Many of us know about the Nativity: how shepherds were greeted by a host of angelic messengers; how they were directed to find their infant king resting in a manger. Their story is recounted in Luke 2.
Shepherds and angels point us back to Moses and to various angelic encounters in the Bible, creating a bridge between the Old and New Testaments, which further supports the Christians’ belief that Jesus is the Messiah Israel was waiting for.
The Last Are First
“As I live,” declares the Lord God, “surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, therefore you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord” (Ezekiel 34:8-9).
Although shepherds occupied one of the lowest positions in society, God compared his Sovereignty over the people of Israel to the role of a shepherd. He was unlike the shepherds of Ezekiel’s day, the priests who led Israel into danger, away from God’s Word. Instead, as the Psalmist asserted in 23:1, “the Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.” He is the perfect guardian and guide.
Steve Werlin wrote, “The shepherds in Luke’s nativity account further emphasize Jesus’ humble origins since sheep herding was considered unskilled labor and was relegated to the lower strata of society.”
As humble as they were, though, God had often favored the underdog for a big job. He employed Joseph, the eleventh of Jacob’s 12 sons and hated by the older brothers, to rescue Israel out of famine; empowered David, Jesse’s youngest son and also a shepherd, to kill Goliath and become king; and he called Moses in person (on the run for murder, shepherd of his father-in-law’s flock in Midian) to lead Israel out of slavery.
Christ himself would arrive in the lowliest form, sleeping in the most undignified type of cradle. He would rescue and guide all of his people. He would take us out of slavery to sin — each person’s Goliath.
The repeated shepherd theme should make us often think of how Christ not only humbled himself by coming to us from heaven but how he went one better and became the most vulnerable sort of person — a baby born to poor, insignificant parents whose only protection for the child was their obedience to God’s messengers.
A Light Shines in the Darkness
These messengers were also angels. “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins’” (Matthew 1:20-21).
An angel shed light on the situation, enabling Joseph to stay with and protect both Mary and Jesus. The angel redirected Joseph, who had been planning to quietly divorce Mary.
Exodus 3 recounts the time when Moses (a shepherd) was looking after Jethro’s flock — Jethro was the “priest of Midian” (Exodus 3:1), and suddenly “the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush” (3:2).
When one tries to imagine Moses’ experience, parallels with the shepherds’ experience in Luke 2 become obvious. The shock, beauty, wonder, and fear as the night lit up to the brightness of day: what is happening? And why is it happening to us of all people? We’re the lowest of the low!” But the angel’s job is to get Moses’ attention and to point him to God.
“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Christ is the light shining in darkness (John 1:5).
Psalm 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Christ is the light that guides the Lord’s people to Himself and also gives literal direction to our lives.
He enlightens minds too. The light of God calls us back to him when we are either not moving or are going in the wrong direction. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1).
Angels are not gods, but they are messengers from God and are close to him. Like Moses, after he was given the Ten Commandments when the Israelites could not look at him, angels glow with the light of righteousness.
The shepherds and Moses were afraid, but it was a fear derived from awe and reverence, humility and awareness of sin. When confronted with the glory of God, our sins are highlighted, but so is God’s mercy to expose sin, forgive sin, and sanctify obedient believers.
Just the similarity between Moses’ experience and that of the shepherds in Luke 2 should make us stop and take notice. As always, when God features a comparison like this, he encourages us to consider how one is like the other and how they differ.
Leading Israel to the Savior’s Side
Jesus and Moses were “shepherds,” and each one was employed by God to lead the people back to him. The people would rebel and complain, but both leaders would follow God’s instructions, although Jesus fulfilled his commission perfectly, unto death, in fact.
Moses would not enter the Promised Land because he doubted God. Christ would ascend into heaven, and now, in his capacity as our ultimate Shepherd, our Teacher, Friend, Savior, and King, he calls all believers to live in heaven with him eternally.
God the Father would not allow anyone to see him. He would not permit anyone to come close to him. He was too holy for that. Even the priests who offered sacrifices for their people and entered the Holy of Holies did not see God.
Israel could not look directly at Moses after he had been in the presence of God, but Jesus came close. The people of first-century Galilee could look at Jesus, touch the hem of his garment, and share a meal with him, even though he was God incarnate.
And on the fields outside of Bethlehem, here were the lowest members of society invited to come and stand next to the very manger in which Christ slept. They looked down at their King and worshiped him in person. Christ wants us to get close to him.
God wants a personal relationship with believers, and Jesus made that possible by appearing in the flesh. Moses did his best, but he was human, a sinner. Through Christ alone are we brought into the very presence of God.
Breaking the Silence
Subby Szterszky wrote of the shepherds’ experience in Luke 2: “It was the first public announcement of the Messiah’s birth — a prophetic chorus after more than four centuries of silence since the final Old Testament prophet, Malachi, wrote his oracle from God.” There is perhaps no old-to-new bridge as obvious as this one — breaking the silence.
Why was God silent for so long? Maybe we’ll never know for sure why 400 years would pass between his final Word in Malachi and the coming of Christ.
Lori Stanley Roeleveld suggested that “God [was] tired of hearing their arguments, self-justifications, and excuses. He [was] weary of their words after centuries of going back and forth with His people.”
God got tired of Israel “arguing back, challenging Him, and refusing to listen.” But God had made a promise to his people to send them a Savior, and for reasons known to God only, the time had come to send them one.
When the angel spoke, this was a mildly terrifying but exciting moment in the lives of the shepherds with importance for all of Israel and, ultimately, for the whole world.
The nation and its people had not changed, and God had not changed, but the Lord is merciful. “Will You restrain Yourself at these things, O Lord? Will You keep silent and afflict us beyond measure?” (Isaiah 64:12). The answer is “no.” Our Father in heaven is more merciful than we can ever understand.
Christ Leading Us Now
God is still shepherding us by the Holy Spirit, given to us by Christ through his death and resurrection. While non-Christians love to think of the baby Jesus because he can be contained in a manger, mature Christians frequently forget that he was one.
He is our fierce Shepherd, laying down his life for us. But it is good to remember he was an infant and good to think about the shepherds in the field.
We are them — lowly, fearful that God has forgotten us, certain that we could never be righteous enough to come before the Lord ourselves.
And yet, as we see in the Nativity, this is not only possible but commanded. The story says to us: go to the baby, gaze adoringly upon your King, then go out and look for more people who feel low and forgotten and invite them to the manger.
For further reading:
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Phil Vargas
Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.