Because it is a supernatural story of God relating to humankind, some people forget the Bible is a book about things that happened to people.
I like to study the characters in the Bible and learn about who they were and why they were included in the narrative.
One group of characters that make a fun study – especially at Christmas - are shepherds. Abraham, Jacob and Moses all spent time working as shepherds.
David wasn’t always a king. Before he headed to the frontlines for a showdown with Goliath he was just a boy watching sheep in a field. But he wasn’t some pudgy kid playing video games all day. Even young shepherds have a very particular set of skills that make them a nightmare for their enemies.
King Saul told David he was just a kid and the giant Goliath had been a solider for years. He told him it was too dangerous. David disagreed.
“Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.”
Even as a young shepherd, David said he had killed both lions and a bears and he wasn’t scared of anything.
Looking ahead a few thousand years, the birth of Christ was announced to shepherds first. A lot of things about that announcement make no sense.
David might have been a hero but shepherds weren’t considered heroes in that society. They were rough and rowdy. They spent their time with sheep. I bet they didn’t smell like a Bath and Body Works commercial.
I would imagine that the shepherds who tended the field at night were especially tough. That’s when the predators would be most likely to attack the flock under the cover of darkness. With a rod and staff, these shepherds were ready for anything. That is where the first unlikely part of the story happens. An angel appeared to the shepherds to announce the birth of the Christ child.
The famous Christmas story from Luke Chapter 2 says the shepherds were filled with great fear when they saw the angel. That should tell you all you need to know about the appearance of an angel. This wasn’t cupid with a harp. If you fill a group of guys with great fear who are accustomed to grabbing a lion by the beard and killing it, you’re pretty scary.
Some of the first guests to meet Jesus on the first Christmas night were these shepherds who found the baby and his parents. After they told their story and worshipped baby Jesus, they headed back out to their flocks praising God.
I am left with so many questions. The main one is, “Why tell the shepherds?” The angel could have told anyone – religious leaders, shopkeepers, anyone other than a bunch of guys out in a pasture.
The answer that feels right to me is related to the fact that the Bible is a story about God relating to his creation and prominent figures in the Bible were shepherds to point ahead to Jesus, the shepherds were the first group to whom the birth was announced and Jesus later called Himself the good shepherd. He told parables about a shepherd with 100 sheep who lost one searching until the lost sheep was found. He talked about how a hired shepherd was only concerned with making a living but the owner of the sheep would give his life to protect the flock.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd who seeks and finds us and gave His life for us.
That’s the story in a nutshell. Shepherds are an important part of the story because that is where the story begins. The way they lived painted a picture of some of Jesus own messianic characteristics that would be revealed.
The Christmas story continued that narrative by bringing the shepherds to the manger to see the newborn Christ. Do you really think it was merely a coincidence that Jesus was laid in a manger – a trough used to feed animals – just before Shepherds came to see Him?
The story could have played out in 1,000 different ways. I think the path it took was specifically designed to reveal characteristics about God that we might miss otherwise.
According to verse 18 in Luke 2, “All who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.”
I’m sure they did. We still do today.