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Why Does the Passover Have Two Major Spiritual Meanings?



Why does the Passover have two meanings?  It has one for physical Israel, such as for the Jews today, and a different, additional one for Christians as well.  The key reason why the Passover had a literal meaning for ancient Israel and then a different, additional spiritual meaning for Christians starting about a thousand five hundred years later is because God uses types as a teaching tool.  Let’s explain why God uses progressive revelation some and then what a “type” is below and how it applies to the Passover.  So the later, more spiritual meaning for the Passover is in addition to the original, more physical meaning for this same biblical festival.


There are good reasons to believe that dual meanings in Scripture appear in prophetic contexts, whether they are typological or literal predictions.  The Passover has two meanings, one for Jews, and an additional, deeper, spiritual one for Christians, because God uses progressive revelation.  God used the animal sacrifices, which includes those of the Passover, as a teaching tool about what the Messiah would do and represent in the future, such as through the Day of Atonement ceremony (Leviticus 16).  The book of Hebrews is full of explanations about how various Old Testament rituals and practices were later superseded or had a greater meaning for Christians today than in ancient Israel in the past.  For example, Jesus today is the high priest for Christians (Hebrews 2:17-18; 6:20).  The animal sacrifices are no longer required (Hebrews 9:9-14) since Jesus’ sacrifice fulfilled their meaning and was far greater than they were.


But why did God do this?  Why have two meanings for the same things?  Duality in meaning is part of the principle of progressive revelation.  This principle plainly appears in Jesus' debate with the Pharisees over the Old Testament's easy divorce law in Matt. 19:3, 6-9:  "And Pharisees came up to him [to Jesus] and tested him by asking, 'Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?' . . . What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.'  They said to him [Jesus], 'Why then did Jesus command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?'  [See Deut. 24:1-4 for the text the Pharisees were citing].  He said to them, "For the hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.  And I say to you:  whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery."  Now, this Old Testament passage should not be cited to justify easy divorce procedures as a New Testament Christian.  That law has been superseded.  It wasn't originally intended as a permanent revelation of God's will, but it served as temporary "training wheels," so to speak, until such time as a mass of people (i.e., the Church after Pentecost) would have the Holy Spirit, and thus be enabled to keep the law spiritually by God's help.   By contrast, ancient Israel as a whole didn't have the Holy Spirit, and so correspondingly they didn't get the full revelation of God.  They failed as a nation to obey God because they didn’t have the spiritual capacity as a physical nation to obey God’s spiritual laws (Hebrews 8:6-10).  So merely knowing God’s law isn’t enough; it’s necessary also to have the Holy Spirit to obey it (Romans 8:3-9).


Now, what exactly are types?  They are "a shadow of things to come" (Col. 2:17).  These differ from direct fulfilled prophecy, in which a predicted event occurs literally as it was originally said to, such as the destruction of Babylon or Nineveh (Isa. 13:19-22; Jer. 51:11, 29, 37; Zeph. 2:13).  James Smith explains, in his book, “What the Bible Teaches about the Promised Messiah,” that the authors of the New Testament might not even be going that far: 


          Sometimes New Testament writers use Old Testament prophecies merely because they see an analogy.  They borrow Old Testament language without intending to suggest that the prediction-fulfillment relationship exists between the two statements.  [This may explain how the New Testament applies such texts as Ps. 41:9; 34:20; Jer. 31:15; and Hosea 11:1 to the Messiah].  Even when they declare that a prophecy was fulfilled there is sometimes a question as to whether or not they mean that the Old Testament statement was a direct prediction of that which is said to fulfill it (e.g., Matt. 13:14, 15).


A type is something, such as an animal, ritual, or object, that will symbolically represent something else as a forerunner of what is to come, but which doesn't make any direct, specific predictions verbally.  For example, the Passover lamb was "an unblemished male" (Ex. 12:5), which pictured Jesus, the sinless God made fleshly man who died for humanity's sins.  Obviously enough, Exodus 12:5 predicts nothing explicitly in words about a promised Messiah coming to die for humanity's sins.  It (the sheep) remains just a suggestive physical object picturing what is to come‑‑something only really knowable upon the type’s fulfillment and the receipt of further revelation (i.e., the New Testament) that explains the object’s meaning.  For example, Paul explained in I Cor. 5:7-8 about how the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread still held meaning for Christians, a spiritual meaning that would have been unknown to ancient Israel under the old covenant:  “Clean out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened.  For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed.  Let us therefore celebrate the feast, not with old leaven nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”  Clearly no ancient Israelite obeying Ex. 12:46's injunction not to break a bone of the Passover lamb (cf. Ps. 34:19-20) could possibly have known it referred in advance to the way the Messiah's body would be treated during His execution (John 19:33, 36).  


Smith defines a "type" as:  "A description of an event, institution or person designed by God to be distinctly prophetic of the Messiah and his kingdom."  Importantly, when Paul or other Christian writers spot a type in the Old Testament, that doesn't evaporate the literal meaning into nothingness.  When Paul said Israel's crossing the Red Sea was a baptism (I Cor. 10:2), it uses a secondary spiritual meaning which wasn’t known even to Moses at the time. Dual interpretations or meanings of Scripture are indeed possible, including typology and in prophecy.  Of course, a Jew or agnostic could always deny any one case of prophetic types in the Old Testament as pointing to a man/God who would die for the world's sins as a sacrifice.  For example, the secondary meaning of the narrative about Israel's first sacrifice of the Passover lamb that foreshadows Jesus' earthly ministry to come (John 1:29, 36; 19:33, 36).  Similarly, Ps. 118:22 applies to Jesus, "The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief corner stone," Although this text is indeed primarily an exclamation of praise in its primary meaning, the secondary, typological meaning needs consideration also.  But as instances of secondary messianic meanings pile up, counter-explanations wear increasingly thin.


In order to illustrate better the concept of types, consider a vivid example from the lives of the Patriarchs.  God tested Abraham to offer up Isaac on the altar:  "[Take] your only son, whom you love . . . and offer him there as a burnt offering" (Gen. 22:2).  Now while going up to Mount Moriah, Isaac asked his father:  "Behold, the fire and the wood [we have], but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?"  Abraham replied:  "God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son" (Gen. 22:7-8).  Later, the Angel of the Lord stopped Abraham from plunging his knife into his son laying prostrate on the altar, saying He now knew "that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me" (Gen. 22:12).  Abraham's earlier statement to Isaac, possibly initially stated as a white lie to conceal Isaac's (expected) fate from him, was literally fulfilled:  "Then Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son" (Gen. 22:13).


          An ancient Israelite, pouring over his or her great ancestor's story, would likely have seen Abraham’s willingness to offer up his only son by Sarah as proof of his great faith and devotion to God, which is surely the incident's central point.  But the Christian, enlightened by the New Testament, sees more:  Abraham here served as a type of God the Father who offered up "His only begotten Son" (John 3:16), His "beloved Son" (Matt. 3:17), for the sins of the world.  Isaac initially served as a stand-in for Jesus, the Son of God the Father, when placed on the altar.  Suddenly, what Isaac represented then changed, at the moment the Angel of the Lord stopped Abraham from killing his son. He then represented all of humanity being saved from death due to its sins.  A ram, an adult male sheep, took Isaac's (re:  humanity's) place.  The ram prefigured Jesus here, being what “The Lord Will Provide" (Gen. 22:14) to humanity, to redeem it from an otherwise certain death.  Knowing this, John the Baptist proclaimed when he saw Jesus:  "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29).  True, the types seen in Isaac’s near sacrifice are more suggestive than decisive as evidence for the New Testament's description of Jesus as the Messiah who died for mankind's sins.  After all, some Jew or agnostic could always wave away the parallels by denying the secondary meaning found in this story that become so clear to the Christian mind in the light of the New Testament.  But, as it has been observed, just as Daniel's prophecies have become more clear as we approach the time of the end, although he himself couldn't understand them when they were first revealed to him (Dan. 12:8-9; 8:17, 27), likewise the messianic texts became more understandable after Jesus came and fulfilled many of them.


Using the Old Testament alone, can anyone find justification for the duality principle of interpreting Scripture? J. Gresham Machen once powerfully supports this view of interpretation, by implicitly maintaining a sophisticated and objective exegesis can readily co-exist with duality and typology:


          We [don't] desire to return at all to the allegorical interpretation which in Philo and in Origen had such a baleful influence upon the readers of the Old Testament Scriptures.  On the contrary, we adhere with full conviction to the method of grammatico-historical exegesis.  But grammatico-historical exegesis does not demand the exclusion of all allegory from ancient books; it only demands that allegory shall not be discovered where no allegory was meant.  So also grammatico-historical exegesis does not demand the exclusion of all typology from the exalted language of the Old Testament prophets; the question whether all typology is to be excluded is a question which should be settled, not by the mechanical application of modern exegetical methodology, but only by patient and sympathetic research.


Importantly, the duality principle's application is largely, even exclusively, limited to prophecy and fulfilled types, in which an earlier, lesser fulfillment precedes a later, greater one.  Jesus' Olivet prophecy clearly uses duality, such as when He predicts Jerusalem's fall.  His language applies to both A.D. 70 and to His Second Coming (Matt. 24:1-3, 15-18; Luke 21:20-21, 24).  Since Jesus prophesied, "Elijah is coming and will restore all things," yet He also interpreted Malachi to mean "Elijah already came" (that is, John the Baptist), the Messiah Himself used the duality principle to interpret Scripture (Matt. 17:11-12).  When the high priest declared, while conspiring with others against Jesus, "It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish," an obvious dual meaning surfaces (John 11:50).  Caiaphas merely meant it was politically wise to execute Jesus so His messianic claims didn't bring down the wrath of Rome upon Judah.  But from the Christian viewpoint, Jesus died physically as a sacrifice so the whole nation of Judah could be saved spiritually from its sins (Rom. 11:25-26). 


          But does the duality principle show up in the Old Testament when used alone?  Many times Israel’s return to its homeland in the Middle East is predicted.  Once it was fulfilled by the return from Babylon under the leadership of Zechariah, Zerububbel, and Nehemiah.  However, it also has been fulfilled in part by the return of the Jews to the Middle East through the Zionist movement starting in the late nineteenth century.  A future, even greater, return of Israel after Christ’s second coming is yet to come. For a quick, popular-level discussion of Israel's returns, although it's hardly mistake free, see Hal Lindsey with C.C. Carlson, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1970), 32-47.  Let’s find this principle in the Old Testament (the Hebrew/Aramaic Scriptures) alone, before any Christian interpretations arose after the Christ came the first time.  Three cases drawn from them need consideration:  The abomination of desolation, Israel's regathering to the Holy Land, and the “Day of the Lord.”  The abomination of desolation can be said to have appeared twice in Jerusalem.  The first time came about when the Greek Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes in 165 B.C. desecrated the Temple of Yahweh by making a profane sacrifice (a pig) on top of the altar of burnt offering (see I Maccabees 1:54 in Catholic Bibles).  The second time happened when (made somewhat arguable from the Jewish viewpoint because Matt. 24:15 has to be excluded) the Roman legions leveled Jerusalem and torched the Temple in A.D. 70.  Another, less disputable case, comes from the texts describing the regathering of Israel.  It first took place after the Babylonian Captivity (Isa. 39:6-7; 44:28; 45:4; Jer. 25:9-12), but it also will happen when the Messiah rules on earth.  The gathering of Judah today in Palestine is a preliminary fulfillment of the millennial prophecies about all of Israel returning from the Diaspora.  (Note Zech. 12:6-11‑‑Judah is already there when Christ returns).  Such texts as Eze. 38:8; 37:16-28; Deut. 28:64-68 point to the future millennial gathering.  But Jer. 50:1-10, 17-20+ seems to be more ambiguous, admitting to some dual application to the return from Babylon and also at the beginning of the millennium.  Similarly, God's description of Israel and Judah as spiritually dull and imperceptive (Isa. 6:9-10) remained true after Nebuchadnezzar's destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Land's other cities (Isa. 6:11-13), having other at least partial fulfillments, such as Rome's crushing of the two main Jewish revolts (A.D. 66-73, 132-35) and (perhaps) the Great Tribulation to come.  Clearly, the New Testament was not wrong to apply these words to Judah's first-century spiritual condition (Matt. 13:14-15).  A third, rather ambiguous case of the principle of duality may arise in Isa. 13:1-13.  Although apparently starting out as an oracle concerning Babylon (v. 1) serving as the Lord’s punishing instrument (cf. Jer. 25:9), it clearly becomes a prophecy about the time when the Lord Himself will intervene personally in the world’s affairs, during which heavenly signs will appear (v. 10) and much of the human race will die (v. 12).  Hence, even when using the Old Testament alone, someone can find good evidence for the duality principle, at least for prophecy and fulfilled types.  But applying the duality principle outside non-prophetic, non-typical statements in Scripture is hazardous, since the Torah, Writings, Gospels, and Letters are generally non-prophetic.  


Paul finds Christian forerunners in the Old Testament, such as Abraham and Sarah to have meaning for us today as Christians.  We can learn from the mistakes and sins of Israel, as Paul taught (I Cor. 10:11):  “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages to have come.” additional meanings Christians have found in the Old Testament that mainstream Judaism has overlooked or denied.  Paul's allegorical interpretation of Hagar and Sarah (Gal. 4:21-31) or of Israel's crossing of the Red Sea (I Cor. 10:1-2) denies any single-meaning approach to interpreting Scripture that would ultimately deny all typical and dual interpretations of the prophetic messianic texts.  Allegorical interpretative methods weren’t used by Paul to deny the authority of the Old Testament law in general or even in particular sections.  But for Paul what canceled the ritualistic/ceremonial law was the death and resurrection of Christ, not the performance of linguistic legerdemain on the Torah. 


Actually, of course, neither Paul in his Letters nor (conservative) Christians today using types and duality to interpret the prophetic messianic texts deny the texts' literal meaning as they find alternative ones.  Does anyone really believe that Paul denied that Sarah and Hagar were actual flesh-and-blood women or that Israel literally crossed the Red Sea?   Paul mentions that the literal examples of ancient Israel were relevant to Christians in helping them to learn what sins to avoid:  "Now these things happened as examples for us, that we should not crave evil things as they also craved.  And do not be idolaters, as some of them were . . ." (I Cor. 10:6-7; cf. Heb. 11).  Furthermore, traditional ancient Judaism, even apart from the influence of the Eastern Hellenists such as Aristobulus and Philo of Alexandria, was willing to use allegorical interpretations of Scripture for homiletic (preaching) purposes, if not for finding a rationale for a given law.  As Edersheim explains in “The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah,” p. 35:


“Not only the Dorshey Reshumoth, or searchers out of the subtleties of Scripture, of their indications, but even the ordinary Haggadist employed, indeed, allegoric interpretations.  Thereby Akiba vindicated for the 'Song of Songs' its place in the Canon.  Did not Scripture say:  'One thing spake God, twofold is what I heard,' and did not this imply a twofold meaning; nay, could not the Torah be explained by many different methods?”


True, the typical sage of the Torah would have rejected looking for ulterior reasons for God giving a particular law based on the principle of not taking Scripture beyond its plain meaning.  Nevertheless, since Judaism supplies ample precedent besides the Hellenists for Paul's occasional use of allegorical ways of interpreting the Old Testament, his procedure is hardly "Gnostic” or unsupported by what’s only in the Old Testament itself.


Clearly God uses progressive revelation and dual meanings in Scripture, including about the Passover.  God didn’t want to overwhelm people all at once concerning His spiritual truth, so He used physical objects as types to represent deeper meanings. 


Eric V. Snow



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