In this day and age of artificial light everywhere and continuous noise, it’s hard to imagine perfect silence and darkness. Over 2,000 years ago a group of shepherds were watching their flocks on the hills surrounding Bethlehem, and the night was offering a natural peacefulness and darkness. The stars shown bright and twinkled like diamonds as these men relaxed and enjoyed the cool night air.
As they watched over and protected their flock, maybe they discussed the price of wool or how many lambs they would sell during the next Passover. Maybe they talked about how blessed they were to be quietly sitting in the field, because in town there were crowds of people. Those crowds were caused by a decree which Caesar Augustus had issued.
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed“ (Luke 2:1).
One more tax was a burden but the horde of people who came to Bethlehem was also a problem. There were no rooms to rent and people slept where they could. This was just one more reason to look for the promised Messiah, because He surely would free the Jewish people from the oppression of the Romans.
Still, on this cool night the shepherds watched over their flocks in these fields that had been a part of Jewish history. Had Naomi, Ruth and Boaz walked in these very fields? Surely the boy who would grow up to be King David watched his flock right here. The area was rich with history, but the greatest event in history was about to take place. These lowly shepherds were about to receive an invitation to look upon their Messiah.
These shepherds couldn’t have had any idea about the miracle that was taking place in the little town of Bethlehem on that very night. King David may have walked these hills, but the King of kings was entering His creation as a tiny baby born in a manger. Instead of coming in majesty and power, He came as a child…a baby. His mother was a virgin and mortal, but He had been conceived by the Holy Spirit. The shepherds didn’t know any of this as they chatted quietly in the fields surrounding Bethlehem.
“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“ (Luke 2:9).
The shepherds were alert to any threat by a predator that may attack the flock, but the sudden appearance of an angel wasn’t something they were prepared for. Shepherds weren’t the most respected men around. Their profession was lowly and they were socially unacceptable, but they were the ones to whom the angel brought the good news.
“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“ (Luke 2:10-11).
“Good tidings of great joy” was an understatement. These tidings weren’t just for the nation of Israel but for all people. The shepherds probably understood very little about the significance of what the angel said or just how important the Baby was, but they understood that something wonderful had taken place.
The angel said a “Saviour” was born. Did they think the angel was talking about a Saviour to save them from Roman repression? Could they know that the Baby in the manger came to offer eternal salvation to all people? The Baby born that night would one day conquer the grave and death, not the Romans.
Some Bible teachers say that the sheep these men raised were specifically for use in the Temple as sacrifices since they were so near to Jerusalem. If so, these shepherds would have been experts in examining the lambs to find the unblemished ones. This may have been one reason the shepherds were sent rather than the priests. The shepherds would look for the unblemished sacrificial lamb, but the priests would kill it. This Babe in the manger was the perfect Lamb of God. Years later John the Baptist would proclaim “…Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world“ (John 1:29b).
The shepherds had no way of knowing that this Baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in the manger, was the fulfillment of prophecy and would one day offer Himself as the once-for-all sin offering for all of mankind. Still, they went to find Him. Most people who come to Jesus don’t know a lot about Him. They just know they need to find Him.
Kings are usually born in a palace and the mother is attended by midwives. The King of kings was an exception. “And this shall be a sign unto you, ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger“ (Luke 2:12). The Saviour was lying in a manger…a feeding trough that animals ate from. Had the shepherds fed their sheep there? It certainly wasn’t a place mortal kings would enter the world.
Parents usually want the best possible conditions for their baby to be born — sanitary with a nice bed for the mother and a crib for the baby. God’s perfect Lamb was born in a stable and laid in a manger. God could have arranged for a more comfortable place for this birth, but He didn’t. After all, He arranged for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem rather than 90 miles away in Nazareth. Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth, and prophecy said the Redeemer would be born in Bethlehem.
It may have been Caesar Augustus who decreed that everyone had to go to his own city for taxation, but it was God who put it into his mind. This decree required Joseph and Mary to travel to the City of David in spite of Mary being ready to give birth. Mary was young, but she was just a human and probably wanted better for her child, especially knowing that her child was God’s own Son. Jesus was her firstborn, and when she gave birth to her other children I’m sure they were born in better conditions.
We have many traditions about Christ’s birth that don’t quite line up with Scripture. For instance, it’s very unlikely that He was born on December 25, and the wise men didn’t show up that same night but arrived much later. Another tradition is that the angels sang, but did they sing or did they speak?
“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“ (Luke 2:13-14).
We’ve all seen a Christmas play featuring children with battered wings and crooked halos, and the wise men are there with the shepherds at the manger. The little angels sing their hearts out. Sometimes they remember the words but seldom sing in key. Scripture says the angels spoke. The word lego is translated “saying” and means to speak. Whether they sang or spoke, it’s clear that they glorified God.
The shepherds must have been amazed. Out of nowhere angels appeared and gave them a wonderful message. They immediately went to find the Child. “And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger“ (Luke 2:16). God’s angels don’t lie, and the shepherds found Him just as they had been told.
What do we do when we find Jesus? Many times a person will feel compelled to answer an altar call, but that’s the end of their excitement. Not so with the shepherds. “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“ (Luke 2:17-18).
They told people…they shared the good news. They didn’t have complete understanding of what it was all about, but they knew it was of God. Many years would pass before Jesus fulfilled His ministry on earth and shed His blood for our redemption, and I wonder if any of those shepherds ever heard Him speak or saw Him hanging on the cross. Scripture is silent about that, but on the night of His birth they couldn’t keep the good news to themselves.
“And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them“ (Luke 2:20). All of us should be that excited about finding Jesus. That joy should last a lifetime.
Mary had a lot to think about. From the time Gabriel first appeared to her and announced that she would bear the Son of God, her life had to be lived by faith. Joseph was ready to put her away because she was pregnant and not married, but by faith she knew God would make it right. He did. He always does when we trust Him. Gabriel appeared to Joseph and told him that Mary was going to give birth to the Son of God. Joseph must have been a special man because he took care of Mary and was a good step-father to Jesus. Later he and Mary would have children of their own, but until then Joseph didn’t have marital relations with her.
When the shepherds came to the manger and told of the angels appearing to them, Mary and Joseph must have marveled. “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.“ (Luke 2:19).
Mary would face ridicule because of her choice to bear the Son of God, and she would face the ultimate heartache as she stood at the foot of the cross. At those times when she was facing trouble, she could look back and remember Gabriel’s visit and the shepherds. That’s a lesson for all of us. Every day we should ponder what Jesus did for us. If you’re mocked for your faith or are facing a trying time in your life, that’s when you need to think about Jesus and remember the joy of the Lord.
We tend to stop and think about the miracles surrounding the birth of Jesus just once a year. Maybe we should ponder these events more often. Like the shepherds, we need to share the Good News with everyone and glorify and praise God for all the things He has done for us.
God bless you all,
Ron Graham’s previous commentaries archived at http://www.raptureready.com/featured/graham/graham.html
All original scripture is “theopneustos,” God breathed.
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