Some of Israel’s great heroes were shepherds — Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David. And God is called the Good Shepherd throughout the Bible. When the family were the shepherds – the father or sons – then it was fine. They were the sheeps’ owners and could be trusted to watch out for them. But hired shepherds had a much worse reputation for running away, stealing sheep, and being generally bad news. Philo, a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher of Alexandria (25 BC – 45 AD), wrote about looking after sheep and goats, “Such pursuits are held mean and inglorious.”
Whatever these particular shepherds did, they were with the sheep that night keeping watch over their flocks.
“One minute the shepherds are talking quietly in the blackness of the winter sky. The next moment the hillside is ablaze with light and booming with the sound of an angel’s voice.” (Ralph Winter)
“An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” (2:9)
The brightness was both physical and spiritual, both bright to the eyes and bright to the soul with the glory of God that the angel reflected. As you can imagine, the shepherds were terrified! Remember – angels aren’t cute! They’re scary! As per usual, the angel has to stop and say “Don’t be afraid!”
And now the angel tells them the “good news.” And notice this: the message is for all people! Not just the Jews but the Gentiles too!
“The town of David” meant Bethlehem, which was King David’s hometown. It was also the subject of a Messianic prophecy from the OT book of Micah.
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times….
He will stand and shepherd his flock
in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
will reach to the ends of the earth.
And he will be their peace.” (Micah 5:2-3, 5a)
And note the angel’s declaration: “Christ the Lord.” I usually read right past this, but in fact it is very unusual. “Christ” means the “Anointed One” in Greek, which is a direct translation of the Hebrew “Messiah.” Ancient kings and priests were ceremonially anointed with oil to display their god-given right and power. The term “Christ” for “Anointed One” means the one who is anointed by God Himself as His representative. Now the Jews understood this part, that there would be a Messiah who was the Anointed One. But they thought about this person as another David, a great king ad political leader who would act in God’s name to free Israel. So here is the second interesting part of the angel’s naming: the word “Lord” is kurios in Greek, which is a translation of the Hebrew word “Jehovah,” a name for God. It’s meaning is “I am.”
So the angel actually called the baby “The Messiah your God!” Wow!
The angel challenged them to go, and just in case they were wondering they would see a sign: 1) a baby wrapped in pieces of cloth and lying in a manger – which meant a feeding trough! Hello? How common was that?! Not very.
As if this wasn’t all enough, a whole crowd of angels appeared! This was the heavenly host: the army of God. This is the crowd that will pour through the sky behind Jesus on the last day. Yet they were not hear to threaten but to praise. “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.'” (2:13-14)
The “peace” they refered to was not political peace. That will not happen until the earth is restored. But they referred to something much more important: peace between God and people. Salvation.
So what did the shepherds do? They did what the angel said! I don’t know what happened to the sheep, although it’s possible the shepherds guided the flock with them. We do know they trusted enough to go the Bethlehem where they looked for a place with a feeding trough – a stable, of course. They found the right one. The stable wasn’t silent like I thought. The shepherds were all talking at once! And maybe there was a large flock milling around outside too! And the shepherds weren’t done yet. When they left they told everyone else!