And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.
I’ve often wondered why the shepherds were the first to hear the news of Jesus’ birth. Why not the scribes or scholars? Who were they that they should be eyewitnesses of God’s glory and receive history’s greatest birth announcement? In Christ’s day, shepherds stood on the bottom rung of the social ladder. They shared the same unenviable status as tax collectors and dung sweepers. Only Luke mentions them. Once upon a time during the Patriarchal era., shepherding had been a noble occupation. When the twelve tribes of Israel migrated to Egypt, they encountered an agricultural lifestyle that was foreign to them. As farmers, the Egyptians despised shepherding because sheep and goats meant death to crops. In the course of 400 years, the Egyptians prejudiced the Israelites’ attitude toward shepherding.
The shepherds that watched over their flocks by night in the biblical account in Luke were not men who were highly esteemed by others. These were men marginalized and scorned. The religious leaders maligned the shepherds’ good name; rabbis banned pasturing sheep and goats in Israel, except on desert plains; and all shepherds were officially labeled ‘sinners’—a technical term for a class of despised people.
The shepherds who navigated the dark streets of Bethlehem to find the newborn baby were not the kind of men that regularly made kingly visits. These men were separated from mainstream society and likely their language, habits and associations would have been repulsive to those living in the homes they passed.
So, why did a host of angels bring these men the glad tidings that Jesus was born? I can think of at least 3 reasons.
- This foreshadowed Jesus’ role as the Good Shepherd. By heralding the good news of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, Jesus hinted right from the beginning what His plan was—to give His life for us, just as the shepherds would have done for their sheep.
- God despises our smugness, prejudice and pride. The shepherds were undoubtedly coarse, unlearned men. Men that the scribes and Pharisees would have delighted to shun and avoid. Men despised and rejected—just as Jesus would soon be. In the light of His holiness, all of us are filthy, simple and broken. The heralding of His birth to some of the lowest of the low reminds us that we are all unwashed in comparison to the Divine. Jesus stooped to our level to pay the ultimate sacrifice.
- He longs to reach the unreachable. The shepherds sitting out that dark night watching their sheep in the moonlight typified who He came to save. Later Jesus reminded His followers that “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Mark 2:17). Sinners—the group that the “righteous” had shunned—are the very people that He came to this Earth as a babe to save. Sinners like the shepherds. Sinners like you and me.
Spend some time today thanking God, really and genuinely thanking God for a story that hasn’t been “sanitized” and cleaned up. Otherwise, we might not know that there is real hope for the rest of us—fallen sinners in need of a Savior.