Tracing Theological Themes Through the Whole Bible Story

The Bible is one main story with one main focus, sharing what God has done and will do through His Son Jesus Christ. Like any epic story, there are many threads that run through it. Understanding those threads and how they develop aids our study of Scripture. LRI’s Kevin Halloran interviewed Tim Sattler, International Training Director for Leadership Resources, on the importance of tracing themes throughout the whole Bible.


Kevin Halloran

Kevin Halloran

Kevin: Tim, can you explain the importance of tracing Biblical Theological threads?

Tim: Sure. The Bible’s one story, and like a story, there are multiple threads that develop and are involved. These threads hold the story together all the way along. We don’t have a series of disconnected stories. There are threads that pick up early on.

Example 1: Comparing Genesis with Revelation

Tim Sattler

Tim Sattler

If you have ever looked at the beginning chapters of Genesis and the ending chapters of Revelation, it’s interesting how many of those threads come together. We see the heavens and earth being created in Genesis and the new heavens and new earth being announced in Revelation 21. We see land and water and sea at the beginning, and land and no sea at the end. We see a garden in the presence of God and God dwelling with man—the great announcement of Rev. 21 is the dwelling of God is with man again.

Example 2: The Promised Seed

There are these different threads that pick up through the storyline. One key thread would be the promised seed that is going to conquer Satan and overcome sin (Genesis 3:15). The whole genealogical structure of Genesis follows this thread along. Abraham it picks up again. Later in the Davidic promise focused more specifically so that we would know who we are looking for in this king that would come.

Example 3: The Temple

One great thread is the temple, the idea of God dwelling with His people. They were pushed out of that dwelling because of their sin. They were pushed out of that place of His presence but the tabernacle, the temple—all these symbolic images where God comes and dwells among His people. Interestingly, both the tabernacle and temple are filled with God’s glory, but the third temple after the exile isn’t. You don’t see that glory come back to the temple. There’s something missing.

But then you have Jesus standing and the Spirit descends on Him like a dove. We understand that He came and tabernacled among us. This is God Himself tabernacling. It’s not an accident that John uses that terminology in John 1:14. All along we see that God is wanting to restore His presence with His people.

In Ephesians, Paul says we are being built up into the true temple, the dwelling of God in the Spirit. You can follow the theme of the Holy Spirit from the garden all the way through the book of Acts. It’s God’s presence restored through Christ that makes us the indwelling of God.

Example 4: A sin-atoning sacrifice

The strand of sacrifice goes along right from Genesis 4 all the way through to the cross.

These stories ebb and flow in the overall story but they are all pulled together like the strands of a rope. As a rope has many different strands, so the story of the Bible has many different strands.

Kevin: It’s rich to see how the story develops and those threads develop, how the Old Testament points forward to Christ. Also, as we understand who Christ is for us, we can look back at the Old Testament and see the build-up and appreciate Christ all the more.

Tim: You can. That’s right.

Kevin: You’ve mentioned to me in the past that you prefer to say tracing Biblical Theological threads rather than themes. Why is that?

Tim: It’s not a big deal to me frankly! I would use theme and thread interchangeably except for this: As we have been training pastors and sometimes use the word ‘themes’, it gets confused with thematic preaching. Instead of telling the story or understanding the development of Biblical Theology in a storyline, it becomes a topical proof-texting of a theme in the Bible—which really doesn’t help. That is more systematic theology (which is fine) rather than biblical theology.

As we are talking about tracing a thread or a theme, we are really trying to unfold the natural development of each part of the story. The tabernacle isn’t as great as the temple, is it? One’s a more permanent place, there’s been a development from one dwelling place to another. It’s there to show us that God wants to be in a permanent place with His people. In Genesis the dwelling place was lost, but it will be restored. We find out that that the tabernacle and temple were never intended to be the permanent place—the permanent place is the New Heavens and the New Earth.

What we’re trying to do is keep it in language that helps us understand the development of a storyline. Not simply tracing thematic theological ideas.

Kevin: How do you recommend tracing Biblical Theological themes?

Tim: Read the Bible.

Kevin: Good answer.

Tim: We need to know the Bible.

Kevin: There’s no shortcut. We shouldn’t want a shortcut.

Tim: If you really want to know what David Copperfield is about, read David Copperfield. You need to read the whole book; you need to read the whole story. Dickens put a marvelous story out there for us and the Bible is an even greater story. We really do need to read the Bible. We need to know how each book fits with the unfolding of the story, which books are really mainline in the story, and which are commentary on the main story. We need to know what’s happening.

Kevin: Which biblical books are main-line verses commentary on the main story?

Tim: Genesis and Exodus would be mainline. Leviticus would be commentary into the story because it’s not moving the story along, it’s bringing more depth to the story. It’s the whole sacrificial system. Numbers is moving the story along, in the wilderness. Deuteronomy at a point where you are getting ready to transition, but is at a moment in time as Moses is giving his last words. Joshua moves us along. Judges moves us along. 1 & 2 Samuel move us along. Kings does as well. Ezra and Nehemiah coming back from the exile carry the story along. Most of the prophets would be voices spoken into the people and the times. The Psalms speak into the times. Basically, Psalms are songs about the times that are put together in kind of a symphony looking back, the last compilation of these is looking back over Israel’s history from Moses all the way to after the exile coming back into a temple that’s been rebuilt. It’s a commentary into how God has been working among His people and that it’s God’s king meets God’s people through this valley to God’s grace. There are books that carry the story along; there are books that speak into it.

The storyline is contained in fewer books than we think so it’s easy to get that storyline.

Kevin: You had mentioned before that you recommend four key questions for understanding Biblical Theology as it pertains to a passage.

Tim: Yes, they are questions a friend Phil Wheeler from Sydney, Australia, put together. I think they’re really good questions:

  1. What’s the story so far?

Wherever you are in the Bible, you need to know what the story has been leading up to that point in time. What’s happened so far?

  1. What’s this story about?

Now we are looking at what a particular story contributes. What is it about?

Take Judges, for instance. What is Judges about? It’s about everybody doing what’s right in his own eyes. That’s commentary. It’s also about a leadership gap after Joshua. There’s a question, who would be king? The more you study these judges the more you see they are trying to fill a leadership void. But they are going about it the wrong way. We find out the end in the next story, not Ruth, but Samuel—God provides a king. He wants it to be His king and His way: David.

  1. What do we learn about how God does things?

Before we even look at leading us to Christ there are lessons about the way God works. The way God is accomplishing things in the world.

  1. What do we learn about the way God does things through Jesus?

Not every story is on a major highway towards Jesus. We need to learn about the way God does things. But there are major stories; every book is contributing to the major story of Jesus. So, what do we learn about how God does things through Jesus.

Often times we miss true Biblical Theology because we don’t get it on the book level first; we are looking for Jesus in every little detail. A lot of preachers look for Jesus in too many places and make too many wrong connections. We need to understand what the book contributes to the story first.

What we learn about how God does things through Jesus and then how pieces unfold that. There may be more than one strand in a book, but at the same time, we want to be with those major strands as we are talking about Christ.

Review: Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture by Graeme Goldsworthy

I love the story of Jesus on the road to Emmaus teaching two disciples how the whole Old Testament testifies of Him in Luke 24. It mesmerized (and still mesmerizes) me thinking of Christ as the culmination of the entire Old Testament. For a while though, I was disappointed that Luke didn’t include a transcript of their conversation for us!

I wanted to understand more how the Old Testament pointed to Christ but didn’t know what to do. I didn’t realize it at the time that I lacked an understanding of biblical theology, something that is vital for every Christian and especially preachers. Yet, while there is a great need for preachers to understand biblical theology, most preaching books barely touch on biblical theology.

Thankfully Graeme Goldsworthy, the Aussie theologian, wrote Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (read 30 quotes). He defines biblical theology as “nothing more nor less than allowing the Bible to speak as a whole: as the one word of the one God about the one way of salvation” (7).

Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture lays out his methodology of biblical theology as it relates to expository preaching (Part One) before applying his methods to eight distinct biblical genres (Part Two). Goldsworthy’s stated purpose is to “provide a handbook for preachers that will help them apply a consistently Christ-centered approach to their sermons” (ix).

Not Easy, but Vitally Important

Goldsworthy grieves how much evangelical preaching misses the unity of the Bible story:

Texts are taken out of context; and applications are made without due concern for what the biblical author, which is ultimately the Holy Spirit, is seeking to convey by the text. Problem-centered and topical preaching became the norm and character studies treat the heroes and heroines of the Bible as isolated examples of how to live. The old adage about a text without its context being a pretext needs re-examination. (15-16)

Biblical theology is not easy, Goldsworthy concedes, but is essential to truly understanding the Bible’s message and what it means for us today. Goldsworthy shows the Christological focus of the Scriptures by unpacking the sometimes-tricky dynamics of Old Testament typology, law versus gospel, promise and fulfillment, along with the telos of the Bible. In doing so, we are reminded time and again just how badly sinful humanity needs to hear the message of Christ:

Why would you even want to try to preacher Christian sermon without mentioning Jesus? Is there anywhere else we can look in order to seek God? To see true humanity? To see the meaning of anything in creation? … If we would seek God, he is most clearly revealed in Jesus Christ. If we would see what God intends for our humanity, it is most clearly revealed in Jesus Christ. If we would see what God intends for the created order, we discover that it is bound up with our humanity and, therefore, revealed in Christ. (115-116)

The book’s second half provides framework, examples, and practical tips necessary to preach Christ from all literary genres of Scripture. This section (for which ‘handbook’ is a great label) is helpful, but not comprehensive (which would be near impossible). You may choose to skip around in this section to the genre of a book you are currently studying or one that you have difficulties with.

Recommendation

As the title of this book suggests, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture is most valuable to preachers and other communicators of the word. It compellingly shows that failing to preach Christ from all of the Scriptures comes with great danger:

Any sermon, then, that aims to apply the biblical texts to the congregation and does so without making it crystal clear that it is in Christ alone and through Christ alone that the application is realized, is not a Christian sermon. It is at best an exercise in wishful and pietistic thinking. It is at worst demonic and its Christ-denying legalism. (124)

This book’s unique contribution is combining biblical theological methods with practice. Most other books won’t provide a theological feast as rich (and important) of the first half, nor the practical guidance of the second—let alone the combination. Many preachers will find themselves consulting this book after they read it, even if it is a little erudite and lengthy. (Handbooks aren’t always meant to be read straight through.)

Overall, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture is a very important book. It will challenge the preacher’s assumptions and encourage him to dig into the Scripture text for himself, which is the only way to grow as a preacher of Christ. I think that it will encourage many to preach Christ and the gospel in diverse ways as it imparts insights on the unsearchable riches of Christ from various parts of the Bible. This won’t be the only book of preacher needs on biblical theology and preaching Christ, but it would be hard to find one more helpful to someone with an intermediate grasp of biblical theology. For those wanting a more introduction-level book, we recommend God’s Big Picture by Vaughan Roberts (free video course), which is an accessible introduction.

Today, I’m content we don’t have Jesus’s sermon from Luke 24. (Although I’d still like to read it!) Christ wants us to discover His glorious riches for ourselves in all 66 books of the Bible.

Our task of preaching Christ from all the Scripture will never be easy. But as we faithfully labor and grow in understanding, our joy will grow as we see the One to whom the law, the prophets, and the Psalms testify and preach Him to our people.

30 Quotes from Graeme Goldsworthy’s Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture

One of our recommended books on biblical theology is Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture by Graeme Goldsworthy (read our review). In what he describes as a ‘handbook’, Goldsworthy helpfully explains many facets of biblical theology’s intersection with expository preaching and shares his methods applied to eight different genres of Scripture. Below we share quotes from the book to give you a taste of its richness.


“We believe that preaching is not some peripheral item in the program of the local church, but that it lies at the very heart of what it is to be the people of God.” (1)

“There is, first, the correct assumption that the Old Testament is Christian scripture and that, despite the difficulties in doing so, it must be appropriated for Christian people.” (2)

“The Resurrection is portrayed as the event that encapsulates and fulfills all the theological themes of the Old Testament.” (6)

“Biblical theology is nothing more nor less than allowing the Bible to speak as a whole: as the one word of the one God about the one way of salvation.” (7)

“As evangelical preachers, we will need to work very hard to ensure that the nature of our preaching is truly biblical. Using Bible texts, focusing on biblical characters, or using well-worn clichés that are asserted as biblical are not in themselves a guarantee that our preaching is essentially biblical.” (12)

“We must also recognize that the unity of the Bible has suffered by default in the evangelical camp. This is nowhere more clearly evident than in the way the Bible is preached by many evangelicals. Texts are taken out of context; and applications are made without due concern for what the biblical author, which is ultimately the Holy Spirit, is seeking to convey by the text. Problem-centered and topical preaching became the norm and character studies treat the heroes and heroines of the Bible as isolated examples of how to live. The old adage about a text without its context being a pretext needs re-examination.” (15-16)

“I will seek to show that a biblical theology consistent with evangelical presuppositions has great explanatory power and preserves the sense of the unity of scripture while also recognizing the great diversity that is there.” (16)

“I can think of no more challenging question for the preachers self-evaluation and to ask whether the sermon was a faithful exposition of the way the text testifies to Christ.” (21)

“Geerhardus Vos defines biblical theology as ‘that branch of exegetical theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible.'” (22)

“If we allow at the Bible to tell its own story, we find a coherent and meaningful whole. To understand this meaningful whole we have to allow the Bible to stand as it is: a remarkable complexity yet a brilliant unity, which tells the story of the creation and the saving plan of God. Preaching, to be true to God’s plan and purpose, should constantly call people back to this perspective.” (22)

“I know it will not always be a simple matter to show how every text in the Bible speaks of the Christ, but that does not alter the fact that he says it does.” (21)

“Biblical theology helps to deliver the preacher from the doldrums of not knowing what to preach about. It is the fitting helper to expository preaching, that’s strangely neglected in the literature dealing with that subject.” (30)

“When done properly, preaching Christ from every part of the Bible need never degenerate into predictable platitudes about Jesus. The riches in Christ are inexhaustible, and biblical theology is the way to uncover them.” (30)

“Jesus didn’t invent biblical theology. He showed himself to be the real subject of the biblical theology that had been developing ever since human beings first received revelation from God.” (52)

“The idea that evangelical pastors can be sent to have ministerial oversight of congregations without first having a solid grounding in biblical theology is one of the scandals of our time. Show me a church without a good appreciation of the Old Testament and biblical theology and I’ll show you a church with a weak understanding of the gospel.” (52)

“Probably one of the most useful things we can do in this manner [that is, making the Bible’s storyline clear] is to help our congregation to engage biblical history without fear.” (69)

“Salvation was not an afterthought brought on by the unforeseen catastrophe of the fall. This Christocentric perspective is vital to understanding the Bible, and the preacher should constantly remind the congregation of it.” (79)

“Proper interpretation of any part of the Bible requires us to relate it to the person and work of Jesus.” (84)

“The essence of the kingdom is God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule.” (87)

“World history, written from God’s point of view and without the debilitating effects of human sinfulness and human ignorance, is ultimately the history of the gospel.” (89)

“It is thus quite acceptable to say that the Old Testament saints were saved through faith in Christ, for he is the ultimate substance of all the promises of God in which these people trusted (2 Cor 1:20).” (108)

“The central thesis of this book: all texts in the whole Bible bear a discernable relationship to Christ and are primarily intended as a testimony to Christ.” (113)

“Any attempts to relate a text directly to us for our contemporary hearers without inquiring into its primary relationship to Christ is fraught with danger.” (113)

“Since there are inexhaustible riches in Christ, and the implication of these for our Christian experience are endless, I doubt very much that there is any need for a preacher to be boring and repetitive.” (115)

“Why would you even want to try to preach a Christian sermon without mentioning Jesus? Is there anywhere else we can look in order to seek God? To see true humanity? To see the meaning of anything in creation?” (115)

“If we would seek God, he is most clearly revealed in Jesus Christ. If we would see what God intends for our humanity, it is most clearly revealed in Jesus Christ. If we would see what God intends for the created order, we discover that it is bound up with our humanity and, therefore, revealed in Christ.” (116)

“Expository preaching is essentially the practice of explaining the meaning of a passage of scripture.” (120)

“Any sermon, then, that aims to apply the biblical texts to the congregation and does so without making it crystal clear that it is in Christ alone and through Christ alone that the application is realized, is not a Christian sermon. It is at best an exercise in wishful and pietistic thinking. It is at worst demonic and its Christ-denying legalism.” (124)

“If we are not going to proclaim some aspect of the riches of Christ and every sermon, we shouldn’t be in the pulpit.” (126)

“In preparing a sermon we should pray that the Spirit of God will be active to reveal to us the riches of that word. Yet the Spirit’s ministry is not an automatic and mystical thing. He works through our minds and our efforts to responsibly explain the biblical text.” (127)

“A neglect of biblical theology means putting ourselves and our hearers in danger of losing the way so that an unbiblical application is substituted for the biblical one. Biblical theology is, I submit, a matter of giving free reign to the great Protestant principle that was enunciated at the Reformation: scripture interprets itself.” (128)

“Being able to label the genre is not as important as understanding the nuances of each literary expression and what the author wants to achieve by it.” (137)

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Free Bible Overview Video Course: God’s Big Picture by Vaughan Roberts

God's Big Picture - Bible Overview Course

One of the books we recommend on biblical theology is God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible by Vaughan Roberts.

Our friends at Clayton.TV have released a free video study tool that walks through each of the nine units of the book. Each unit features a video of 10-12 minutes and a study guide. This is an ideal resource for churches and any Christian wanting to dig deeper in understanding the Bible’s overarching story.


Click to download the whole course (all videos and printable material). At average download speed (10Mbps) this could take up to half an hour.

Click to download a short printable ‘How To Use God’s Big Picture’ guide.

Watch the series trailer:


Summary of God’s Big Picture Video Study (via Clayton.TV)

UNIT 1: THE PATTERN OF THE KINGDOM

The Bible isn’t just a random collection of books but one connected story and it is vital to understand it in that context. This first video explains that the Bible has one author: God, one subject: Jesus Christ and one overarching theme: God’s plan to save the world through his son Jesus Christ.

We begin to look at this unfolding story in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, which sets up the pattern of God’s kingdom that we will trace through the rest of the units. We see that in God’s perfect created order, God’s People, Adam and Eve, live in God’s Place, the Garden of Eden, and enjoy his Rule and Blessing. In this creation the relationships between God & man, man & woman and mankind & creation are perfect, just as they were supposed to be. But it doesn’t last long…

UNIT 2: THE PERISHED KINGDOM

God’s perfect creation is all too quickly ruined. In this episode we consider the question of evil, the tactics of the Devil who wants people to distrust and disobey God and the sinfulness of human hearts.

As we read more of Genesis we see that God’s people, Adam and Eve, disobey God, reject his rule and suffer the dire consequences. Once they have turned their back on God he must turn his back on them. Relationships are broken and God’s people suffer the just curses of a fallen world. Sin and death infect the whole of creation. God’s people deserve judgment but in God’s grace this isn’t where the story ends…

UNIT 3: THE PROMISED KINGDOM

It looks like it’s all gone wrong but in unit 3 we learn that God has an eternal plan to save his people and restore his perfect creation. Reading on in Genesis we see that God, in his amazing grace, is going to send a saviour to rescue his fallen people. He then makes a foundational covenant or promise with one man, Abraham, which has implications for the rest of history. God promises to make himself a people through Abraham, to bring his people to a place and to bless them. As we see more of human sin and weakness we also see more and more of God’s grace and we realise God’s people cannot save themselves. Only God can save.

But questions abound… How will he make a people from an elderly, barren couple? Where is this land? And how can he restore the perfect relationships of creation?

UNIT 4: THE PARTIAL KINGDOM- People, Rule, and Blessing

God’s covenant promises of unit 3 are beginning to be worked out. In Genesis 12 – Exodus 18 we see how God begins to make a people for himself by miraculously granting Abraham and Sarah children and then many descendants. We see again and again that evil, unworthy persons become God’s people and it becomes clear that it is God who saves and that no man can boast.

We see how God rescues his people from slavery in Egypt by substitution, by conquest and by defeating their enemies. Once freed from slavery God begins to bless his people by giving them his law and by living amongst them. Things are beginning to look up, but there is much more to be fulfilled.

UNIT 5: THE PARTIAL KINGDOM- Place and King

Having seen the ‘people’ and ‘blessing’ promises partially fulfilled we’re now looking out for the promise of ‘land’ to be fulfilled. But, because of further disobedience, we read in the book of Numbers that God’s people are delayed forty years in getting into the land he has promised them. Once in the land things don’t get much better: the nation descends into a cycle of sin, judgment and grace. God provides judges to rule his people.

Perhaps God’s people would do better if they had a king to rule over them? In 1 Samuel – 2 Chronicles God’s promise of a king is seemingly fulfilled by Saul, David and then Solomon. The last two kings bring great periods of peace and prosperity to Israel, but ultimately each one fails to bring the everlasting peace and kingdom that God has promised. We conclude that these partially fulfilled promises must be pointing to something greater.

UNIT 6: THE PROPHESIED KINGDOM

Israel’s history takes a downward turn as the people continue to disobey. They are exiled from the promised land, they become a scattered fragmented people and are left facing God’s judgment rather than blessing. But in his grace God sends prophets to speak his word to his people and enforce his covenant.

This unit maps the various prophets found in the Old Testament, all bringing a message of judgment and hope. Speaking God’s words and not their own, the prophets stress that God’s people will face judgment if they continue to disobey, but the prophets also bring a wonderful message of hope: God will keep his promise to bless his people. Most excitingly they prophesy of a new hope and a glorious, perfect King who will rule God’s people forever – that is of course, Jesus Christ. We’re left at the end of this unit eagerly looking for the arrival of true God’s King.

UNIT 7: THE PRESENT KINGDOM

Finally all of God’s promises are fulfilled! Here we truly see how the whole of the Bible fits together. God’s promised king arrives to save God’s people – Jesus is born. This unit shows how each of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) give complementary accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings, each concluding that Jesus is the Messiah, the saviour of God’s people and the fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises. We see how Jesus is God’s people, place, rule and blessing and what each of these promises means for the believer.

Most importantly this unit describes the way in which Jesus saves God’s people through substitution, by taking the punishment they deserve, so that God’s people can be restored to perfect relationship with him. There is a tension that remains however because the presence of sin remains…

UNIT 8: THE PROCLAIMED KINGDOM

Jesus’ kingdom is both ‘now’ and ‘not yet’. This unit explains that we live in the ‘last days’ between Jesus’ first and second comings. God is patiently waiting for more people to come into his kingdom before he sends Jesus back to wrap everything up. As we move on to the book of Acts we see that to accomplish the task of making a great people for himself God sends his Holy Spirit into Christians so they can tell others of Jesus.

We learn that the Holy Spirit brings about new birth, he equips believers to serve Christ and he produces holiness. Though believers have been wonderfully saved God does not promise an easy life now, rather suffering is to be expected. Believers are to persevere in holiness and in spreading the gospel, by looking forward to the glorious, eternal future when sin and death will be no more.

UNIT 9: THE PERFECTED KINGDOM

The end of evil and the beginning of eternity: the final book of the Bible, Revelation, is a series of visions given to the apostle John which conveys a message through symbols to strengthen believers.

There is a vision of a lamb on a throne in Heaven which encourages believers to know that though this world is full of evil there is someone in charge, Jesus, who gave his life for his people. Next there is a series of visions of seals, trumpets, and bowls which depict the warmongering, economic instability and death that will mark every age until Christ returns. Then there is the final judgment when all evil and opposition to God will be totally and finally destroyed. And finally, there is the glorious picture of the new creation; God’s perfect kingdom where there will be no sin, or sadness or death.

We see how God’s promise to Abraham is fully and finally fulfilled: God’s people from all nations will live in God’s place, the new creation, and enjoy his rule and the blessing of his presence eternally. So we pray ‘Come Lord Jesus’ and while we wait ask for ‘the grace of the Lord be with God’s people Amen’.

“The Kingdom of God is God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing.”

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How a Biblical Theology of Work Can Transform Your Life: Interview with Dr. Jim Hamilton

Biblical Theology of Work - Dr James Hamilton

Understanding how key biblical themes develop over time is essential for reading the Bible correctly and living faithfully.

One biblical theological theme that can transform our daily lives and identities is that of work. To discuss how a biblical theology of work can transform our work lives, I conversed with Dr. James Hamilton, author of a new book in the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series from Crossway called Work and Our Labor in the Lord.

Dr. Hamilton is the Professor of Biblical Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of several books, including God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment and What is Biblical Theology? among other commentaries and books on biblical theology. He currently serves as preaching pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church in Louisville, KY in addition to responsibilities at Southern Seminary. The transcript of our conversation is below.


Kevin Halloran: On the first page of Work and Our Labor in the Lord, you write this: “Biblical theology…is the attempt to understand and embrace the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors…to attempt to understand their worldview.” Can you explain how biblical theology shapes our worldview and why that’s so important?

Dr. James Hamilton: I can do that easily by contrasting it with a movie I watched last night on an airplane: Interstellar.

If you’ve seen this movie, the underlying premise—which I found so unbelievable that it took away from my enjoyment of the movie—is that our world cannot sustain life anymore. The earth is dying and there is a new Dust Bowl coming, and no one will be able to survive on earth. That kind of eschatology (or understanding of where things are going) then informs the work people try to do in the movie, and they actually think that they are trying to save the world—to save humanity. They accomplish it through supernatural feats of the manipulation of time, and it involves relativity and gravity (it’s a little complex, but honestly it was unbelievable).

Our worldview is the big story of where things came from, what we understand to be wrong, how we understand those things might get better, and where everything is going in the end—it is going to inform all of our lives. I think the Bible’s account of all those things—in spite of the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, and the so-called ‘sexual revolution’—is still the most compelling one available.

KH: The part of your book that most drove me to worship was the chapter on creation. It made me ponder the wisdom and glory of God in creating work. My question is this: why did God ultimately create work?

Dr. James Hamilton: Life would be pretty slow if we didn’t have any tasks to do… In the very good world prior to the fall, I don’t think we would know the frustrations, difficulties, feelings of lethargy, and lack of desire to do work. Minus all of the negative effects of sin, God created a world where there would be a rhythm of diligent labor followed by rest, and then more diligent labor where you actually accomplish something. You actually get to see something completed.

I can remember years ago, Elizabeth Elliot contrasted sweeping the floor with writing a book. She said, sometimes I really love to sweep a floor because I can see the fruits of my work. Whereas, if I sit down to write, I might not see that book for years. It’s great to mow the grass and see the fruits of our labor and see the lawn nice and trimmed. Work is a gratifying thing; it can be a physically exhilarating thing to engage in, depending on what kind of work we are talking about. And so, this may sound strange, but work is a gift, a mercy from God, something good that he created for us to engage in.

Work is a gift, a mercy from God, something good that he created for us to engage in.

KH: Like you express in the book, working is a way to reflect our working God. He created six days and rested on the seventh. That being said, what are some misconceptions Christians have about work that a biblical theology of work can clear up?

Dr. James Hamilton: I don’t know how widespread these misconceptions are, but I think people tend to think it stems from the judgment spoken on Adam’s work in Genesis 3:17–19. This overshadows the fact that Adam was supposed to work and keep the garden in Genesis 2:15 prior to the fall. Then their own experience of work being frustrating and perhaps misreadings of the book of Ecclesiastes where “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity” can lead people to the conclusion that the world is going to burn, my work doesn’t matter. They might also misinterpret that poem that concludes ‘only what’s done for Christ will last’—this kind of idea.

The Bible teaches that everything that we do has value and that our labor in the Lord, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15:58, [and I do in] the subtitle of the book, is not in vain. This is because we are created in the image and likeness of God and we are to bring God’s character to bear on all creation in everything that we do.

KH: In addition to clearing up negative misconceptions of work, biblical theology also provides a positive power for believers as they think about work. How might a biblical theology of work encourage someone perpetually discouraged in his or her work?

Dr. James Hamilton: The Scriptures encourage us that, ultimately, we work for the Lord—[as] that classic statement in Colossians 3 says, “Whatever you do work at it with all your heart as for the Lord and not for men.” Discouragement tends to come from, maybe an overbearing boss who never says anything positive; a lack of acclaim or commendation… We counter that by remembering that ultimately we are working for the Lord and not for men. There’s an audience of one that I’m seeking to please.

In the new heavens and new earth, we’re not going to be these cloudy, wispy ghosts, we are going to be resurrected bodies in the new heavens and new earth, engaged in grand projects for the glory of God.

The whole Bible’s framework teaches that work was in the garden and continues after the fall. Now that Christ has come, there’s a possibility for the redemption even for the things that we engage in, and our hearts are renewed. We come at this as a remade humanity. In the new heavens and new earth, we’re not going to be these cloudy, wispy ghosts, we are going to be resurrected bodies in the new heavens and new earth, engaged in grand projects for the glory of God. If we have this broader framework, it will reinforce and inform the idea that we are really working for God’s glory.

KH: My last question might be a challenge because you wrote an entire book on the subject, but if you had to give a one-minute biblical theology of work, how would you do it?

Dr. James Hamilton: I would start with what Jesus said in John 10, “My Father is working until now and I am working.” A biblical theology of work starts with the idea that God is a worker. From there, I would say that as those made in the image and likeness of God, we are made to work. We are going to be most satisfied and most fulfilled when we are doing what we were created to do. From there, I would walk through that big story where God created good work in the garden. That work was judged as the result of man’s sin—it was made more difficult—and yet the man was mercifully allowed to do that work. The warning was that in the day you eat of it, you will die. He died spiritually, but I think through God’s words, he began to trust the Lord and he began to continue his work.

Christ came and has set in motion the renewal of all things in such a way that we live as children of God. We live in a manner worthy of the gospel in everything we do. I think that in all kinds of jobs there are ways to lay down our lives to benefit other people spiritually, and we work in anticipation of a renewal of all things when all tears will be wiped away.

When as the Lord says through the prophet Isaiah, “Would that I had thorns to battle” (Isaiah 27:4)—there will be no more thorns and thistles on the ground, and all things will be made new, and we will know as we are known, and we will be the Lord’s.

KH: Thank you Dr. Hamilton for the time to discuss Work and Our Labor in the Lord.

The Apologetic Power of Biblical Theology

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Biblical theology helps us understand how God’s revelation in Scripture develops over the course of time. It is a vital discipline to help us understand how to think and live as biblically-minded Christians. We must know where we’ve come from and where we are headed to challenge erroneous thinking in this present age.

Dr. Peter Adam in the article “Preaching and Biblical Theology” (in the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology) builds on this idea and explains why biblical theology is an effective apologetic:

It is not possible to ‘take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ’ (2 Cor. 10:5) without teaching a biblical world view, and we cannot do this without biblical theology. We cannot help people to address the pervasive worldviews of humanism, postmodernity, secularism, materialism and pantheism by providing them with a few helpful texts or pious ideas. They must begin to ‘think God’s thoughts after him’, and they do this by learning the shape of God’s self-revelation in history and in the Bible. This biblical theology is the best corrective for false worldviews, just as it is the best corrective for destructive heresy.

By teaching and using biblical theology in all our Bible teaching we point people to the objective and historical reality of God’s progressive and purposeful revelation. Through this revelation, God speaks a transcendent message to people in every age, and shapes their minds, hearts and lives so that they can know and serve him, and speak his truth to others.

It is true that biblical theology is at the foundation of all proper biblical interpretation. We need to understand the connections between each smaller part of Scripture with the whole, the development of biblical themes, and how Scripture culminates in Christ for clarity in our reading and preaching of the Bible.

“We can use biblical theology to preach the whole Christ and the whole gospel from the whole Bible.” —Peter Adam

Only then can we follow Peter Adam’s words and “use biblical theology to preach the whole Christ and the whole gospel from the whole Bible.” And that, when done properly, is a powerful apologetic in a confused world.

Read the full article online: Preaching and Biblical Theology.

2 Questions for Keeping Christ the Focus of Your Preaching

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The call of every Christian preacher and evangelist is to preach Christ—to let a lost and dying world know the judgment due to us and the hope the Savior offers. But how can one best do that?

In Telling the Truth: Evangelizing Postmoderns, Colin Smith shares two helpful questions in his essay “Keeping Christ Central in Preaching”:

If Christ is the theme of all the Scriptures, then those who are called to preach and teach the Bible must work hard to make sure that Christ is the focus of their teaching and preaching.

There are two questions that I have found helpful in pursuing this goal:

(1) What does this tell me about the human condition? and

(2) What does this tell me about God and his provision for the human condition in Jesus Christ?

The first question will show the need of the cross; the second will show the relevance of the cross. The first will humble me before God; the second will give me hope in God.

I came to these questions by reflecting on the opening sentence of Calvin’s Institutes: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists in two parts: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves” (1.1.1). If this is true, then in any part of the Scripture we should find these things.

These are two questions worthy of writing on a post-it note for the inside cover of your Bible.

Christ is the focus of the Scriptures; and as we contemplate our own great need for Him and see what God has done through Christ by the Spirit, we will be better able to communicate Him and His life-changing message to a postmodern world.

Related: A Simple Guide for Seeing How the Old Testament Points to Jesus Christ

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God’s Word: Setting Hearts—and Idols—on Fire!

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“So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.”

Those are the words recorded by Luke in Acts 19:20. These words describe what we are trying to do all over the world: make God’s Word spread widely with power!

Screen-Shot-2015-03-31-at-4.11.57-PM-300x198Gustin, one of the pastors we train in Indonesia, is doing his part to make this happen. Every six months Gustin makes a grueling 14-hour trip from his remote island to receive training in Training National Trainers (TNT), and his efforts are not in vain.

He’s already put his training into practice by preaching evangelistically to a group of animists near where he lives. Animists, like the ones Gustin ministers to, combine spirit worship with some elements of Christianity for a hodge-podge of beliefs that fall way short of Scripture and the true Gospel.                                                                                                                          Gustin (on the left) during a TNT session.

Even so, they do know several stories from Genesis. Gustin decided to use this fact—and the training in Genesis he had received—to his advantage by preaching the gospel to them from the biblical stories they already knew.

Screen-Shot-2015-04-01-at-11.54.28-AM-300x199Gustin preached from Genesis 3 that Christ is the promised seed of Eve who would crush the serpent’s head. He explained from Genesis 4 that the blood sacrifice Abel made points to our need for a blood sacrifice for our sins and that Christ is that blood sacrifice.

As soon as these animists heard the true Gospel, they believed!

After they saw the light and professed Christ, they took their wooden carvings, prayer belts and other mementos from their animist past, piled them up, and set them ablaze. This burning ceremony celebrated the amazing work of God in their lives by destroying tokens from their previous life.

God’s Word is spreading widely with great power in Indonesia!

God is using the Training National Trainers program in amazing ways to equip men like Gustin to reach all sorts of people—including former spirit-worshipping animists. Praise be to God!

Thank you for your partnership in ministry!

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Craig Parro
President of Leadership Resources

PS: Another TNT group in Indonesia is short of funding. Please pray with us that we don’t have to shut down the group and that God would provide the necessary funding.

A special gift this month will go a long way in keeping this movement going.

 

 

 

10 Recommended Books on Biblical Theology

Many see the Bible as a compilation of books that are loosely related, with no coherent thread holding them together.

Jesus Himself said He is that thread of Scripture (see John 5:39-40; Luke 24:27). When we understand this, our biblical understanding grows. We no longer see the Bible as a collection of random books, but as one book with one story that all testifies about Jesus Christ. The study of this idea is called biblical theology, and it is essential for the health of the church and the task of expository preaching.

When we teach biblical theology to pastors in the Fellowship of the Word program, we often hear comments like that of one trainee in east Asia: “Learning Biblical Theology has provided a major breakthrough for me and the church – a total change in our framework.

Our goal with our list below is not to be comprehensive, but give a sampling of the best biblical theology books available. May God cause many more “breakthroughs” to happen as people understand His Word at a deeper level!

You may also be interested in: 10 Recommended Books on Expository Preaching

q1. God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible by Vaughan Roberts

An Easy-to-Read Introduction to Biblical Theology

Sixty-six books written by forty people over nearly 2,000 years, in two languages and several different genres. A worldwide bestseller published in countless sizes and bindings, translations and languages. Sworn by in court, fought over by religious people, quoted in arguments. The Bible is clearly no ordinary book. How can you begin to read and understand it as a whole? In this excellent overview, Vaughan Roberts gives you the big picture–showing how the different parts of the Bible fit together under the theme of the kingdom of God. He provides both the encouragement and the tools to help you read the Bible with confidence and understanding. And he points you to the Bible’s supreme subject, Jesus Christ, and the salvation God offers through him.

Watch or Download: Free Online Video Course of God’s Big Picture

Graeme-Goldsworthy-Gospel-and-Kingdom2. Gospel and Kingdom by Graeme Goldsworthy

A Great Introduction to Biblical Theology

Gospel and Kingdom is concerned with finding the gospel principles inherent in the Pentateuch and historical books of the Old Testament. In an engaging and straightforward style, Graeme Goldsworthy explains the nature and contents of the Old Testament as seen within the Bible as a whole and sets out clear principles for interpreting it accurately for today.

q3. Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching by Graeme Goldsworthy

Biblical Theology as it relates to Preaching

While strong, gospel-centered preaching abounds, many Christian pastors and lay preachers find it difficult to preach meaningfully from the Old Testament. This practical handbook offers help. Graeme Goldsworthy teaches the basics of preaching the whole Bible in a consistently Christ-centered way.

Goldsworthy first examines the Bible, biblical theology, and preaching and shows how they relate in the preparation of Christ-centered sermons. He then applies the biblical-theological method to the various types of literature found in the Bible, drawing out their contributions to expository preaching focused on the person and work of Christ.

Clear, complete, and immediately applicable, this volume will become a fundamental text for teachers, pastors, and students preparing for ministry.

q4. Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church: A Guide for Ministry (9Marks) by Michael Lawrence

Biblical Theology as it relates to Ministry in the Church

Capitol Hill Baptist Church associate pastor Michael Lawrence contributes to the IXMarks series as he centers on the practical importance of biblical theology to ministry. He begins with an examination of a pastor’s tools of the trade: exegesis and biblical and systematic theology. The book distinguishes between the power of narrative in biblical theology and the power of application in systematic theology, but also emphasizes the importance of their collaboration in ministry.

Having laid the foundation for pastoral ministry, Lawrence uses the three tools to build a biblical theology, telling the entire story of the Bible from five different angles. He puts biblical theology to work in four areas: counseling, missions, caring for the poor, and church/state relations. Rich in application and practical insight, this book will equip pastors and church leaders to think, preach, and do ministry through the framework of biblical theology.

q5. Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament by Christopher J. H. Wright

Wright focuses on the person and mission of Jesus as described in the Old Testament

We cannot know Jesus without knowing his story. Today the debate over who Jesus is rages on. Has the Bible bound Christians to a narrow and mistaken notion of Jesus? Should we listen to other gospels, other sayings of Jesus, that enlarge and correct a mistaken story? Is the real Jesus entangled in a web of the church’s Scripture, awaiting liberation from our childhood faith so he might speak to our contemporary pluralistic world? To answer these questions we need to know what story Jesus claimed for himself. Christopher Wright is convinced that Jesus’ own story is rooted in the story of Israel. In this book he traces the life of Christ as it is illuminated by the Old Testament. And he describes God’s design for Israel as it is fulfilled in the story of Jesus.

q6. The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament by Edmund Clowney

A popular scholarly treatment of Christ in the Old Testament

Have you ever wondered what Christ said to his disciples on the Emmaus road—making their hearts burn? Follow Ed Clowney through the Old Testament as he shows how all the Scriptures point to Christ.

As you explore Old Testament characters and events, you’ll be inspired by the many specific insights they give us into Jesus’ character and lordship.

7. Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments by Geerhardus Vos

A classic work (originally published in 1948) that broke ground in the study of Biblical Theology from “The Father of Reformed Biblical Theology”.

The aim of this book is no less than to provide an account of the unfolding of the mind of God in history, through the successive agents of his special revelation. Vos handles this under three main divisions: the Mosaic epoch of revelation, the prophetic epoch of revelation, and the New Testament. Such an historical approach is not meant to supplant the work of the systematic theologian; nevertheless, the Christian gospel is inextricably bound up with history, and the biblical theologian thus seeks to highlight the uniqueness of each biblical document in that succession. The rich variety of Scripture is discovered anew as the progressive development of biblical themes is explicated.

8. New Dictionary of Biblical Theology: Exploring the Unity & Diversity of Scripture edited by Brian S. Rosner, T. Desmond Alexander, Graeme Goldsworthy, D. A. Carson

qIf you only buy one of these books, you should seriously consider this comprehensive reference work.

The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology will quickly establish itself as an essential building block of every library of basic biblical reference books. This work takes readers to a higher vantage point where they can view the thematic terrain of the Bible in its canonical wholeness. At the heart of this work is an A-to-Z encyclopedia of over 200 key biblical-theological themes such as atonement, creation, eschatology, Israel, Jesus Christ, the kingdom of God, redemption, suffering, wisdom and worship. Students and communicators of the Bible will be well served by articles exploring the theology of each biblical book. And for those interested in the wider discipline of biblical theology, major articles explore foundational issues such as the history of biblical theology, the challenges raised against biblical theology, and the unity and diversity of Scripture. Over 120 contributors drawn from the front ranks of biblical scholarship in the English-speaking world make the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology a work of distinction and a benchmark of evangelical biblical theology at the turn of the twenty-first century.

q9. The Faith of Israel: A Theological Survey of the Old Testament by William J. Dumbrell

This work will open up the Old Testament for you. 

For years, William Dumbrell’s comprehensive survey, The Faith of Israel, has introduced students and pastors to the theological emphases of the Old Testament. Dumbrell traces the theological movement of each Old Testament book through the Hebrew canonical sequence of Law, Prophets, and Writings, “the manner in which Israel presented her faith.” He not only brings forth insightful points and themes within each book, but he also makes original and refreshing connections to themes in other Old Testament books. This in turn leads to a discussion of the theology of the entire Old Testament canon.

10. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament edited by D.A. Carson and G.K. Beale

This academic reference book will help readers understand the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament.

Readers of the New Testament often encounter quotes or allusions to Old Testament stories and prophecies that are unfamiliar or obscure. In order to fully understand the teachings of Jesus and his followers, it is important to understand the large body of Scripture that preceded and informed their thinking. Leading evangelical scholars G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson have brought together a distinguished team to provide readers with a comprehensive commentary on Old Testament quotations, allusions, and echoes that appear from Matthew through Revelation. College and seminary students, pastors, scholars, and interested lay readers will want to add this unique commentary to their reference libraries.

Bonus Books:

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Jesus, Creation, and Your Purpose Here on Earth

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This is part of a series on seeing how the Old Testament points to Jesus Christ. Read Part One.

There are some questions about life that every human being asks:

  • Where did this world come from, and how did it come to be the way it is?
  • Is there a God?
  • If so, who is he?
  • Is there something special about human beings, or are they just like the animals?
  • What is our purpose in life here on earth?

As Christians, it is crucial to know what the Bible has to say. Genesis 1:1-2:3, one of the most helpful passages addressing these questions is also one of the most familiar passages in the Bible–which means its awesome truths can be overlooked and not fully contemplated.

Genesis 1:1 starts off with the famous words, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” That verse answers the first two questions from above and starts to answer the third–we know that God is a Creator God. This creator God existed before creation and created the universe out of nothing, or ex nihilo.

One of the striking features about the creation account is that God is the central figure in creation. God created the heavens and the earth by merely opening His mouth. During days one through six of creation, God created the heavens, the earth, made light, the sea and sky, and filled His beautiful creation with plants, animals, lights and luminaries, and the pinnacle of His creation, man, whom He made in His own image. While God’s conclusion for His work days 1-5 was to declare His work “good” (Genesis 1:410121825), the conclusion for the day God made man was “very good” (Genesis 1:31, emphasis added). Creating mankind in His own image shows that we have dignity above the rest of creation, capacity for reflecting God’s image as image-bearers, and responsibility to work and keep God’s good creation.

Unfortunately since the fall of man, we have corrupted God’s creation by putting ourselves at the center of the story instead of giving God His proper place. Men have suppressed the truth in unrighteousness, darkening their hearts, and dishonoring God by rejecting His eternal power and divine nature shown at creation (Romans 1:18-21).

The One at the Center

This rejection of God is also a rejection of His Son, Jesus Christ. The New Testament reveals that Jesus Christ is the creator of all things and at the center of the story:

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him (Colossians 1:16).

We were created by Jesus Christ and for Jesus Christ. Our purpose in life is totally wrapped up in who Jesus Christ is and what He has done for us. Yet, if you’re like me, your life can quickly become wrapped up in your own interests and pursuits instead of our Creator. I liked how, Michael Horton describes this tendency in his book Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church:

There is the tendency to make God a supporting character in our own life movie rather than to be rewritten as new characters in God’s drama of redemption.1

Who’s the Main Character in Your Life?

When you think of telling the story of your life, what role does God have? Is He a small, supporting character that can fade into the background and easily be forgotten, or is He the most important person and influence in your life? How would your life’s movie look if Christ wasn’t in it? Drastically different? Eerily the same?

Living a Christ-centered life is not easy. The default setting of my heart is to put myself on the throne of my life instead of putting God on the throne, His proper place. This tendency even weaves its way into ministry. I like to think about who I have touched, what I have done for God, or what I will do for God instead of remembering what He has done for me and that my life is all about Him. And when I forget my purpose in God’s greater story, I lose sight of my purpose on earth. Michael Horton diagnoses this problem and prescribes the remedy:

When we try to fit God into our life movie, the plot is all wrong–and not just wrong, but trivial. When we are pulled out of our own drama and cast as characters in his unfolding plot, we become part of the greatest story ever told. It is through God’s Word of judgment (law) and salvation (gospel) that we are transferred from our own pointless scripts and inserted into the grand narrative that revolves around Jesus Christ.2

When we are tempted to care too much about ourselves, our busy schedules, our relationships, and even our suffering–we must remember the gospel. We must remember that God created the world and everything in it for Himself and that our lives find their purpose in Him. Christ died on the cross to forgive us for putting ourselves on the throne, and gave us new hearts that would desire to see Him exalted and put in the proper place.

We must cling to the historical facts of the life, death, and resurrection of our Living Savior and know that by God’s grace we play a small role in the greatest story ever told of God reconciling sinful humanity to Himself through His Son Jesus Christ.

Only by remembering our part in God’s Great Story will we enter the rest that we were created for that God modeled on creation’s seventh day. This rest and the peace God provides will fill our hearts with thankfulness and energy to live out our God-given purposes here on earth for His glory.

Related Links:

1 Michael Horton in Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, page 19.

2 Ibid, page 98.

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    The mission of Leadership Resources is to launch pastoral training movements worldwide. This blog shares articles, resources, and updates from staff of God’s work around the world through our training. If you’re new to our blog, start here.

     


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