While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks...
Imagine all the angels gathered before the throne of God when the Savior was born. The redemption that God had planned in eternity is now being accomplished in the fulness of time. Out of that vast host of angels, the Triune God chooses one from among these messengers who exist to do His will (Ps. 103:20: Heb. 1:7). He points to one of these angels in the midst of the myriad of angels, and says, "Go! Make the announcement." Of all the angels, this one gets to proclaim what is now being fulfilled. Imagine that angel then asking the Triune God, "To whom am I to go?" And the Lord responds, saying, "To shepherds, hidden away in a field in Bethlehem."
Scripture tells us that angels earnestly desire to look into the things of redemption (1 Pet. 1:12). This is, no doubt, partly because there was no redemption for fallen angels. We fell in Adam. He represented us. God sent a second Adam to redeem us. Each of the angels stood or fell on their own, and there was no redemption for fallen angels. There is no salvation for them. The writer of Hebrews tells us, "it is not angels that He helps" (Heb. 2:16). But, God is now sending the most glorious creature to the most ordinary and despised of men in order to have this angel announce the birth of the King of the angels--the King of Glory, the second and last Adam. It's part of the display of the wisdom of God to the angels, as well as part of the counterintuitive nature of the gospel--that the Most High visits the most low. There are, however, other reasons why God chose to reveal the birth of the Savior first and foremost to shepherds. When we look in all of Scripture--and especially at Luke 2:8-20--we would have to say there there is a deep significance to the fact that shepherds received this announcement. Here are five reasons that fit the biblical narrative:
1. The Shepherds were in Bethlehem, the city of David.
Luke tells us that these shepherd were out tending to their sheep in a field in the the city of Bethlehem, where David had lived. Phil Ryken notes, "The shepherds make a connection with King David, the royal ancestor of Jesus, who was also a shepherd."1 David, the shepherd who tended sheep (maybe in those very fields from which God called him to be the king), became the head of the covenant and the one to whom God gave promises that he would sit on the throne and that one of his sons would sit on the throne forever and ever. The son of David is now born in Bethlehem.
2. These Shepherds Tended Sheep for the Sacrificial System in Israel.
Fittingly, the announcement of the birth of the Savior is first made to shepherds who were tending sheep--some of which would become sacrifices in Israel's sacrificial system. Those sheep would serve as types--pointing to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. They are tending the very sacrificial lambs that are going to be offered up in service to God. The angel is going to come and essentially say, the lamb of God has come into the world to save sinners. To him all those lambs were types pointing forward.
3. Shepherds were Types of the Great Shepherd.
The prophets often spoke about God being a great shepherd and sending a great shepherd--that He would give his people one shepherd to rule over them forever. Jesus in John 10 gives us that great discourse, in which he says, "I am the good shepherd..." The writer of Hebrews declares that Jesus is "the great shepherd of the sheep, who, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, makes us complete working in us what is well-pleasing in his sight" (Heb. 13:20-21). And Peter says, "You have returned to the shepherd and the overseer of your souls." It's fitting then that God would give this birth announcement of the Savior to shepherds.
4. Shepherds were Illustrative of Pastors.
Scriptures tells us that God would give his people pastors who would be undershepherds of the Great Shepherd, Jesus Christ (Jer. 3:15; 23:4). This is one the words used of pastors, in the New Testament (Eph. 4:11; 1 Pet. 5:2). When the Savior and head of the church was born, it's fitting that the announcement of His birth was made to shepherds who would be analogous figures of those who would shepherd the flock.
5. Shepherds were Social Outcasts
Finally, the shepherds are the recipients of this birth announcement of Christ because shepherds were despised. Later in Israel's history, shepherds would not even be allowed to be witnesses in court because they were considered to be unlearn and liars. Yet God says, "I am going to give the greatest news to the most despised of men. The most despised of people will be witnesses to Me." There is something counterintuitive about the announcement of the birth of the greatest being in the universe be made to despised, poor, socially outcast, roughshod, despicable people like these shepherds; we would have it made to royalty, to the powerful, to the elite, to the famous. We have a penchant for that sort of thing. However, if this announcement had been made to the religious elite, or to the political elite, or to the socially, economically elite, they may have felt like they deserved that announcement. But when it's made to notorious sinners like these shepherds, we are reminded by God that no one deserve this announcement; nevertheless, it is for sinners like us. Ryken explains,
"Shepherds were outcasts, and thus their presence at the manger shows that salvation is for everyone. We tend to romanticize the shepherds, especially since there are so many good shepherds in the Bible, but they did not enjoy a very good reputation in their day. Because they lived out in the fields, they were unable to keep the ceremonial law, and thus they were treated as unclean. They were also regarded as liars and thieves, which is why their testimony was inadmissible in a court of law. Shepherds were despised. With the exception of lepers, they were the lowest class of men in Israel.
Yet these were the men God wanted to hear the gospel: working-class sinners. Like everything else about the birth of Christ, this upsets our expectations. We tend to think that God is for the good people, when in fact he is for needy sinners who are desperate for grace. As Mary sang in her Magnificat, Jesus came to bring down the thrones of the mighty and exalt those of humble estate (Luke 1:52). Who better to exalt than lowly shepherds? We do not even know their names! If God had grace for them, he has grace for any poor sinner who will come to Jesus in faith."2
For a fuller exposition of Luke 2:1-20, here is the audio of a recent sermon I preached on it.
1. Philip Graham Ryken, The Incarnation in the Gospels, ed. Daniel M. Doriani, Philip Graham Ryken, and Richard D. Phillips, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 103
2. Ibid., p. 103-104