The Christmas story is one of the most familiar in all of the world. Though one of the standard features of the nativity is the visit of the shepherds, these important witnesses appear only in Luke’s gospel (Luke 2:8-20).
Immediately, after Jesus’ birth in a manger (Luke 2:1-7), Luke shifts the scene to a nearby field (Luke 2:8).
In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. (Luke 2:8 NASB)Though the shepherds seemingly come out fo nowhere, this is not the case. Joel B. Green (b. 1956) explains:
Though their introduction may seem abrupt, they have been anticipated in implicit ways by the continued mention of David (shepherd-cum-king — I Kings 16:11-13; cf. Luke 1:27, 32, 69, 2:4 [2x]) and of the lowly (Luke 1:52). This account is also tied to the preceding material by geographical (“in that region” — Luke 2:8) and temporal (“this day” — Luke 2:11) markers. (Green, The Gospel of Luke (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 130)While the shepherds are going about their business, the sacred enters the profane with the emergence of an angelic visitor (Luke 2:9). The scene is set at night which heightens the drama and accentuates the contrast between the darkness of the night sky and the startling appearance of the unexpected visitor. The angel, eventually accompanied by an angelic host, is the bearer of good news: the Savior of the world has been born in Bethlehem (Luke 2:9-15).
After hearing this proclamation, the shepherds rush to confirm the angelic account (Luke 2:15-20). Outside of his own family, the first witnesses to Jesus are lowly, anonymous night shift shepherds.
Justo L. González (b. 1937) interjects:
The story about the inn, the manger, and the shepherds has been told so often that it is difficult for us to see its full poignancy. This is not a mellow, bucolic story about some shepherds tending their sheep with little or no care beyond the possibility of a wandering wolf. This is not the setting in which Luke presents the story...The setting of the shepherds keeping their flocks at night is much less tranquil and romantic. They live out in the fields, suffer all kinds of deprivations and even dangers, in order to protect their flocks...It is in that scene, perhaps silent, but not as peaceful as we tend to depict it, that an angel suddenly appears before the shepherds. (González, Luke (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible), 33-34)Since the time of Constantine (272-337), Christmas has been celebrated in December, initially to coincide with a pagan feast called Saturnalia. Many attempts to pinpoint the precise date of Jesus’ birth have been made based upon the account of the shepherds’ visit.
Walter L. Liefeld (b. 1927) comments:
That the shepherds were out in the fields at night does not preclude a December date, as the winter in Judea was mild. But, of course, the text says nothing about the time of year. The traditional date for the nativity was set, long after the event, to coincide with a pagan festival, thus demonstrating that the “Sol Invictus,” the “Unconquerable Sun,” had indeed been conquered. December 25 was widely celebrated as the date of Jesus’ birth by the end of the fourth century. (Liefeld, Luke (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 51)Despite much speculation, none of the theories offering a more precise birthdate are definitive.
Though not reflected in most translations (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV), the Greek text informs that the shepherds are literally “keeping watches” (MSG, YLT), meaning that they were taking shifts (Luke 2:8).
The text also suggests that the shepherds lived outside. Joseph A. Fitzmyer (b. 1920) explicates, “The participle agraulountes means that the shepherds made the open fields (agroi) their house (aulē). (Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX: Introduction, Translation, and Notes (The Anchor Bible), 409).”
William Barclay (1907-1978) speculates:
These were in all likelihood very special shepherds...In the Temple, morning and evening, an unblemished lamb was offered as a sacrifice to God. To see that the supply of perfect offerings was always available the Temple authorities had their own private sheep flocks; and we know that these flocks were pastured near Bethlehem. It is most likely that these shepherds were in charge of the flocks from which the Temple offerings were chosen. It is a lovely thought that the shepherds who looked after the Temple lambs were the first to see the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. (Barclay, The Gospel of Luke (Daily Study Bible Series), 27-28)Leon Morris (1914-2006) adds:
It is not unlikely that the shepherds were pasturing flocks destined for the temple sacrifices. Flocks were supposed to be kept only in the wilderness (Mishnah, Baba Kamma 7:7; Talmud, Baba Kamma 79b-80a), and a rabbinic rule provides that any animal found between Jerusalem and a spot near Bethlehem must be presumed to be a sacrificial victim (Mishnah, Shekalim 7:4). The same rule speaks of finding Passover offerings within thirty days of that feast, i.e. in February...As a class shepherds had a bad reputation. The nature of their calling kept them from observing the ceremonial law which meant so much to religious people. More regrettable was their unfortunate habit of confusing ‘mine’ with ‘thine’ as they moved about the country. They were considered unreliable and were not allowed to give testimony in the lawcourts (Talmud, Sanhedrin 25b). There is no reason for thinking that Luke’s shepherds were other than devout men, else why would God have given them such a privilege? But they did come from a despised class. (Morris, Luke (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 93)
As Morris discusses, shepherds were not looked kindly upon, especially in a later era. Their occupation required them to perform activities that would designate them as “unclean” and also kept them away from the temple to remedy the predicament.
William R Herzog II (b. 1944) expounds:
Much has been made of the shepherds as members of a despised profession because they were considered unclean in the eyes of Pharisees and other Temple authorities and dishonest in the eyes of tribute collectors. The reason is that shepherds had movable assets, so when news spread that the tribute collector would be arriving in a village, the shepherds could drive some of their flock into the Judean wilderness where they might escape detection. Trees, vineyards, and crops cannot be moved and so will be taxed fully, but sheep and other livestock are a different story. This practice may explain the expression, “as dishonest as a Judean shepherd.” Of course, this would reflect the tribute collectors’ evaluation of shepherds, who would more likely be viewed as heroes in their villages. Shepherds were, no doubt, considered unclean by Temple authorities or political factions like the Pharisees, who emphasized a purity agenda, but this was true of all peasants alike, not just shepherds. (Herzog, Ann M. Svennungsen, Timothy Shapiro & Marilyn J. Salmon, New Proclamation Year C, 2006-2007: Advent Through Holy Week, 45)If Luke views the shepherds as thieves, the gospel is incorporating poetic symmetry as Jesus would have spent both his birth and his death in the company of criminals (Luke 23:32-43).
Others respond that though shepherds might have had a bad reputation outside of the Bible, this is simply not the case within its pages. Shepherds often symbolize all who care for God’s people including God (Psalm 23:1; Isaiah 40:11; Jeremiah 23:1-4; Ezekiel 34:23; Hebrews 13:20; I Peter 2:25, 5:2). In many psalms attributed to David, the king relates God’s connection to humanity as that of a shepherd to sheep (Psalm 23:1, 28:9, 100:3). There are also many prominent examples of godly Old Testament shepherds, e.g. Abel (Genesis 4:2-4), Jacob (Genesis 31:3-13); Joseph (Genesis 37:2-9), Moses (Exodus 3:1-6), David (I Samuel 16:11-13), Amos (Amos 1:1, 7:14).
Whatever their reputation, of all of the people in the world, God chooses shepherds to be the first witnesses to Jesus’ birth. Luke actually stresses this facet.
Keith F. Nickle (b. 1933) clarifies:
Luke’s narrative emphasis falls not on the birth itself but rather on the angelic announcement of that birth to the shepherds and their response to it...In sharp contrast to the simplicity of the account Luke had given the birth itself, the shepherds experience an angel vision, an extraordinary message, the chorusing of the angelic legion! (Nickle, Preaching the Gospel of Luke: Proclaiming God's Royal Rule, 24)
Shepherds fulfilling the role of witness is in many ways apropos. Eduard Schweizer (1913-2006) critiques:
Shepherds play a role in Hellenistic birth narratives, but David was also a shepherd in the vicinity of Bethlehem (I Samuel 17:15, 16:4, 11; cf. Psalm 78:70-72). Later rabbis looked for the birth of the Messiah, the Shepherd of Israel, at the “tower of the flock” (Micah 4:8) near Bethlehem (Micah 5:1-2)...This notion may be in the background here rather than the later rabbinic attitude that looked down on shepherds. (Schweizer, The Good News According to Luke, 49)
Fred B. Craddock (b. 1928) adds:
They belong in the story not only because they serve to tie Jesus to the shepherd king, David (II Samuel 7:8), but also because they belong on Luke’s guest list for the kingdom of God: the poor, the maimed, the blind, the lame (Luke 14:13, 21). And so the shepherds go to the city of David. The shepherds and the scene are described with some of Luke’s favorite words, words he has used before: wondering, pondering in the heart, making known the revelation, praising and glorifying God. The stable is bare, but the glory of God floods the story. (Craddock, Luke (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 36)Robert C. Tannehill (b. 1918) concurs:
The shepherds fit the setting of Jesus’ birth. They are ordinary folk who work with animals. Although some interpreters appeal to later rabbinic writings to argue that shepherds were viewed as sinners, it is doubtful that this view is assumed in this scene...Probably there is a connection between the shepherds and the repeated reference to Bethlehem as the “city of David” (Luke 2:4, 11). David was a shepherd before being anointed king (I Samuel 16:11), and later is told, “It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel” (II Samuel 5:2). Ezekiel speaks of a future David who will be shepherd over Israel (Ezekiel 34:23), and Micah, in speaking of the ruler who will come from Bethlehem, says that he will “feed his flock in the strength of the LORD” (Micah 5:4). The figure of the shepherd has the same ambiguous quality as a royal baby in a manger. A shepherd is an ordinary fellow who would not feel out of place in a stable. A shepherd is also a symbol of kingship. (Tannehill, Luke (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), 65)The fact that shepherds, ordinary people doing an ordinary job on a presumably ordinary day, are the first witnesses to Jesus’ birth is significant. Luke’s story stands in stark contrast to the visitors in Matthew’s account, the only other canonical telling of Jesus’ birth, which features the more prestigious magi or wisemen (Matthew 2:1-12).
Sharon H. Ringe (b. 1946) notices:
No scholars or court officials visit the baby in Luke’s version of the story. Instead of the magi bearing lavish gifts that Matthew describes (Matthew 2:1-11), in Luke only some shepherds come (Luke 2:8-20). Shepherds...were among the poor, and by the standards of the most religiously meticulous people, they were outcasts. They lived a hard life out in the fields, far removed from the comforts and leisure that would allow them to follow the rules for food preparation, purification, and other aspects of religious practice. They lived a life wrapped in danger as they tried to protect the animals from both human marauders and various wild beasts (see John 10:1-18 for sketch of the shepherd’s life). (Ringe, Luke (Westminster Bible Companion), 42)The shepherds and the types of people they represent are important to Luke. Darrell L. Bock (b. 1954) interprets:
The testimony to Jesus’ birth from the angelic host to shepherds is significant in scope. Creation has no more mysterious and exalted beings than angels, who represent the testimony of the heavens to what is occurring. Moreover, there are no more “normal Joes” in ancient culture than shepherds. They represent the lowly and humble who respond to God’s message, for their vocation is seen positively in Scripture (Matthew 18:12; Mark 6:34; Luke 15:4; John 10:1-18; Ephesians 4:11; Hebrews 13:2; I Peter 2:25). Thus, heaven meets and greets the average person through the angelic announcement to these pastoral figures. Jesus’ birth is more than a family affair. The announcement of “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10) indicates that God desires to speak to every person about the coming of Jesus, since all humanity is impacted by his coming. (Bock, Luke (The NIV Application Commentary), 84)The shepherds serving as witnesses corresponds to Luke’s central theme. Charles H. Talbert (b.1934) connects:
This good news...is for “all people” (Luke 2:10), outcast as well as in-group. In Luke’s time shepherds were often considered outside the law. Their testimony was considered invalid because of their reputation for dishonesty (b. Sanhedrin 25b). Yet it was to such as these the angel announced the good news of the Savior’s birth (Luke 2:8-11). This can only be regarded as a foreshadowing of the subsequent theme of God’s grace shown to sinners that runs throughout Luke. The messianic Lord is the friend of sinners (e.g., Luke 5:29-32, 7:36-50, 10:30-37, 15:1-2, 17:11-19, 19:1-10). It is to sinners Jesus promises good news (e.g., Luke 18:9-14, 15:11-32). The news that Jesus’ birth signals the benefit of peace is intended for all the people. This is cause for great joy. (Talbert, Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Third Gospel, 35)The shepherds are just the first of many marginalized people depicted in Luke-Acts where the gospel spreads from the bottom up. Ronald J. Allen (b. 1949) traces:
Luke uses the announcement to the shepherds to make an important point: the realm will renew the entire social world. By the end of the book of Acts, the good news that comes first to shepherds (at the bottom of the social pyramid) has made its way to high officials in the Roman Empire and even to Rome itself (Acts 21:17-28:31). All who repent..are welcome in the realm. (Allen, The Life of Jesus for Today, 32)Bruce Larson (1925-2008) theorizes:
There is an old saying that “war is too important to be left to the generals.” I suggest peace is too important to be left to the diplomats. The professionals have messed it up again and again. In giving this message to the shepherds God bypassed the professional peacemakers. He gave the message and its interpretation to amateurs. We need amateur peacemakers. The great diplomats and ambassadors of two thousand years ago, the councils that met and the peace treaties that were signed are mostly forgotten. But the world still reverberates with the peacemaking message of a group of amateur preachers and peacemakers like the apostle Paul and Luke himself. (Larson, Luke (Mastering the New Testament), 51)Often lost in the familiarity of the nativity is that the first witnesses to Jesus’ birth are humble shepherds. The shepherds’ presence accents the fact that the Savior of the world was born in a manger. The shocking thing about the shepherds’ presence, given this setting, is that it is not shocking at all.
Why are shepherds the first witnesses to the birth of the long awaited Savior, as opposed to priests and scribes who would presumably have had a higher appreciation for the event? When has God broken into the ordinary affairs of your life? Have you ever met God on the job? When have you been the first to hear good news? What newborn baby have you rushed to see? Do you know who was present the day that you were born?
The shepherds were placed in a situation that they could not possibly have been prepared for. David Lyle Jeffrey (b. 1941) construes:
That the doxa (“glory, beauty”) of the Lord should shine around humble shepherds on a Judean hillside is an event of enormous portent and hugely counterintuitive to normative religious thinking. The shepherds are understandably unprepared, as would anyone be in their place, for they can only relate what they see to the bright Shekinah glory of God’s holy presence in the tabernacle (Exodus 16:10; Psalm 63:2; Isaiah 40:5; Ezekiel 1:1-28). How should such a presence be borne by unhallowed men? (Jeffrey, Luke (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 40)
The response of the shepherds, however, demonstrates that they were the right people for the job. They immediately run to Jesus, a suitable reaction to most any situation.
Max Lucado (b. 1955) observes:
It wasn’t enough to see the angels. You’d think it would have been...But it wasn’t enough to see the angels. The shepherds wanted to see the one who sent the angels. Since they wouldn’t be satisfied until they saw him, you can trace the long line of Jesus-seekers to a person of the pasture who said, “Let’s go...Let’s see”. (Lucado, Just Like Jesus: Learning to Have a Heart Like His, 154-55)Darrell L. Bock (b. 1954) lauds:
The shepherds have the type of response any of us should have as we contemplate these events. Their curiosity leads them to go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened. As they see God’s word honored in the presence of the sign, they come to testify to God’s work and tell the story of the child...The audience to the shepherds’ report were amazed. Their response exemplifies the awe that should fill anyone who hears Jesus’ story...In addition, there is the shepherds’ glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen. The birth is no mere arrival of new life, as poignant as each such event is. The story is not told so that hearers can identify with the new mother and father or enjoy a story of hope, of a touching birth in humble surroundings. The birth has value because of whose birth it is. The shepherds have found that the angel’s words were true, that events have transpired just as they had been told. God’s word is coming to pass; his plan is again strategically at work. They break out in praise to God because he has sent Jesus, the Savior, Lord and Christ. (Bock, Luke (IVP New Testament Commentary), 56-57)How do you respond to Jesus’ birth? What does Christmas mean to you?
“Maybe Christmas”, he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.”
“Maybe Christmas... perhaps... means a little bit more!”
— Dr. Seuss (1904-1991), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957)