Why was Jesus’ birth announced to shepherds?

Image from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs collection.

An old photograph (taken between 1920 and 1933) showing shepherds watching over their flocks at night. You can see the town of Bethlehem in silhouette in the background.

Just a final thought about the nativity narrative. Have you ever wondered why Jesus’ birth was announced to shepherds? Luke tells us, “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” (Luke 2.8-20).

So why did the angels appear to shepherds? There seems to be more than one reason. In his commentary on Luke’s Gospel, I. Howard Marshall writes, “the motif that God reveals the birth of the Saviour to ordinary, lowly people, is undoubtedly present.”[1] God’s angelic army announced the Saviour’s birth to humble shepherds, not to those of wealth and status.

But is there another reason why shepherds were privileged with the news of the Saviour’s birth? In his classic work The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfred Edersheim tells us: “That the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, was a settled conviction. Equally so was the belief, that He was to be revealed from Migdal Eder, ‘the tower of the flock.’ This Migdal Eder was not the watchtower for the ordinary flocks which pastured on the barren sheepground beyond Bethlehem, but lay close to the town, on the road to Jerusalem. A passage in the Mishnah leads to the conclusion, that the flocks, which pastured there, were destined for Temple-sacrifices, . . . .”[2] If so, God is pointing these shepherds, who watched over sacrificial lambs, to the true Sacrificial Lamb, the Lamb of God Who would be the perfect Sacrifice for sins. John, of course, picks up this theme at the beginning of his Gospel: “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1.29, see also John 1.36).

But perhaps there’s a third reason why God chose to reveal the news of Jesus’ birth to shepherds. Matthew tells us this: “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2.1-2). Herod gathered all the chief priests and scribes and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They replied, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” (Matthew 2.5-6).

Notice how the chief priests and scribes connect the birth of the Messiah to His role as Shepherd of God’s people. The citation in Matthew 2.6 is a paraphrase of Micah 5.2, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” But two verses later, Micah tells us this about the Messiah: “And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.” (Micah 5.4-5a). The Messiah will be a Shepherd of God’s people. The chief priests and scribes pick this up and allude to Micah 5.4 when they add, “who will shepherd my people Israel”. The actual words used, however, are drawn from 2 Samuel 5.2, when the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron. One of the things the tribes said was this: “And the LORD said to you, ‘You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, . . . .” .

So Bethlehem was the town of David, a shepherd of God’s people. Now it became the birthplace of the Great Shepherd of God’s people, Jesus the Son of David. The sacrificial Lamb of God would be “the Good Shepherd” Who “lays down his life for the sheep” . (John 10.11). The writer to the Hebrews, too, connects Jesus sacrificial death and resurrection to His role as the Great Shepherd of God’s flock: “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant,” (Hebrews 13.20). When the shepherds gathered around the baby Jesus, and gazed in wonderment upon Him, they beheld a Shepherd ― the Great Shepherd of God’s people, Who would lay down His life for the sheep.

[1] I. Howard Marshall The Gospel of Luke: a commentary on the Greek text Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1978).

[2] Alfred Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah can be downloaded in PDF form HERE (the quotation above is found on pages 209-210 of this edition).

CREDITS Text copyright © 2017 Robert Gordon Betts Scripture citations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers. © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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