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.

‘From Eden to the New Jerusalem’ by T. Desmond Alexander

In this book, T. Desmond Alexander traces some of the central themes of the Bible story. Dr Alexander explores each theme in an unusual way – by beginning at the end of the Bible, in the final chapters of the Book of Revelation. In this way, he keeps the goal of God’s plan of redemption in view as we track each theme from Genesis onwards through the Bible.

There seven main chapters, bracketed by an introduction and conclusion. Here are the titles of these seven chapters; each is followed by an outline of the chapter’s content.

Chapter 2: “From sacred garden to holy city: experiencing the presence of God. ” This is by some way the longest chapter. It develops the central theme of God’s presence on Earth. We’re introduced to the end-goal of God’s plan: Revelation 21.1-3 describes the holy city that possibly fills the whole earth, and where God lives with His people. After an overview of the Bible’s theme of God’s dwelling on Earth, Alexander shows us that New Jerusalem is a temple-city. Then we’re taken back to the beginning: he shows us that God’s first dwelling place on Earth was the temple-garden of Eden. But after their sin, Alexander explains that God deprived Adam and Eve of their priestly status in God’s temple-garden; God’s plan that, in Alexander’s words, “the whole earth should become a holy garden-city” is jeopardised. Alexander briefly looks at the escalation of sin and God’s response by sending the Flood, and at the Babel project. Alexander then traces the path that God took to restore Earth to be His dwelling place with humanity – through the Tabernacle, the Temple in Jerusalem, and the Church as God’s temple. Finally, he looks briefly at the New Testament’s references to God’s promise of His city.

Chapter 3: “Thrown from the throne: re-establishing the sovereignty of God.” Alexander first looks at God’s sovereignty over Earth and mankind’s original vocation as God’s viceroys – as royal priests. But, as Alexander tells us, “By betraying God and obeying the serpent, the royal couple dethrone God” . He then traces the way God restored His sovereignty over the whole Earth – firstly, through Abraham and through the theocracy of Israel, and then through the Man Christ Jesus. The author shows that Christ is now God’s viceroy over Earth, a role that His Church – a royal priesthood – shares. As he writes, “By living in obedience to Christ, his disciples participate in the establishment of God’s kingdom on the earth.” Finally, he briefly looks forward to the time, pictured in Revelation chapters 21-22, when God is king over the whole Earth.

Chapter 4: “Dealing with the devil: destroying the source of evil.” In this chapter Alexander explains that Satan exercises authority over this world, and outlines how he came to do so. He traces the ensuing conflict between God and Satan as it is played out in the world. He looks at Jesus’ conflict with Satan, culminating in Jesus’s death, which seems to be a triumph for Satan. But, as he tells us, “Apparent defeat is dramatically turned into victory with the resurrection of Jesus. For this reason, Jesus can subsequently proclaim to his disciples, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’ (Matthew 28.18).” Finally, he briefly looks at the end of Satan’s domination as described in Revelation 20, and believers’ spiritual warfare in this present world.

Chapter 5: “The slaughter of the Lamb: accomplishing the redemption of creation. ” Five times, the last two chapters of Revelation refer to Jesus Christ as “the Lamb”; He is referred to as a “Lamb” 28 times in all. He briefly looks at the image of Christ as the Lamb in the Book of Revelation, then back to the Passover in Exodus. He writes that “the Lamb of Revelation 5 is undoubtedly associated with the Old Testament exodus story”. He takes us through the first Passover in Egypt. He explains that the Passover ritual in Egypt provided atonement and purification, and that Jesus’s sacrificial death provides atonement and purification for all believers. Dr Alexander also writes that eating the Passover lamb in Egypt made people holy; and that eating the New Testament equivalent – the Lord’s Supper – sanctifies believers. In his words, “Like the original Passover sacrifice, his death atones for the sin of the people, his blood purifies and cleanses, and those who eat his body at the Lord’s Supper share in his holy nature.” (However, it isn’t clear why eating the Lord’s Supper sanctifies us. I can personally see a connection, however. Both the Old Testament Passover and the Lord’s Supper are covenant meals. Participating in them reaffirms the covenant bond between the Lord and His people – that is, the God’s people are committed to and belong to the Lord – and so therefore are holy to the Lord.)

Chapter 6: “Feasting from the tree of life: reinvigorating the lives of people from every nation.” Alexander writes, “we have traced how God has acted to reclaim the earth as his own and build a temple-city by gradually establishing his presence and sovereignty through the theocracy of Israel and the church. Central to the redemptive activity of God is the cross of Christ, for through it Satan is defeated and human beings are enabled to regain the holy, royal status Adam and Eve lost. Building on these observations, this chapter explores how John’s vision of the New Jerusalem anticipates human existence as we have never known it. The life to come will be truly abundant and fully satisfying. This hope is reflected in themes found in Revelation 21–22 that reappear throughout the entire biblical meta-story, in particular, the concepts of ‘holy people’, ‘tree of life’ and ‘nations’.” Alexander look briefly at God’s people as holy people in His presence. He then explores what the Book of Leviticus teaches about holiness, cleanness/purity and uncleanness/impurity. Dr Alexander writes, “To be holy is to be unblemished or unmarred; it is to be complete, perfect, whole”. So he then looks at the bodily wholeness that will be part of our holiness – bodily perfection and immortality, with access to the tree of life. Finally, he looks at the ecological transformation of our planet, and the social harmony we’ll enjoy, where peoples from all races and nations will live in unity.

Chapter 7: “Strong foundations and solid walls: living securely among the people of God.” Dr Alexander makes it clear that the New Testament builds upon what is revealed in the Old Testament. He writes, “The continuity between the Old and New Testaments is also important because it provides a greater basis for believing in the reality of the future New Jerusalem. . . . . As our study has revealed, the New Jerusalem is a natural extension of all that has been revealed in the rest of the Bible.”. He then explores the contrasts between the New Jerusalem and the other city described in Revelation – Babylon. He explains, “Babylon and the New Jerusalem represent contrasting worlds.” Babylon is a prostitute; in Alexander’s “the city of Babylon represents humanity’s obsession with wealth and power, which become a substitute for knowing God” . New Jerusalem is a bride; Alexander writes, this city “promises holiness, wholeness and love in the presence of God.”. He points out, “the book of Revelation warns us to come out of Babylon and encourages us to take our stand with Christ”.

Dr Alexander specialises in the study of Pentateuch and Biblical Theology. This book is based on his expertise in these areas, and there’s substantial theological depth underpinning this book. It bridges the gap between books written at a popular level and those aimed at such people as seminary students and scholars. The book is relatively brief (less than 200 pages of text) and accessible. The text is accompanied by many footnotes, and there’s a 9-page select bibliography at the end.

David Schrock has written a helpful summary and brief analysis HERE.

Read the publishers’ descriptions HERE and HERE

T. Desmond Alexander is Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies in Union Theological College, a constituent college of the Institute of Theology at Queen’s University Belfast. His research interests lie primarily in two areas: the Pentateuch and Biblical Theology. He has authored and edited a variety of articles and books.