When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see these things that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” Luke 2:15 (NIV)
I love sheep. I know, I know. Sheep are considered not the brightest of animals, but something about them is very endearing. Hearing their crying (“baaaaaa!”) and the smell of lanolin and the soft touch of their wool. Then there’s the look they give you from their velvety brown eyes.
Shepherds have had a unique place in history. Throughout all of Scripture there have been sheep and a need for shepherds. Not too many jobs have had this long-lasting run.
Sheep need someone who will lead them and care for them and get them into the right places and out of the wrong. Needs are attended to, illness and injuries are cared for. They are protected from predators and sheltered from inclement weather. Most are shorn in early spring as the heat in summer would kill them.
Such a perfect depiction is given to us by a beloved shepherd David, in Psalm 23. So relatable and calming, to say the least. Why? Because we see ourselves as sheep – lost, loved, longed for, cared for and guided.
In Bethlehem over 2000 years ago, shepherd were tending flocks meant for the required sacrificial system carried out at the Temple in Jerusalem. Sheep were needed on an ongoing basis for the thousands of sacrifices required to fulfill the Law. Even though the role of a shepherd was very much needed, it was a despised position. They were considered unclean, lived out away from ‘normal’ society and were basically unable to keep a lot of the Law because of their very profession.
It was to these young men God sent the angel Gabriel. He is not identified in Luke 2, however, he is in Luke 1:19 and 26 –
The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.” (verse 19)
In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee. (verse 26)
His role and mission is the same – to announce the Good News. And we encounter him multiple times in the narration of the birth of Jesus. What we do know is what he tells us – he stands in the presence of God. No wonder the sky lit up in Luke 2 – the glory of the Lord shone all around.
The shepherds were in the middle of this glory. And they were terrified. Who wouldn’t be? It was set to be an ordinary night, but it got changed in an instant with the entrance of Gabriel appearing to these lowly shepherds, tending their fires and their sheep.
To see the glory of the Lord reminds us of the desert wanderings of the Israelites in the Old Testament. Moses saw this same glory (see Exodus 33:12-34:8) , and the three disciples of Jesus’s inner circle would see it later at the transfiguration of Jesus (see Matthew 17:1-13; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36). But this was at a future date. The glory these shepherds saw was intense, terrifying and struck fear in them.
Immediately, Gabriel instructs them not to be afraid. We do not know if they followed this command, but we do know they followed the next one.
The shepherds saw the glory of the Lord, heard the angel Gabriel (sent directly from the presence of God), saw the sky fill with the heavenly host (no exact head count of these angels, but it’s a host (or as the KJV translates, a multitude). Much like the feeding of the five thousand and the four thousand. Or the multitude of fish caught in the miracle of Jesus in (Luke 5;1-8). Or the multitude sitting on the hillside when Jesus taught His long teaching called the Beatitudes. Many. Numerous. Extraordinary.
Wow. Put yourself back in the scene in Bethlehem. Imagine the shock, the host, the news – the good news. The long wait was over. For over four hundred years the nation of Israel had been waiting to hear from God - now His silence was broken. First to Zechariah, then Mary, then Joeseph and now these young men at the end of a long, seemingly normal day out in the fields with sheep.
Did they question Gabriel? Did they run in fear? Did they doubt like Zechariah did in Luke 1:18? Were they shocked? Were they curious? We may not have all the answers to these questions, but we do have enough to know of their faith. They had faith in action.
They did not question, they obeyed immediately on every point and they were rewarded with the best possible gift – seeing the Son of God in the flesh. They saw Emmanuel, the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. They beheld the Promise of Heaven, Love come down, the Shepherd of all mankind.
How do we know it was immediate? Luke 2:16 gives us the answer –
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was
lying in the manger.
What were they to look for? A baby. A common thing. Wrapped in swaddle cloths. Again, common. But this Baby, would be lying in a manger. Why? Because He was and is the Bread of Life –
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life.” John 6:35 (NIV)
“This is the bread of life that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.” John 6:58 (NIV)
What a feast the shepherds beheld in the cave, cattle stall, a lowly place for our humble King. The shepherds beheld then spread the news. The good news. Mary and Joseph did not publish this information, nor speak of it. They did not need to justify their behaviour, their odd circumstances, their Son.
The shepherds had faith to go and see, and afterwards they told everyone they saw. And the world has been forever changed because of their faith, their obedience, their humble love for the great Shepherd, Jesus.
Will you go where God leads, obey and have faith, like the shepherds?
Abba Father, and Jesus, my Shepherd. Thank You for Your Sovereign plan which includes the outcasts, the lowly, the looked-over, the shepherds with whom I can identify with. Thank You for the ultimate gift of all gifts - Jesus, the Messiah, the bread from Heaven, the Bread of Life, the Good Shepherd. Increase my faith like the shepherds of long ago, who instantly believed and took obedient action. You are worthy and so incredibly amazing. In Your Name, Jesus. AMEN
(If you are looking to further study about this particular part of the birth narrative, a new study is available. Please reach out to me - it is not quite here from the press, but should be very soon!!!!)