In Biblical Israel, nomadic shepherds lived a lowly life with their flocks, providing all the care that the sheep needed. They would guide their sheep by day to find food and watch over them at night. Being a shepherd wasn’t just a job but a lifestyle, often lonely and isolated from other people. What is the significance then of the shepherds at Jesus’ birth? Why were they invited and included in the celebration?
Who Were the Shepherds at Jesus’ Birth?
God’s kingdom ways are often contrary to our inclinations and that is nowhere more obvious than at Jesus’ birth. From the humble birthplace of the Messiah and the lack of recognition from His own people. Where were the chief priests and the Jewish religious leaders, those whom you would have expected to be there?
The shepherds at Jesus’ birth were those who were living with their flocks in the fields outside Bethlehem. They were local Jewish men, doing the hard but mundane job that no one else wanted! These shepherds would have been a familiar sight in the countryside, travelling to find fresh pasture and water for their sheep during the day. And at night, often the shepherds would group together for added protection from the danger of attack by wild animals.
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields near by, keeping watch over their flocks at night.”Luke 2:8
Who Announced the Birth of Jesus to the Shepherds?
An angel appeared in the night sky with the bright shining light of the glory of the Lord, to announce and proclaim Jesus’ birth to the shepherds. The sight of an angel, a supernatural appearance, terrified the shepherds. The angel, however, reassured them that the message was one of good news for all people. That day a baby had been born in Bethlehem, who would be a Savior, and He was the promised Messiah.
Why Did the Angels Appear to the Shepherds First?
Scripture reveals an expectation by God that the leaders of the nation would ‘shepherd’ the people well. They would serve to provide for and protect those in their care. Often, they would be rebuked when this was not the case.
The imagery of the Messiah as the ‘Good Shepherd’ and Israel as the sheep appears throughout Old Testament Scripture. God was intentional in sending the announcement of Jesus’ birth to those Israelites who by their occupation represented the role of His Son.
“An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’”Luke 2:9-12
As if this was not enough of a startling sight suddenly a ‘great company of the heavenly host’ appeared praising God and pronouncing a blessing on mankind. Did they sing, was this a choir of angels? That is often the way the angels are represented here, and the words of praise that they expressed have inspired many songs. But, the phrase ‘heavenly host’ is used in Scripture to describe the armies of heaven, a vast company with a powerful pronouncement!
“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’”Luke 2:13-14
They declared the beginning of a new era – this is now the time of God’s favor, a time of peace. The armies of heaven appeared to the lowly, the ordinary, the disregarded, the outsiders, drawing them in and making them part of this event – to welcome the Savior of all mankind.
What Did the Shepherds Bring Jesus?
The shepherds did not need any further prompting, as soon as the angels had left, they hurried off to Bethlehem. After meeting Mary and Joseph and seeing Jesus, they had to share with all those they met what they had experienced. They had seen for themselves the fulfilment of God’s word and a promise of hope for the future.
“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’ So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.”Luke 2:15-18
The shepherds came to Jesus empty-handed, they had no expensive gifts to bring, but they came to acknowledge Him. All they had to bring was their praise and worship as an offering. They are a witness to us, because we too come humbly to Jesus empty-handed.
The shepherds had a great story to tell – and they passed it on. We also have a story to tell when we encounter Jesus and the commission to share what we have received with others!
“The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”Luke 2:19-20
What is The Significance of The Shepherds at Jesus’ Birth?
Jesus’ birth began to reveal the mystery of the gospel. What had been hidden in the Old Testament Scriptures, from the Jewish scholars, was God’s salvation plan to restore all mankind to Himself. The Prophets had hinted, but no one understood fully what God intended…
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”Isaiah 49:6
The shepherds represented the people of Israel, invited to come and worship their Messiah. The significance of inviting the shepherds first, those who were overlooked and disregarded by many, hinted at God’s kingdom ways. Those who seek out and acknowledge Jesus are those who are humble and recognize their need for a Savior.
Jesus is the ‘Good Shepherd’ and He came for the salvation of Israel, to reconcile the people to God. But when He was rejected by many of His own, the fulfilment of God’s plan was fully revealed to draw ALL people to Himself.
Related Post: What Was Wise About the Three Wise Men
We have so much to be thankful for as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, that God’s salvation plan includes ‘whoever’ chooses to acknowledge, accept, and follow Jesus! The invitation now goes out to all, our nationality, occupation, and social status, are not relevant – our response is!
“remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”Ephesians 2:12-13
Lord, accept my worship today, the praise and thanksgiving of my heart, as I reflect on your loving-kindness in reconciling me to God. Help me, I pray, to be able to share the good news of your love in word and deed with those whom I meet, and interact with, Amen.
To Bethlehem and Beyond!
The shepherds were the first to hear the good news of the gospel and to share their story with others. A significant story that would reach out and go far beyond Bethlehem!
‘To Bethlehem & Beyond’ travels through Scripture reflecting on God’s plan, the people involved, and the promises fulfilled. Each day has a Scripture reading, a short reflection, a take-away thought or question, a psalm verse and a prayer.
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