Summary: Christians are familiar with the story of the shepherds who were watching their flock by night when an angel appeared to bring them tidings of great joy that the Savior had been born that day in the city of David. In all Christmas pageants, the shepherds are always an important part of it, however, we often overlook their significance and the lessons we can learn from them. This article takes a closer look at their story and seeks to learn from it how we can become better disciples of Christ.
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, for behold, I bring you tiding of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manager… And it came to pass, as the angels were gone way from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord had made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger” (Luke 2:8-16).
All of us are familiar with the Christmas story, and in all our Christmas pageants, the shepherds always play an important part of it. However, we often don’t realize how significant their appearance at the manager really was. Therefore, it would behoove us to take a closer look at this part of the Christmas story.
In the days when Jesus was born, shepherds were not the lowest class of people, but they weren’t far from it. Then why did an angel appear to them to announce the birth of Jesus?
Bethlehem is about seven miles south of the temple in Jerusalem, and because of the many daily sacrifices that were performed there, a large number of sheep were constantly needed. Some scholars believe that it was near Bethlehem that the sheep were raised that were destined to be slaughtered at the temple. If that is so, these shepherds would have been tending to sheep that had significant religious importance in regard to the remission of sins. It’s also possible that these shepherds belonged to a priestly order.
But, regardless, the shepherds were outside in the fields late at night. From what we know, the night sky must have been clear because people could see one star in particular that shown above all the others, but even so, the countryside would have been very dark.
We don’t know for sure what month this event took place but since there is no mention that the shepherds were huddled around a fire, we have to assume it was warm enough that they didn’t need one. This observation seems to be reinforced when we consider that there is also no mention that Joseph needed to build a fire to keep his wife and new child warm.
The scriptures don’t tell us how many shepherds were guarding their sheep that night but traditionally we usually portray them as being three. We can imagine them siting close to each other quietly talking to pass the time, and except for an occasional bleating of a sheep now and then, it must have been extremely quiet when they weren’t talking.
It was in this setting when suddenly and “angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.”
Whenever we read of an angel appearing to someone, they are always described as shining with great brilliance. Sometimes they have also been described as looking as though there were on fire. When this angel suddenly appeared to the shepherds, the light that was emanating from him no doubt lit up the area all around them.
Back in those days, no fire could ever have been that bright, so we can imagine how frightening it must have been to have the darkness suddenly shattered with a light brighter than the sun, and in that light stood a man who literally appeared out of nowhere. No wonder these shepherds “were sore afraid.”
We have to remember, that these shepherds were charged with the task of watching over a flock of sheep that belonged to someone else, and it was their duty to protect them from danger. When this angel suddenly appeared unto them, no doubt their first instinct must have been that this strange being had come to take their sheep, but then the angel said unto them, “Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy which shall be to all people.”
This was not the kind of salutation someone would give who was going to rob them, and it was at some point that they realized they were in the presence of an angel from God. Today, if we were visited by an angel, that would certainly be something amazing to behold, but back then there had not been so much as a living prophet of God for almost four hundred years. It was believed by all the religious rabbis at that time that God had stopped speaking to man because everything he wanted us to know had already been written down in the scriptures which we refer to as the Old Testament.
But then they must have remembered something that had happened about a year earlier. There was a priest by the name of Zacharias who said an angel appeared to him while he was attending to his duties inside the Holy Place of the temple and who told him that his wife would have a son, and that his name was to be called John.
However, Zacharias was a priest, therefore it at least made sense that an angel would appear to him. But these men were lowly shepherds. Why was this angel delivering them a message of great joy that was meant for people everywhere?
As astonishing as it must have been to these shepherds to gaze upon a real angel, his message was even more astonishing when he said, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”
Today, people all over the world talk of and worship Jesus Christ, so much so that we take his name for granted, however, this was not the case when the angel made his stunning announcement.
The word “Christ” is a Greek word, which in Hebrew is translated as “Messiah,” or “God’s anointed.” For more than a thousand years the prophets of God had foretold of a time when the Messiah, would come among his people, and would rule not only over the Jews but over the entire world. For centuries, the Jews eagerly looked forward to and excitedly anticipated this glorious event, but what the angel had just told these humble shepherds was that the Messiah had indeed just been born.
I don’t think we can fully appreciate what this news meant to these men. To them this was indeed tidings of great joy, and it did have great significance for all people. But if this wasn’t exciting enough, they were thrilled to learn that he had been born “in the city of David.” Bethlehem is where David, the greatest king Israel ever had, was born and where he had been anointed by the prophet Samuel to become a king.
Since the field where the shepherds lay watch over their sheep was on the outskirts of Bethlehem, we can only imagine how they must have felt when they learned that the Messiah – God’s anointed savior of Israel – was somewhere very close nearby. But where?
The angel answered their question when he told them, “And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manager.” If the angel told these men where to find the Messiah, then surely, he wanted them to go see him, and so, after the angels had gone away, “the shepherds said to one another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord had made known unto us. And they came with haste.”
Back then not even the cities, let alone small villages like Bethlehem, had street names with address numbers on every building, but the angel had given the shepherds enough clues that they knew where to look and what to look for. We don’t know how many places in Bethlehem had a manger, but it’s certain that none of them would have a human baby in it, so it probably didn’t take the shepherds long to quickly check each manager until they came to the one they were seeking.
The scriptures don’t tell us what these humble men said or did as they gazed upon the infant form of their long-awaited Messiah, but eventually they returned to their fields where they continued performing their duty of watching over their sheep. However, they would never again be the same as they were before the angel’s visit.
When daybreak came and the other shepherds awoke from their slumber, these nighttime workers excitedly related what they had seen to anyone they could find. And “they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds” (Luke 2:17.18).
We can be certain that many who heard this news “wondered” if the shepherd’s story was true or not, and we can be certain that there were those who dismissed such talk out of hand, perhaps thinking that these men had drank too much wine the night before.
Although this is a familiar story we repeat each year, yet there are several things we can learn from it and apply in our life.
We’re told that the shepherds “were watching their flock by night.” As stated earlier, their task was to watch over and protect the sheep that had been entrusted to them. That can be a fairly easy job during the day when you can see danger approaching, but at night nocturnal creatures can silently and stealthily creep up on the flock and attack before a shepherd even knows they’re there. Therefore, nighttime is a dangerous time to be out in an open field to watch over and protect a flock of defenseless animals. Yet, these men were willing to take on such an assignment and, from all appearances, they were diligent in doing what was expected of them.
Like the shepherds of old, each of us are shepherds, charged with the responsibility of watching over and protecting the flock of God. That would include members of our own household, as well as those in our wards and stakes. The Lord has commanded us “to watch over the [members of the] church always, and be with and strengthen them” (D&C 20:53). Sometimes that’s easy to do, but there are times when it calls for us to sacrifice our time, energy, and sometimes our money.
The Lord has counseled us to “be faithful; stand in the office which I have appointed unto you; succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (D&C 81:5). That’s what these shepherds were doing. They were faithfully executing the duty they’d been assigned and watching over those who were depending on them for safety. What an example they’ve provided for us to follow.
When it comes to the appearance of the angel to the shepherds, there are several things we can learn. One is that when we are being faithful to God in doing what he asks of us, as these night-time guardians of the sheep were being faithful to the charge given them, we too are more likely to receive divine revelations.
Something else we learn is that God did not announce the birth of Jesus to the nobles of the earth. Instead, he chose the meek and lowly. The scriptures tell us to “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time” (1 Peter 5:6). What these humble shepherds saw and heard certainly exalted them above their peers, and as we too remain humble, God will exalt us in due time.
And something else we learn from the angel’s appearance is that revelation often comes when we least expect it.
When the angel announced the birth of the Messiah, the shepherds left what they were doing and made haste to find Christ. Like the shepherds, we should be willing to leave the things of the world and make haste to accept Christ’s invitation to come unto him. Just like it was important to the shepherds to find the babe laying in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes, it should likewise be important to us to seek for and to find Christ
When the shepherds returned to their flock, they were not the same as they had been before finding Jesus. They had seen and heard angels. They had received personal revelation. They had gazed upon the promised Messiah with their own eyes and had received a testimony of him from a divine source. Although we may not see Christ with our natural eyes, we too can have a divine witness of him and his church, and that witness should change us to become a new creature in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
However, the shepherds didn’t keep the events of that night to themselves. They excitedly went about telling everyone they could find what they had both seen and heard. In like manner, we too should be excited to share the good news of Christ with others.
Christmas is about celebrating the birth of our Savior – God’s only begotten Son – which is a wonderful and wondrous story in and of itself, but as we the take time to ponder more deeply on its message, we’ll find many things we can apply in our life, including what we can learn from the story of the shepherds.
Related articles can be found at Parting Thoughts