The Shepherds and the Angels

Luke 2: 8-20

DIG: How does the shepherds’ experience with the angel of ADONAI compare to that of Zechariah (Luke 1:11-20)? And Mary (Luke 1:26-28)? Of all the people the angel of ADONAI could have visited, why did God send him to the shepherds? How did Mary respond to all of this?

REFLECT: The LORD appeared to Zechariah, Miryam and the shepherds when they were just being themselves and doing their jobs. What does that imply about what it means to be spiritual? How has YHVH spoken to you in the ordinary flow of life? The shepherds were not accepted by the religious elite of their day. What have you done to include people who might be perceived as social outcasts today?

Shepherds were the social outcasts of their day, a necessary yet ostracized cast without whom the Temple could not function. While they tended the animals required for ritual sacrifice, the conscientious Jew – ever concerned with purity – spurned shepherds as too unclean to stand among other worshipers. There was nothing to romanticize about them. Generally, they were dishonest, and unclean by the Pharisees’ standards because they were unable to observe the Oral Laws (see Fs – Why Do Your Disciples Break the Tradition of the Elders?) concerning the ceremonial washing of their hands before they ate. They were considered unclean. Imagine the reception a dirty migrant worker would receive at the door of a sophisticated country club, and you will realize where the shepherd ranked in Jewish society.116 They were exactly the kind of outcasts and sinners that Messiah came to save.

And there were Jewish shepherds living out in the fields nearby. Shepherds were usually out in the fields with their flocks from March to December. There are those who argue against a December date for Christmas saying that there would not be shepherds out in the field watching the flocks at night in that month. However, there are plenty of shepherds in the field in Isra’el during December. This is not to argue in favor of the December 25th date. Insofar as the biblical record is concerned, there is just no way to determine positively just what time of year Yeshua was born.

They were keeping watch over their flocks at night (Luke 2:8). Down in the valley, sheep were huddled against the chill. More than likely, the shepherds were trying to stay awake while guarding their sheep. The flocks wandered by day, up and down the grasslands of Judea. Close to Bethlehem, on the road to Jerusalem, there was a tower known as Migdal Eder, or the watchtower of the flock. It was the station where the shepherds watched the flocks destined for sacrifices in the Temple.117 It seems deeply significant that those shepherds, who heard the Good News of the Savior’s birth, who first listened to the praises of the angels, were watching the flocks destined to be offered as sacrifices that pictured the sacrifice of Yeshua ha-Meshiach on the cross.

Some were probably dozing, a few were watching, when the night sky was unexpectedly split apart. Heaven and earth seemed to merge when suddenly an angel of ADONAI appeared to them, and the Shechinah glory of the LORD, the visible manifestation of His presence, shone around them. It was brighter than day, more like staring at the noon sun, and the sleeping shepherds awakened and, in fear, hid their eyes in the folds of their coats because they were terrified (Luke 2:9). Sensing this, their sheep may have begun to run in circles because they too were afraid.

This was the announcement of the birth of the Jewish King to Jewish shepherds. For the first time since the days of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 10:3-5, 18-19, 23), the Shechinah glory was seen. For more than five hundred years the nation of Isra’el had been without that visible sign of God’s presence among His people. And now the Shechinah glory, for which Isra’el had waited, was revealed to the shepherds in the field, not to the priests in the Temple. Indeed, the last [would] be first, and the first [would] be last (Matthew 20:16).

But trying to sooth their rattled nerves, the angel said to them: Do not be afraid. I bring you Good News that will cause great joy for all the people (Luke 2:10). Throughout Luke, joy is often associated with salvation. Good News? This would make any Jew open his eyes and lift them to the skies. They had been afraid of the justice and vengeance of HaShem for centuries. They had worshiped carefully, with respect for all the different rituals, for fear that He might be displeased with them. And now – Good News?

They looked up hopefully and the angel spoke again. His voice seemed to fill up the entire valley. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you (Luke 2:11a). The Greek New Covenant uses soter for Savior, corresponding to the Hebrew word moshia, which is another form of the word hoshia and is related to Yeshua’s own name (Matthew 1:21). The New Covenant uses soter 24 times and the related verb sozo, to save, 44 times. But its use builds on the foundation already established in the TaNaKh. Therefore, when the question comes up if someone is saved, it has its roots in the TaNaKh as well as the B’rit Chadashah (see Bv – Jesus Teaches Nicodemus).118

He is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2:11b). Jesus’ role as Savior is qualified by the title Messiah and Lord. This verse gives us a brief summary of the Gospel message and provides the reason for the statement found in Luke 2:11a. The long awaited Meshiach has been born.This Savior is also the Lord. Although the realization of the authority of the titles Messiah and Lord would have to wait until resurrection, in reality, He already was Messiah and Lord. As Peter said: Therefore, let all Isra’el be assured of this: God has made this Jesus whom you have crucified, both Messiah and Lord (Acts 2:36).

When Peter preached at the Festival of Shavu’ot, he confirmed that this prophecy was fulfilled (Acts 2:36 and 10:36). The message was simple and direct: do not fear, a Savior is born and He is the Messiah. This was Good News! It was better than good news. It was the long-awaited News. It was the thing that had been promised by God a long time ago. It was the arrival of the One who would save the people of the world.

Two signs were given to them. The first sign was that the shepherds would find a baby wrapped in cloths (Luke 2:12a). This could not be baby cloth because that would not be a sign. Cloth here refers to burial cloth. Baby Jesus was wrapped in burial cloth. The mountains and hillsides of the hill country of Judah were not only caves used for housing animals, but caves were also used as tombs. Quite often these would be intermixed. Among the caves used to shelter animals would also be caves used for the storing of burial cloth. Since Messiah was born in a cave, Joseph and Mary had to make use of that which was available to them. Therefore, on the first day of His life Jesus was wrapped with the same kind of cloth that He would be wrapped with on the last day of His life (see John 20:7). The symbolism should not be missed. What is happening here is the clear reason why He was born. That is . . . He was born to die.119

And the second sign would be that the baby would be lying in a manger (Luke 2:12b). This told the shepherds they were to look for the baby in a cave. In those days stables were not separate buildings like farmers have today, but were caves. Again, Doctor Luke stresses Christ’s humanity. He came into this world as a human being. He is touched with the feeling of our frailty. He knows about us. He understands us because the Savior came into this world as a human being. This also means we can know something about God, because He took our humanity upon Himself.120 That should be a comforting thought to us all.

Having announced to the shepherds the two signs by which they would be able to find the Messiah, suddenly a great company of angels appeared with the angel of ADONAI, praising God and began to sing a two line hymn: The first line is for God, singing: Glory to God in the highest. And the second line is for humanity: peace on earth to people of good will (Luke 2:13-14). These are people whom the will of God favors and who desire what Ha’Shem wills. This is the third of four songs recorded in Luke by Mary 1:46-66, Zechariah 1:68-79, here by a choir of angels 2:14, and Simeon 2:29-32.

When the angels had left them and returned into heaven, the shepherds said to one another over and over:What did you see? Did you hear what I heard? Is it true the Messiah has come to save mankind?After a short discussion, they believed the message and said to each other: Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this word that has happened, which ADONAI has told us about (Luke 2:15). This was much like the action of Miryam after she had heard the message of Elizabeth. Such an attitude contrasts sharply with that of the religious leaders who knew where the baby was to be born (Matthew 2:5-6), but did not take the time or the effort to confirm it for themselves.121

As always, in times of crisis, the shepherds delegated a few of their number to guard the sheep. So the rest hurried off and they moved across the dark, grassy valley and up the sides of the hills, they climbed, they talked and they wondered. Could it really be? It stands to reason that the older shepherds believed it was no hoax. The Jews were students of the Torah, the prophets and the writings. Since there were no common books, they memorized all their teachings about ADONAI. He had promised a Savior who would come through the house of David, to be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). More than likely, the thing that mystified all the shepherds the most was that the birth of the Messiah was so humble. They could not imagine the Son of God lying in a manger.

Hadn’t the elders said that when the Savior came to earth, He would be riding on a great white cloud, sitting in august kingliness, listening to trumpets and songs of hosts of angels surrounding His throne as He ruled over heaven and earth? Tonight, the angels seemed to be an afterthought. It was as though His birth had been so insignificant, so humble, that the angels had to come down from heaven to call for a few lonely shepherds to go to a cave and worship Him. Could He not at least have been born in the great palace of Herod the king? A manger, the angel said. They understood the word. It meant a sort of trough out of which animals ate grain. It would have the sweet odor of old oats and barley, and the side would be chewed and chipped. A salt lick would lie in the bottom.

The shepherds walked among the pilgrims of Beit-Lechem, asking where the Messiah might be found. Most turned away from them in silence. A few asked, “What Messiah?” The shepherds probably inquired if anyone had seen the angles. “What angels?” Sometimes the travelers were rude, asking if they were drunk. Abuse was not new to the shepherds. They had known it before. Patiently, they carried on their search, asking here and there and finally narrowing their questions to this: Where can we find a newborn baby in this town? Someone probably told them to try the inn. Most likely the innkeeper, worn out after a long day, remembered the young man and pregnant wife using the cave behind the inn.

The shepherds approached the cave timidly. They moved down the path in their sandals, whispering. As they approached the lighted opening, Joseph saw them coming. He studied them carefully, and the leader told him that they had seen angels in the valley, and one had said that the Messiah had been born that night in the town of David. They had . . . if it wasn’t too soon . . . come to worship Him.

Coming in with the hoods down off their heads, their long hair fell on their shoulders, and their beards trembled with soft prayers. In the flickering yellow light of the oil lamp, they saw the young mother, probably around thirteen, seated on straw. She was looking over the side of an old manger. From their knees, they also straightened up and peered over the edge. There He was, wrapped tightly in strips of burial cloth.

The scene in the chilly cave, warmed by the bodies and breathing of the animals, was, to the shepherds, closer to their hearts than if the Meshiach had come on a big cloud with trumpeting angels. They understood babies, and they understood animals and they were delighted that God would see fit to come to earth in a dwelling only slightly less worthy than their own homes in the hills.

Therefore, the shepherds found Miryam and Josef, and the baby, who was lying in the manger just as the angel had prophesied (Luke 2:16). So it was the shepherds, and not the magi, who first worshiped the baby Jesus lying in the manger. They must have been torn between wonderment and happiness. The little baby was ADONAI, and the Son of God, but He was also a helpless, lovable infant. Their hearts surely welled with joy and their smiles were probably erased when they remembered that they were in the presence of the King of kings. They were men of such poverty and humility that their tattered coats spoke more elegantly than their tongues. They worshiped the King with full and grateful hearts.122

When the shepherds had seen Him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about the baby (Luke 2:17). The shepherds carried on what the angels had begun. And all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them (Luke 2:18). The broadest meaning of the Greek word for amazed is a sense of astonishment with a tinge of fear at what is unusual or mysterious. The travelers who had come for the census where amazed by what they saw and heard. As they selected theirsacrifices in the Temple courtyard, how eager, how curious might they gather around to discuss, to wonder, yes, perhaps even to mock the news of the baby Messiah laying in a manger. Nevertheless, how the heart of the righteous and devout Simeon would be overjoyed in the expectation that his life’s hopes and prayers were near; and how the very old prophetess Anna, who had not left the Temple compound, but prayed daily for the redemption of Isra’el, would be looking for the baby Yeshua from that moment forward (see Au – Jesus Presented at the Temple).

All this made a profound impression on Mary. She treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart (Luke 2:19). The Greek word for treasured up means to protect, to preserve, to guard, or to keep watch over something. Miryam did not fully understand the implications of all that happened to her. When it says she pondered, it describes someone who is puzzled by what they have heard, but keeps it in mind in order to understand. Not unlike something like a jigsaw puzzle, she reflected or meditated upon them, placing them together for comparison. Everything that had happened to her: the announcement by the angel Gabriel, the crisis it caused Joseph, the timing of the census, the birth of the Messiah in a cave, and the worship of the shepherds all floated around in her mind, challenging her to arrange them in some kind of order.123 Years later she would reveal them to Doctor Luke for his Gospel.

In due time, the shepherds returned to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen. It was no accident, they said to themselves, that what they had been told by the angels and what they had seen with their own eyes, led them to believe that Yeshua ha-Meshiach had indeed been born (Luke 2:20). Accordingly, if one can say that the place of His birth was small, humble place for animals, then one can also say that His first worshipers, shepherds living out in the fields nearby, were the most humble and scorned of men.


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