself dwelt. As a result of the fall, the human race lost both its own righteousness (holy people) and the indwelling of God (holy land). Through the succeeding covenants with Abraham, Moses, and David, God begins the process of restoring the holiness that was lost through sin. It is only in Christ, however, that the kingdom of God is fully proclaimed and initially realized, and its final realization awaits the second coming of Christ.

Types of Christ

Isaac and the Lamb of God

The Old Testament has countless types of Christ. This lesson only highlights a few that depict this central theme of holy people, holy land.

In Genesis 22, there is the famous story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac. Isaac is the faithful son who carries the wood for his own sacrifice to the top of Mount Moriah. Isaac asks his father, Abraham, "Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" (Gen 22:7). Abraham answers, "God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering" (22:8). God sends his angel to stop Abraham after seeing Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his only son (see 22:16) and thus the only possible realization of God's promise of countless descendants to the already old Abraham. Abraham then offered the ram in place of his son, and also in place of the lamb. He named the place "The Lord will provide" or YHWH jireh, the latter half of which is the root jeru for what will later be called Jerusalem. God then pronounces a universal (in Greek, catholic) blessing upon Abraham, "by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice" (Gen 22:18).

Abraham's descendants continue to await the time when God will himself provide the lamb for sacrifice. The first time this appears to be fulfilled is at the defining event of Israel's exodus from slavery in Egypt. Before embarking on the exodus, all the families of Israel must celebrate the Passover and sacrifice the Passover lamb. The blood of the lamb, spread on the doorposts, protects them as the angel of death slays the first-born of Egypt. Then Israel escapes from Egypt and celebrates the Passover annually as its highest feast. Israel was saved through the blood of a lamb, but Israel had to provide the lamb. God himself had not yet done so.

In the Second Book of Chronicles, we are told that "Solomon began to build the house of the Lord [the Temple] in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah" (2 Chr 3:1). The Temple and all its sacrifices were constructed on the very place where Abraham has said that God would provide the lamb for the sacrifice. The sacrifice of the lambs, especially the Passover lambs, sustained Israel in God's covenant, yet these lambs were not yet provided by God himself. Israel awaited the time that God would send forth his lamb. Isaiah's great prophecy of the Suffering Servant (Is 52-53) employs the image of the lamb being led to slaughter.

In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist summarizes the hopes of Israel and proclaims that God is now fulfilling them when he sees Jesus and announces, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (Jn 1:29). God himself has finally provided the lamb that will take away all sins and bring about the universal blessing upon all nations, embracing Jews and Gentiles, as he had sworn to Abraham in Genesis 22.

Jacob's Ladder

As Jacob fled from his brother Esau, he spent the night out in the open and slept with his head upon a stone. "He dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!" (Gen 28:12). Jacob's vision tells of the meeting between heaven and earth. Through him, who is soon renamed Israel and thus personifies the people and vocation of Israel, heaven will dwell on earth and earth will dwell in heaven. When he awoke, he said, "Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it. . . . How awesome is this place! It is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." He renames the place Bethel, which means the "house of God". Here we see the promise of the holy land begun to be fulfilled, a land in which God himself dwells. The Temple will later be called the house of God. The land in Palestine is called holy because God's name dwells in the Temple (cf. Deut. 12).

In the beginning of the Gospel of John, Jesus encounters a faithful Israelite named Nathanael who recognizes Jesus as the Son of God, the King of Israel. Claiming the image of Jacob's ladder for himself, Jesus replies, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man" (Jn 1:51). Jesus is now the new Bethel, the new house of God, the new Temple. He himself is the holy land, the indwelling of God.

God's Presence through the King

God did not originally desire to have a human king in Israel and says that Israel's demand for a human king like the other nations is a rejection of himself as King of Israel (see 1 Sam 8). Yet, in the wonder of God's mercy and wisdom, he reclaimed the human king and made the king, his anointed one, a visible sign of his presence among men. God establishes a covenant with David, promising that the Son of David will build the Temple, "a house for my name," and receive a perpetual throne. Moreover, the Son of David will enjoy a father-son relationship with God: "I will be his father, and he shall be my son" (2 Sam 7:13-16). Psalm 2, a coronation Psalm, declares the king to be God's son, "You are my son, today I have begotten you" (2:7). As God's son and his anointed, the king mediates God's presence. The king stands with the Lord against those in rebellion against God's rule. In Psalm 2:2, "the Lord and his anointed" stand together in contrast to the kings and rulers of the earth.

In addition to mediating God's presence (holy land), the king is to establish righteousness and justice within his kingdom (holy people).

Psalm 23 depicts the Lord as the shepherd of Israel. The Davidic kings were also called shepherds of God's people. King David is said to have been an actual sheepherder (like Moses) before becoming shepherd, or king, over the United Kingdom of Israel. The kings, however, often did not shepherd in accord with the true interests of the sheep. The prophet Ezekiel denounces the kings of Israel: "Thus says the Lord God: Ho, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not the shepherds feed the sheep?" (Ezek 34:2). This infidelity cuts at the heart of the covenant. The anointed kings were meant to be a sign of God's presence among men, but instead they became obstacles and even enemies of God. Ezekiel continues, "Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds" (Ezek 34:10). God then promises, "I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed" (Ezek 34:15-16).

It is in this context of the Old Testament that we must understand Jesus words, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (Jn 10:11). Jesus simultaneously claims the role of the Old Testament kings and the role of the Lord who had promised one day to shepherd the people himself. The sinfulness of the Old Testament kings prevented them from acting in accord with God, rendering them unable to fulfill their role as the Lord's anointed. The Word of God solves this problem by taking on a human nature. As the Word of God, the Son of God, he was intimately united with God the Father: "I and the Father are one" (Jn 10:30). As a human being, he could stand among human beings fulfilling the role of the lord's anointed to mediate God's presence. Only God could shepherd us well; yet we could only see a human shepherd. Jesus Christ in his divine and human natures fulfills both needs. As the Book of Revelation echoing Psalm 2:2 says, "there were loud voices in heaven, saying, 'The kingdom of our world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ'" (Rev 11:15). Or as St. John and St. Paul put it: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth" (Jn 1:14), and "In [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily" (Col 2:9).

If the Incarnation of the Word accomplishes what was necessary, what happens after Jesus' Ascension when his human nature is no longer visibly present on earth? Christ does not leave his Church alone, but sends her the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, to guide her. The Church, as the mystical body of Christ, acts as the ongoing incarnation of our lord Jesus Christ. This becomes more apparent when we return to the shepherd theme in the Gospel of John. Jesus does not stop after he claims to be the good shepherd. After his resurrection, Jesus established Simon Peter as the shepherd of his flock. Three times Jesus asks Peter, "Do you love me more than these?" Three times Peter says, "Yes, Lord." Three times, Jesus says to Peter, "Feed my sheep" (cf. Jn 21:15-17). Just as Jesus mediates the presence of the Father, so Peter, and the Petrine office as it develops, mediate the presence of Jesus.

Reading Assignment

Gen 22, 2 Sam 7, Ezek 34, Ps 23, CCC 128-133

Writing Assignment

Write a two-page essay in which you describe the Church's understanding of typology and how this unites the Old and New Testaments. Include specific examples of types of Christ.

Suggested Reading

Scott Hahn, A Father Who Keeps His Promises. Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Press, 1998.


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