note: people will have got here before me…
I present thoughts as they come from my head, without having consciously borrowed anyone else’s thinking!
It came to me in a meeting the other day. It’s only a partial revelation, but here it is:
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
Did you see it too? In case you missed it:
Shepherds went to see Jesus.
But you knew that right? How about reading it this way:
Shepherds went to see the Son of God.
And? OK, let’s try one more time:
Shepherds went to see the Lamb of God.
But why does that matter? Does it matter? Maybe I’m reading too much into it, maybe you’ve thought this through already, but here’s my train of thought…
Jesus For Everyone
For years I’ve heard people trying to exegete this passage, and trying to share what they believe to be the relevance of the shepherds hearing from the Angels and why they needed to be among the first to meet the baby Jesus. Every year I’m reminded of the presumed social status of these shepherds, looking after other people’s sheep, on the outskirts of the city, unable to observe the Sabbath properly because they had to look after the sheep. Shepherds who were out of position of influence and unable to partake in discussion in the deeper matters of life, probably relatively uneducated, whose word counts for nothing in testimony, and who are not highly regarded aside from their manual skills in looking after the sheep. Recently I discovered that because they spent such little time outside of the walls of the town and out of interaction with society, they are the second least respected witness in the courts, second only to women.
Every year it’s important to be reminded that Jesus came for all people, was revealed to the lowly shepherds and the respected wise men; That I don’t have to be rich or well read to be worthy to meet Jesus; That Jesus whole raison d’etre was to champion the poor, estranged, and disregarded, as well as enlighten the rich. Jesus spent his time between eating with the outsider, those like the shepherds, and dialoguing with the educated men in the temple. There’s also something to be said for the fact that the wise men were looking for Jesus, as prophesied, and as the adage goes “Wise Men seek him still”, but equally my impression is the shepherds were just going about their lives and Jesus was revealed to them.
It’s fitting that both get the opportunity to worship Jesus first. But none of that is what struck me this time round.
Here it is:
Why did God choose to send legions of Angels to proclaim the news of the birth of a Saviour, the Messiah to some shepherds on a hillside? If it was just about the Social Gospel, about the “Glad tidings to all men,” why didn’t God reach out to the same people that Jesus later ate with? Where were the prostitutes and adulterers? What about the cripple, the man with leprosy, the blind and the possessed? Where were the queues of tax collectors, pig-herders and Samaritans? Where were the women? There were so many other people that Jesus came to seek and to save, so many he spent time with (in fact, I’m having a hard time recalling many other shepherds that Jesus interacted with), but his birth was proclaimed first to the shepherds.
John skips the whole birth narrative, and while Jesus isn’t referred to as a lamb in the Christmas story as we tell it, if we jump to our introduction to Jesus according to John’s Gospel, we read of John declaring:
“Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Ch 1)
The shepherds were signposted towards Jesus. The shepherds were introduced to the Son of God. The shepherds worshipped the Lamb of God.
Lambs play an important part throughout the meta-narrative of scripture, throughout the big picture that all points towards Jesus. All of scripture enlightens us to the heart of God, the story of humanity, and the desire of a prodigal God to be reunited with his rebellious creation.
In particular the unblemished lamb is important, the stainless creature who becomes an offering to atone for the transgressions of the Israelites in accordance with God’s directions. The New Testament repeatedly tells of the suitability of Jesus as one who is without sin as an acceptable offering to God.
Let’s go back to the start:
In Genesis we have a sheep taking the place of a boy on an altar (Ch 22), Abraham confidently declaring in his time of uncertainty that “God himself would provide a lamb for the sacrifice.” True to his faith and his willingness to trust God, provision is made, and one sheep takes the place of one man… How many times have you heard it said that this is a foreshadowing of God’s provision of a lamb in the stead of we who should have died?
The chapter before this Abraham uses an exchange of seven lambs, set apart from a wider offering, in the swearing of an oath. Abraham had dug a well, but was handing over lambs to recognise his work. Funny how the handing over, the gift, of a lamb can symbolise the hard work put in by the giver…
Into Exodus (12-13) and we get to the tenth plague, the Angel of Death claiming the first-born child of all the households in Egypt. God makes an exception, that the children of God, the enslaved Jewish nation, would be safe on the proviso that they sacrifice a lamb and use its blood to cover the doorposts as a sign that enough blood had been shed and there would be no more death in that place. The significance of the passover meal and its correlation to who Jesus is has forever been bound together in the celebration of and participation in the last supper, however many times a month your church does it… Paul declared “For Christ, our passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” (1 Cor 5:7)
Acceptable Offerings to God
By the end of Exodus and into the rest of the law, we find the guidelines for offerings to God. There are plenty of them, and about more than just offering lambs, but among them:
Exodus 29 - “This is what you are to offer on the altar regularly each day: two lambs a year old… an offering made by fire… There I will meet you and speak to you… and the place will be consecrated by my glory”… Where the sacrifice is made, THERE you will find God! THEN he will meet with you!
Exodus 34 - God tells his people that the first-fruits of all things are his, from the fields and the livestock to the womb, and that in order for a firstborn donkey to be redeemed, to be bought back from God, a lamb must be used as payment… In order to buy back that which is useful but unclean, God has to be given something pure.
Leviticus - Leviticus lays down the guidelines for offerings. Lambs are to be offered as “Fellowship”, “Sin” and “Guilt” offerings. Lambs offered to God are to be pure, unblemished and without defect. Where lambs are not possible, for the poor and very poor, there are exceptional rules and acceptable substitutes for the lamb:
Fellowship offering: A voluntary act of worship, seeking “Shalom”, encouraging peace and fellowship. Offered out of thankfulness, as a vow or out of free will. This is an offering to God, to be shared with man;
Sin offering: A mandatory atonement for specific unintentional sin, as a confession of sin, seeking the forgiveness of sin and cleansing from defilement. The lamb (female) was the requirement for the common person;
Guilt offering: A mandatory atonement for unintentional sin requiring restitution, resulting in cleansing from defilement.
Early Numbers is all about dedication and consecration. Whether it’s a Nazirite (those who take a special vow of separation for devotion to God) or the Tabernacle (the focal point of Israelite worship, precursor to the temple), the offering of a lamb is pivotal. Later on Numbers reminds us of the levitical messages, including the daily, Sabbath and monthly offerings, as well as the specific feasts, again all involving at least one lamb.
Come 1 Samuel, we find that the lamb has been promoted. Where once the lamb was the sacrifice needed to take the place of one man, or to redeem the life of a donkey, to cleanse the sin of an individual when offered as a Sin or Guilt offering, we find Samuel (Ch 7) offering a lamb on the behalf of Israel. When they find themselves desperate, they need an intercessor, and upon the confession of their sins accompanied by fasting Samuel offers this single lamb. God hears and God answers. According to the earlier Law, God requires a young bull as a sin offering on the part of the high priest, a congregation and for those in power (Lev 4), but God does not turn his heart from the cry of his people when Samuel offers just a lamb, the offering of a single common person, so great is his love for his people and his desire not to be separated from them.
Throughout Scripture, whenever God’s people are following him closest, or reminded of who he is, the lambs are always lined for the offering, ready to be given to God. Hezekiah, Josiah, Ezra and Ezekiel, among others, seek to follow the guidelines set out, and their actions are matched by their heart and desire to return to God.
But Isaiah opens with God speaking and painting a picture of a rebellious nation who should know better. They have become a people who are making sacrifices in order to continue their sinful behaviour, out of ritual and false remorse. God isn’t stupid. He calls them on it, and tells them that the blood of the lambs and the burnt offerings are beyond useless: They’re offensive to God. They have abused the heart of the offering, the sentiment of the opportunity of reconciliation offered by God to those who truly repent. The people have lost sight that God doesn’t want the offering, that’s not the important bit. What he wants is a relationship with his people.
Back in 2 Chronicles Solomon had dedicated the temple as his ancestors had dedicated the tabernacle and the Glory of the Lord had descended. They had seen his glory and acknowledged his goodness and his love, and then he had spoken to Solomon declaring that if his people would humble themselves and seek his face, pray and seek his face, and turn from their wicked ways, he would hear them and forgive them. (Ch 7:14 ) The offering system was designed to help them in this, to focus them, to provide an entry point into humbling themselves and seeking God. But what Isaiah and other prophets describe is just a hollow action, empty of humility and seeking, devoid of meaning, and God wasn’t interested:
Isaiah 1:11 - “The multitude of your sacrifices— what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.”
Jeremiah 7:21-23 - “‘This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves! For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you.”
Hosea 6:6 - “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”
Amos 5:21-24 - “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
Micah 6:6-8 - “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Etc. Etc. Etc…
The Old Testament meta-narrative references to sacrifice, the prophecies of the Messiah, the redeeming provisions and plans provided by God himself for the Reconciliation of Man and God, Restoration of Creation, and Salvation of Humanity are easily findable for yourself.
And as we reach the New Testament, there’s still a lack of relationship with God, of owning the calling of His people to be of His heart, not just of the law: The teachers of the law are ready and willing to display their commitment to the practices of the old covenant, whilst continuing to neglect the poor, widow and orphan, but more importantly failing to offer themselves to God along with their prescribed offerings. So God actions the plan as Peter later lays it out (Ch 1:18-21):
“For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.”
So Jesus enters quietly down stage, in the unexpected scene of a manger in a cave, a stable without stability, graceless, undignified, vulnerable, without refuge or the grandeur due a king, let alone the King of Kings, in the place where many a lamb may well have been born before him.
While Jesus isn’t referred to as a lamb in the Christmas story as we tell it, his life reflects that of Isaiah’s servant in the famous prophetic passage of the servant’s song (Ch 52-53), declaring the suffering and the glory of God’s servant, the one who would be the “Man of Sorrows”, who would be “pierced for our transgressions”, for all us sheep who have gone astray… Who would be “Led like a lamb to the slaughter… the Lord makes his life a guilt offering.”
This is the servant the shepherds met as a baby… The Lamb of God… The guilt offering upon which the iniquity of us all was laid, stricken for the sake of the transgressions of God’s people…
The one of whom John says “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
The one who declares “This is the new covenant in my blood.” Where the old covenant was sealed with the blood of a young bull (Ex 24), a confirmation of the receipt of and conviction to uphold the law of God, this was sealed at the passover celebration with the fruit of the vine, proclaimed to be the blood of the lamb… His blood… Where no longer would a bull be needed for the many, just the single lamb, poured out once, for all and for all time.
The same one who appears time and again throughout John’s final Revelation, the picture painted at the close of our Biblical meta-narrative: The Lamb that was slain (5:6); The worshipped Lamb (5:8;15:3;etc); The worthy Lamb (5:12); The Lamb on the throne (7:9;22:1;22:3); The cleansing blood of the Lamb (7:14); The Lamb who will be the Shepherd (7:17); The victorious blood of the Lamb (12:11); The Lamb with the Book of Life (13:8;21:27); The Lamb on Zion (14:1); The followed Lamb (14:4); The victorious Lamb (17:14); The Lamb who is the Bridegroom (19:7;19:9;21:9); The Lamb who is the Temple (21:22); The Lamb the lamp (21:23)…
This is the Lamb that the shepherds are told about with such drama, the Lamb which they left their sheep to find, the Lamb they ran through the streets shouting about. The lamb they recognised, perhaps?
And so, these Shepherds
Having said I’ve done no research into the theory that it’s more than just a social reason that God invited the shepherds, following a conversation with a friend I was pointed to one theory about the shepherds that I hadn’t come across before.
Raymond Brown in Birth of the Messiah mentions briefly the symbolism of the shepherds. He references Mishnah Shekalim 7:4 which says “An animal that was found between Jerusalem and Migdal Eder, or a similar distance in any direction, the males are [considered] burnt offerings. The females are [considered] peace offerings. Rabbi Yehuda says, those which are fitting as a Pesach offering are [considered] Pesach offerings if it is thirty days before the festival.” That is, “that animals found between Jerusalem and Migdal Eder (near Bethlehem) were potentially used for Temple sacrifice, and this tradition has been invoked to support the idea that the Lucan shepherds near Bethlehem were especially sacred shepherds.”
These shepherds may well have been charged with the safeguarding of the lambs used as offerings, ensuring the lack of blemish and maintaining the purity of the lambs so they are right to be offered to God for forgiveness of sin and for cleansing, as in the guilt and sin offering, but also as a fellowship offering, seeking peace and unity with God an fellow man, to be shared together as a meal of Shalom, of thanks, togetherness and peace once offered to God. These people held a position that enabled right practice and facilitated right worship of God.
Without these shepherds protecting their charge, there could be no acceptable offering for the forgiveness of sins. Without their unblemished lambs the standard set by God could not be met as a guilt offering. These shepherds kept lambs pure to ensure that the fellowship offering led to peace, togetherness, unity, to Shalom. Everything that we’ve already read about the way provided by God in the Old Testament for redemption and reconciliation is, should this be true, only possible because of the work of these shepherds. They might not perform the rituals or say the words, but they ensure the sacred nature of the offering. They are the keepers of purity. They know the perfect sacrifice when they see it.
That’s why I think it had to be shepherds. It had to be people who understood the system, who saw the significance and innocence and purity in this lamb in the manger, that went beyond the purity of the lambs they sold for sacrifices. They were the best people to attest to the sacrifice that was to come.
And what did the Shepherds see in the baby they encountered that made them want to run and shout about it? Was it just that God’s angels had been right, and therefore they felt privileged in a proven revelation? Was it just because for once they were the first to see something? Because they could get one up on the teachers of the law who hadn’t heard from God in such ways?
This goes against the whole “uneducated sheep herder” idea as presented by those who present a “Jesus for All” Christmas story, but maybe they knew a little something of the prophecies that predicted the coming Messiah. Maybe as part of their role as keepers of purity they had to have an in depth knowledge of the law and the subsequent scriptures. Maybe they saw the prophesied Messiah, the unblemished Lamb of God wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger:
The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel (Is 7:14); “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.” (Mic 5:2); The sceptre will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his (Gen 49:10)
Combine that with any hope or knowledge they may have had about Israel’s prophesied Saviour and Isaiah’s described Servant and we might be on to something.
Could this be why it had to be shepherds? Did they have to see the real lamb that had come, who would replace the lambs in their care as the only true offering to God for the forgiveness of sins that would reconcile Him with is people? Did it have to be people who knew what it took to be a pure lamb?
Let’s also just think about where we are in the world… We’re in Bethlehem, in David’s town, in fields on the outskirts of the town where David himself may have tended the sheep (1 Sam 17:15). The shepherds may well have been able to trace their line to Jesse, the sheep in their keep may well have been the same line that David protected from the lions or the bears.
Their culture and history is saturated in the stories of the calling of a shepherd into the throne-room, of one of their own being chosen by God to rule over his people as king:
Psalm 78:70-72 - He chose David his servant and took him from the sheep pens; from tending the sheep he brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob, of Israel his inheritance. And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skilful hands he led them.
With that at the forefront of their minds, following in their shepherd-King’s footsteps, is it such a far cry that they too might be chosen for something great? Why couldn’t they also be men “after God’s own heart”? Why shouldn’t they be the ones who see first the new king that was promised to ever sit on David’s throne? Is it completely beyond the realms of reason that these shepherds knew what the prophet Isaiah had said in those verses we now read every Christmas?
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.” (Ch 9:6-7)
And then for Mary to repeat what the Angel had told her to them to confirm their suspicions:
“He (Jesus) shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end”. (Luke 1:32-33)
Could this be why it had to be shepherds? Why it had to be these shepherds? Did they have to testify to the coming of one of their own, a shepherd who would be king, David’s heir, son of man and of God?
Shepherds meeting the Good Shepherd
We’ve talked loads about the Lamb, but this Messiah - Jesus - is also bestowed with the title of “Shepherd”, and much like the shepherd-king David, this new king would also carry the traits of a shepherd towards his flock as he led them. In the Old Testament we read, and the Shepherds may well have recalled:
Isaiah 40:11 - Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, In His arm He will gather the lambs And carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes.
Micah 5:4 - And He will arise and shepherd His flock In the strength of the LORD, In the majesty of the name of the LORD His God And they will remain, Because at that time He will be great To the ends of the earth.
And he clams it for himself in the New Testament, particularly in John 10, including the specific claim “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”
Jesus makes several enlightening statements in John 10 about shepherds an their sheep, rather than just hired hands who are not the shepherd.
It wouldn’t be a valid argument if there wasn’t at least a little bit of Greek in here somewhere so here it comes:
Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, ποιμὴν, in John 10:11, and refers to the “hired servant”, or the one who looks after someone else’s sheep, μισθωτὸς, in John 10:12. In Luke 2 the Angels appear to a group of shepherds, ποιμένες, in verse 8, that is simply the plural of the reference Jesus makes of himself. Interestingly, or at least to me as I write this, the Greek word used to present the ownership of “their” flock, αὐτῶν, is the same word as used through the New Testament 571 times for the definite relationship of people to things that are very definitely theirs, often translated as “of them” or “their own”: parts of their body, their family, their sins, their fruits, their reward, their God…
How good it is to know that we are cared for. These shepherds potentially knew the importance of tending the flock, of the joy in the relationship of knowing the sheep and the sheep being known by, and indeed knowing they have, a name.
The pressure is taken off these shepherds to know that they are in someone else's care.
Whatever the reason, if any, for it being specifically shepherds to whom the Angels brought the news, the shepherds saw something that meant something to them. It meant enough for them to spread the word, to deem it worth glorifying and praising God all the way back to the fields.
Whatever they saw, the deemed it worthy of worship.
Did they worship the Lamb who had come to save them?
Did they worship the Shepherd who came to tend his flock?
The shepherds had a choice to make following their encounter with Jesus, and their course of action is purely conjecture, but in many respects Jesus invalidates their purpose. They were, perhaps, people who held the key to God, who were responsible for the pure and unblemished lambs to be presented in the Temple in Jerusalem. No longer did they hold the key to the Old Covenant. They now held the key to the one who would bring the new covenant, to share and explore the heart of the law rather than the letter of the law. Instead of just ensuring the purity of the offering, their new calling was to spread the news.
I’m an applied Theologian… The “So What?” is important to me. Knowledge of God is hollow until it translates into action and meaning, unless it changes me and deepens my relationship with God and reveals a greater likeness of him within me.
I’m still going to cling to the fact that Jesus came for all people, and that the shepherds are a valid example of those disrespected by society who represent all those who would later acknowledge Jesus as God. It’s important. I like it. I need to know that God came as much for me as he did for those who I hold in higher regard for whatever reason. But I’m going to go beyond that.
We, as Christ’s church, as his disciples, are charged with facilitating right worship, of acting as mediators in this priesthood of all believers, guiding people towards a knowledge of God. We are entrusted with sharing the Gospel and the good news, not only in practice, but in heart. We hold the key to forgiveness by knowing the way to the cross, and therefore we are in a similar position to the shepherds. The real challenge for me is what happens when I encounter Jesus. I need to see the Lamb, I need to know the Lamb in order to attest to his worthiness and the weight of his sacrifice. I need to know his Shalom, his peace and forgiveness to be able to share it with others.
Am I willing to heed the call to discover something new about this baby, which may have knock-on effects to my lifestyle, my livelihood, my very perception of worship?
What if the things I learn about God means everything I thought I knew becomes disjointed or changes?
Am I willing to be changed by an encounter with the Lamb in the manger this Christmas?
We can meet Jesus this Christmas, not just as common people in need of a lamb as an offering of peace and reconciliation, not just as people needing the blood of the Lamb as an offering seeking redemption and the forgiveness of sins and displacement of guilt, not just as outsiders, but as people charged with the proper worship of God.
The Lamb that was slain has brought Shalom, peace and fellowship with God, and with man.
The Lamb that was slain has taken away the sins of the world.
May we seek to maintain purity in our offering to God.
May we be willing to respond to the Good News.
May we shout about the Lamb of God who we have met.
May we accept His sacrifice afresh.
May we accept the care of the Good Shepherd.
Worthy is the Lamb.
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