Why God Chose Shepherds
Introduction Only one announcement of Christ’s birth is recorded in the Scriptures, and that one invitation was extended to a bunch of despised,
low-class outcasts: an assembly of shepherds sitting out in the fields near Bethlehem.
I would expect the birth of God’s son to be announced first to the most important people in Israel. Religious leaders like the priests, synagogue officials and the Jewish ruling council (the Sanhedrin) would all likely be on the guest list for first to worship the long-awaited Messiah. But none of them were invited, just the lowly shepherds.
Although the shepherds were not religious elitists, they were willing to simply believe what God told them, and to go where God invited them. They apparently never questioned what the angels told them, and I think that's one main reason God chose them.
A Brief Historical Note About Shepherds in Israel During the time of the Patriarchs, recorded for us in Genesis, shepherding was a well thought of occupation. Basically, in those nomadic societies, everyone was a shepherd, as we see in many early Bible passages. Some of Israel's greatest heroes were shepherds: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses.
On the other hand, the Egyptians were farmers. As such, they despised shepherds because sheep damaged crops. Also, Egyptians considered sheep worthless for either food or sacrifice. This set up a major conflict when the Jewish people settled in Goshen.
During the 400 years the Egyptians enslaved them, the Israelites’ thinking about the profession of shepherding changed, too. Jacob’s descendants forgot their nomadic roots and settled into the more sedentary Egyptian lifestyle. When they claimed their land in Canaan, they not only rejected shepherding, but began to see it in a very unfavorable light.
When David, a former shepherd, became the king of Israel, he temporarily improved the image of shepherds in the minds of his subjects. Then came the days of the Prophets, when sheep-herders were used to symbolize judgment. Soon shepherds became the victims of this type-casting, and many began to live up to the accusations.
General Information About Shepherds Now let’s look at some general information about these specific shepherds. First of all, their lives were not easy. They were required to be with their sheep 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in all weather conditions. By day, they led the sheep to grass and water, then watched over them while they grazed. Shepherds were constantly on the lookout for predators and for accidents to which the stupid sheep were prone. At night they actually slept in the pen with the sheep.
Sometimes the shepherds owned the sheep, but often they were men hired to help. In this case they had no real concern for the sheep beyond what they were responsible to do to get paid. Because most of them spent months in the fields without any accountability to anyone, shepherds were often accused of stealing sheep. Consequently, people were forbidden to buy wool, milk or a lamb from shepherds because it was assumed they would be buying stolen property.
The shepherd’s tools were simple but effective: a rod, a staff, and a sling. They used the rod to help count the sheep, morning and evening, as the animals came into the fold and went out again. The staff was a type of club which could be used to chase off attacking predators. The sling was most effective for keeping the wild animals from getting too close to the flock.
Sheep flocks were not usually kept close to a town as their various odors were unpleasant at best. Large flocks, especially, were confined to areas far away from any towns. Unfortunately, the shepherds worked so closely with the sheep that they smelled just as bad, and were also not very welcome in town.
Shepherds were never really clean, as they were constantly walking in sheep excrement and touching dead animals--both activities which made them ritually impure. Because of this, shepherds were not allowed to attend Temple services or offer sacrifices. This was yet another reason townspeople looked down on them.
In the Jewish mind, shepherds were on the same low level as tax collectors and dung sweepers. They could not testify in legal proceedings because their word wasn’t considered trustworthy. They had no civil rights and could not fill any judicial offices. They had very little contact with people in the town, since most of their time was spent with other shepherds out in the fields. This, too, contributed to their separation from “normal” folks.
Where They fit in the Nativity Narrative It’s interesting that Luke alone, of all the Gospel writers, mentions the shepherds in connection with the birth of Christ. It seems to me that they played a very important role in the overall story, as they were the ones who first spread the word of the birth to the town of Bethlehem. We know that Luke was an educated man who fully researched his book. Most likely, this story came from the lips of Mary, the only living witness (in his day) to that first night in the stable.
It’s also interesting that many historians believe the sheep raised on the hillsides outside Bethlehem may well have been used for temple sacrifices in Jerusalem. So these keepers of the sacrificial lambs were sitting out on the lonely hillsides on what seemed like a normal evening, when they had a very special visitor – an angel.
His appearance wasn't off in the sky as we sometimes think. No, this was an up close and personal appearance of a heavenly messenger. The word here translated "appeared" is the Greek verb ephistemi, which means "to stand at or near a specific place." He was just suddenly there, right in front of them. More than that, he was surrounded by the Shechinah, or bright cloud, which symbolized God’s presence!
The reaction of the shepherds is abject terror. Now remember, these are men who fight lions and wolves with just a staff and slingshot. The angel must have truly astonished them. But his words were even more astonishing: Messiah had been born in Bethlehem. [Bible prophecy had indicated he would be born there, so these Bethlehem shepherds probably remembered that when the angel made his announcement.]
While they were amazed at this heavenly arrival, I think they were probably equally amazed that God would notify them of this birth and, even more so that he would invite them to meet the new King. Then, suddenly, there were many other heavenly beings praising God and confirming the message: this is good news "for all the people." Messiah has come to everyone on earth and for everyone's benefit. The shepherds were living proof!
The angels promised peace (Greek eirene) -- peace between God and mankind, which essentially amounts to salvation. This is the promise of Christmas. But how would the shepherds know the angel's message was true? "This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger." (Luke 2:12) This gave them 2 ways to tell this baby from any other born in Bethlehem that night.
It didn’t take the shepherds long to determine what they should do next. “Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried to Bethlehem.
Where would they find this manger? In a stable, of course, so they checked out the stables in town and found one with a baby sleeping in it. They worshiped the amazing child for a time, and maybe even shared the details of their angelic visitation with Mary and Joseph. Then they went out and shared the wonderful news of Messiah's birth with everyone they met.
Who would they have told? Of course, anyone they met on their way back to the hills, but surely they also shared the news with friends and relatives in Bethlehem, too. Maybe they even notified the people they sold sheep to. Surely the news was too great to keep to themselves. In the end, the shepherds climbed back up the hill to their flocks. The last mention of them tells us they spent the rest of the night (and maybe their entire lifetimes) glorifying and praising God.
A Few Conclusions 1. Most of us think God would have sent the angels to the Temple to announce the birth of his son. After all, the priests and religious rulers were there, and the Jews had been waiting for this announcement for generations. The leaders there thought they knew everything there was to know about God, but God knew their hearts. He wanted everyone to know that Messiah didn’t come to earth for just “religious” people.
If you recall, when the Magi went to the Temple looking for the new king, these same priests told them where to look, based on scripture, but none of them went with the wise men to see if Messiah had indeed been born.
2. I think God wanted to show that His love doesn’t discriminate against people based on the things important to humans: profession, wealth, social standing, etc. God’s grace and love are available to anyone willing to simply believe Jesus Christ is their savior.
3. While you and I may think those shepherds didn’t deserve a special invitation from God, it is important to realize that we don’t, either, and yet Jesus extended one to us, too! In fact, God used these shepherds, classed by the religious leaders as “sinners,” to show Jesus would be a “friend of sinners.” God can use people of any status in society to achieve his goals. In fact, when he uses an unexpected person, he gets all the credit for the results.
4. One last note: Jesus came to serve as a shepherd. In Micah 5:4 we read, He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. In fact, Jesus himself likened his ministry here on earth to that of the shepherds' work. In fact, he called himself “The Good Shepherd” (John 10:1-30) who came in search of his lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7).
So the good news given first to shepherds is especially good news for us!