The typology of Christ

| Father Jan Michael Joncas | January 25, 2018 | 0 Comments

The Deuteronomy reading (Dt 18:15-20) and the Gospel selection (Mk 1:21-28) for Jan. 28 give us the opportunity to employ one of the most ancient forms of biblical interpretation: typology.

Unlike an allegory, where every significant detail of the text stands for something else (e.g., “The Pilgrim’s Progress”), or a parable where usually a short narrative taken from contemporary life presents a single world-transforming insight (e.g., the parable of the lost coin in Luke 15:8-10), typology views events, persons or statements from an earlier era (especially from the Old Testament) as foreshadowings of events, persons or statements from a later era (especially the New Testament). The former are called “types” from the Greek noun “typos” meaning “blow, hitting, stamp” in which an exact figure or impression was made on a coin; the figure or impression was designated the “anti-type,” from the Greek meaning “opposite” or “corresponding.”

Already practiced in the New Testament by the apostle Paul, who presents Adam as a “type” of Christ in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, typology is grounded in a theory of history: God shapes all Jewish and Christian history so that earlier events within the story can act as symbols for later events. God influences history like a writer who uses actual events rather than imaginative fictions in his narrative.

The figure of Moses early on became an opportunity for typological reading of the Christian Bible. According to Numbers 21:6, Moses placed a bronze serpent on a pole that had the power to heal anyone bitten by a seraph (“firey”) snake, provided that they gazed upon it. John 3:14 presents this event as a “type” of Jesus’ own saving activity on the cross: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

Later writers highlight that Moses undergoes a symbolic death and resurrection when he is consigned to the Nile River as an infant but is then drawn out of the waters to be adopted as an Egyptian prince; they see these events as “types” connected not only to the death and resurrection of Jesus, but also to the Christian experience of passing from death to life through the waters of baptism and becoming adopted children of the Triune God.

Some patristic commentators interpreted Moses’ prayerful uplifted hands bringing victory to the Israelite forces in battle with the Amalekites (Ex 17:11) as a “type” of Christ stretching out his hands nailed to the cross bringing victory over sin and death in his redemptive death.

What would a typological reading of today’s first reading and Gospel yield? Moses predicts that “a prophet like me” will be raised up by God from the Israelite peoples. He is to function as a mediator between God and God’s people, faithfully transmitting exactly what God wishes to communicate. He speaks not on his own behalf, but with the authority of God. The story of the healing of the man with an unclean spirit suggests that Jesus is the “anti-type” of the “prophet like Moses” that had been foretold. Jesus comes from Jewish stock, Jesus’ word is so powerful that even demons must obey his commands, and the Jews observing his activity recognize in Jesus’ ministry “a new teaching with authority” — the fulfillment of the “prophet like Moses’” ministry.

In a world with many competing voices, we are called to cling to Jesus’ message and person as the enfleshed word of God. The challenge: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Ps 95).

Father Joncas, a composer, is an artist in residence at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

Sunday, Jan. 28
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Category: Sunday Scriptures