Typology is a term that relates to Old Testament scripture that is later manifested by events or persons in a New Testament account. Typology is also special term of art. Strictly speaking, it is reserved for those Old Testament types that have been specifically identified by the inspired writers of New Testament scripture. In other words, typology is a thing or person in the Old Testament that foreshadows a thing or person found or displayed in the New Testament.
One example of biblical typology is found in Numbers 21.
The story takes place after God rescued Moses and the Hebrew people from their bondage in Egypt. Pursued by Pharaoh's army, they escaped across the Red Sea by a parting of the water, and when they had nothing to eat in the desert, God provided manna, a bread-like food.
Despite God's miraculous redeeming of His people, the Hebrew people grumbled about their troubles. They complained that they would have been better off as slaves back in Egypt.
God was not pleased. Because of their grumbling, God sent a plague of poisonous snakes amongst them. The snakes bit the people, killing many. Realizing their sin, the Hebrews repented for their grumbling and asked Moses to pray for them.
Moses prayed that God would rescue the people from the snakes. God then instructed Moses to cast a bronze snake and put it on a pole. He told the people that whenever a poisonous viper bit someone, the person was to look up at the bronze snake on the pole, and they would live. Numbers 21:4-9
In the New Testament, the Apostle John characterized this Old Testament story as a "type" representing the Cross of Jesus. He compared the bronze snake on the pole to the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. John wrote, "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. John 3:14-15
Does the Old Testament illustration in Numbers 21, or foreshadowing, hold true here?
Clearly, the pole is analogous to the cross, but why the bronze snake?
At first, it seems strange that the bronze snake is a symbolic representation of Jesus Christ. We understand that Jesus, who is God, was pure and without sin and there is no darkness in him of any nature whatsoever.
On the other hand, in the Bible snakes and serpents are used to depict evil. For example, it was a serpent that represented Satan who tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden, and caused them to introduce sin into God's creation.
Why is Jesus symbolized by an evil snake? This seems wrong. But is it?
Second Corinthians, referring to Jesus' on the cross, says, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." 2 Corinthians 5:21 In other words, Christ was made to be our sin when he was crucified on the cross (pole). This is clear in the text of 1 Peter 2:24, "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed."
Therefore, the analogy from Numbers 21 holds true! Jesus on the Roman cross, who despite his innocence appeared to be a crucified common criminal, was made to be our sin, evil in our lives.
Now, recognizing this symbolism, the message of the typology gains even more power.
Consider the Hebrews in the desert. When they were bitten by poisonous snakes, the people were doomed to die. Nobody could save them from the snakes' deadly toxin. However, God provided a way they could live. The LORD said to Moses, 'Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.' So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived. Numbers 21:8-9
Like the bitten Hebrews in the desert, all of us are doomed to die because of our sin. Everyone has sinned. Romans 3:23 Thus, we all have the poison of sin in our spiritual systems. And, "the wages of sin is death..." Romans 6:23
On our own, we have no hope. However, like the stricken Hebrews, God has provided a way we can have life. Like the Hebrews who looked to the bronzed snake on the pole, we may look to the Cross of Christ. Jesus taught, "I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins" (John 8:24).
Finally, notice that the bitten Hebrew people had a choice about whether to save themselves. God said, "anyone who is bitten can look at it and live." The scripture also says that "when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived."
These verses from Numbers 21 imply that not all of the bitten Hebrews chose to look at the bronzed serpent. Maybe some of them figured the serpent on the pole was a hoax, not true, or just made no sense to them. Others may have figured that they were already circumcised, or they had a religious father, or they were from the Tribe of the Levites, or that they were not really poisoned, or hundreds of other reasons that caused them to believe in their own minds that they did not need saving. Therefore, they chose not to look at the bronzed snake on the pole, and they died.
God gives each of us the same choice. We can choose to look to the Cross of Jesus as a way to find forgiveness for our sins. If we choose to look to the Cross, we will live.