The Real Truth About the Shepherds on That First Christmas Night
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:11
There they were, the shepherds, watching their flocks of sheep, protecting them from predators just like any other night of the year. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, the angels of heaven appeared to announce the greatest of all news in the history of news!
The common story goes that the shepherds were poor, stinky, and ragtag. But like many stories, sometimes they get spun by culture over time. Yes, they may have been stinky and perhaps a bit disheveled, but they were not poor, country-bumpkin farmers scratching out a living as we’ve always been told. No, they were actually higher up the social scale than that.
So, who were these shepherds then? If they weren’t the poorest of the poor and specially chosen by God because of it…then why these guys? A quick look at Jewish priestly duties explains it all…without popping the romantic bubble surrounding that first Noel.
Poor and Dirty Shepherds
Luke 2:8–20 lays out the story for us.
“There were shepherds in the same country staying in the field and keeping watch by night over their flock. Behold, an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
“The angel said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be to all the people. For there is born to you today, in David’s city, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This is the sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a feeding trough.’
“Suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will toward men.’
“When the angels went away from them into the sky, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem, now, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.’
“They came with haste and found both Mary and Joseph, and the baby was lying in the feeding trough. When they saw it, they publicized widely the saying which was spoken to them about this child. All who heard it wondered at the things which were spoken to them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these sayings, pondering them in her heart.
“The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, just as it was told to them.” (WEB)
The usual version we hear about these shepherds is that they were poor and dirty. It’s usually followed up with the idea that Jesus appeared to these poor shepherds because it was God’s design to first appear to “the least of these.” That by appearing to them first, Jesus was conveying His heart to reach the have-nots of society before appearing to any authorities because it was the disenfranchised He was most concerned with.
Well…that’s at least partly true.
Jesus, of course, had (and still has) a heart for those who are downcast and hurting and everyone else. But these shepherds, they were not outcasts of society.
The shepherds we read about in Luke were actually fulfilling Temple duties, and the only ones who could perform Temple duties were priests. We know they were priests because of the Mishnah.
The Mishnah is a group of documents that recorded oral traditions that governed the Jewish people during the time of the Pharisees. One of its regulations states it “expressly forbids the keeping of flocks throughout the land of Israel except in the wilderness — and the only flocks otherwise kept would be those for the Temple services (Bab K.7:7; 80a).
These shepherds were in the fields surrounding Bethlehem, not out in the wilderness where regular sheep were kept. So, they must have been priests.
Why would priests perform menial shepherding duties for the Temple? It’s because the sheep were intended to be sacrificed for Passover. It was the priests’ job to make sure the lambs were without blemish and completely unharmed before being sacrificed.
Watching Over Their Flock
Another statement in the Mishnah says that the Messiah would be revealed from the Migdal Eder, which translates as “tower of the flock.” It was an actual tower that stood just outside town and within the Temple priests’ fields. It was a kind of lookout tower, you might say.
It was a priest’s job to stay in the Migdal Eder all night. So, with the tower being so tall, the shepherd priest was “watching over the flock by night” while the other shepherds were on the ground also keeping watch. (Isn’t it amazing that such a little word can have so much meaning in the Bible?)
The shepherds stayed in the fields continually, so they were most likely quite dirty, but they were not a group of poor shepherds. Their service to the church leaders — the Pharisees — elevated their social status. But, no matter how you look at it, they were still shepherds.
And that’s when the angel showed up with some very good news.
Good Tiding of Great Joy
The belief that the angels appeared first to poor, uneducated, country shepherds makes a lot of sense, but the truth is even better.
See, these priests were a part of the animal sacrifice system of the church. It was their job to prepare the sheep for Passover and other Jewish ceremonies. Then, out of nowhere, breaking the silent night, an angel from heaven appears to them with an update to Moses’ Law.
Though the shepherds probably weren’t fully aware of what was happening, the angel was hand-delivering a message telling them the time for animal sacrifice was nearly over, and they were the first to know.
“For there is born to you today, in David’s city, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:11
The Christ, the promised Messiah the priests had heard about from the prophets, the Savior of the world was finally born. Animal sacrifices were no longer necessary. Now, Jesus would be the ultimate and perfect sacrifice to pay for man’s sin once and for all through His death and resurrection.
No wonder these priests ran “with haste (v.16)” to see the baby the angel spoke about. I’d be running too, wouldn’t you? I can only imagine how big their eyes got and how far their jaws dropped when they found a baby lying in a feeding trough, wrapped in swaddling cloth, just as the angel said.
The Swaddling Cloths
One side note about the swaddling cloths…these weren’t ordinary cloths. They weren’t rags Mary and Joseph brought from home or happened to find in the stable. No, they were the same cloths used by the church — specifically, the shepherd priests — to keep the lambs clean and free of blemishes as the lambs were prepared for the sacrifice.
How Mary and Joseph got the cloths is unknown, but theologists speculate they were from the priest, Zacharias, whose wife, Elizabeth, is Mary’s cousin. Remember Mary stayed in their house for three months while she was pregnant, and the cloths may have been a sort of baby shower gift.
So, the shepherds found baby Jesus wrapped in priestly cloths. Sounds perfect to me. Since Jesus is the lamb of God (John 1:29) and the great High Priest, it’s only fitting because one day He would be sacrificed like a lamb for all mankind.
How wonderful it is to know the Messiah has come! How wonderful there is no need to sacrifice animals anymore because of the price Jesus paid for us. He came to earth to be the perfect Lamb, without blemish and sin, so we never again have to be separated from Him.
After the shepherds saw Jesus with their own eyes, the Bible says they “returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen (v. 20).” Author Eugene Peterson wrote in his book, The Message, that the shepherds “let loose, glorifying and praising God.”
Knowing the Savior of the world has come should move all of us to let loose with our praise.
From my family to yours, have a very Merry Christmas!