Shepherds

The following text is drawn from our featured Christmas book and is also available for free as audio.

ShepherdsAt the birth of Jesus, the only recorded appearance of angels in the Bible was to shepherds. An angel says to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” The message to the shepherds is both broad (“for all the people”) and personal (“a Savior has been born to you”). Though the good news was for all the people, the Savior was ultimately born for those who would believe and respond.

Surely God knew in advance how the shepherds would respond to the announcement of Jesus’ birth. They demonstrated an eagerness to embrace the good news; they hurried to find Jesus; they spread the word about him, and they glorified and praised God. Yet, it seems strange that the only appearance of a “great company of the heavenly host” was made to lowly shepherds, men who were living out in the fields tending sheep. Was there something significant to God about shepherding?

Though shepherding was the most ancient profession of God’s people, the Israelites, it was not a particularly desirable one. It was a dirty job, and according to the Bible, it was considered “detestable” in cultures like Egypt.

When considering the shepherds of the Christmas story, historian Paul Maier said it well: “If resorting to symbolism . . . the shepherds stood for the cross-sectional, average Judean — quite literally, ‘the man on the night shift.’” Shepherds had a difficult job that earned no rank in society. Yet, God chose shepherds to receive the glorious angelic announcement of the birth of Christ.

God clearly saw significance in the role of shepherding. He used the term shepherd to describe the leaders of his people in both the Old and New Testaments and even used the word to describe himself. The book of Isaiah says, “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”

That the title of Shepherd would be applied to God reveals that the role of the shepherd is praiseworthy. Truly it is the sheep that make the job dirty and “detestable” to any other than the shepherd who loves them. Who are the sheep? The Bible tells us that “the sheep” are actually the followers of God. A 20th century shepherd Phillip Keller writes, “Our behavior patterns and life habits are so much like that of sheep it is well nigh embarrassing.” Sheep are slow, weak, foolish, nervous, fearful, helpless and most importantly, totally dependent on their shepherd. The care of the shepherd profoundly impacts the condition of the sheep. Keller writes, “Under one man sheep would struggle, starve and suffer endless hardship. In another’s care they would flourish and thrive contentedly.” Since humans are totally dependent on God, it is wonderful blessing that Jesus, the “Chief Shepherd,” is a good shepherd.

Approximately 700 years before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Micah foretold: “But you Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from old, from ancient times. . . . He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord.”

Jesus came to be our shepherd, and he revealed his great love for us when he said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”

Not only did the shepherd lay down his life for his sheep, he actually became one himself. What a great mystery! The shepherd became a lamb in order to save his flock. The Bible says that believers are redeemed with “the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” Interestingly, the title most often applied to Jesus in the book of Revelation and the title that he carries into eternity is “the Lamb.”

Revelation records that at the end of time, “the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Back to Main Christmas Symbols Page.

We welcome your questions and feedback. If you are seeking information on shepherds that is not found on our website, please contact us.

This content has a copyright © 2008 by Angie Mosteller. Please cite the source if you use this material: http://www.celebratingholidays.com/?page_id=1586.

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