How surprised Mary must have been when a band of ragtag shepherds arrived at the stable telling of angelic hosts and “a star of wonder”—all announcing the birth of her son! Though still exhausted from childbirth, Mary must have been astonished as these simple men of the fields bowed in worship before her Son and then went to tell everyone they encountered about the child they had seen (luke 2:16–18).
The shepherds were the first to kneel at the manger, which could seem surprising, given who and what they were. Yet, there they were—worshiping the newborn Savior! So let’s look through the window of worship to learn about them. By doing this, we will better understand and appreciate their reactions to what they witnessed on that cold Judean night outside Bethlehem. Knowing them better will also enable us to move beyond historical records and ancient hymns to share their experience and join in their celebration.
Simple Men With Simple Lives
I can think of no better statement to describe the shepherds than that they were “simple men with simple lives.” The very brevity of Luke’s description emphasizes this simplicity: “In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night” (luke 2:8). Yet that one verse speaks volumes about who these men were and what they did.
“The same region . . . shepherds . . .”
The region surrounding Bethlehem has been associated with shepherding since the earliest days of recorded history. It was there that David guarded the flocks of his father, Jesse. Bethlehem was a place of pasture, and, therefore, appropriate for grazing flocks.
The sheep that grazed here were not ordinary sheep. Because of their proximity to the temple at Jerusalem, the fields of Bethlehem were primarily the domain of temple sheep—the animals used in the sacrifices offered in the temple. In the first century, upwards of 250,000 sheep were offered annually as sacrifices at the festival of Passover alone! Thus, these shepherds of Bethlehem were responsible for the delivery of healthy, unblemished sheep to be offered on the altar of sacrifice for the atonement of sin.
“Staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night.”
“The night was divided into four watches,” says Bible commentator John Gill. “The even, midnight, cock crowing, and morning. They kept them alternately, some kept the flock one watch, and some another, while the rest slept in the tent, or tower that was built in the fields for that purpose.” Adam Clarke adds, “The reason why they watched them in the field appears to have been either to preserve the sheep from beasts of prey, such as wolves, . . . or from bandits, which were common in the land of Judea at that time.”
The life of a shepherd was a life of loneliness and labor, danger and poverty. Yet, these hardships may not have been the greatest of their difficulties. Because of their profession, shepherds were considered ceremonially unclean. Their work, among other things, required their hands-on participation in the birthing of lambs (which would bring them into contact with blood) and disposing of dead lambs (which would bring them into contact with dead bodies)—both of which made them ceremonially unclean. This resulted in them being spiritual outcasts. It seems so sad that the very individuals responsible for raising sacrificial lambs for the temple in Jerusalem were themselves excluded from the temple because they were considered ceremonially unclean. But these shepherds faced a two-fold dilemma, for not only were they made unclean by the nature of their work, they were also required to stay constantly with their flocks. This meant that they were unable to leave their tasks for weeks at a time, preventing them from going to the temple so that they could be cleansed. It was the kind of religious “catch-22” that often bubbles up from highly legalistic systems of spiritual thought—and these detached, castoff workers serve as tragic examples of it.
Amazing Moments of Heavenly Splendor
Life is filled with “moments” that brand heart and memory. Some moments are dark and foreboding, like when I got the phone call that my father had just died of a heart attack. When I think of that moment nearly three decades ago, the emotions of loss and pain flood back over me, and I feel afresh the emptiness that attacked me then.
And then there are those rare amazing moments. For me, one of those moments occurred on my wedding day. I was standing at the front of the church with the pastor and my dad, who was my best man. The music played and the bridal party entered. The doors at the back of the church closed for a brief moment that seemed to last forever and then the music changed and the doors opened—and out stepped Marlene on her father’s arm. As I think about it even now, a lump comes to my throat and I get choked up. To see the woman I loved, radiant and beautiful in her wedding dress, coming down the aisle to marry me—me! It was breathtaking and spectacular and magnificent and humbling and overwhelming. It was a moment of splendor.
Measured against what the shepherds saw in those moments on the hills of Judea, I know it sounds pretty small. Yet what I felt in that moment was not altogether different from what I imagine the shepherds were feeling—breathtaking, spectacular, magnificent, humbling, and overwhelming splendor.
Luke’s description challenges our imaginations and thrills our hearts.
“Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased (luke 2:9–14).
How do you even begin to consider such a thing? It is far too much to process as a whole, so I prefer to break it down into moments.
The Moment of the Messenger
The angelic messenger is described as “the angel of the Lord” who was accompanied by the “Glory of the Lord” which “shone” in such a way as to terrify the shepherds (luke 2:9). Like so many involved in the Christmas story, those poor shepherds were completely unequipped for such a sight.
The glory of the Lord was referred to as the “Shekinah,” the brightness of the perfection of the all-sufficient God. It has been described theologically as the sum total of the attributes of God combined together to create brilliant, perfect light. Now, the shepherds were seeing this glory of the Lord on the hillsides around Bethlehem.
In the Old Testament, the glory of the Lord was evidence of God’s presence among His people. We see this phenomenon first in Exodus 24:16: “The glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; and on the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud.” The people of God had gathered at Sinai to either accept or reject God’s rule over them as a nation. His glory displayed His power and might.
We see His glory again at the dedication of the tabernacle, the house of worship for the wandering children of Israel: “Thus Korah assembled all the congregation against them at the doorway of the tent of meeting. And the glory of the Lord appeared to all the congregation” (numbers 16:19). And we see it at the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem where the children of Israel had established a center for their national life and worship in the marvel that was Solomon’s temple: “It happened that when the priests came from the holy place, the cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord” (1 kings 8:10–11).
The people of Israel enjoyed the presence of God in their midst—until they began to stray into idolatry and immorality. They corrupted God’s house with pagan idols and dishonored His name, so that God responded with chilling words through Ezekiel the prophet.
After a series of events in which God displayed the spiritual adultery of His people, Ezekiel watched as, step by step, the glory of the Lord departed from the temple, and then from Jerusalem, and ultimately from the people of Israel. The culminating blow is seen in Ezekiel 11:23, where we read these tragic words: “The glory of the Lord went up from the midst of the city, and stood over the mountain which is east of the city” (ezekiel 11:23).
Following Ezekiel’s grim words, the few remaining references to the glory of the Lord found in the Old Testament point to the future, with no expression of God’s presence among His people until that night in Bethlehem some 600 years later. There, with the angel of the Lord, the glory returned! Returned to announce the presence of God once again among His people in the person of the Christ, who John described tellingly: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (john 1:14).
It is “the glory of the Lord” that evokes wonder and worship—and, in the case of the shepherds, fear. For hundreds of years, the glory of the Lord had not been seen in the land of Israel. But now, in the presence of shepherds, the glory had returned!
The Moment of the Message
Ostracized from the very religious system they helped to fuel, the shepherds were required to look elsewhere for hope. That night, they found it in the angel’s message, says commentator John Gill:
To the shepherds, the first notice of Christ’s birth was given; not to the princes and chief priests, and learned men at Jerusalem, but to weak, common, and illiterate men; whom God is pleased to choose and call, and reveal his secrets to as He hides them from the wise and prudent, to their confusion, and the glory of His grace. This was a precursor of what the kingdom of Christ would be, and by, and to whom, the Gospel would be preached.
Dr. Larry Richards, author and educator, reminds us that the shepherds were uniquely equipped to be the recipients of this great privilege:
The Saviour, who was now born and lying in the quiet manger, was to be the Lamb of God. And as the Lamb, He was destined to die for the sins of the world. To die for these very shepherds as their Saviour. Perhaps shepherds, who cared for young lambs, who sat through cold, dark nights in the fields to guard and protect their flocks, might understand the shepherd’s heart of God the Father, might glimpse what it meant for Him to give His one Lamb for all.
From a human standpoint, it is amazing that the Son of God would identify Himself with shepherds, some of the lowliest members of society and culture in that day (john 10). Yet, He described Himself as a shepherd, the protector and the pursuer of His flock. Imagine these shepherds—isolated from their people, their temple, and their national hope—discovering from the mouths of angels that they were not cast out or forgotten by God, a fact that He proved by having them be the first to hear the message of hope: “Today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (luke 2:11).
Their message of hope to the shepherds was a message of hope to all the world. For this child born in Bethlehem would become…
Humbling Worship in an Unexpected Place
Where do you like to worship? Some prefer a majestic cathedral, others a simple chapel. But would anyone’s first choice be a stable? Yet, after hearing the message of the angels, the shepherds’ first response was to find the stable where Mary had given birth to the Savior.
To me, this only confirms that our God is the God of the unexpected. And few things could be more unexpected than the King of Heaven being born in a stable.
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 (luke 2:15–16).
I have often heard people use various forms of the expression, “You are not defined by what happens to you, but by how you respond to what happens to you.” This is true, I suspect, in areas of life both good and bad, both joyful and painful, both exciting and terrifying. How we respond measures us in ways that words fail to express.
The shepherds’ response was, first, to worship, and second, to tell what they had seen!
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 (luke 2:17–18).
Shepherds were not only the first to hear, they were also the first to tell the Christmas message. With their hearts bursting with wonder at what they had experienced, they shared that wonder with others by telling the whole amazing story—the angels and the glory and the baby.
This is true worship—to kneel before the Christ so that you are then able to stand before others and proclaim His glory and salvation. To be humbled into silence in the presence of the King, so that you can then speak boldly to all who need to hear.
To think that all of this burst forth from a worship experience in a most unlikely place, on a most unlikely night, involving some most unlikely men.
Celebration From the Heart
The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them (luke 2:20).
“These simple men,” writes commentator Adam Clarke, “having satisfactory evidence of the truth of the good tidings, and feeling a Divine influence upon their own minds, returned to the care of their flocks, glorifying God for what he had shown them, and for the blessedness which they felt . . . . What subjects for contemplation! What matter for praise!”
Once outcasts, they were now embraced. Once unfit for the temple, they now stood with prophets and priests to celebrate the arrival of the hope of the ages.
Shepherds celebrating at the birth of a lamb—what could be more appropriate?
Several years ago, I led a study trip through Israel, and one of our stops, of course, was Bethlehem. We had a Bible study session at a place overlooking what is known as “The shepherds’ fields,” and then the group had the opportunity to spend some time shopping in Bethlehem’s world-famous olive wood stores. I was one of several who bought lovely nativity sets made of olive wood. The cost of the sets depended upon the fineness of the carving. Some were so rough-hewn as to be almost abstract art, while others were so realistically crafted that they looked like the figures were actually alive.
Later, as our tour bus carried us back to Jerusalem, we once again passed through the shepherds’ fields. With my wooden nativity set in hand, I thought about the events of the day and the events of the first Christmas. And as we drove through the area where angels visited shepherds and proclaimed the arrival of the King, I thought of the words of one of my favorite Christmas songs:
In the little village of Bethlehem,
There lay a Child one day
And the sky was bright with a holy light
O’er the place where Jesus lay.
’Twas a humble birthplace, but O, how much
God gave to us that day,
From the manger bed what a path has led,
What a perfect, holy way.
Alleluia! O how the angels sang.
Alleluia, how it rang!
And the sky was bright with a holy light
’Twas the birthday of a King.
Driving through those hilly fields speckled with rock, rough in terrain, and still populated by scattered sheep, these familiar words held an added richness and texture. And as I looked at the hills and tried to visualize that holy night so long ago, our guide asked the driver to stop the bus. Standing on the roadside were two young boys, no more than twelve or thirteen years of age, holding a small lamb. They were Bethlehem shepherds.
Two thousand years after the birth announcement of the Son of God was delivered to poor, forgotten, ostracized shepherds, these shepherds were still working the fields and “watching over their flocks.” As the boys walked down the aisle of our tour bus, almost every person placed a hand on the head of that little lamb. It was a wonderful moment. Shepherds from the shepherds’ fields presenting a lamb.
Two thousand years later, we continue to celebrate the Lamb, and we join the company of shepherds who were the first to do so.