If you have a Christmas Nativity scene, or even if you’ve seen one before, you’re familiar with the shepherds who visited Jesus on the night of his birth.
You have seen them huddled around Mary and Joseph and the baby, staffs in hand, surrounded by their sheep. You probably know the story: Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a small town not too far away from Jerusalem. It wasn’t a prominent city in Jesus’ day, but it was well-known for being the birthplace of King David, widely regarded as one of Israel’s greatest rulers. Jesus was born into humble circumstances. He spent his first night in a feeding trough, in the presence of cows and donkeys rather than among priests and kings.
Not far away, in the countryside outside Bethlehem, a group of shepherds was scared out of their wits by the sudden appearance of an angel, who came to tell them about Jesus’ birth. He said he had really good news. Then he told them that in the “city of David,” a Savior had been born, who was Christ the Lord. In response, the shepherds walked to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus for themselves. It probably didn’t take them long to find him, given that the city was small, and the angel had told them that Jesus was in a manger. Also, newborn babies tend to be noisy; the shepherds probably just followed the sound of Jesus’ crying.
But why did the angel appear to these shepherds in the first place? After all, if you were going to announce the birth of the king of the universe, the savior of Israel, you might choose a more important group of people. I think I would go to the White House, or I would at least call the national news networks. The angel could have gone to tell King Herod, or even Augustus Caesar himself. He could have gone to tell the nation’s religious leaders, men like the Pharisees or the high priest. After all, they would have understood all of the prophecies about the Messiah that had been written in the Scriptures. Surely, they could better announce this news to the world than a group of ragtag shepherds in the middle of nowhere.
I think there are a couple of reasons that the angel went first to these shepherds. First, these shepherds were receptive to the news of Christ’s coming precisely because they were not powerful or important. They didn’t feel the need to defend their power, since they didn’t have any to begin with. Jesus tended to make powerful people either nervous or angry. The nation’s leaders rejected him: Herod tried to have Jesus killed as a baby, while the religious leaders conspired to kill him once he was grown. Jesus’ authority was too much of a threat to their own. The shepherds, on the other hand, had nothing to lose and everything to gain. They believed that the Messiah would bring a good kingdom, one that perfectly reflected God’s justice and generosity, a kingdom where poverty and uncertainty and fear would be abolished. Since shepherds were near the bottom of the social ladder, they knew that the coming of Christ was unbelievably good news for them. As a result, they wanted to be a part of what was about to happen, and they couldn’t help but tell everybody they met that the Messiah had finally arrived. The angel told these shepherds that the good news about Jesus was for “all the people.” It wasn’t only for the rich, powerful or important people. Jesus came for ordinary, lowly people like shepherds.
The second reason the angel came to shepherds first, though, is often overlooked. He came to shepherds because this announcement was about a shepherd. We must not simply skim past the fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of David. Why is David important to this story, you ask? Well, because David was a shepherd who became a great king. But God promised to David that one of his descendants would be an even greater king. From David’s offspring, God promised to raise up a Messiah, a king who would save Israel from her enemies and rule forever over a kingdom of peace and justice. He would be a king who would also become a great shepherd. He would not only rule in power, He would also lead the people with gentleness, compassion, and wisdom, just as a shepherd cares for his sheep. In contrast to the long line of wicked and idolatrous kings that Israel had had to endure, the Messiah would act in the best interest of all the people. He would care for them and be their Good Shepherd. These poor shepherds tending their flocks outside of Bethlehem grew up hearing all the stories of mighty David, the shepherd-king who once grazed his sheep in the same fields where they now grazed their own. They would almost certainly would have made the connection between those stories and the announcement the angel made that night.
There is a famous prophecy about Jesus in the book of Micah, written roughly 700 years before Jesus was born. Micah predicted that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem: “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.”
We rightly marvel at that verse, given how astoundingly accurate Micah’s words turned out to be. But there’s an important passage in the same chapter, only a couple of verses below this one. Micah 5:4-5 says, “And He [the Messiah] will arise and shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord His God ... this one will be our peace.” In other words, the king born in Bethlehem would also be a shepherd. Born in David’s city, the hometown of the famous shepherd-king, the Messiah would one day be the ultimate shepherd-king. He would rule in power and peace, unlike any other king the world has known.
Years after that night in Bethlehem, our great shepherd-king died and rose again to save his sheep from sin and death. During his life, Jesus once said, “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Kings rarely give their lives for their subjects; good shepherds, though, are always ready to give their lives for their sheep. But Jesus is both. Perfect king and loving shepherd. And he’s coming back again one day, to lead and to care for his people forever. I hope you know your king. If you don’t, I pray you’ll come to trust in the great shepherd-king who loves us perfectly and infinitely. Only he promises life, peace, and security for every lamb in his flock, both now and forever.