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Theophany As Typology


            One of the most interesting literary forms in the Bible is that of prophecy. At various times throughout Scripture, God delivers promises to his people about future events and persons. In our modern age, many Christians see themselves as living in what is popularly called “The Last Days.” We focus on what we think the Bible says about the world’s future, politics, wars, and the second coming of Christ. But, throughout the Bible, God does more than reveal future events. His focus is not primarily on events but on a person, Jesus Christ.

            In the Old Testament, God began to reveal himself in human-like appearances to certain people. As we shall see, these physical manifestations of God were not revealed without a redemptive purpose. In fact, each appearance furthered Israel’s knowledge of God and was always made with a specific redemptive purpose in mind. This is especially true of theophanies, also known as Christophanies.

            This treatment of theophanies will reveal that all such appearances happened with a prophetic purpose in mind, with each reveal acting as a type for the ultimate revealing of the incarnation in Jesus Christ.


            At first glance, theophanies and typologies may not seem, to the casual reader, that they have anything to do with one another. But in fact, the two are tightly related, especially when prophetic intent is explored. 

This treatment of theophanies and their relation to typology will focus on three common areas between the two: the theological purpose of typology and theophanies, their prophetic purpose, and their practical purpose. We will conclude with a statement about the two, attempting to show that theophanies, as types, are a form of prophecy that foreshadows the coming of Christ. 

      While there are many examples in the Bible of a typological approach to interpreting people, events, and things in the scripture, there has been little comment on the subject of theophanies as a form of typology. This thesis will provide an entry-level treatment of this subject, cycling through a set of common approaches. We will examine:

  • Definitions of typology and theophany
  • Characteristics of typology and theophany
  • Persons, actions, events, and things
  • The purposes of typologies and theophanies

The end of this treatment will also examine how Old Testament theophanies may point directly to the incarnation of Christ in a prophetic form. First, we will examine typology and then move to theophanies.


What is a type? It is “A literary hermeneutical device in which a person, event, or institution in the Old Testament is understood to correspond with a person, event, or institution in the New Testament.”[1]

To be more specific, a type, “Differs from a symbol or an allegory, a typology is a representation of an actual, historical reference. According to Christian exegesis, biblical typology deals with the parallels between actual, historical (usually OT) figures or events in salvation history and their later, analogous fulfillment.”[2]

There are many kinds of types in the scripture, some of which are pointed out directly by biblical authors. The Apostle Paul directly states in Romans 5:14 (ESV) that Adam is a “type” of Christ to come. The writer to the Hebrews also notes in 11:19 that Abraham received back his son “as a type.” 

All types share some common characteristics. First, types are always prophetic and also mysterious in that they are not generally understood until after the antitype has been revealed. This may be the case with one particular instance used by Matthew. When Pharoah ordered all baby boys to be slaughtered in Exodus 1:15-16 (and later prophesied in Jeremiah 31:15), no one knew, at that time, that a similar event would take place during the coming of Jesus in Matthew 2:18. It wasn’t until after the New Testament event had taken place that Matthew may have used this as a type. 

As we see in this example, types are prophetic. “For what is a type but a prophetical act or institution?”[3] In types, the past always points to a later time. “The typological method developed by Paul consists in expounding the analogous relationship of concrete historical Old Testament events, in the sense of the past prefiguring present or future eschatological happenings.”[4]

Types are most effective when pointing to a specific person, such as Elijah and John the Baptist or Ahithophel and Judas. But the most interesting types are the kind pointing to Christ. Note these examples: Adam is a type for Christ (Romans 5:12-21). Paul says directly in scripture, “Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come,” referring to Jesus. But how was Adam like Christ? “Adam imparted to those who were his that which belonged to him, so also Christ bestows on his beloved ones that which is his.”[5] Paul then delivers his type in antithetical parallelism. Death came through Adam, but life came through Christ. Note these reversals: condemnation vs. justification (v.16), death vs. life (v.17), sinners vs. righteousness (v.19), law vs. grace (v.20), sin and death vs. righteousness and life (v.21).

Note also Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:8). Abraham represents God, and Isaac represents Jesus. Just as Abraham offered his son, so too, God offers Jesus in sacrifice. The writer in Hebrews 11:19 specifically called Isaac a “type.” But what is being “typed?” There is no mention in Genesis 22 about offering Isaac as a sacrifice for sin. We read that into the text following our reading about the sacrifice of Jesus. But the writer to the Hebrews doesn’t refer to a sacrifice for sin being the type he wants to profile. Rather, he says of Abraham that he “received [Isaac] back as a type.” Sin is not in view; rather, resurrection is in view.

David was also a type for Christ on many different points: David was king (II Samuel 5:3), a shepherd (I Samuel 16:11), born in Bethlehem (I Samuel 17:12), anointed (II Samuel 2:4), and held the keys of David (Isaiah 22:22), which are all also said of Christ. Solomon was also a type for Christ as the promised son, and he built the temple. Jesus was the promised Son who builds his church. 

Types are also found for actions and events. Israel was under the cloud as a type for baptism (I Corinthians 10:1-2). The rock the Israelites drank from was Christ (I Corinthians 10:4). In verse 6, Paul says, “Now these things took place as examples for us” (The Greek word being, Typoi).

Probably the greatest type of all is the Passover lamb and the killing of Jesus. The person is in view, but so is the event. John the Baptist referred to Jesus as, “The lamb who takes away the sins of the world.” The lamb was an innocent and must be without blemish (Exodus 12:5). Jesus was innocent of all sin (John 8:46), he was without moral blemish, and was killed as the Passover lamb was also killed. This type looked ahead to Jesus’ sacrifice. 

Types are also figured as things. The tabernacle and temple act as types of the heavenly things (Hebrews 8:5). The temple was a type for the church (I Peter 2:4-10). Peter refers to us as “living stones” being built into a spiritual house. But Jesus is also referred to in the same passage as a “living stone.”  

Israel is a type for the church. Peter chooses his language to refer to the church in Old Testament terms in I Peter 2:9-10. Also in Romans 9 & 10, Paul speaks broadly about Israel and the church.

In terms of events, the burning bush may be a type for the church age. In Exodus 3:1-5 God appears as fire in a bush that doesn’t burn. He then commissions Moses to bring good news to his people (v.10). Moses was empowered to speak. This may point to the empowerment of the church in Acts 2, where tongues of “fire” came upon the disciples and they were empowered to speak, to bring the good news to the people similar to Moses’ being commissioned to speak (Acts 2:1-4). And Peter does speak (vs. 14-41).

There is also Moses and the bronze serpent in the wilderness (Numbers 21:4-9), which is mentioned by Jesus in John 3:14. Looking to the serpent brought life. So too, Jesus mentioned the serpent and compared it to all who look to him will receive life.

The Purpose of Typology

In general, there are three purposes to typology: the theological purpose, the prophetic purpose, and the practical purpose. 

In terms of its theological purpose, “Paul employs typology to proclaim the universal significance of Christ’s redemption and the permanence of his church.”[6]

The prophetic purpose of a type is to reveal in New Testament times the things that were hidden in Old Testament times. The revelation of a type in the New Testament pointed back to what existed in shadow in the Old Testament, such as the revealing of Christ, the church, and the eternal state. Without types, we would only have prophecy and analogy. But types reveal a greater fullness of the thing or person being revealed. “A type can be distinguished from a symbol in that a symbol is a timeless sign. It can refer to past, present, or future, while a type always foreshadows that which is to come.”[7]

Additionally, types are eminently practical. “The types given in the New Testament are examples which demonstrate how to find others in the Old Testament.”[8]

Definition of Theophany 

To put it simply, a theophany is a physical manifestation of God in the Old Testament. Many scholars believe that such manifestations are that of Jesus revealing himself during Old Testament times. We see a direct statement of this in Jude 5, “…that Jesus, who saved a people out of Egypt…” Broadly speaking, a theophany is “Any direct, visual manifestation of the presence of God. The key word is visual since God makes His presence and power known throughout the Bible in a variety of ways. But even in a theophany, a person does not actually see God Himself. This is an impossibility, according to Exodus 33:20; 1 Timothy 6:16; and 1 John 4:12. What a person sees are the effects of God’s unmediated presence.”[9]

Characteristics of Theophany 

“Theophanies proper are limited to the Old Testament. They are most common in the books of Genesis and Exodus, but they also occur in the writings of the prophets, especially in connection with the calling of a prophet. The most frequent visible manifestation of God’s presence in the Old Testament is the ‘Angel of the Lord.'”[10]

            Theophanies have certain traits that, when examined, reveal themselves as physical manifestations of God. And while human-like theophanies are the focus of this study, theophanies also appeared in non-human forms. 


A manifestation of God in a theophany, or the pre-incarnation manifestation of Christ, called a Christophany, is of great importance since it is a revealing of the Savior to come in a limited state. We say limited because the incarnation of Christ involved Jesus taking on a human nature, thus being fully human as well as fully divine. But we have no indication in the Old Testament that the theophanies revealed included a human nature. God revealed himself in human form for a brief period, but that doesn’t necessarily require that he actually became human at that time.

“Most, evangelical scholars believe that the angel of the Lord is a pre-incarnation appearance of the second person of the Trinity.”[11]

Human-like theophanies are in view in this treatment. In several Old Testament passages, God appears to people in some kind of human-like form. The point of human-like theophanies is to point toward a future day when Jesus would become fully man in his incarnation. Theophanies are partial pictures of what Jesus would do later in biblical history. Note the following examples: God manifested himself early on when he was, “Walking in the Garden in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8). The Lord appears to be enjoying the garden as if he were a created person. This is not to say that he was human at this time, but he did appear to have human-like characteristics: he could walk, he enjoyed the cool breeze, and he was looking for Adam. This theophany points to the future when at some time in the future heaven and earth, the Garden will be re-established, and we will walk with God in that garden.

The Lord appeared to Joshua as the Captain of the Lord’s army. (Joshua 5:13-15). Notice the physical manifestations. He was standing; he had a sword in his hand. He carried the authority to command the Lord’s army, in this case, Israel. We also see this prophetically in that someday, Jesus will return to lead the army of the Lord in taking over the earth during the millennial reign. 

Jesus appeared as the messenger to Abraham (Genesis 18:1-15). He looked like a man from Abraham’s perspective. He could get dirty (he needed to wash his feet). He enjoyed rest under the shade of a tree. He ate food. It might be somewhat controversial to say this, but he seemed to have to learn about or confirm the truth about Sodom (v.21). Why would God need to investigate something? This is not to say that the Lord was human at this point, but we bring this up to ask if the Lord limited himself in his human-like manifestation.

Later in the Genesis text, Jacob wrestles with God (Genesis 32:24-30). But Jacob won the match (v.25). Certainly, God cannot lose a wrestling match with a human being. This may indicate that something else with his manifestation may have been going on, though we are not prepared to say what that was.

In Judges, the Angel of the Lord appears to Gideon (Judges 6:11-24). He stood before Gideon in human form, which Gideon seemed to recognize, but wasn’t sure if he was dealing with a supernatural being until verse 22. Thus, the Lord appeared human to Gideon’s senses. The same was true when the Lord appeared to Manoah and his wife prior to the birth of Samson. Neither were sure they were dealing with the Lord as Manoah’s wife referred to him as a man. The scripture directly states, “Manoah did not know that he was the angel of the Lord” (Judges 13:16). Then, after the Lord rose in the fire, the two dropped to their faces, realizing they had seen the Lord (v.20).

Though most manifestations of theophanies in the Old Testament were of a human-like form, there were other manifestations of the non-human variety.

Actions & Events

The Lord appeared to Abraham as a smoking firepot and torch (Genesis 15:17). None of the resources we examined offered an interpretation for what the pot and torch represented, so we will not address it here.

The Lord appeared to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3:2). This has already been compared to the filling of the Spirit given in the book of Acts when the Holy Spirit manifested himself as tongues of fire over the disciples and empowered them to speak just as the Lord was commissioning Moses to speak (“I will be with your mouth.” Exodus 4:15). 

As we’ve seen in several passages, fire seems to be a common motif the Lord uses when revealing his physical presence. This is also true of the 40-year wandering in the desert with the Lord maintaining his appearance to Israel over the tabernacle in the pillar of fire and smoke (Exodus 13:21-22). 

The purpose of Theophany 

As mentioned earlier, God does not manifest himself physically just for the sake of doing so. The Lord always seems to have a redemptive purpose in the ways in which he reveals himself. Nothing is done by chance or simply for experience. He always has a purpose in what he does. In this case, he has a theological purpose, a prophetical purpose, and a practical purpose.

Theological Purpose

God makes certain appearances of himself in physical form to unfold redemptive history to man. Each appearance of God moves theological knowledge forward, from his appearance in the Garden of Eden even to his glory revealed to Isaiah. In Genesis 3, the Lord revealed his promise of a Savior. In Genesis 15, the Lord furthered his redemptive plan with a promise to Abraham of a promised son. His appearance to Joshua put his saving authority at the center of things, and Joshua fell on his face.

With each manifestation of himself, God wants man to know him better with each reveal. In fact, this is the secret of God’s physical manifestations to his people. In nearly every case, God reveals himself through a theophany to make promises or confirm promises regarding salvation in some form. He promised a Savior in Genesis 3, he promised a saving son to Abraham. He promised to save his people when appearing to Moses. He promised a saving son to David and Solomon, and the list could go on. Thus, the theological purpose of theophanies is to advance his saving cause. 

 Prophetic Purpose

Ultimately, this brings us to Christ. Theophany prefigures the incarnation. The incarnation of Christ is the ultimate theophany in that the incarnation is permanent. Jesus is always man and always God at the same time. And his final appearance is a saving one. 

“That act of grace whereby Christ took our human nature into union with his Divine Person, became man. Christ is both God and man. Human attributes and actions are predicated of him, and he of whom they are predicated is God. A Divine Person was united to a human nature (Acts 20:28; Rom. 8:32; 1 Cor. 2:8; Heb. 2:11–14; 1 Tim. 3:16; Gal. 4:4, etc.). The union is hypostatical, i.e., is personal; the two natures are not mixed or confounded, and it is perpetual.”[12]

Just like his Old Testament human appearances, “He has taken on a form in which He can be seen, experienced, and understood by us as human beings (John 1:14, 18).”[13]

Jesus’ theophany abilities point to the incarnation: He had a body, He communicated verbally, and he first appeared like a man, without anything to make him seem unusual (Judges 13:2-25, Joshua 5:13-15, Genesis 32:24-20). Isaiah said the same in his prophecy about Jesus in Isaiah 53:2). Therefore, theophany prefigures the hypostatic union of Christ

Practical Purpose

What is also remarkable about the pre-incarnation appearances of Christ is how practical they are. While in most cases there is something miraculous about these appearances (appearing or rising in fire, pillar of cloud and fire, etc). “Part of the function of the original theophany at Sinai had been to instill in the people awe before Yahweh to deter them from sin and to inspire fidelity.”[14]

If there is one thing we can be sure of about God, it is that he doesn’t simply do something without a reason, especially in terms of a reason related to redemptive history. God doesn’t manifest himself to someone without having a reason for doing so. We can apply this to how he reveals himself in a theophany. He is revealing himself to his image-bearing creatures. Just as we were made to bear his image, so too, Jesus Christ decided to bear the image of man for redemptive purposes. This is the main point of his various theophanies in the Old Testament. Thus, when the Lord takes on a human form in the Old Testament, he is not doing it simply for the experience; he has a purpose, and his purposes are redemptive in nature. His theophanies are thus types for his incarnation. 


            When reading accounts in the scripture about God’s physical appearances to his people, there are specific reasons why God chooses to reveal himself in such a manner. This thesis has attempted to show that those appearances are not without a redemptive reason. The implication is that theophanies, like any other form of prophecy, are revealed so that God may give certain redemptive promises to the people to whom he appeared—especially where his saving purposes are concerned. 

            Also mentioned in this examination is the idea that Christ may have limited his experiences when he took forms of theophanies to experience those things as a man would. In this case, theophanies are a form of typology pointing to the ultimate theophany, the incarnation of Christ.

Though this topic of limited experience was only touched upon briefly, it would bring great benefit to examine this issue more closely, taking into account the characteristics of all such appearances, human-like and non-human alike.

            Finally, as shown in this thesis, theophanies are a form of typology that God uses to manifest himself to his people in a greater way than simply speaking or doing miracles. A theophany enables God’s people to understand him in a deeper way than we would have without them. 

[1] Daniel J. Cameron, “Typology,”ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[2] Stanley Grenz, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 117.

[3] Patrick Fairbairn, The Typology of Scripture, Apple eBook version, (“Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 38, George Street. 1876”).

[4] Brown, Colin editor, The International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, volume 3, Pri-Z. Zondervan Publishing House, 1979, page 905.

[5] William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, vol. 12–13, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 180.

[6] Leonhard Goppelt, Typos: The Typological Interpretation of the Old Testament in the New, trans. Donald H. Madvig (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982), 151.

[7] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Type, Typology,”Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 2110.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ronald F. Youngblood, F. F. Bruce, and R. K. Harrison, Thomas Nelson Publishers, eds., Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary(Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1995).

[10] Ibid

[11] Sinclair B. Ferguson and J.I. Packer, New Dictionary of Theology(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 681.

[12] M. G. Easton, Illustrated Bible Dictionary and Treasury of Biblical History, Biography, Geography, Doctrine, and Literature (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1893), 344.

[13] Ronald F. Youngblood, F. F. Bruce, and R. K. Harrison, Thomas Nelson Publishers, eds., Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1995).

[14] Walton, John H.; Gane, Roy; Block, Daniel I.. NIVAC Bundle 1: Pentateuch (The NIV Application Commentary) (p. 3742). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition. 

Tom Terry is head of Global Broadcast Strategy for JESUS Film Project and serves as General Manager of The Better FM, an online radio station for Asia. Tom is also the author of several books, including Bible studies and "Like An Eagle," his biography about living in Mongolia for ten years.
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