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Editors’ note: Every day we are becoming either more like Jesus or less like him. Spiritual formation is the name for that process by which Christians, in union with Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, become conformed both internally and externally to the character of Christ for the purpose of communion with God.

The closing of the year and the beginning of a new one is an opportune time to reflect on our spiritual formation and to develop habits to help us become more like Jesus. In this weekly series of articles we’ll consider eight spiritual habits to develop for 2017.

Habit 1: Assessing spiritual growth — Self-examination

Habit 2: Hearing from God — Seeing Jesus in Scripture

Habit 3: Speaking to God — Prayer

Habit 4: Engaging with God’s Word — Engaging Scripture

Habit 5: Communion with God — Worship

Habit 6: Conforming internally — Developing Wisdom

Habit 7: Conforming externally — Stewardship

Habit 8: Responding in obedience — Faithfulness

Each article will contain a brief explanation of why that habit is important, a practical application to incorporate it into your life, and a self-assessment that can be used throughout the year to gauge your progress.

Since at least the time of Ancient Egypt, humans have passed on important and secret information through the use of cryptography. In fact, the term cryptography comes from the Greek words kryptos and graphein, which mean “hidden” and “writing.” The earliest form of cryptography was the simple writing of a message that could not be understood by most people unless they had a special “key” that allowed them to unlock the meaning.

In a sense, the Old Testamentis the most important work of cryptography ever produced. Although it can be read and appreciated on many levels, the Old Testament cannot be fully understood unless you have the special key that unlocks the meaning hidden within its writings. That special key is Jesus.

After his resurrection, Jesus met two disciples on the road to Emmaus. As they walked he explained to them, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets,” all that “was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). This echoed what he had previously taught when he said, “These are the very Scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:39).

Simply put, if we’re not reading the Bible to see what it reveals about Jesus, we are reading it the wrong way. Seeing Jesus in Scripture is reading the Bible the way Jesus intended. And if want to become like Jesus we must learn to find him throughout Scripture.

There are a number of tools that can help us see Jesus in the Old Testament, but one is especially useful: typology.

How Typology Helps Us See Jesus

When we look for representations of Jesus in the Old Testament, we find him in some peculiar places. For example, to save the snake-bitten Israelites dying in the desert Moses created a bronze snake and put it on a pole (Num. 21:8-9). Jesus later compared that event to his own impending crucifixion (John 3:14). How are the two events related? To understand the connection we have to understand the Bible’s use of typology.

An understanding of biblical typology is essential to helping us clearly see Jesus in the Old Testament. Not all typology in Scripture is about Jesus (e.g., Gal. 4:25–27), but since that type is the most important and most helpful for spiritual formation, we’ll limit our focus to typology as it relates to Christ.

Here are a few key terms and concepts you should know:

Type and antitype — As David Murray explains, in biblical interpretation, a type of Christ is a real person, place, object, event, or office that God has ordained to act as a predictive pattern or resemblance of Jesus’s person and work, or of opposition to both. An antitype is the object or person that corresponds to or is foreshadowed in a type (e.g., Jesus).

Typology — Biblical typology is based on the fact that God works in recurring patterns throughout history and says that a past event or person (the type) can prefigure or serve as a type of a future person or event (the antitype).

Difference between typology and allegory — An allegory is a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral, religious, or political one. The key differences between allegory and typology are that an allegory can be fictional and is open to a range of interpretative possibilities, while typology is real and factual and its interpretation must be consistent with the true and literal meaning of the original text. 

What Lambs Reveal About Jesus

The most important animal in the Bible is the lamb. (Although we tend to think of lambs as young sheep, in the Bible the term lamb refers to both sheep and goats that are from 1 to 3 years old.) As Nancy Guthrie says, all of the lambs in the Old Testament point us toward one special lamb, “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29).  “I don’t think it would be an overstatement to say that if we do not grasp the story of the Lamb,” Guthrie adds, “we cannot grasp the story of the Bible.”

Since lambs are one of the most important symbols in Scripture, they can aid our understanding of typology. Here are three examples of lambs as types of Jesus:

Abel’s lambs — The first mention of lambs in the Bible is found in the story of Cain and Abel (Gen. 4:1-10). As with most other mentions of lambs in Scripture, they are used in association with sacrifice. Abel was commended by God for bringing a “better offering” than Cain did (Heb. 11:4), and Jesus called him a prophet (Luke 11:51). In what ways would you say Abel’s sacrificial lambs were a type of Jesus?

Abraham’s ram – In a story about Abraham and Isaac, we find the first use of a lamb as sacrificial substitute (Gen. 22:13). Instead of having to sacrifice his own son, God provides Abraham a substitute in the form of ram. The parallels to Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice are obvious. But what are some subtle connections? (Hint: Think “crown of thorns.”)

The Passover lamb — As Paul said, Jesus is our Passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:7). Read each of the following reference to the Passover lamb in Exodus 12 and the related NT passages. How does the Passover lamb foreshadow Christ? How do the references in Exodus relate to the corresponding NT passages?

  • Lamb sacrificed for the sin of one household (v. 3) — John 1:29
  • Lamb must be without blemish (v. 5) — 1 Pet. 1:18-19; 2:22
  • Lamb died on the 14th day in the month of Nisan (v. 6) — John 13: 1; 18: 28
  • Lamb killed at twilight (v. 6) — Matt. 27:46

Examining such uses of “lamb” as types of Christ can help us learn the principles of biblical typology and develop our ability to see Christ throughout Scripture.

Self-Assessment on Seeing Jesus in Scripture

Quote for reflection — “We do not look to the Old Testament merely to find the background for Christ and his ministry, nor even for references that anticipate him. We must find Christ in the Old Testament—not here and there but everywhere.” – Albert Mohler

Definition — Seeing Jesus in Scripture is reading the Bible the way Jesus intended: with Christ as the primary subject.

Meditate on the following passage — “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:  ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means 'God with us')” (Matt. 1:22)

Evaluation — In your own words, explain what it means for the Scriptures to testify about Jesus. How does that shape how you read the Old Testament texts? How does reading the Old Testament hone your understanding of Jesus and the gospel? Why is reading the Old Testament necessary for your spiritual formation?

Drill-down questions —

Can I point to passages in the Old Testament that display the gospel of Jesus?

How have I learned to live like Jesus from reading Proverbs?

Can I point to five ways Jesus reveals himself through Old Testament history?

Can I name three ways Old Testament prophecy teaches us about Jesus?

Do I understand the concept of biblical typology and why it helps me see Jesus in Scripture? Do I understand the difference between typology and allegory?

How does the creation story shape my view of Jesus? How does the knowledge that all creation is for Jesus change how I relate to the world?

In what books of the Old Testament do I find it most difficult to find Christ?

Key Takeaway: Learning to see Jesus in all of Scripture helps us to read the Bible as God intended.

Note: This article is adapted from Joe Carter’s new work, NIV Lifehacks Bible: Practical Tools for Successful Spiritual Habits (Zondervan, 2016).