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.” 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, . . . .” 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 2.4-5a). 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.

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.

The Christmas army of angels

Image © Lumo Project through Free Bible Images All rights reserved

“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!” (Luke 2.8–14).

In his book, A Not-So-Silent Night: the Unheard Story of Christmas and Why It Matters, Verlyn D. Verbrugge writes, “One of the most familiar elements of the Christmas story in Luke 2 is the appearance of the angel to the shepherds. That angel was soon joined by a “great company of the heavenly host . . . praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests’” (Luke 2.13– 14 NIV). I doubt if there is anyone who does not envision this scene as a huge company of angels dressed in choir robes, perhaps complete with sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses, singing praise to the newborn king . . . . . . . . I, too, have always had this picture in my mind. . . . . But . . . I decided to revisit this passage in Luke 2, reading it in the Greek New Testament to see if there was something I may have missed. In doing so, I discovered something I had never realized before and something that is rarely mentioned and never discussed in detail in commentaries on Luke. This passage fits in with one of the two main themes I have been exploring in this book, namely, that Christmas is the beginning of war. Where is the military imagery in Luke 2:13? Listen carefully: The word that Luke uses for “host” is the Greek word stratia, a word that in classical Greek almost invariably denotes an army or a company of soldiers. On occasion the word could be used as an alternate for the Greek word strateia, which denotes a military expedition. In either case, the word has strong military connotations. . . . . What the NIV translates as “heavenly host,” Luke Timothy Johnson translates as “the heavenly army.” Christopher Evans refers to the “angels as the divine soldiery,” and F. L. Godet calls them a “troop of angels.” The NRSV has a footnote by the word “host” and indicates that in Greek this word means “army.” . . . . Most commentators, however, understand this word as a large choir.”

Dr. Verbrugge asks, ”How does this military imagery, then, intersect with the Christmas story? He explains, “In chapter 2 we discussed the evidence in the Bible that Christmas was the beginning of a celestial war. Jesus came to destroy the works of the Devil, and Satan reciprocated by trying to destroy Jesus. . . . . . . . Throughout Jesus’ life and ministry, he had numerous encounters with demons, the cohorts of Satan.  . . . .  Our Savior openly admitted that he had always had a spiritual army at his disposal: “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26.53).  . . . . It seems to me that those legions of angels who were ready to do the bidding of Jesus in Matthew 26 are identical to the multitude of the heavenly host, the stratia, that is out on the fields of Bethlehem. In other words, the song that these heavenly angels sing, . . . is not sung first and foremost by a heavenly choir, though I don’t doubt for a minute that they were trained in music as well as in military procedures. It is sung by legions of heavenly soldiers whose Commander in Chief has just been born, and they know that full-fledged war is just ahead of them.”

Verbrugge’s explanation throws a floodlight onto this heavenly encounter that Luke narrates. The appearance of this army of angels signals that a war – whose field of conflict embraced both heaven and earth – was entering its decisive phase. Christ’s nativity was the prelude to the great climactic battle in the war against Satan, the battle that took place on the cross, in which Satan was defeated, in which Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities” (Colossian 2.15).

That war against Satan began in heaven, when Satan first rebelled against God. Other angels joined Satan’s rebellion. From that time, Satan and his evil forces have opposed God and every angel and human loyal to Him. This cosmic conflict is central to the Bible story.

When Adam and Eve, too – tempted by the serpent – rebelled against God, the theatre of war now extended to planet Earth. After Adam and Eve’s sin, God cursed Satan. He said to him: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3.15). There would be conflict between Satan and Eve. And there would be conflict between their offspring – between people who follow Satan and God’s people. But, one day, a single offspring descended from Eve would – though suffering fearfully in the process – defeat Satan, and deal with all the consequences of sin. In Vaughan Robert’s words, “The rest of the Bible can be seen as a ‘search for the serpent-crusher”.

From the moment of the Fall, through century after century, God prepared the stage of history for the coming of the Serpent-Crusher. Alec Motyer comments that the Old Testament “is, in many ways, a book standing on tiptoe, straining forward into the future.” As we travel through the Old Testament God fills out the details of this Man Who would defeat Satan and rescue and restore mankind and the whole creation. So, after many centuries, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, . . . .” (Galatians 4.4). Just as angels sang at Earth’s creation (Job 38.4-7), now they celebrate our Saviour’s birth (Luke 2.13-14). God’s heavenly host rejoice every time Satan’s dark dominion is pushed back – and Jesus’s birth heralded Satan’s total defeat. No wonder they sang!

Details of Dr. Verbrugge’s book A Not-So-Silent Night: the Unheard story of Christmas and Why It Matters are available HERE.

CREDITS Text copyright © 2018 Robert Gordon Betts Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations (other than those in quotations from other authors) 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. Scripture quotations marked ‘NIV’ are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Anglicised edition). Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved. ‘NIV’ is a registered trademark of Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). UK trademark number 1448790.

‘Once more: Jesus was not born in a stable’ by Ian Paul

Image © Lumo Project through Free Bible Images All rights reserved

A re-enactment of the nativity scene: Jesus with His mother Mary, and her husband Joseph.

Dr. Ian Paul writes, “I am sorry to spoil your preparations for Christmas . . . . But Jesus wasn’t born in a stable, and, curiously, the New Testament hardly even hints that this might have been the case. So where has the idea come from? I would track the source to three things: traditional elaboration; issues of grammar and meaning; and ignorance of first-century Palestinian culture.”

Dr Paul opens up some fascinating insights into Jesus’ nativity. He tells us why oxen and asses are traditionally placed in the nativity scene. He explains the meanings of the Greek word in Luke 2.7 that’s translated “inn” in the ESV and the King James Version (but translated “guest room” in the NIV). And he takes us back to the first-century setting of the narrative, including the culture of the time and the actual design of Palestinian homes. Dr Paul draws on resources by other writers and provides links to two sermons, one by himself, another by Stephen Kuhrt, that retell the Christmas story in way that is faithful to its first-century Palestinian background.

Read the whole article HERE