Why Tell Lowly Shepherds?

Christmas greetings! What makes this a wonderful time of year, when so many are hurting and struggling in this difficult time? 

Simply this: our problems are not the complete picture. Our Lord Jesus entered a world in turmoil, too. His coming gives us the hope to deal with our present challenges, and the glorious eternity that awaits!

God sent His angels to announce Jesus’ arrival to a select group of individuals. First to Zechariah, a temple priest and the father of John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-25). Then to Mary, the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:26-38), and to Joseph, Mary’s husband (Matthew 1:18-25). Then to a select group of shepherds (Luke 2:8-20), to Simeon at Jesus’ circumcision at 8 days old (Luke 2:21-35), and to those present at Jesus’ baptism by God Himself (Luke 3:21-22). But this Good News is for all of us! As recorded in John 1:12, “But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name.”

I’d like to share some insights I have gleaned during my pastoral studies of the announcement to the shepherds. I think you’ll find the information compelling. 

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Why Tell Lowly Shepherds?

Many ask, “Why did God announce His coming to lowly shepherds and not others we would consider more likely candidates to receive the news of the long awaited Messiah?” 

Let’s start with examining our perspective of “lowly” shepherds. Some suggest that these shepherds were temple priests. The Bible doesn’t confirm this. But even if they were not, these shepherds, watching over their flocks outside of Bethlehem, were likely tasked with caring for and protecting sheep ear-marked for sacrificial offerings. By Jewish law, year-old male sheep used for temple sacrifices could have no blemish or defect, which means the shepherds would have been vigilant in their daily care of them.

Our traditional Christmas telling, in which angels appear to simple shepherds, glosses over a fact that make the story of Jesus’ arrival really compelling!

Luke 2:12 tells us that an angel of the Lord said to the shepherds, “This shall be a sign unto you, you shall find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” We have read this statement for years, but have we wondered about this “sign?” What was it?

Swaddling newborn babies wasn’t unique; was the manger more so? On first glance, nope. It was an item any shepherd would have used and been quite familiar with. Though they were probably quite surprised to hear that a newly birthed, cleaned, and swaddled baby had been placed in one!  

Often an indented rock, a manger is basically a feeding trough for livestock. Did Mary place Jesus in a manger to cradle Him because she was too tired to hold Him — or, perhaps, to make a point? The angel had been specific about this detail.

Notes Reverend Michael A. Van Sloun, “Jesus was not laid in a manger by accident. It is a major spiritual symbol. Animals go to the manager for physical food, but with Jesus lying on the hay, we can go to the manger for spiritual food.” Adds Christian author John Piper, “This is the sign. No other king anywhere in the world was lying in a feeding trough. Find Him, and you find the King of kings. And you will know something. Something utterly crucial about His kingship.”

Jesus, birthed in a smelly stable, came to serve. He humbled Himself so low that He willingly endured a criminal’s death on the cross for you and me. 

Of significance: the altar upon which animals were sacrificed in the temple were typically made from rock. And bodies prepared for burial were swaddled or bound with strips of cloth. This gives us another picture of Jesus. In shedding His blood, Jesus poured out His life as payment in full for humanity’s sin. In rising, He proved His deity.

“This is how the Savior saves. This is how the Messiah fulfills all the promises. This is how the Lord reigns: from infinite deity, to feeding trough, to final torments on the cross.” ~ John Piper.

In this world, we face many hard, even seemingly impossible problems. But our God specializes in the impossible! In coming to the world in human form, He willingly took the full impact of the demands for justice, making a way for us to live a righteous life through our faith in Him.

Jesus, alone, is the reason for the season. Merry CHRISTmas!

Guest blogger Vernon Ball, a retired pastor, is 76 years young. In his 50 years of preaching, Vernon pastored five churches and served as interim pastor of four others. He is the author of the book, The Mystery of Faith. A great-grandfather of 12, Vernon is currently involved in international ministries in Eastern Asia.

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