9 These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. 10 And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.12 And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. 13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. 14 Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. 15 This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark 300 cubits, its breadth 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits. 16 Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above, and set the door of the ark in its side. Make it with lower, second, and third decks. 17 For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. 18 But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. 19 And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark to keep them alive with you. They shall be male and female. 20 Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground, according to its kind, two of every sort shall come in to you to keep them alive. 21 Also take with you every sort of food that is eaten, and store it up. It shall serve as food for you and for them.” 22 Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
I love the old preacher story about the little boy who was in the Sunday School class when his teacher asked, “What am I? I am small, brown, furry, and like to scamper up trees. What am I?” After a pause the little boy said, “I know the answer is ‘Jesus’ but I’ll be dadgum if that doesn’t sound like a squirrel.”
It is funny because it does indeed seem like “Jesus” always is the answer, no? That is because, well, He is! Christians believe that Jesus is the answer to all the questions that really matter. We also believe that all of scripture points to Jesus. For this reason, throughout the church’s history, Christians have interpreted many Old Testament passages as types or pictures of the coming Christ. Sometimes these efforts have been solid and helpful, sometimes less so.
Earlier in the church’s history, there was a method of interpreting scripture that was very popular. It was the allegorical method. In this method, the interpreter takes, say, a story from the Old Testament and allegorizes it, or spiritualizes the details of it. In so doing, these interpreters said they were mining the deeper meanings behind the surface events of the stories. Most modern Protestants are very wary of allegorizing the Bible, and understandably so. After all, some of these allegorical interpretations can be downright strange and, most importantly, it is hard to know what the rails are that keep subjective allegory from plummeting off of a cliff into pure anachronistic subjectivity. An example of this kind of odd handling of the text might be Jerome’s interpretation of the measurements of the ark:
We read in Genesis that the ark that Noah built was three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high. Notice the mystical significance of the numbers. In the number fifty, penance is symbolized because the fiftieth psalm of King David is the prayer of his penance. The hundred contains the symbol of crucifixion. The letter T is the sign for three hundred…No one marked with the sign of the cross on his forehead can be struck by the devil…Let us comment on the number thirty because the ark was thirty cubits high and finished above in one cubit…As a matter of fact, when Jesus was baptized, according to Luke, “he was thirty years of age.”…Fifty, and three hundred, and thirty were finished above in one cubit, that is, in one faith of God.
Well, that all seems to be a bit much and to be a bit forced! Even given such fantastic allegorizing of the text, many Protestants argue that while they reject allegory they embrace typology, by which they mean that many Old Testament stories and images are types of Christ, or were pictures of the coming of Christ. And these folks will argue that the New Testament writers themselves used typology in their handling of the Old Testament.
The line between allegory and typology can get a bit blurry at times, but, in general, allegory is seen as less open to legitimate controls whereas typological readings are always pointing to Christ Himself.
I get the caution and the concern and to a certain extent I agree. However, it has been interesting to see how a number of modern readers of the Bible are saying that we have been too hard on the allegorical method and have noted that it was the predominant method of interpretation for many of the early church fathers. And, frankly, they have a point. While allegory can indeed be dangerous, we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
What is behind all of this, allegory and typology? Why not just interpret the Bible in a wooden literal sense at all times. Well, all responsible interpreters of the Bible agree that the immediate historical meaning, what is called “authorial intent,” the intent of the author in writing, is of primary importance. But here is the problem: we honestly believe that Jesus is the point of the whole story, from Genesis to Revelation. Furthermore, the person and work of Jesus are the apex and unsurpassable high point of God’s plan to save His people. So that means that everything having to do with salvation before the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem must in some way be preparatory for the Christ and His cross.
In other words, there are passages of scripture that simply beg for us to see Jesus in them! Noah’s ark is certainly one of those passages. And, since the church’s beginning, interpreters of the Bible have seen Jesus and the cross of Christ in Noah’s ark.
A beautiful example can be seen in the 2ndcentury church father, Justin Martyr, who was born in the year 100 AD. In the 138thpart of his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin wrote this about the ark:
“You know, then, sirs,” I said, “that God has said in Isaiah to Jerusalem: ‘I saved thee in the deluge of Noah.’ By this which God said was meant that the mystery of saved men appeared in the deluge. For righteous Noah, along with the other mortals at the deluge, i.e., with his own wife, his three sons and their wives, being eight in number, were a symbol of the eighth day, wherein Christ appeared when He rose from the dead, forever the first in power. For Christ, being the first-born of every creature, became again the chief of another race regenerated by Himself through water, and faith, and wood, containing the mystery of the cross; even as Noah was saved by wood when he rode over the waters with his household. Accordingly, when the prophet says, ‘I saved thee in the times of Noah,’ as I have already remarked, he addresses the people who are equally faithful to God, and possess the same signs. For when Moses had the rod in his hands, he led your nation through the sea. And you believe that this was spoken to your nation only, or to the land. But the whole earth, as the Scripture says, was inundated, and the water rose in height fifteen cubits above all the mountains: so that it is evident this was not spoken to the land, but to the people who obeyed Him: for whom also He had before prepared a resting-place in Jerusalem, as was previously demonstrated by all the symbols of the deluge; I mean, that by water, faith, and wood, those who are afore-prepared, and who repent of the sins which they have committed, shall escape from the impending judgment of God.
Justin argued that Noah’s ark pointed to Jesus in these ways:
- Noah’s family represents all who are saved by God throughout time.
- The eight members of Noah’s family who were saved represent the resurrection in that they represent the eighth day, or a Sunday, which is the day Jesus rose from the dead.
- The repopulating of the earth after the flood represents the new race of people who are believers in Jesus Christ.
- The water of the flood represents baptism.
- The wood of the ark represents the cross.
To be honest, I love this! Question that interpretation as you will—and it is not beyond critique in some of its particulars—let us admit this: if Jesus is the point of the whole story and the apex of God’s plan to save lost humanity, all references to God’s saving work in the Old Testament will point to Jesus. Yes, we must be careful that we not over-spiritualize every…single…detail…but let us at least appreciate that even those church fathers and others did so from an admirable starting point: Jesus as the point of all scripture!
Whatever you want to call it—and I suspect typology would be best here—I believe that Noah’s ark does indeed point to Jesus and is, in many ways, like Jesus. Consider…
Noah’s ark is like Jesus in that it was the only way to be saved from God’s judgment.
We begin with the singularity of the ark: the ark and the ark alone was God’s chosen, prescribed, and ordained method of salvation in the face of the coming flood.
9 These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. 10 And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.12 And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. 13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. 14 Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch.
You will notice two components to this text, one universal and the other particular. Universally, mankind is sinful and rebellious and worthy of judgment. There was a particular family, however, who would be saved and they would be saved in a particular way.
The earth was sinful, but Noah found favor with God. Noah was a righteous man. He had a relationship with God. Noah was a type, then, of God’s people throughout the ages. And God reveals to Noah the path to salvation. And that is just it: there was one path, a boat, and it was the only way to be saved.
Genesis does not say that God told Noah to build a boat and God told somebody else somewhere else to build a really tall tower and then God told somebody else to build a really strong house that would not leak and that therefore all three of these ways would be paths to salvation. There is no New Age nonsense here about “many paths, one destination.” There is no interfaith celebration, no dialogue sessions, no “COEXIST” bumper stickers. No, there were just two simple truths: (1) judgment is coming and (2) this and this alone is how you will be saved.
The singularity of the ark is a type of the exclusivity of Christ. Jesus Himself said that He and He alone was the way—the only way—to be saved. He said this in John 14:
6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Some years ago I preached on this passage. I stressed that Christ alone is the way to the Father. The following week I received a handwritten letter from a disgruntled member, an elderly man of strong opinions who had left the church some months previous over a disagreement. His letter said many things, but the most tragic part was when he said (and I paraphrase here): “I do not care to be a part of a church that says Jesus is the only way to Heaven.”
Know what, though? I do not care to be a part of a church that does notthink Jesus is the only way to Heaven.
There is a narrowness in God’s ordained road to salvation. There is a wideness in the road to destruction. No, there is only one way. There was only one way to be saved from the ravages of the flood. This fact began, even way back then, to prepare the hearts of men and women for the exclusive message of Jesus: it is only through Jesus that we are saved.
Noah’s ark is like Jesus in that it was completely unexpected and was amusing and offensive to those who rejected it.
Furthermore, the apparent absurdity of the ark was a type of the seeming absurdity of the cross and the gospel. Not only is there only one way to be saved, but it is a way that could not have been foreseen or imagined, so shocking is it.
15 This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark 300 cubits, its breadth 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits. 16 Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above, and set the door of the ark in its side. Make it with lower, second, and third decks. 17 For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die.
Hear those specifications and marvel! God comes to Noah and asks him to make a massive boat in a dry land! Imagine the mocking comments. Imagine the laughter of his neighbors. Imagine the questions and the guffaws. “Ole Noah! He’s off in the head!” “A boat?! Here? And my goodness the size?” “What on earth is Noah going to put on that boat? I certainly am not getting on there!”
God oftentimes does not give answers that “make sense,” at least not to the natural mind. Want to know what is even more shocking, even more offensive, even more seemingly crazy than Noah’s ark? The gospel! It is true! Think of how crazy it all sounds when you first hear it: the God who made everything grieved over His own creation because His own creation rebelled against Him. But God loves His creation. He loves the human race. But the only way that there could be a sacrifice pure enough and perfect enough and eternal in nature that could atone for humanity’s rebellion against His eternal law would be if God Himself became part of His own creation. So that is what God did! The eternal God allowed Himself to be born of a virgin named Mary. And He grew up on the planet He made and walked among lost humanity and demonstrated the Kingdom through works and words and demonstrations of Kingdom power. But people were afraid of Him and many hated Him for His words of truth. So God-in-flesh, Jesus, allowed His own creation to kill Him—kill Him!—by nailing Him to a cross! But in so doing, God-in-flesh paid the price for the sins of humanity by dying as a substitute for the world. What is more, three days later, He rose again and, in so doing, defeated sin, death, and hell. Then Jesus ascended to Heaven where He sits at God the Father’s right hand making intercession for His people and one day He will return again!
I mean, that is a wild story…but it just so happens to be true and the only truth that really matters! The oddness of the ark was a type of the scandalous and surprising nature of the gospel, the good news of Jesus, and particularly of the cross of Christ which is at the heart of the gospel!
Paul said precisely this in 1 Corinthians 1. Listen closely:
18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
Ah, yes! God confound the “wisdom” of the wise with the foolishness, yes, of an ark, but ultimately with the scandal of a cross! Yet it is true and the only way home.
Noah’s ark is like Jesus in that it required faith.
Noah’s ark points us to Jesus also in the way that it required faith for the recipients of its protection to enter. The ark is a testament first to God’s grace and mercy. That God provided a way of salvation reveals His loving heart just as the flood reveals God’s just and righteous heart. But God provides a way, surprising though it was, and Noah received that way by faith. In fact, in Hebrews 11, Noah is placed in the great “Hall of Faith” chapter of the Bible. Note what is said of him:
7a-cBy faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household.
Amazing: “By faith Noah…constructed an ark.” He received this offered salvation. In so doing he demonstrated and helped to model what would be required when God’s greater Noah, Jesus, appeared: faith.
The classic biblical expression of this truth is found in Ephesians 2:
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Note: salvation is “by grace” and “through faith.” It is “by grace” in that it is all of God. We are saved because God is a gracious and merciful God. He chose to send the Son. He chose to make a way. He chose to offer salvation. But it is “through faith” in that faith is how we receive this saving grace.
In the days of Noah, God offered Noah and his family salvation purely by His grace. But that grace was received by Noah, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, “by faith.” It is a beautiful thing to see saving faith modeled by Noah! This is still how we are saved. Paul put it like this in Romans 10:
9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
“Believe in your heart.” There it is. Faith. The receiving of what God graciously has offered!
Noah’s ark is like Jesus in that it was deliverance guaranteed and protected by divine covenant.
In the midst of the story of Noah and his ark there is another familiar and powerful term: “covenant.” God says to Noah:
18 But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.
There had to have been a part of Noah that wondered, after his family was sealed in the ark, if the boat would hold! They had made it well, as well as they could, but what waters, what a flood! As the timbers creaked and the ship swayed in the deluge, did Noah ever think, “Will it hold? Please God help it to hold!” But here is the beauty of verse 18: the ship held first and foremost because it was bound together by divine covenant. There was something stronger than the pitch and the craftmanship at work. There was God’s promise that he would see Noah and his family through!
A covenant is a binding agreement that is as strong as the one who ratifies it. Human history is filled with broken covenants, between nations and individuals. But the Kingdom of God has yet to see a divine covenant broken. When God speaks covenant assurances and promises, the matter is settled and solid and done.
Here too we see a type of the coming Christ. It is amazing to see Jesus’ expression of covenant language over the cross. In Luke 22, when Jesus institutes the elements of the Lord’s Supper, He uses this very term.
19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
Noah and his family were bound by a divine covenant promise of deliverance. God’s word was at stake! The very same is true with the blood of the Lord Jesus: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” The blood of Christ constitutes a ratification of a divine covenant of salvation. All who are under the blood of Jesus are safe in the ark of His love. All who have been washed by the blood of the lamb will be taken safely through the judgment!
It must be a terrible thing to lay your head on your pillow at night and wonder if, should you die in the night, you would awake in heaven or hell? That kind of uncertainty must be soul-crushing. This is where the language of “covenant” gives us peace. It is a promise of security. It is God’s very word that He will see you through!
My grandfather was a small and gentle man. He smiled so much his nickname was “Rosie.” But he was also a man of great conviction. He was invited once to speak at a church that he knew preached uncertainty. This church preached that God might save you one day and then damn you the next. So my grandfather decided to preach on certainty. He preached that “Jesus is not going to save you today then cast you out tomorrow.” He is right. There is the matter of God’s covenant promise at work! Jesus is God’s covenant promise!
My grandfather was never invited back to that church, but no matter. He had said what needed to be said: the covenant is solid. The covenant holds. The covenant has sealed us in the ark of God’s love!
Noah’s ark is like Jesus in that it required more than empty overtures of belief.
There is one more thing. Notice that while Moses receives God’s salvation by faith, he then moved to work in a way consistent with God’s saving love. That is, he obeyed out of his faith!
19 And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark to keep them alive with you. They shall be male and female. 20 Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground, according to its kind, two of every sort shall come in to you to keep them alive. 21 Also take with you every sort of food that is eaten, and store it up. It shall serve as food for you and for them.”22 Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
The last verse is so beautifully understated: “Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.” He believed, then he obeyed.
We Baptists are much better at the “believe” part than the “obey” part. Yes, yes, it is true and vitally true: we are saved by grace through faith, not of works! That is the gospel and it must ever be said! Salvation by works is a truly terrifying prospect, given the frailty and fickleness of the human heart. No, our salvation is secure in the work and promise of Jesus!
Even so, out of saving faith our changed lives should manifest our trust in effort and in work…not so that we might be saved but because we have indeed been saved!
Imagine if Noah had said, “Yes, God, I trust in you and your plan for the ark! I trust in you! I received this plan!” Then imagine that Noah carried about his normal daily business without building the ark, without obedience! Would his lack of obedience not demonstrate that his faith was not true faith, that he did not really believe at all?
Hear me: we are not saved by works, but the saved should work!
What if, instead of building the ark, Noah sat down to pen a praise song and what if, instead of hammering, he worked on that praise song up until the waters began to fall and rise. What if he wrote:
Your boat, God,
Your beautiful boat,
I trust in you,
I love your boat.
We are safe in your boat,
We will praise you in the rain!
I do not know. I am just trying to imagine what an ark praise chorus would sound like! Anyway, imagine that instead of building, Noah is writing songs about the boat. Then imagine one day that as he is talking with local radio executives about playing his song, he feels a raindrop. Then another. Then another. What would he think then?
We are like Noah. We say we have believed, but have we followed? When the rain comes will Jesus find us obedient? In Matthew 16, we find Jesus’ definition of a disciple:
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
You have trusted in Jesus? Good! But are you walking with Jesus? Are you carrying your cross?
Jesus has called us to obey.
Noah’s obedience in building the ark is a type of the Christian’s obedience in following Jesus.
The ark is a type of the cross and Noah is a type of all believers. Peter Leithart beautifully wrote:
The cross is the wooden ark of Noah, the refuge for all the creatures of the earth, the guarantee of a new covenant of peace and the restoration of Adam. The cross is the ark that carries Jesus, the greater Noah, with all His house, through the deluge and baptism of death to the safety of a new creation.
Let the people say Amen!
Let the gathered church say Amen!
Andrew Louth, ed. Genesis 1-11. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Gen. Ed., Thomas C. Oden. Old Testament vol. I (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p.130.