Christmas, typology, and Antichrist

On December 16, Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church (Dallas) and apostle of Donald Trump, posted this Tweet:

Someone pretty quickly pointed out that the phrase “our Savior & President Trump” could be read as confusing two different (!) personages. Of course on the surface Jeffress is saying that he will focus on the birth of our Savior (Jesus) while the former president will “give a Christmas greeting.” But the wag’s comment is apt: Jeffress is mixing up two people, one of whom (Jesus Christ) should never be mixed up with anyone else.

Robert Jeffress and others calling themselves Christian leaders have been presenting President Trump as “our Savior” for quite some time now, in the sense that they have touted Trump as Christianity’s protector. Their story is that Christianity is being pushed out of public life, and Trump is pushing it back in. All this is well known, but you could see, for example, Michael Wear’s response to this Trumpian claim in October 2020.

Here’s the thing: Jesus Christ never asked Donald Trump or anyone else for protection. In scripture, when a follower of Jesus pulled out a sword and offered to protect him, Jesus rebuked him (see  Matthew 26:51–54, Luke 22:49–51, and John 18:10–11). Jesus wants followers, not protectors. Jesus wants people who will follow him specifically in the way of the cross (Matthew 16:24).

Another way of saying something similar: Jesus wants imitators, not successors or substitutes.

Many Christians are at least slightly familiar with the concept of typology. This is the idea that major characters in the biblical story can become patterns that later figures can follow in the way that a metal or wooden stamp can impress a pattern on a wax seal, or in the way that a piece of metal moveable type can stamp a letter in ink on a piece of paper.

So for example Christians from the earliest days have read Eve, the mother of all humankind, as a “type” of Mary, mother of Christ and by extension of all who follow Christ by imitating Mary’s faith. Eve is called the “type” and Mary the “antitype.” Again, the New Testament presents Adam, the first human being, as a type of Christ, the first member of the new, restored humanity. In this case Adam is the type and Christ himself is the antitype. (See Romans 5:14, where Paul calls Adam a “type” of Christ.)

In this word “antitype,” the prefix “anti-” signals not opposition but correspondence and fulfillment. Mary is not opposed to Eve; she is her fulfillment, her replacement. Mary is greater than Eve, and Eve can be seen as a foreshadowing of the greater reality that is Mary. Similarly, Christ is not opposed to Adam but is Adam’s fulfillment; Christ is the greater reality of which Adam was only a prophetic foreshadowing.

Typology in this traditional biblical-theological sense is a matter of correspondences between Old Testament characters and New Testament characters. Many persons and concepts in the Old Testament are seen as types of which various persons and concepts in the New Testament are seen as fulfillment. For an example of typology applied to concepts rather than persons, see 1 Peter 3:21, which calls baptism the “antitype” of Noah’s flood. But the central and most emphasized instances of OT-NT typology interpret various biblical figures (Adam, Noah, Melchizedek, Joseph, David, etc.) as types of Christ.

In Christian history a second-stage typology occurs when a contemporary figure becomes a fulfillment of a character from either testament of the Bible. In fact, one of the main patterns in Christian reading of scripture has always been this: you read scripture—Old Testament and New—to find people to whom you correspond. You can make sense of your own life, and understand your place in the great story that God is telling in human history, by finding correspondences between contemporary figures (including yourself and other people who are important in your life) and figures in Scripture. So, for example, the fourth-century bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, finding himself persecuted by a Roman emperor, looked to scripture to identify his persecutor with King Saul and himself with David. Many books could be filled with other examples of Christians interpreting scripture in this way.

This point is that the Bible offers many patterns for repetition. Biblical characters—the good ones and the bad ones—become models for imitation. Contemporary characters can correspond to biblical characters.

The correspondence can take two forms. For many biblical types, the correspondence can be either an imitation of a moral example (a “should”) or an actualization of a reality (an “is”).

So, for example, you could take Daniel as a moral example for imitation (I should imitate Daniel’s courage, Daniel’s faithfulness, Daniel’s persistence in worshiping God alone and not bowing the knee to any idol or any human ruler who opposed God). Or you could use Daniel as a way of making a statement about the who a historical or contemporary person is.

In the context of the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer stands out as a Daniel. He is an actualization of Daniel. He is Daniel’s successor, in some sense his substitute. In the year 1940, Daniel is a memory, a literary character; but Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a real flesh-and-blood human being who lays down his life in faithfulness to the call of Jesus Christ for disciples who will follow himself and himself alone. I would go so far as at say that in his own specific time and place (Germany in the 1940s), Bonhoeffer is greater than Daniel, and to imagine that Daniel himself, from the heavenly cloud of witnesses, gladly acknowledges him as such.

But here is the difference between Jesus Christ and every other biblical character: Jesus Christ is supreme, and Jesus Christ is final. In the moral order, which is the order of should, Jesus Christ is most certainly a model—the very best  model—for imitation. Christian discipleship consists not only in accepting who Jesus is and what he has done but also, necessarily, in imitating him. There is no authentic discipleship that does not include devoting oneself to a lifelong practice of seeking ever-closer conformity to the pattern of life the Jesus demonstrated. In this sense, Jesus—the antitype of Adam and Joseph and David and others—becomes our type, the stamp that must be impressed on our lives, making us in a sense his antitypes.

But in the order of being, the order of is, Jesus Christ, alone of all biblical figures, and indeed of all personal figures from all times and places, can never be a type with an antitype. Neither you nor I nor anyone else—no prophet, no preacher, no saint, not even a great historical figure like an American president—can become an antitype of Jesus Christ, a fulfillment of Jesus Christ, a successor and substitute for Jesus Christ. You—or someone else—can be a new Daniel or a new David or a new Deborah or Sarah. But you can never be a new Jesus Christ, except in the special sense of being absolutely conformed to him through union with him in his death, so as to be united with him also in his resurrection.

There is a special word for someone who presents himself, or is presented by others, as an antitype of Jesus Christ. That word is “Antichrist.”

Followers of Antichrist never believe that they are anything other than faithful followers of Christ. They certainly do not believe that the one they are following is opposed to Christ. Rather, they confuse their idol with Christ. When they set up their idol in the temple for worship, they believe that they are honoring Christ himself.

They might even invite you to a worship service—perhaps even a celebration of the incarnation of the unique Son of God—that includes a phrase like “Jesus Christ & . . . .”

If so, take that ampersand as a warning to run, not walk, away. Especially (but not only!) if the ampersand connects Jesus Christ with a person whose speech and conduct exhibit not conformity with Jesus Christ but habitual contradiction of the life and teachings of Christ. Understand that invitation in light of Mark 13:14, which warns about setting up and honoring something or someone in the temple of God that does not belong there, something that by its presence defiles, something that constitutes a desolating abomination.

Brothers and sisters, don’t let anyone turn your Christ-mas into Antichrist-mas.

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