This book, Vos’ Biblical Theology, is profound a thousand times. Here’s one section that is stellar; it is on the types and shadows in the Mosaic economy (p. 147-148).
“The new thing is that now, in the time of Moses, a system of types is established, so that the whole organism of the world of redemption, as it were, finds a typical embodiment on earth. The types are shadows of a body which is Christ. If the body called Christ was an organism, then also the shadows of it, that came before, must have borne the same character.”
Brilliant, and Pauline (cf. Col 2.17)! The Old Covenant was full of shadows, and the one that cast the shadow is Jesus. The shadows make us look to the “caster” of the shadows, and the “caster” of the shadows directs us how to read the shadows. Studying shadows can tell you the general form of the object, the approximate size of the object, but they can’t do what the object does. You can’t touch a shadow or be embraced and saved by a shadow. In other words, a shadow is something that forces us to look past it to the thing making it. There is continuity and discontinuity. There are also some parallels in the discussion of the sign and thing signified (sacramental language).
Vos goes on.
“In Gal. 4.3, Col. 2.20, Paul speaks of the ritual institution as ‘first rudiments of the world.’ He ascribes this rudiment-character to them because they were concerned with external, material things. In a certain sense (though not in point of formulation) Paul placed the ceremonies of the Old Testament on a line with similar customs of pagan religions. In paganism the religious rites possessed this character through their general dependence on the inclination towards symbolism. In the Mosaic institutions this natural symbolism also lay at the basis, but here there was a special divine control in the shaping of the materials. Because this truth found expression in physical forms, we say that it came on a lower plane…. In Heb. 9.1, the tabernacle is called ‘a worldly sanctuary,’ that is, a sanctuary belonging to this physical world. It was appropriate that after this fashion a sort of artificial substratum should be created for the truth of redemption to rest upon. The truth shuns suspension in the air. In the New Testament it has the accomplished facts to attach itself to. While these were yet in the making a provisional support was constructed for them in the ceremonial institutions.”
Again, outstanding. In a nutshell, Vos says that the OT Israelite ceremonies’ earthiness had a reason. Unlike pagan ceremonies, the OT ceremonies were shaped by God for a deeper purpose. Symbols are not enough; they just hang in the air. There must be something symbolized. The problem with the pagan ceremonies is just that: they’re pagan, with no divine truth behind them. In the shadow terms, a shadow cannot exist on its own; if it does, it is a ghost, a phantom, not a conveyor of anything true. The judaizers in the NT were living in the realms of the shadows and refused to look to the One who cast the shadows; that is why Paul can call the OT shadows “first rudiments of the world.” Apart from Christ, they’re empty as a tribal dance to the wind-god. This is also why Yahweh – through the prophets – brought the lawsuit against Israel despite the fact that they were still sacrificing and celebrating feasts to some extent. They (like the NT judaizers) were depending on the shadows and their performance in the shadowy world to keep them in God’s favor (Jesus uses words like “woe” for these kind!).
If you’ve not read Vos, or if it has been awhile, I very strongly recommend you grab this. It is not easy to read, but it will keep on challenging you. It also has a helpful subject and scripture index in the back, which makes it a great tool to use in later studies. For you OT & NT students, you’ll appreciate the way Vos interacted with the “higher” critics of his day (c. 1940). He utilized them, but well refuted some of their points by way of exegesis.