by Lee Anderson Jr. —
When we consider the amazing thing that God has done in sending Jesus Christ to bring the hope of salvation to the world, it is only natural that we respond by praising Him. This, as we saw last time, was the response of the angels who first declared the birth of Jesus Christ to a group of shepherds spending the night in a lonely field near Bethlehem over two millennia ago. Having looked at the announcement of the angels, today we will consider the response of the shepherds and the significance of them being the first to welcome Jesus Christ, the newborn Savior.
The Response of the Shepherds
When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.Luke 2:15–20*
We might imagine that the shepherds were in a state of shock following the glorious display from the heavenly host. However, the text tells us that they were not long caught up in the display; rather, they turned their attention to the content of the message.
The shepherds’ response was one of enthusiasm. “Let us go straight to Bethlehem . . .” they said; there was no dawdling. Moreover, we must put this in perspective: It was not as if the shepherds were able to take their sheep with them into town. They needed to leave behind their livelihood in order to go see what the angel had proclaimed to them. This tells us a lot about their priorities. They were eager to go see the Savior God had sent.
Upon finding things to be just as the angel had declared to them, the shepherds went to tell others what they had seen, becoming, in a sense, the first “evangelists” to proclaim the coming of the Savior. The night began in the sheepfold; the morning arrived with a new hope—that the Savior, long since promised, had finally come. One day the shepherds were on the lowest rung of society, and the next day they found themselves uniquely privileged by God as the first to behold the Savior and announce His coming.
Luke 2:20 tells us that as the shepherds returned from Bethlehem they were “glorifying and praising God.” Unlike the angels, we do not know the substance of the shepherds’ praise to God, but we can surmise, in light of what verse 20 states, that their praise was motivated by their recognition of God’s faithfulness. In finding everything to be just as the angel had said, the shepherds witnessed firsthand the faithfulness of God in keeping the promises which He had made throughout centuries’ past concerning the coming of a Savior. Maybe their praise was something like the words of Psalm 98:1–3:
O sing to the Lord a new song,
For He has done wonderful things,
His right hand and His holy arm have gained the victory for Him.
The Lord has made known His salvation;
He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel;
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
God truly is faithful!
We might have some difficulty relating to this. Indeed, it must have been an amazing thing for the shepherds to witness the fulfillment of God’s many promises concerning the coming of the Savior. From the book of Genesis to the book of Malachi, from the first cryptic words to Abraham to the writings of the prophets, piece by piece, bit by bit, God had presented a word picture of the coming Christ. Now He was finally here! The Lord’s grand promise-plan, revealed throughout the Old Testament, had now been fulfilled in the birth of a little baby. And for this display of faithfulness, the Lord is supremely worthy of praise.
The Significance of the Shepherds
This all leads us back to our original question: What is the significance of the shepherds? For what reason did God send shepherds to witness the arrival of the Savior? There are a couple of things we might consider. According to Jewish tradition, the pastures on the outskirts of Bethlehem were where lambs were raised for the Passover sacrifice. Might there be in this some foreshadowing of Christ’s role, one day dying as the ultimate Passover Lamb to atone for the sins of all those who trust in Him (cf. John 1:29)? That is possible.
But I think there is a greater significance to be seen in shepherds coming to witness Christ’s arrival—and this significance does not draw upon Jewish tradition, but upon the very words of Scripture. The significance of the shepherds coming to meet Christ in the manger hinges on the amazing truth that they were coming to welcome one of their own.
In the Old Testament, the Lord God Himself is referred to as a “shepherd.” We all know how the 23rd psalm begins: “The Lord is my shepherd . . . .” The psalm goes on to talk of how God causes the psalmist to lie down in green fields, leads him to quiet waters, and comforts him with His shepherd’s staff. This distinctly pastoral language conveys an image of a loving God who cares intensely for His own. In view of this image of the Lord as shepherd presented in Scripture, it is most fitting that Immanuel—“God with us”—would likewise be a shepherd to His people. And that is exactly how the Scriptures present Jesus Christ.
Old Testament prophecies about the coming Messiah looked forward to how He would care for His people as a shepherd. For instance, in Isaiah 40:9 the text says, “Get yourself up on a high mountain, O Zion, bearer of good news, lift up your voice mightily, O Jerusalem, bearer of good news; lift it up, do not fear. Say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” Verses 10 and 11 go on to describe God’s coming reign in both justice and mercy, with language which rings strikingly true of the Messiah’s ministry: “Behold, the Lord God will come with might, with His arm ruling for Him. Behold, His reward is with Him and His recompense before Him. Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, in His arm He will gather the lambs and carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes.” In these verses we catch a glimpse of who Christ is: He is a kind shepherd who watches over and cares for His flock.
We see a similar picture in Jeremiah 23. In verses 1–2, the Lord gives a startling indictment against the leaders of Israel, those who were supposed to be shepherds over His flock: “‘Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of My pasture!’ declares the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord God of Israel concerning the shepherds who are tending My people: ‘You have scattered My flock and driven them away, and have not attended to them; behold, I am about to attend to you for the evil of your deeds,’ declares the Lord.” The solution to this wretched state required God’s intervention.
In verses 3–4, the Lord goes on to declare His plan: “‘Then I Myself will gather the remnant of My flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and bring them back to their pasture, and they will be fruitful and multiply. I will also raise up shepherds over them and they will tend them; and they will not be afraid any longer, nor be terrified, nor will any be missing,’ declares the Lord.” What kind of a shepherd was the Lord seeking for His people? Verses 5–6 speak of the coming Messiah—who would be the Great Shepherd: “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘When I will raise up for David a righteous Branch; and He will reign as king and act wisely and do justice and righteousness in the land. In His days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely; and this is His name by which He will be called, “The Lord our righteousness.”’” This text looks forward to Jesus Christ—the perfect, righteous Shepherd who would be a great King and Savior to His people.
All of this comes into clearer focus in what Jesus says about Himself. In John 10:11 He says, “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” He goes on in John 10:14–15, again declaring, “I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.” In this passage of Scripture, we see the clearest presentation of Jesus Christ as the true shepherd, who genuinely cares for the needs of all His flock.
This is why the shepherds came to a manger in a stable, in the little town of Bethlehem. They came to welcome one of their own. Lowly shepherds of sheep came to bear witness to the arrival of the Great Shepherd of men’s souls. Shepherds who raised animals for sacrifice came to see the good shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ, whose life would one day be given as a sacrifice to save all those who would come to place their trust in Him.
†Photo by Annalisa Bellini on Unsplash
*All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, is from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.