Daniel Darling is works for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission as vice president for communications. Taken from The Characters of Christmas: The Unlikely People Caught up in the Story of Jesus by Daniel Darling (©2019). Published by Moody Publishers. Used with permission.
A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to appear on a top-rated national morning show. When I got the email confirming my appearance, my stomach tightened a bit, and I think my feet lifted off the ground. My first thought was, Wow, this will sell a ton of books. And my second thought was, Do I need to buy a new suit? I was excited and yet very, very nervous. Somehow I managed to get through the experience without totally embarrassing myself.
Being on a big-time television news show is one of the best ways to try to announce big news. Public-relations professionals work hard at securing these opportunities, trying to get their guests in front of millions of eyeballs. But when God announced the birth of Jesus to the world, he used the opposite approach. He didn’t send Jesus to 30 Rock, but sent the host of Heaven to a common field outside Bethlehem. And the people he chose as his spokesmen were unpolished, sweaty, uncouth shepherds.
Today shepherds are romanticized in nearly every Christmas pageant. Many of us have donned a modified pillowcase and grabbed a walking stick to appear in a Christmas pageant at church or school. But in the first century, nobody thought shepherds were cute. And certainly nobody thought they were important. But there they were, the first to know at Christmas.
A Kingdom for Outsiders
Shepherds were not really considered part of polite society in those days. They were required to tend their flocks outside the city gates. The only reason shepherds had any significance was because sheep were a valuable commodity, especially as it got closer to Passover, when many lambs would be sacrificed in the temple.
The work of shepherds was (and still is) extraordinarily difficult. They had to wrangle obstinate sheep. They had to ensure their flocks were well fed. And they had to fend off predators: wolves or even larger animals, like bears or lions. Sometimes unsavory characters would come in and try to steal the sheep. This is why shepherds were awake on this night. Most likely they were sleeping in shifts, ensuring the livestock was not compromised.
And yet there is something significant and powerful about the inclusion of the shepherds in the Jesus story. Luke is reminding us, by mentioning the shepherds, that the kingdom of God isn’t just for the insiders, but for outsiders, like shepherds, like the poor classes where Mary and Joseph came from. It reminds us that the kingdom of God is often made up not of the noble and wise, but of the underclass, those people that have no business being near royalty. Immanuel, God with us, means God is truly among all classes of people, not simply the connected or well-resourced.
The presence of the shepherds in the Christmas story also tells us a little bit about just what kind of Messiah Jesus would be. He would come to us as a Savior, as a King, as a Lion, but also as our shepherd. Though this vocation was not viewed with respect by peers, Scripture always portrays shepherding as a high calling, perhaps the most repeated image of leadership in the Bible.
God refers to himself as Israel’s shepherd (Gen. 48:15; 49:24; Jer. 31:10). In Psalm 23, David is grateful to affirm that “the Lord is my shepherd.” And the prophets Ezekiel (22:23–29) and Jeremiah (10:21; 23:1–4; 50:6–7) often warned God’s people about poor shepherds—bad leaders who exploit rather than lead. To shepherd, in God’s world, is to sacrificially care for the vulnerable ones under your protection. Shepherds in those days didn’t drive their herds but gently led them.
Today, sometimes even in Christian circles, leadership as shepherding is viewed as negatively as it might have been among the sophisticated in the first century. Though spiritual leaders in Scripture, from the Old to the New Testament, are often compared to shepherds, many evangelical leadership texts dismiss this idea. I once heard a prominent pastor mock the idea, saying that a CEO or a general is a better description of Christian leadership. But it’s hard to dismiss how intentional the Holy Spirit is in including this vision of gentle yet firm leadership both as the way God leads his people and how God intends his followers to lead. Among Jesus’ last words to Peter were, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17). This is how we demonstrate God’s love: by taking care of others with soft hands and compassion.
This is why I believe the announcement of the coming of Jesus—himself the Good Shepherd (John 10:11)—had to happen in a shepherds’ field. Luke is telling us that this ruler who is to come would be different than the rulers his people were used to seeing. He wouldn’t be a Caesar who ruled only by brute force. He wouldn’t be a Herod, who governed by treachery, murder, and paranoia. No, Jesus would be, among all of his attributes, a shepherd. And he would entrust himself and his message to shepherds.
The Lamb of God would first be held and handled by those who knew how to appreciate and care for a lamb. And yet, more than anybody, these shepherds knew the ultimate fate of each lamb for which they cared. I imagine they heard the prophecy of Isaiah more keenly than anyone in Israel. They tended the very lambs that would be sacrificed at Passover. And yet a Lamb was come who would be the final sacrifice. This Lamb wouldn’t simply cover their sins as the sacrifices did, but he would actually become sin. John the Baptist said about Jesus later, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29, ESV).
The good news of the coming of the Lamb of God, slain for the sins of the world, announced among lambs set aside for the temple sacrifice and in the city of David, Israel’s last great shepherd: This is God declaring to his people that Jesus, both the Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God, was coming to make true peace between God and man.
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Source: Christianity Today