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Why Shepherds?


The shepherds show us how God appeared to ordinary men. He appeared to shepherds, not world rulers. In that respect, we praise God for his grace. He continues to show his salvation to ordinary people.

On the other hand, the shepherds were Not ordinary men. We often think of them as “belonging” in the Christmas story. But their appearance is unexpected. Why shepherds? Well, not just to teach us a lesson about God’s grace in appearing to common people; but to show us a fulfillment of an important prophecy, which points to Jesus, the Lamb of God.

Below is an article from Chuck Quarles, a friend of mine, and brilliant NT scholar about these “unordinary men.”  You can also read this passage mentioned about Migdal Eder in the Mishna here (see 7:4)

The Shepherds Were No Ordinary Men

Although our familiarity with manger scenes tends to make the presence of the shepherds of Bethlehem at Jesus’  birth seem natural, from a first-century perspective their presence there is quite unexpected. With all the kings, priests, and celebrities in the world, why would God summon only this humble group of men to adore the infant Messiah and to announce his birth to others? The shepherds’  description of the birth announcement from the angels as “that which the Lord has made known to us” expresses the shepherd’s own surprise at being recipients of the announcement of the Messiah’s birth. Why them, they must have asked. That same question still perplexes thoughtful readers who reflect on Luke 2 today. Although we may never unravel the mysteries of divine grace, two explanations may be given.

First, these men were summoned to the birth scene of Christ because of an important Old Testament prophecy. Micah 4:8 says, “As for you, O Migdal Eder [Tower of the Flock], O stronghold of the Daughter of Zion, the former dominion will be restored to you; kingship will come to the Daughter of Jerusalem.” The prophecy anticipates the restoration of the kingdom of David (the former dominion) through the rule of the Messiah.

Interestingly, the prophecy was addressed to Migdal Eder. The Hebrew word migdal means “tower.” Consequently, ancient Jewish interpreters like the author of the Targum of Jonathan (an Aramaic paraphrase of the OT produced sometime between A.D. 70 and the end of the second century) referred to Migdal Eder as “the tower of Eder from which King Messiah will be revealed at the end of days.”  The Hebrew word eder, meant “flock” so the phrase Midgal Eder meant “tower of the flock.” This was a watchtower from which shepherds guarded their flocks of sheep.

Interestingly, Luke 2 tells us that when the angel appeared to them, the shepherds were “abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.” The phrase “keeping watch”  may well mean “to guard from a watchtower.” Interesting, isn’t it? What is more, according to Genesis 35:19-21, Migdal Eder was located in the vicinity of a tiny Judean village named, guess what? Bethlehem!

Thus the announcement of Jesus’ birth to the Bethlehemite shepherds specifically fulfills a prophecy about the Messiah’s coming given to Micah some seven hundred years before Jesus’  birth. The centuries-old prophecy of the announcement of the Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem demonstrates that the shepherds were part of plan conceived by God in eternity past. This only heightens the question, “What is so significant about these men?”

An obscure passage in the Mishnah gives us a telling clue. The Mishnah is a collection of rabbinic teaching that was written around A.D. 200 but which reflects earlier Jewish traditions that, in some cases at least, date to the time of Jesus. The tractate on the Shekel offering states that all cattle (including cows, sheep, and goats) that were raised between Jerusalem and Migdal Eder, the tower of the flock located in the vicinity of Bethlehem, were dedicated to one exclusive purpose: temple sacrifice.

Although other shepherds in other parts of Judea raised their sheep for their mutton and for their wool, the Bethlehemite shepherds of Migdal Eder only raised sheep to be sacrificed on the holy altar of the temple in Jerusalem in a plea for forgiveness from God for their sins.

According to Lev 4:27-35, when a common Israelite violated one of the Lord’s commands, he was to take an unblemished goat or lamb to the priest. The sinner placed his hands on the head of the lamb, symbolically transferring his own sin guilt to the animal. Then he cut its throat. The animal suffered death, the penalty of sin, in the sinner’s place. Then the law added, “The priest will burn the lamb on the altar along with the fire offerings to the Lord. In this way the priest will make atonement on his behalf for the sin he has committed, and he will be forgiven.” But these yearly rituals could not provide forgiveness of sins. Hebrews 10:4 says, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Isa 53 had foretold of the coming of the Servant of the Lord who would be a human sacrificial lamb.:

Yet He Himself bore our sicknesses,
and He carried our pains;
but we in turn regarded Him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But He was pierced because of our transgressions,
crushed because of our iniquities;
punishment for our peace was on Him,
and we are healed by His wounds.
We all went astray like sheep;
we all have turned to our own way;
and the LORD has punished Him
for the iniquity of us all.

Jesus’ birth was announced to the shepherds of sacrifice because he was the prophesied sacrificial lamb who would provide true atonement for sin. The OT sacrifices had only foreshadowed the one ultimate sacrifice that could provide forgiveness of sin, the sacrifice of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. In his death on the cross, he took the punishment for our sins in our place to provide true forgiveness. He bore our guilt and suffered the wrath of God in our stead so we could be reconciled to God. The presence of the shepherds of sacrifice at Jesus’ birth silently shouts the words that John the Baptist later exclaimed when he saw Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

The presence of the shepherds at the birth scene of Jesus reminds believers today that Jesus was not born merely to incarnate Deity and reveal God to us, though He certainly did that. He was not born merely to teach us God’s ways and model true righteousness as the greatest of religious teachers, though He certainly accomplished that. He was born to die. The little child who was laid in a rough-hewn feed trough was born to be nailed to a rough-hewn cross. The little child who was wrapped in strips of swaddling cloth at his birth was born to be wrapped in strips of burial cloth after his crucifixion. The summons of the shepherds of sacrifice to Jesus’ birth reminds us that Jesus was born for the knife and the altar, the nails and the cross, and that only by his shed blood can sinners have peace with the Holy God.