Startled Shepherds

The Truth About Christmas

by Bob Burridge ©2010

This article continues a series of studies about the events surrounding the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ. The series begins with, Called To Bethlehem. There is also a complete index for all the articles telling The Truth About Christmas.

Part 9 Startled Shepherds

Bethlehem was a busy place around the day when Jesus was born. With all the descendants of King David back in their home-town because of the Roman census there were undoubtedly stories to tell, things to catch up on, and opinions to share about current events.

The homes of relatives were likely already filled with other visiting relatives by the time Mary and Joseph arrived. Since there was no room in the family kataluma (the word is translated “guest room” in other places in the New Testament, not “inn”) the young couple from Nazareth probably stayed in one of the shed-like attachments of a family home.

One night while they were there (we don’t really know what time of year, or what time of the night) their baby was born and laid in a manger as his cradle. It was not unusual then to use an unused feeding trough this way.

Undoubtedly news spread fast to all the relatives there since they were living in close quarters. There would have been a lot of congratulations, and probably talk about the nature of his conception. There was no way to send out announcements to those back in Galilee that night, no phones, no e-mail, facebook, or family web-sites. But God intended to get the word out beyond just the family of David gathered in Bethlehem.
The message came to shepherds out in the fields that night. Luke 2:8 “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”

Shepherds were a common sight in the fields around Bethlehem. During the grazing seasons they sometimes built simple shelters out in the fields for a long term stay.

The life of a shepherd is something few of us have experienced. Then shepherding was a common occupation. God used the shepherd’s work to explain how he takes care of his people, and about how we rely upon our Savior to be our Good Shepherd.

It was an ancient and major industry in Bethlehem, just 5 miles south of Jerusalem. There was a good market for sheep which were sacrificed daily in the temple worship.

Sheep had grazed in those hills for many generations. About 1,000 years earlier the feet of a young shepherd boy named David walked over those fields. One of the best known passages of the Bible is the 23rd Psalm. It was written by that shepherd after he became King over a united Israel. In that Psalm he used his experience with the sheep to explain how the Lord is our Shepherd.

Many hundreds of years after David’s time many families there were still tending sheep on those hills. Out in the fields away from the crowding of the city the shepherds probably talked a lot about all those coming home for the Roman census. There were busy reunions of cousins, brothers, and sisters who that had been scattered over the years.

Certainly they talked some about the politics of the day, how Rome had become so oppressive. They hoped in the Messiah who would come one day to save them. But the Rabbis had confused the ancient promises of the Bible. In the synagogues they were taught that the Messiah would be a great revolutionary who would bring down Rome. They expected that he would restore political power to Israel again and lead them to rule over the Gentiles.

This was likely an ordinary night out on the fields, like hundreds of thousands of nights before then. It was their job to be there. It was their family heritage and business, and they knew it well. They worked under the same constellations of stars and the same moon their ancestor David had seen. The same night skies that lit the fields for Abraham. They are the same lights that display the Creator’s glory in our 21st century night skies.

For the shepherds on that night near Bethlehem, it would have all stared out quite routinely, an ancient set of nightly duties that rarely changed — but this night would be different.
Suddenly the normalcy was broken by the appearance of a messenger sent from heaven. Luke 2:9, “And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.’

The picture gets confused by the paintings and illustrations we’re so familiar with today. When heavenly angels appeared to people in the Bible they were often mistaken for mere men. They didn’t hover in the air with wings, halos, and harps.

Our word “angel” comes directly from the Greek word used in the New Testament: angelos (αγγελος). It’s the ordinary word for messenger, someone sent to deliver a message.

For example, that’s what Luke 7:24 calls the messengers sent to Jesus from John the baptist. They are simply called angels, angeloi (αγγελοι). The readers then would have understood what Luke meant. The word angeloi was use for messengers who brought orders to the front lines in battles. When Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah in 1 Kings 19:2 the Hebrew word malac (מלאך) was used. That’s the word for “messenger” in Hebrew, and it is the word commonly used for heavenly angels in the Old Testament. We know when the Bible is talking about a non-human spirit messenger because the passage usually tells us that it was a messenger “from heaven”, or words to that effect.

God very rarely sent spirit messengers in human form to deliver his word to humans. There are only a few isolated times in the Bible when that happened.

There’s nothing wrong with drawing God’s angels with wings and halos in art work. It’s the imagery we often use to represent them in book illustrations, paintings, Christmas cards, and figurines. The Bible even uses images like that in describing some of the spirit beings in heaven. But it doesn’t say that angels had physical wings. They were pure spirit beings. When God gave them a physical form to appear as men delivering his message it’s never said that they had wings or halos.

We need to be careful that we don’t miss the main point of their mission by imagining dramatic creatures that would draw the attention to themselves. When they came, the important thing was what God sent them to announce. The spotlight was never on the messenger.

So if the angel appeared to the shepherds as just a man, why were they frightened? The sudden appearing of a man might startle them for a moment. But the main thing that made them uneasy was the overwhelming glory of the Lord around them. God opened their eyes to see his ever-present glory which since man’s fall in Eden is normally suppressed by the fallen soul.

So in Luke 2:10-12 we read that the angel comforted the shepherds, and delivered God’s message. “And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

There was good news for them and for “all people”. The Jews were not used to hearing that God’s message of joy reaches out to the Gentiles. Clearly that was always God’s plan. The Jews served an important place as God revealed his covenant of grace. With the coming of the Messiah their special place ended. Now the Israel of God has expanded to be a church of believers from all nations.

The reason for this great joy to all was the birth of the Messiah that night. He was born in Bethlehem, the city of David — just as God’s word had predicted. He came as the Savior, but not to save the Jews from the Roman Emperor, and not just to benefit the Jews alone. He came to save believers of all races from the guilt of sin. He came to restore them to fellowship with God. This baby is the Christ, the Messiah, the Lord who sovereignly rules over all things.

The sign spoken of by the angel was that they would find him in a most humble setting. He would be a baby wrapped up the way babies normally were in those days, and lying in a food trough. This was not the way the Rabbis expected the Messiah to come into the world. The Joy and Peace he would bring wasn’t what most expected then either.

Then a whole “army” of heavenly beings joined the angel. Luke 2:13-14 says, “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, good will toward men.’ ”

They appeared suddenly stepping out of the dimension of spirits to be seen by these shepherds. They knew the message they were about to deliver and to these messengers, it was a sure cause for praise. They recognized God’s glory, a wonder greater than anything else imaginable. They declared that the Messiah who was just born will bring Peace. Isaiah 9:6 calls him the Prince of Peace, sar shalom (שַׂר־שָׁלֹֽום).

Jesus Christ is the Sovereign Ruler over and root cause of any real peace that exists among men. By his restraining mercy he keeps men from being as cruel and violent as they could be. This gives us times of safety from harm and crimes. When he removes that restraint and lets sin show itself we see what happens. Fallen people left to themselves will tend to do wicked and selfish things.

It is his saving grace that alone can change the heart into that of a redeemed child of God. If you have faith in Christ, or if your loved ones come to know him as their Savior, then you understand that it is his work in you that brings inner peace to your soul. It is nothing for which you can take credit yourself.

In Christ believers are at peace with God, and find comfort even while they endure trials. In Philippians 4:7 while under Roman arrest for his faith, the Apostle Paul wrote, “And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

One day those rescued by his grace will be free from all discomforts and attacks of evil. That perfect and eternal peace comes to those who rest their hope in the Prince of Peace. But that peace doesn’t come to everybody. All enjoy moments when they aren’t at war, or victims of crime or of physical discomforts. But even in those times there’s no real lasting peace in the heart or peace with God unless the person is redeemed by grace to lay hold of Christ by faith.

This peace is only promised by God to those transformed by the Redeemer’s work in them. In Romans 5:1 Paul writes, “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”

Just as suddenly it was quiet again in the hills around Bethlehem. Luke 2:15-16 says, “And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.”

They reacted with immediate obedience. They didn’t come to the manger just to be observers. They came to worship the one who alone deserves worship. They also had information to deliver, the message from God through the angels. They confirmed what they were told. This baby was the Savior, the Christ who was the Lord.

They understood that as Savior he didn’t come as a political revolutionary. They didn’t need freedom from Rome. They needed to be set free from the chains of sin and the weight of its guilt. And they weren’t going to have to wait until he grew up to become a liberator of oppressed people. He was already their Lord, their master. This was Immanuel, “God with us,” the Savior from their soul’s real bondage.

Their worship wasn’t showy or designed to entertain and whip up emotions. They came humbly as sinners saved by grace to honor the one who came to forgive them and set them free. That’s the way we should come to worship him too. It’s what we should tell others to do as they come to worship him too.

How did they find him? There was no star to guide them at this time. That star didn’t point out where the family of Jesus was until the wise men came from the East, probably many months later. But finding him wouldn’t have been difficult. This was the city of David’s descendants. The relatives of his family were very much aware of Mary and Joseph and the baby. Many people there would have known where they were staying during their time in Bethlehem.
This miraculous event had a lasting effect upon these shepherds of Bethlehem. Luke 2:17-20 says, “And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.”

The lives of these men were changed forever. The hope they’d heard about since they were children had come to be a reality, and they had witnessed it personally. They were filled with great joy when they came to understand what it all meant. They were also filled with a compelling desire to honor God and to tell others about it.

Mary had a lot to treasure and ponder for the rest of her life too. She had given birth to the one promised to Eve, the mother of the whole human race. This baby is the longed for Messiah that gave hope through the ages. He was the hope of Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Daniel, and all believers. This little baby she had given birth to and laid in a manger was the Savior, Immanuel, God With Us.

Next Study: The Wise Men

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About Bob Burridge

I've taught Science, Bible, Math, Computer Programming and served 25 years as Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Pinellas Park, Florida. I'm now Executive Director of the ministry of the Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies

One Response to Startled Shepherds

  1. Jennie S. says:

    I really enjoyed your article. I used to be in your homeroom and in your science and Bible classes back at Skycrest Christian School in 1975-78, and I saw your link to this site on facebook, as we’re friends there. My last name was Nelson back then, and I had a twin sister Mary, and my older brother Jim was in the same grade then too. I still remember much of what you taught in Bible class.
    It’s good to look at the nativitiy story without the many traditions that have been attached to it over the years. This is the second time in two weeks I’ve seen the explanation of the ‘upper room’ rather than the ‘inn’. I happened to read the passage in Psalm 104 too,where it says “He waters the hills from His upper chambers” and connected that to the upper room idea, which is mentioned several times in scripture, in the Old and New Testaments. It made me think of how Jesus left the ‘upper rooms’ of heaven and came to the lower rooms of earth. He has now gone to prepare a place for us in those upper rooms and will come to take us there someday. It’s a good remembrance.