Why Shepherds?

Two distinct groups of people received notification that Jesus was born.

The wisemen we understand because… they were wise! And they had something to give the infant King. Three somethings: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold, the fitting mineral for a king; frankincense, the fitting incense for worship; and myrrh, the fitting perfume for embalming a body. OK, the last one may have had Joseph and Mary wondering, but I digress.

In reality, despite the many manger scenes to the contrary, the wisemen, who had some distance to travel once they recognized that a king had been born in Judea, were late arriving. The first group to show up was a collection of local shepherds.

Shepherds in first century Judea were hired workers, poor men with little future. Which is precisely why the angel announced the Messiah’s birth to them, conventional wisdom says. They fit what we now understand as Jesus’s purpose for coming to earth. He’s for the Everyman.

Maybe. Maybe that’s why the shepherds received the angelic announcement that Christ had been born. Kind of a bookend from the poor side that, along with the opposite rich wisemen, would encompass people of every station in life. It’s a good theory.

The shepherds also represented the people who weren’t doing all the religious ceremonies to make themselves acceptable to God. So some scholars have speculated that’s why they got picked.

They were lowly, they were without pretense as to their standing before God, they were poor.

All this might be true, but I think there’s something else more important, and it has to do with why these shepherds received the announcement and not another set, say from Bethel: they believed.

The angel of the LORD stood in front of them and God’s Shekinah, His glory, shone around them. Needless to say, they reacted like virtually everyone else who had an encounter with an angel: they just about passed out with fear. They may have fallen on their faces, covered their heads with their arms, ducked behind the nearest boulder. Anything to ward off this person of obvious power.

Before anything else, the angel calmed them down. They didn’t have any reason to fear him or his message. In fact he’d come to give them great news. And not just for them, but for, well, everyone. Then the announcement:

today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

He didn’t stop there. He went on to give them a sign. A strange sign, I think. I mean, God’s glory shining around them seems like a pretty powerful sign.

    More of that, please. Aimed at those owners of the vineyard just the other side of the plateau who chased away our flocks last week. They need a good dose of God’s awesome power, I’d think! Let them quake in their sandals for a few minutes. Or an hour. Just saying.

But no. The sign the angel passed along provided identifying features that would allow them to find the newborn baby. What would mark Him as different from any other baby that might be born that same night? Well, for one thing, He would be wrapped in cloths.

Some scholars say that was normal—babies in those days were all wrapped in cloths; no cute little baby outfits for them. Some say the cloths were akin to the strips used to wrap a body in preparation for burial—definitely out of the ordinary. Not sure, but I tend to lean toward the idea that this was uncommon. Otherwise, why mention it as an identifying feature? It would be like saying today, you’ll find the baby wrapped in a baby blanket.

    Well, thanks very much for all that help distinguishing this baby from all other babies!!

No matter, the second part of the sign the angel gave is irrefutably unique. The baby they’d be looking for was in a manger. Clearly, a feeding trough was not the normal bed for a newborn. Find the manger holding an infant, wrapped in cloths, and you’ve found the Christ Child.

The_Shepherds011What does all this have to do with the shepherds believing?

I mean, they saw the angel and God’s glory and then a host of other angels praising God. They were eyewitnesses.

To the announcement.

They still had to respond to what they heard. They could have sat around and debated what they’d just experienced. They could have discussed whether or not the message was true or whether any parent in their right mind would put a baby in a feeding trough.

Apparently they did none of those things. Rather they made the decision to track down this baby. They knew exactly what to look for.

So they’d need to knock on a few doors, make a few inquiries and find out what woman may have just given birth. Then they’d stop by and check out the sleeping quarters of the little guy. Shouldn’t be too hard.

I wonder how many doors got slammed in their faces. How many times they got yelled at, or ignored. But they persisted.

No matter how many people they roused from their sleep or disturbed with their questions, they needed to go to see “this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us” (Luke 2:15b).

They determined to “go straight to Bethlehem.” They did not doubt that “this thing” had really happened. They didn’t dismiss the announcement as something not intended for them.

    Some mistake. The angels got the wrong field. In fact they were probably looking for the palace. It’s a few miles west. Up the hill. Can’t miss it.

No, the shepherds believed that Messiah was born that very day, that God had made it known to them, and that they could find this baby based on the sign given them by the angel. So they went. No hesitation.

They put feet to their belief. And when they found Jesus, “they made know the statement which had been told them about this Child” (Luke 2:17).

Two reactions to their announcement: “all who heard it wondered.” Let the debate begin!

“Do you think they really saw an angel?”

“How else would they have known a baby was born?”

“But they’re shepherds!”

“Yeah, but what they said matches what we’re seeing here—a baby in a manger! Who would make that up?”

“Maybe they saw the baby first and decided to claim some oracle told them about it.”

“But why would they do that?”

And on and on.

The second reaction was Mary’s. She treasured what they said, pondering it all in her heart.

She’d take this one bit of evidence, this second declaration that her child was special, this account delivered by shepherds who said they saw an angel, just as she had when she first learned about this little boy she’d just brought into the world.

She’d think about it all, and as the years went by, in the end, after Christ’s resurrection, she’d add her faith to that of the shepherds.

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Published in: on December 23, 2016 at 2:36 pm  Comments (8)  
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  1. The pastor of my church has been doing a sermon series on this passage for the last few weeks, and started with this very question. The answer he gave, based on his reading of theologians and historians who have made their arguments for this position (which I feel is reasonable speculation but would not want to put more significant weight on), is that the “shepherds” were in fact priests keeping the Temple flocks, and had themselves wrapped lambs in cloths and laid them in mangers to preserve them from injury or blemish that would make them unsuitable for sacrificing.

    And to take the point a bit farther than my pastor did, if this was in fact the case (or even if they weren’t priests themselves but the flocks were still associated with the Temple), then representatives of all three of the Messiah’s offices (“prophet, priest, and king”) came to him to mark the beginning of his life.

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    • Thanks for adding this perspective Jonathan. I’ve heard this idea before, and of course it’s possible. It is kind of cool to think about. The thing that strikes me, though, is that apparently no one responded to the witness of the shepherds . . . except perhaps Mary.

      I’ve wondered if, when Jesus started His public ministry if any of those shepherds were still living, if any of them heard Him teach or watched Him heal. Did they try to follow the life of the babe in the manger, or did they simply rejoice because of the good news. And then, live lives in service to the king? Perhaps they’d been doing that already.

      So interesting to think about this band of men.

      Becky

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      • Even if they were priests, I suspect that “midnight watch on the sheepfold” was the sort of job that unpopular or very junior priests got. (Though since we know from the account of the birth of John that some priestly jobs were assigned by lot, perhaps not.)

        Since this story is told by Luke, after he “carefully investigated,” I think that it’s likely that some of the shepherds connected this birth with Jesus’ later life, at least at some point. But until that time I suspect that they assumed he was killed in Herod’s purge—and in their shoes I don’t think I’d have had enough presence of mind to ask Mary’s or Joseph’s name, let alone where they were from, which would have made keeping up with them later (particularly after going into hiding for several years) difficult.

        As you say, the diversity of responses is interesting, and it’s illuminating as to the hearts of the people: the shepherds heard the Good News and immediately obeyed, even after the terrifying angels had left, and then praised God and spread the news as widely as they could; Mary “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” despite probably not getting enough sleep (while I don’t have any direct experience with either parenthood or long journeys on foot, little and fragmented sleep would fit the stories I’ve heard, and on top of everything the shepherds visited in the middle of the night …), but the townspeople “were amazed” but didn’t bother to see for themselves.

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  2. Ahh, well said. I love how Mary treasured that faith in her heart.

    There are some researchers who suggest “swaddling cloths” is based on customs of the time where a baby was salted and wrapped, partially to establish paternity. So a great insult would be to say to someone, “you were not swaddled at birth.”

    I’m not sure how true that is, but in Ezekiel 16:4-5 we do have, ” And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to supple thee; thou wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all. None eye pitied thee, to do any of these unto thee, to have compassion upon thee; but thou wast cast out in the open field, to the lothing of thy person, in the day that thou wast born.”

    I like the customs however, the way we were literally viewed as the “salt of the earth” and so salted as babies. It was probably a wise way to stem off infection, too.

    In that context the swaddling cloths would take on profound meaning for the shepherds, because they establish paternity, so born of a virgin and yet wrapped in swaddling cloths.

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    • Yes, the impact the shepherds had on Mary really came home to me for the first time.

      Thanks for adding the research details, IB. Always interesting to learn more about what the culture may have been like back then.

      Becky

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  3. But wait… there’s more! “Bethlehem” means “house of bread.” Sheep eat from a manger. Jesus identified himself as the living bread that came down from heaven and as the bread of life. Who better than a shepherd to grasp that sign of a Savior, Christ the Lord, placed in a manger? Have a wonderful Christmas. J.

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    • That’s a cool connection, but probably just for us since the people present at Jesus’s birth didn’t know He’d identify Himself as the living bread. But when you think about manna sent from heaven, Jesus sent from heaven, and placed in a feeding trough somewhere in The House Of Bread, it does seem like some dots are forming a picture. 😉

      Becky

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