The Shepherds at Jesus' birth

November 2, 2018

by Barry Fike

     One of the concepts that we often hear when talking about the birth of Jesus is the shepherds in a nearby field near Bethlehem (Lk. 2:8). As famous as this concept is, questions are not asked such as, “If this event was this important, why take a heavenly choir and appear to shepherds?” After all, shepherds didn’t have the best reputations in the world as far as the social scale was concerned in the first century. Let’s look at this event and see the depth that was involved in Jewish thought concerning this Messianic miracle.
     While it was believed by the Jews that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, it was also believed that he would be revealed to the “Migdal Eder”, the tower of the flock. Where does this concept begin? David is born in the little town of Bethlehem. He is quite possibly born near this very spot where Jacob pitched his tent to mourn. One day David would become King of Israel, but, as a young man, David was a Priestly Shepherd in the hills and valleys of Bethlehem. 

     In the first century it was the sacred duty of a Priestly Shepherd to watch over the sacrificial sheep used in the temple worship. A Priestly Shepherd was not just any Shepherd, but a priest who knew the scriptures, for while David watched the sheep his delight was in the law of the LORD; and in his law he meditated day and night.( Psa. 1:2) Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. (Psa. 119:97) Later David references his thoughts of Yahweh while watching the sheep through the night: On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. (Psa. 63:6)
     David must have had a true sense of sacrifice, knowing the fate of the little sheep he came to love and risk his life to protect. The daily Temple sacrifice required two unblemished sheep from Bethlehem. One sacrificed in the morning and one in the evening as a continual sacrifice before the Lord.
     The Passover was an annual sacred feast that Yahweh himself instituted for Israel to commemorate their deliverance out of Egypt. During Passover in Israel, the feast required literally thousands of sheep. One lamb needed for each household in all of Israel. During the time of David’s census there were 1,300,000 men beyond age 20. This would suggest a population nearing 5 million. This demand required an estimated 250,000 sheep to accommodate the Passover annually.
     In the first century the fields around Bethlehem were valuable grazing lands. The Priestly Shepherds were still charged with watching over the Temple flock both day and night. They were vigilant to protect them from their natural enemies, the robber, the wolf, the bear and the lion. Migdal Eder, or Tower of the Flock, was constructed as a place for watching over the sheep. A room on the ground floor was designated for the delivery and protection of these special lambs. Here they kept a manger ceremonially clean due to the sacred role of these little lambs. (
     It is of significance that those who first heard of the Savior’s birth were watching flocks destined for sacrifice. So not only was the city correct, as the scriptures prophesies, but the corresponding sacrificial element is also in place to foretell the perfect sacrifice given for the redemption of all of mankind.
According to v. 9 it states that the glory of the Lord shone around them. Accordingly, the Shechinah (the presence of God) is often depicted under the figure of light.

“The Earth did shine with His glory.” Ezek. 63:2 
“The Lord make His face to shine upon thee.” Num. 6:25 
“You are my lamp, O LORD; the LORD turns my darkness into light.” 2 Sam. 22:29 
“Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” John 1:3-5 

     The light of the angel displayed the idea that God was present and the message that all of Israel had been waiting for is finally stated:

“I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people: for there is born to you this day in the city of David Savior, who is Christ (Messiah) the Lord.” (v. 10, 11) 

    Where was Jesus born? What actually did a stable look like in the time of Christ? From archaeology we know that stables looked like rooms with a fenestrated wall, i.e. an interior or exterior wall with several low windows. Animals were placed behind this wall and fodder was put in wooden boxes or baskets and placed in the windows. Sacks of provender were stored in the other half of the room. It was probably in this part of the stable that Mary and Joseph were allowed to stay and where Jesus was born. Fenestrated walls that were part of stables have been found in many place.
     What is the sign of the child? Crystal cathedrals that shine with the sun of a thousand suns, gates guarded by myriads of angels to protect the holy one, a throne that reaches to the heavens of the purest gold and decked out in countless jewels that sparkle with brilliance? No, the sign is a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Swaddling clothes? Strips of cloth wrapped around a baby to restrict movement and comfort the child. Note that these weren’t strips of silk, costly and beautiful garments that only a King would give his child…no, these was common place cloth reserved for a person of lowly and humble estate. He was lying in a manger. That, in common terms, is a cow’s trough, a receptacle where the animals ate out of. So the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords was born in a smelly, animal infested area, wrapped in common cloth and place in a cow trough? Yes, and it was here that the shepherds were directed to to find the promised Messiah.
     The Shepherds did find the babe, for they understood what the sign meant. They knew to look for the Messiah in the manger at the watch tower in Bethlehem. The Shepherd’s knew the prophecy of the Prophet Micah, who foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. They also knew Micah foretold where to look in Bethlehem. The Messiah King would come to the “the tower of the flock.”

“And thou, O tower of the flock the strong hold of the daughter of Zion, unto thee shall it come, even the first dominion; the kingdom shall come to the daughter of Jerusalem.” Micah 4:8

     The Messiah, the sacrificial Lamb of God would be born in the same place all unspotted lambs designated for Temple sacrifice were born. It would take an individual of uncanny spiritual insight to draw together all of the significance attached to this event that we have had over two thousand years of investigation to look at and ponder over. This was not the shepherds who had to have a little assistance to understand that the promised one was finally here. Born of humble origin it was only appropriate that those who would first see him would be of the same origin with attachment to a highly spiritual concept: sacrifice!
     Once the announcement has been made, it is almost as if the angels awaited a signal for what they sing was only a reflection of what had been announced.

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men who are the objects (or the recipients) of God’s good pleasure.” (Lk. 2: 14)

     The meaning is that peace on earth will in the highest instance become a reality among those who are blessed by the goodwill and gracious favor of God, those redeemed in Christ, those ordained to full salvation as children of God. (New International Commentary on the N.T., Luke, 113)
     In the first century, when a boy was born, the local musicians congregated at the house to greet him with simple music. Since such was unavailable for this humble couple, heaven took up a chorus that was anything but simple. A heavenly chorus singing praises to God for the one that finally comes to redeem man from all sin…that was something to sing about wasn’t it?
     How did they find Jesus? We know that the wise men followed a star but what guided the shepherds? The angels instruction was that they would find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. If this lodging place was outside town, it would be the first place they would have looked. Remember, there was no star that guided them there. They wouldn’t have needed to knock on the Inn door because the feeding trough, or manger, was outside. It sounds like Mary had not yet been ministered to by loving hands and what the shepherds found was two adults and one small newborn.
     It probably isn’t what they expected, but once they witnessed this sight, with the angels instruction, they made this known (v. 17)
     One might wonder how much of an impression it would make on anyone if a shepherd showed up at your doorstep announcing this miraculous event? Since they were keepers of sheep to be given in sacrifice it might have made an impression on those people with a spiritual inclination. Eager and curious crowds must have listened, and possibly mocked, these “simple” men who told their improbable story. Yet, a deep impression was possibly made on two people later – Anna and Simeon at the temple. Such an announcement surely was told over and over from one city to another. Those with a spiritual inclination would have attached the prophecies with the fulfillment. Both of these people had been looking for the redemption of Israel and knew that it was now near. The shepherds were the heralds of the Messiah in the Temple and both Simeon and Anna would be prepared when he was presented in a few days for circumcision. They had been touched by God for they had seen him. Anyone touched by God can’t help but make this known. The shepherds couldn’t keep quiet, Anna and Simeon couldn’t keep quiet and neither can anyone today who God touches. As this season approaches, let us now think about the message of what am I getting but rather what am I giving. It was this spirit that brought us the Messiah, the redeemer of all mankind.