The Great Shepherd

by Lois Tverberg

I am the good shepherd, and I know my own and my own know me, even as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. – John 10:14

ShepherdJesus says “I am the good shepherd” in John’s gospel, and we may not realize that the image of the “shepherd” as the Messiah is all over the Old Testament, in Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Zechariah and other books. In the next few devotionals we will look at what these Messianic prophecies said about Jesus.

What is a “good shepherd”? In his classic book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, (1) Phillip Keller describes the difference between the good and bad shepherd, and the lesson he learned:

In memory I can still see one of the sheep ranches in our district which was operated by a tenant sheepman. He ought never to have been allowed to keep sheep. He gave little or no time to his flock. Every year these poor creatures were forced to gnaw away at bare brown fields and impoverished pastures. Shelter to safeguard and protect the suffering sheep from storms and blizzards was scanty and inadequate. In their thin, weak and diseased condition these poor sheep were a pathetic sight. To all their distress, the heartless, selfish owner seemed utterly callous and indifferent.

I never looked at those sheep without an acute awareness that this was a precise picture of those wretched old taskmasters, Sin and Satan, on their derelict ranch — scoffing at the plight of those within their power. It is a picture of the pathetic people of the world over who have not known what it is to belong to the Good Shepherd, who suffer instead under sin and Satan. How amazing it is that individual men and women vehemently refuse and reject the claims of Christ on their lives. He came to set men free of their own sins, their own selves, their own fears. Those so liberated loved Him with fierce loyalty. It is this One who insists that He was the Good Shepherd, the understanding Shepherd, the concerned Shepherd who cares enough to seek out and save and restore lost men and women.

(1) Phillip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, 1996, Zondervan, ISBN 0-310-21435-1. The passages above are from Chapter 1, “The Lord is My Shepherd.”


Kings From Distant Lands

by Lois Tverberg

May he also rule from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. Let the nomads of the desert bow before him, and his enemies lick the dust. Let the kings of Tarshish and of the islands bring presents; the kings of Sheba and Seba offer gifts. And let all kings bow down before him, all nations serve him. – Psalms 72:8-11

When we read about the magi, it is a mystery who they are and where they come from. But if we understand the culture of the ancient world and read some of the Old Testament prophesies about the Messianic King, we can find out where they came from, and the incredible statement it makes about Jesus.

Three Kings

When a powerful king arose in a country, other kings would give him gifts to form alliances and show friendliness toward that nation. The verses in today’s passage from Psalm 72 are from a messianic passage with a vision of the greatness of the coming Messianic king. It names two areas where royalty should come from to honor the king – “Tarshish and the islands,” and “Sheba and Seba.” Tarshish is in modern Spain, and the islands are that of the Mediterranean. Sheba and Seba are at the southeast end of the Arabian peninsula. In the ancient world of the near east, these two areas were the limits of the known world of that time. Tarshish was as far west as one could go, and Sheba, as far east. It was if all the royalty from the ends of the earth should come to worship the Messianic king.

This picture of a king so great that other kings would come to pay homage to him was used to describe the coming Messiah. The Messiah was the promised son of David who would have a great kingdom without end. Not only would he be king over Israel, he will be king over the whole world!

Today’s verse from Psalm 72 foretells that kings from distant lands would come to give him gifts, as the queen of Sheba did for Solomon. The wise men were most likely counselors to foreign kings who were acting as ambassadors for their gentile nations. If the wise men were bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh, they were most like like from Sheba or Seba, which is known for those things.

It is interesting how God was telling the ancient people something in language that they could understand that would one day mean something much greater. God was saying that peoples of every tongue and tribe and nation from all over the earth, including even the world they didn’t know existed, would someday worship the Messiah. As the gospel goes out to the far corners of the world, we only now see the magnificence of God’s plan.

Photo: Wonderlane

A Rabbi and a King

by Lois Tverberg

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
– John 10:10

Throughout the Old Testament, the promise is made of the coming Messiah, which primarily is a picture of a king who comes to reign. Even though Jesus speaks often of his kingdom, during his time on earth he really acts as a rabbi rather than acting anything like what we would expect of a king.


It is interesting that the Jewish picture of the Messianic King incorporates this idea of the king as a teacher of scripture, even though it doesn’t grasp that Jesus was the Messiah. According to one Jewish commentary,

The messianic king plays a unique role. He, as first citizen of the nation, is the living embodiment of Torah and how its statutes and holiness ennoble man… Holder of immense and almost unbridled power, he submits to the laws in the Scriptures which he carries with him at all times, he does not rest until his people know the rigors of Torah study and a discipline of honesty and morality in their personal and business lives that would earn sainthood in any other nation. It is the function of the king to safeguard the Torah and see to it that the people study it and obey its commandments. Nor is he to be considered above the Law – on the contrary, it is his duty to be a model of scrupulous adherence to the laws of the Torah. (Nosson Scherman, from the ArtScroll Commentary on Ruth, pp xxxi – xxxiii)

That sounds like Jesus, doesn’t it? He scrupulously adhered to God’s laws, and primarily concerned his earthly time with the teaching of the scriptures. He followed the Torah perfectly himself, and the goal of his ministry was to show people how to obediently live out God’s will.

Where does the Jewish commentator get this idea of king as teacher of the Torah? From God’s regulations for kings as they are described in Deuteronomy:

You shall surely set a king over you who your God chooses… When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees. Deut. 17:18-20

The idea behind the Jewish picture is that God wants his king to have as his chief aim to revere and obey God, and to teach the nation to obey him as well. He is not to seek glory in his own power and might, but to intentionally point people toward obedience to God.

In many cultures in the Ancient Near East, it was actually the king who made the laws, not the gods. He was said to have the authority of the gods in doing so, but the laws were understood to be his. Since God is the true King of Israel, he was the one who crafted its laws, and they were supreme. Rulers were to live humbly within God’s law, not beyond them like so many dictators and oppressors have done.

It is fascinating that Jesus fits this unusual requirement of the Messianic king so perfectly. With his death he redeemed his people and brought them into his kingdom, but his life was an example to teach them how to bring honor to God and have life as it was meant to be lived.

Photo: Lawrie Cate

Mighty God, Everlasting Father

by Lois Tverberg

Jesus Christ

And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

The main picture of the Messiah is that of God’s chosen king. The prophecies that predict this begin in the life of King David when God promises David that one of his descendants would have a kingdom without end. It says,

“When your days are over and you go to be with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. ” (1 Chronicles. 17:11-13)

One thing that Christians may overlook is that many prophecies about the Messiah do not expressly say that he would be God in the flesh. The term “Son of God” can refer to divinity, but also is occasionally used about angels and even people (see Genesis 6:2, Job 1:6 or Matt 5:9). In the passage above, it could be interpreted to mean that the messianic king would be so close to God that he would be like a son to him. In the life of Jesus we often look at his miracles as proof of divinity. But Moses and Elijah and others had done miracles before him, so even that isn’t conclusive.

An intriguing study is to find the passages in the Old Testament said that the messianic king who was coming would be God himself. One passage is below:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…
He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom. (Is 9:6-7)

It is very clear that the passage is talking about the messianic king from David’s line, and also very clear that it refers to him with the words “Mighty God,” and “Everlasting Father.” One other important thing to note is that there are several precedents for God walking on earth in the Old Testament scriptures. It says that God walked in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8), and that he visited Abraham and ate with him (Genesis 18:1-13). To see God walking again on earth as a man should not be a shock if he has done it before. The idea of the Messiah as God in the flesh is consistent with the witness of what the rest of scripture says about God’s ways.

We have hardly scratched the surface of the texts that point to the divinity of Christ, although some are indirect allusions. Jesus refers to many of them and applies them to himself, and his first followers would have recognized them. Jesus used many of them to proclaim himself as Messiah, and even God in the flesh.

Photo: Edal Anton Lefterov

A Little Leaven

by Lois Tverberg

“To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until it was all leavened.” Luke 13:20 – 21

In this very short parable, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to leaven in a favorable way, describing how a very small beginning point can increase invisibly until it has had a powerful impact on the whole thing.

bread in ovenIt is interesting that he uses “leaven” in a positive way, when it is uniformly used negatively throughout the Bible. This may be because of how leavening was done in biblical times. To make bread dough rise, a lump of old, fermented dough from the day before would be mixed into the new lump of dough. This deliberate contamination was what caused the bread to rise. Outside of this parable, the image is always negative.

Jesus inserts the detail that the kingdom is like “leaven, which a woman took and hid three seahs of flour.” A seah is a measure of about 6 liters, so three seahs would be 18 liters – almost 5 gallons in volume. This would be a large amount of flour, enough to make quite a feast. A small lump of leavened dough would have quite a powerful effect to be able to leaven all of that dough.

Interestingly, when Jesus speaks of the woman using three seahs of flower, He appears to be alluding to Genesis 18:6:

Sarah and bread“Abraham said to Sarah, ‘get three seahs of fine flour and knead it and bake some bread.”

The reference to “three seahs of flour” is unique to that particular story in the Old Testament about when God and his angels visiting Abraham and Sarah.

Jesus is most likely alluding to Sarah, who baked leavened bread and served it to these honored guests! By highlighting this unique detail, Jesus’ audience would have instantly remembered the well-known story about God coming to visit Abraham, the greatest hero of the Jewish people.

It appears that Jesus is using a rabbinic technique to “redeem” leaven in this case, hinting that Sarah used it in a good way when making a large batch of bread for their holy visitors. Probably no modern-day pastor would use such a subtle reference, but that technique is common in rabbinic teachings. References to Abraham and Sarah, some of the greatest heroes, were especially common.

Even though leaven is normally used negatively to describe contamination, as hypocrisy had infiltrated the Pharisees, we see here that Jesus is saying that it can have a positive side too. It shows us that God has the power to “contaminate” our evil world as leaven affects the whole loaf. He can stand back and watch as the tiniest numbers of people, can by his power, spread this “contamination” throughout the whole world.

Photo: Chmee2

Did Jesus Use Parables to Hide His Meaning?

by Lois Tverberg

“The sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell beside the road, and it was trampled under foot and the birds of the air ate it up. “Other seed fell on rocky soil, and as soon as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. “Other seed fell among the thorns; and the thorns grew up with it and choked it out. “Other seed fell into the good soil, and grew up, and produced a crop a hundred times as great.”

As He said these things, He would call out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” His disciples began questioning Him as to what this parable meant. And He said, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand. “Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. ” – Luke 8:4-10

Sometimes parables make us scratch our heads, and it can seem that Jesus was using them to deliberately confuse people. But even though they seem strange to us, they were a traditional teaching method that was always used to clarify rather than obscure.

Sower and SoilLooking at this passage in more depth, Jesus is actually explaining why his parables make sense to some people and not to others. Here he tells the parable of the sower – that the same seed that grows well in good soil does not take root on the path, and produces little in rocky or thorny ground. The seed is always good, but the soil of human hearts may or may not be. The reason people don’t understand Jesus’ teachings is not because he is hiding anything. The lack of understanding is a problem with the hearer, not the speaker.

The difficulty is beyond just the ability to understand, but to receive his teaching in order to obey it. In Hebrew, the word for hear, “shema,” also means to “obey.” In fact, almost every time the word “obey” is found in English, it has been translated from “shema.” That is how one can hear, but not “hear.”

Another way he says this is by his quotation from the Old Testament. He is quoting Isaiah 6:9-10, when God commissions Isaiah as a prophet to Israel. God did not send Isaiah to confuse the people with obscure teachings, but to clearly proclaim God’s word to them. But God says to Isaiah at his commission almost sarcastically,

Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed. – Isaiah 6:10

Really, God is not telling Isaiah to confuse the people, but to proclaim the truth, even though God knows his teaching will be rejected by many. Jesus is saying the same thing – that like the prophets he speaks to clarify God’s word, but from hardness of heart, many will not hear or obey him.

Photo: Sts. Konstantine and Helen Orthodox Church, Cluj, Romania.

Learning to Read

Child reading

by Mary Okkema

Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:3

Child readingBecoming like children has a different meaning for each one of us. It can mean playing on the floor, being spontaneous with sounds, learning to see things with childlike eyes, and many other things.

For me, learning to read Hebrew feels a lot like becoming a little child again. Since this language is new to me, there are still so many words that are unfamiliar, but those I do recognize seem to jump off the page. I want to study them in great detail, much like a child wants to look at every bug and stone and leaf while taking a walk.

Taking a closer look at Genesis in Hebrew, brings questions to mind like, “Haven’t we heard this word somewhere else in scripture?” It helps us understand how the disciples would have heard and recognized when Jesus was quoting Old Testament scripture, as He so often did in His teachings.

Familiar words like “ruach” (wind/spirit), “ha-aretz” (earth/ground), and “ha-shamaim” (heavens/sky) from Genesis 1 enhance our appreciation of the creation story. Adam’s rib gets a second glance knowing that the word for “rib” can also mean “one side.” We see the word “basar” (flesh) used for the filling in of Adam’s side, is the same word used for the substance of beings used for sacrifices like a bull or ram (as in Deuteronomy 12:27).

The story of the first temptation in Genesis 3 can also be so familiar in our minds, yet when we read it again we see that the word “nahash” (snake, serpent) is repeated over and over as the one doing the talking, and “Satan” is not mentioned. Could other animals speak too at this point?

Sometimes the Hebrew language can be much stronger as in the case of Genesis 3:15:

“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.” (NASV)

In English a “bruise” is a minor injury but the Hebrew word here, “shuph,” has the action of pounding, which is much more violent.

So as we begin to see, it can be a wonderfully rich experience to go back to the beginning and look for the Lord like a little child again.

Photocred: GMR Akash

Repainting DaVinci, Again

by Lois Tverberg

You are those who have stood by Me in My trials; and just as My Father has granted Me a kingdom, I grant you that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. – Luke 22:28-29

On our recent trip to Israel, we learned much of the latest thinking in archaeology. One picture that changed for us was that of the Last Supper. Many of us already know that DaVinci’s picture of the Last Supper is quite far from reality – that the disciples didn’t sit in chairs at a long table, eating fish for the Passover meal that required lamb and unleavened bread (See the related director’s article). It has been thought that they may have reclined at low seats around a U-shaped table, called a triclinium.


Scholars now suggest that no tables were present at all in the room! Instead, people reclined on the floor, and platters of food were placed on mats in the middle of each group. While platters are found commonly in excavations, tables are rare, and only in the homes of the very wealthy. Also, the word “table” isn’t present in the Greek text in the descriptions of Jesus reclining and eating – every time the gospels say that Jesus reclined, the phrase “at the table” is inserted in English where it isn’t present in Greek (almost 20 times in the NASB!) Apparently common people ate on the ground, as bedouins and some Africans do even today.

It is very interesting to look at where dining at tables occurs in the Bible. In the Old Testament, it is almost exclusively in royal palaces. David dined at King Saul’s table (I Sam. 20:29) and when he was king, he invited Mephibosheth, Saul’s grandson to sit at his table (2 Sam. 9:7). A dining table seems to be associated with royalty. It sometimes is a metaphor to mean to have a close relationship with a ruler, as when it speaks of “400 prophets of Asherah who eat at the table of Jezebel” (1 Kings 19:18) Sometimes, however, “table” is used metaphorically – as in Psalm 78:19, when the Israelites say, “Can the Lord prepare a table in the wilderness?” Here it is talking about God providing food for his people, and no physical table is involved at all.

If dining at tables is understood to be an activity of nobility, it sheds light on sayings in the gospels where a table (trapeza, in Greek) is actually mentioned in the Greek text. When Jesus initially refuses to heal the woman’s son, the woman says, “But even the dogs feed on the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matt 15:27). It sounds like she is comparing Jesus to a wealthy, royal man with a great feast-laden table, to herself, an insignificant little dog scrounging for a tiny crumb. The contrast makes her saying more powerful.

And now we have a better sense of what Jesus means when he speaks of “my table” in the passage above. He is pointing forward to his royal table in heaven, when he has taken on his full glory. There we will have communion and abundant fellowship with him and each other, dining at the table of the King of Kings.

Keepers of the Word

by Lois Tverberg

Now go, write it on a tablet before them, and inscribe it on a scroll,
That it may serve in the time to come, as a witness forever. –  Isaiah 30:8

Judaism from ancient times until today contains many practices that display great reverence for the written text of the Bible. The centerpiece of every synagogue is the “Torah Ark” – the cabinet that contains handwritten Torah scrolls covered in embroidered cloths, with a silver “crown” decorating each scroll. A silver pointer called a “yad” is used to keep place during the reading to avoid touching the text on the scroll with one’s hands.

The name of God is especially sacred, and never uttered allowed. Any paper that it is written on must not be destroyed, but must respectfully buried in a receptacle called a genizah (gen-nee-ZAH). As a result, all Jewish Torah scrolls and other scriptures are carefully buried and not simply thrown away with other waste, even if they are very warn out and need to be replaced.

CaveAll this extreme care may strike us as excessive. We may wonder how pen marks and paper can be so holy. But interestingly, it is this very practice that preserved the most important copies of the Bible ever found.

In the 1940s, many copies of the text of the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) were found near the Essene settlement at Qumran, near the Dead Sea. The scrolls had been carefully buried in caves used as “genizahs” around the time of Christ, and were over 1000 years older than the oldest known text of the Bible. Archaeologists were amazed at the fact that the biblical text had been preserved nearly flawlessly over 1000 years.

Though the ancient people did these things simply to revere God’s word, they were actually insuring that people could know its truth and reliability over two millennia later. Their dedication to the Lord even in the way they treated the manuscripts of the Bible had a wonderful outcome that they never could have foreseen. We should also know that what we do to bring honor to God, even if we don’t know why, can be used by God at a time and place later that we never would have dreamed.

More to Gideon’s Story

by Bruce Okkema

“Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised – I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.” And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew – a bowlful of water. Then Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece. This time make the fleece dry and the ground covered with dew.” That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew. – Judges 6:36 – 40

Many of us know that using the idiom “putting out your fleece” is a way of saying that a person is testing something. Those who are familiar with the Old Testament will know that the phrase comes from this story in Judges 6. Gideon knew how miraculous such a thing would be, because when there is dew in Israel it is very heavy and it drenches everything (see “The Refreshment of Dew”), yet when it is dry, it is bone dry. For the fleece to have been in the opposite condition as all of its surroundings could only have been so by the hand of God. Amazing as this was, there is much more to the story when we consider the whole context.

The Israelites had fallen into the worship of Baal and Asherah, gods of the peoples around them, and just as the Lord had warned, he had oppressed them for it. The Israelites had to resort to hiding in caves and mountain clefts to survive. They were totally dependent on their crops and animals, but yet for seven years in a row,

Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples invaded the country. They camped on the land and ruined the crops all the way to Gaza and did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys. They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count the men and their camels; they invaded the land to ravage it. (Judges. 6:3–5)

Imagine how terrifying this must have been! It was the Amalekites who had enraged the Lord by attacking the weak, and elderly, and stragglers as the Israelites were exiting Egypt, and they were known for their violence and cruelty. When the people cried to the Lord for mercy, he responded by reminding them of his delivery from their bondage in Egypt.

I brought you up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I snatched you from the power of Egypt and from the hand of all your oppressors. I drove them from before you and gave you their land. I said to you, `I am the LORD your God; do not worship the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you live.’ But you have not listened to me.” (Jdg. 6:9-10)

David Morris drinkingThere are so many more lessons one can learn from the land – just in this story! When you read the entire passage, notice all of the imagery intended to remind you of God’s faithfulness in the past, and all that points ahead to his redemption in the future: delivery from Egypt, the angel of the Lord, miraculous signs, a meal, unleavened bread, a rock, a staff, fire, a threshing floor, a wine press, tearing down the altars, sacrifices, shouts, shofars, a dream, and so much more than just a fleece.

It is good to be reminded of how patient, powerful, and faithful our God is. He will defeat the forces of evil whenever he chooses. But contrary to our way of thinking, he does it by using faithful people who may be “slow of speech,” or shepherds, or farmers, or the son of a carpenter. To his glory, he can make mighty warriors out of all of us who may be least in our families and from the weakest of clans (vs. 6:12, 15.)


Two views of the spring of Harod, where Gideon and his men camped. (Judges 7:1)


Please read all of Judges 6 & 7 with an attentive ear and you hear the history of Israel ringing through it.