God’s Unlikely Messengers
Why were the shepherds, of all people, the first to know on Christmas night?
by Daniel Darling
I’LL NEVER FORGET THE FIRST TIME I saw a lamb. Unlike the cuddly stuffed animals I grew accustomed to as a kid or the quirky and cute figures from my Sunday School flannel graph, sheep are … not very pretty. For one thing, they really smell. I don’t know what is going on in the digestive system of a lamb, but it seems to keep them fairly regular — if you know what I mean. Droppings everywhere, the smell of waste in the air, a shepherd’s field isn’t a very desirable place.
I first saw a shepherd and his sheep up close while on a trip to the Middle East with my church. I was 14 years old and had paid for the trip by working all summer with my father on his home construction projects. Remarkably, the sheep fields in Bethlehem in the modern era haven’t changed much from what they seemed to be like in the first century.
Shepherding is tedious, hard, unglamorous work. In those days, sheep were money. Livestock, always a premium in every era, was the way the wealthy measured their balance sheets. Most shepherds likely didn’t own their sheep; they were hired to shepherd them, to keep them protected, fed, and healthy. They guarded them with their lives, rotating shifts so that no nefarious actors could come in, steal them, and attack an unsuspecting lamb.
So, on the night of Jesus’ birth, the angels found the shepherds in the field outside of Bethlehem just doing their jobs. They never got a memo that their lives were about to change forever, that the pivot point of human history — the dawn of God’s redemptive plan — was about to unfold a few miles from where they herded animals.
It’s hard for us to imagine why God would choose to deliver the news of the miraculous birth of the Son of God to these people. If it were us, we would have chosen another method of disseminating the news. We’d fire off a press release to the top media outlets. We’d have a social campaign. We’d book interviews on the The Today Show.
At the very least, we wouldn’t trust this news with … lowly shepherds. Shepherds in those days weren’t well regarded. They were blue-collar, working-class men. They had dirt under their fingernails and used rough language. They smelled like, well, people who spent their time with animals.
So, why not announce in Rome, in Caesar’s palace? Why not make an entrance in Herod’s magnificent temple? Why not leak the Christmas announcement to the religious leaders?
Jesus made His entrance into the world in all the wrong ways. He was born to an impoverished couple, who bore the shame of Mary’s unwed pregnancy their whole lives. He came from Nazareth, a place people were ashamed to call home. He was born in what would have been used as a barn, in a tiny town, because the Son of man, even in His first few seconds on earth, had no place to lay His tiny head.
And yet everything about Jesus’ birth was intentional. God was making a statement about the kind of kingdom that was about to dawn in the world. Christ would be a different kind of king, a contrast to the pomp and circumstance of Rome and the religious elitism of the Pharisees. God’s kingdom, Paul would later write, was built from among the lowly, of whom “not many of noble birth” are found (1 Cor. 1:26).
The Shepherd King
But again, why shepherds? It’s not just the fact that God visits the lowly. It is. Christ left the comforts of heaven to dwell among His people and often gathered around Him a cast of characters nobody would choose. Yet, there is more to it than even this.
Shepherding is a theme throughout Scripture. It’s the dominant metaphor for good leadership. David wrote of his comfort knowing that the God of Israel is his shepherd (Ps. 23). The prophet Ezekiel said that unlike bad shepherds that neglect their sheep, God is the good Shepherd of Israel. And in the New Testament, Paul and Peter urged pastors to shepherd their flocks well.
Most importantly, that tiny baby nestled among the animals would one day declare Himself to be the Good Shepherd. Jesus’ birth signaled a new day, that God had sent a Shepherd King, Jesus, born in the town of and from the family of Israel’s greatest shepherd, King David.
To shepherd is to lead with both firmness and compassion, a soft touch and skill. Today, shepherding is a bit out of vogue in favor of top-down corporate CEO leadership or bottom-up mob rule. Even in the church, we measure leaders by things other than the temperaments that mark a good shepherd: steadiness, grace, self-sacrifice, trust.
Jesus would come into the world meek and lowly, to gather His lost sheep. All of us, the prophet Isaiah writes, are like sheep who have gone astray. And unlike bad shepherds, Jesus is the One who saves and protects.
What’s more, it’s not a coincidence that the birth of the One whom John the Baptist called, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) was announced to those who would tend sheep, many of which would be used for the Passover sacrifice. God was announcing to the world the final atonement for sin, the Lamb of God who would be slain for the sins of the world.
Worship Like the Shepherds
Imagine what it must have been like that night for these weary men. All of salvation history was leading to this moment. The fullness of time of God’s work in the world was dawning that very night, and these unsuspecting shepherds were the first to witness it. Imagine how it must have been as the skies unfolded over them, as light encircled the earth and angels flooded their view. Imagine how awestruck they were, listening as these heavenly messengers burst forth with perhaps the most beautiful music ever sung. All God had promised through the ages, from the seedling of hope in
Genesis through the story of Abraham, on through the up and down history of Israel’s wanderings, victory, and hope — was coming to pass.
I wonder how this night affected these men. How long did their mouths stay dropped open in stunned surprise? What did they go home and tell their wives, their children, their closest friends? What vivid dreams did they experience every sleepless night since the light of heaven flooded their field?
We do know their response. The shepherds didn’t wait. They didn’t gaze. They didn’t consult an advisor. They ran toward Bethlehem and sought out this Baby Jesus. I wonder how many doors they knocked on, getting strange and groggy looks from cranky homeowners in the middle of the night? But did they care? Of course not. They had to find Jesus.
And once they did, they piled into that barn or cave or house or whatever crude space the Son of God chose to be born. I wonder what Mary was thinking when these men — we don’t know how many there were — shuffled and squeezed in and bowed in worship at her little baby? She knew, of course, that this was God in the flesh. She knew it was a virgin birth. She knew she was given the awesome stewardship of her future Savior. And yet she had to have marveled in delight to see these men in awe over her son.
What power was in that manger! The One who hung the stars, who breathed the world into existence, who fashioned every human with care in the womb now weak, dependent, and vulnerable in a Middle Eastern hovel. Here is God in the flesh, exposing Himself to the raw brokenness of the world He created.
And thus, perhaps this is another reason God chose to deliver the best news to simple shepherds. These humble men — salt of the earth, low to the ground — weren’t too sophisticated to be in awe at what unfolded before them. They weren’t too wise to worship, too cynical to sit at the feet of a tiny baby who would be their Lord, their Savior, their King.
Today, as we enjoy the Christmas season, may we be humble like those who first heard the news. This Christmas let’s not be too hurried to hear the good news that Christ has come into the world to save sinners and to renew the world.
Every Christmas is an opportunity for a fresh look at Jesus. Two thousand years later, we can still find much to surprise us. We can be awed by the power of God and the beautiful mystery of God in the flesh.
So, when Christmas comes to us this year, let’s be like the shepherds and receive the word from God and run with urgency toward the manger. May we find Jesus. •
Daniel Darling is the author of nine books, including The Original Jesus, The Dignity Revolution, and the bestselling The Characters of Christmas. He and his wife, Angela, have four children. They attend Green Hill Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, where Dan serves as Pastor of Teaching and Discipleship.
This article originally appeared in HomeLife magazine (December 2020). For more articles like this, subscribe to HomeLife.