Open your Bible and begin reading…anywhere.
Very soon you will encounter mention of shepherds or sheep. The Bible incorporates references to shepherds caring for sheep perhaps more than any other metaphor or picture of our relationship with the Lord. Psalm 23 is probably the best known example:
Psa. 23:1 The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
Psa. 23:2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside quiet waters.
Shepherds in ancient Israel were (and still are) humble young men who toil quietly caring for flocks in lonely places. Despite their unassuming qualities, shepherds were subject to scorn by some (e.g., in ancient Egypt; see Genesis 46:34) and were never celebrated even in Israel. It’s easy to take a shepherd for granted.
Nevertheless, the Bible elevates shepherds time and again as honorable and important servants of the people, and as such they became a useful picture in the Bible of Christ and the leaders in the church, who Paul calls shepherds in Acts 20:28.
It’s particularly noteworthy that God counted shepherds worthy to be included among the first people to witness the arrival of our Messiah. In Luke’s Gospel we read:
Luke 2:8 In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night.
Luke 2:9 And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened.
Luke 2:10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people;
Luke 2:11 for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
Luke 2:12 “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Luke 2:13 And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
Luke 2:14 “Glory to God in the highest
And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”
Luke 2:15 When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.”
Luke 2:16 So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger.
Luke 2:17 When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child.
Luke 2:18 And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds.
Luke 2:19 But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.
Luke 2:20 The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.
We’ve all heard the story before, and we’re sung it many times in Christmas carols: shepherds visited in their fields at night by the angel delivering good news that the Messiah has arrived as promised by the prophets. Have you ever stopped to consider why the announcement of such an important event was delivered first to shepherds?
In fact, everything about the Lord’s arrival was quiet and peaceful and unadorned. He was a Baby, not a conquering King. He was sleeping in a place intended for animals, not in a palace. His parents were anonymous, His hometown was ignominious (John 1:46), and His enemies were powerful (Matthew 2:13-18).
It’s easy to see a close connection between the Lord Himself and those God called upon first following His arrival. Rather than announce Christ’s arrival in pomp and circumstances befitting a King, the Lord preferred to deliver Jesus in a manner befitting a shepherd: quiet, unassuming, isolated, surrounded by lowly animals and despised. As Isaiah foretold:
Is. 53:3 He was despised and forsaken of men,
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
And like one from whom men hide their face.
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
Furthermore, when the Lord assigned others the privilege of heralding Christ’s arrival, He selected a group that perfectly represented the Messiah’s own ministry of service to God’s flock. Notice in Luke 2:17 that after learning of the Messiah’s birth and visiting Him in person, the shepherds leave to “make known” everything they had experienced.
Who were they telling? Shepherds normally spent their time in the fields alone, but because of their excitement these shepherds came in from the fields and went into the towns and villages proclaiming the good news to family, friends and probably strangers.
So why did the Father orchestrate the arrivals of His Son into the world in such a curious manner? Jesus entered the world in a humble way to match His purpose in coming: to save those who humbled themselves and believed in Him. So Jesus came gently, like those He purposed to save.
Nevertheless, the Father still intended for His Son’s arrival to cause a stir and to bring attention to this miraculous moment, so He called upon equally lowly and humble servants to carry that message to the world. These men became His first witnesses, just as humble Jesus became the First Fruits of the Resurrection.
Notice the impact the shepherds had upon the people who heard their proclamations. In v.18 Luke records that the people wondered about the things they heard from the shepherds. The Greek word wonder means to be amazed and astonished by the news of the shepherds. Even though they were lowly shepherds, the news they brought was wondrous and welcome. It’s not the messenger; it’s the message!
Not much has changed in 2,000+ years. The good news of Christ’s arrival is still good news. Jesus is still calling the world to know Him and follow Him. And the Lord is still calling humble, lowly servants to leave our stations in life so we may proclaim what we have heard and experienced to our family, friends and even strangers. We proclaim a Savior born in Bethlehem, and we call the world to accept Him as Lord. We may not be impressive messengers, but we deliver a message of unequalled power (1Cor 2:1-2).
Let’s be like the shepherds of that first Christmas. Let’s engage someone this week in a conversation about the Messiah and the reason we celebrate His arrival.
Stephen Armstrong is the founder and principal teacher for Verse By Verse Ministry International.