The shepherds who came to worship the Christ child have been revered and honored by Christians for centuries. They are seen as symbols of humility, honor and devotion. However, at the time of Christ, the people would likely have seen shepherds in a far less positive light.
Yet the Lord chose them to be one of the first witnesses of his birth.
From this story, we can learn that the savior often calls the weak things of the world to testify of him.
During the first century, sheep were a critical part of ancient life. They provided wool for clothing and milk and meat for food. Perhaps most significant sheep were used as part of the temple sacrifices.
Every morning and evening, a lamb was offered on the altar of sacrifice as a symbol of Israel’s constant daily need for a remission of their sins.
Even though caring for these important sheep was a critical occupation, shepherds were not typically held in high esteem. They generally didn’t own their own property. They traveled from place to place and lived in tents like vagabonds. Their sheep grazed on land not owned by the shepherd. Unlike the educated scribes or Pharisees who were respected in society, shepherds held very little social or religious status.
Yet throughout the scriptures, we read of several prophets and kings who were shepherds, including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and David. Even though not valued by society, God clearly loved shepherds.
Let us now look more closely at these particular shepherds who were chosen by God to be special witnesses of Christ.
Luke tells us they were watching their flocks in the fields near Bethlehem, a small village just outside of Jerusalem, because of Bethlehem’s close proximity to the temple and the large number of sheep that would be needed for the daily sacrifices. Many scholars believe these shepherds were actually temple shepherds.
If this is the case than most of these sheep would eventually be offered as sacrifices to the Lord.
Luke also gives us the indication as to the time of year this miraculous event occurred.
He states that the shepherds were abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
During lambing season, shepherds stayed with their flocks both day and night. They lived among the sheep or abated in the fields so they could attend the birth of a new lamb because ewes were known to have potentially two or even three lambs born at once, it was necessary for the shepherd to watch for the first born of a new mother.
As part of the law of Moses, the firstborn lambs were to be offered to the Lord as a special sacrifice.
This would mean that the shepherd would need to mark the first born to set it apart from the other newborn lambs.
As these shepherds watched over their flock, suddenly an angel appeared on to them in the dark of night and said, Fearnot, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a savior, which is Christ the Lord.
One can only imagine the fear that filled their hearts, which was quickly changed to great joy.
The long awaited Messiah had been born for centuries. Israel had waited for the great deliverer to come, and he was now here.
The angel then gives the shepherds a sign so they will be able to recognize the child. He shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger while finding a newborn wrapped in swaddling clothes would not have been unusual to find him lying in a manger. A stone shroud used to hold water for animals would have been highly unusual. The shepherds leave immediately, leaving everything behind and with great haste to search for their messiah. This would have been no easy task.
Ancient homes would have no street addresses. People would need to ask villagers for help to find the home of their acquaintance. These shepherds most likely would have done this in the middle of the night, eager to find their savior Christ the Lord. The shepherds errand is reminiscent of when the Prophet Samuel went searching for a king. It is in Bethlehem. He finds a young boy tending the flocks in the field.
Samuel anoints the young David to be the king of Israel. For this reason, Bethlehem is known as the city of David, the birthplace of the king who united Israel and prepared the way for the building of the temple, these shepherds are now searching in this same city for King David’s heir, who is to be the king of kings.
Upon finding the Christ child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, just as the angel described, the shepherds worship him and then made this wonderful news known abroad as ones whose occupation was to witness the birth of the firstborn.
Shepherds were the perfect witness of the firstborn of God who had come to Earth as the savior and Messiah.
Despite being on the lowest rung in society, the shepherds message caused others to marvel in wonder at the glorious news.
We may often feel like the shepherds unworthy, uneducated, unnoticed by the world.
Yet the Lord most often calls the humble and weak of the world to stand as witnesses of him. He knows of the powerful testimony we each can share.
We, too, can go in haste and find the saviour in this world of darkness and despair. While we may feel unqualified to spread the good news of the gospel, no matter our status, our wealth, our occupation or our qualifications, we too can be like the shepherds.
We can spread the news abroad to all who will here for unto us. A child is born, even Jesus Christ, the savior of the world.