While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks
Think back on an exciting time in your life when you were overwhelmed with emotion at the sight of something beautiful, a sudden surprise that captured your attention, or a moment of intense grief that seemed to cause your heart to fail within you. Any scenario we might recall of such intense emotional response pales into insignificance when compared to what the little group of shepherds witnessed the night Christ was born in Bethlehem. What the shepherds saw in the starry night skies was unprecedented in human experience. An angel, escorted by a countless multitude of other heavenly messengers, abruptly and unforgettably intervened in the mundane, working-class existence of the shepherds' lives with a proclamation to rival all other proclamations--the long-awaited Christ, the Savior of the world, God in human flesh, had just been born in nearby Bethlehem (Luke 2:8-14).
After the angels departed back to the glories of heaven, the shepherds' response in Luke 2:15 indicates an ongoing kind of discussion among them in which they reiterated again and again their desire to go to Bethlehem and validate what the angels had declared. They were in full agreement that nothing would detour them from immediately going to find the newly arrived Savior: "Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has make known to us" (Luke 2:15). As soon as possible, the shepherds set out on the two-mile journey from the fields up to the ridge upon which the small town of Bethlehem sat to "see this thing that had happened." The Greek term, "thing" literally means "word" or "reality." In other words, this ragged group understood that they had received a direct word from the living God, and the reality of it was that the Messiah had been born that same day. Such a reality would be verifiable because the angel gave them a "sign" to look for, "a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger" (Luke 2:12).
No time wasted, the shepherds set out to verify the angelic message. Luke 2:16 denotes "they came with haste." They didn't just travel with speed, they searched for this child in the manger with inquisitive eagerness and enthusiasm. Scripture does not reveal exactly how the shepherds search for the holy child and his parents, but it's reasonable to assume they enter the city gates of Bethlehem asking questions: "Does anybody know about a baby being born here tonight? Have you seen a pregnant woman about to give birth? Has a crying baby been heard in the town?" Other babies may have been born the same night as the town was swollen with occupants for the census. These men may have knocked on a few doors throughout the town asking many questions. But they were not searching for any ordinary baby boy. They were searching for a baby lying in a feed trough. Finally, they "found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger" (Luke 2:16). At that moment, as they gazed upon this young girl just having given birth, her husband caring for her, and this newborn child wrapped in rags and lying in a manger, this band of shepherds knew within their hearts that every word of the angelic announcement was absolutely true.
It is unclear how long this band of men lingered with Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. Luke notes that upon leaving that nothing could restrain them from witnessing to others of the glorious truth they had witnessed. Luke says, "Now when they had seen him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this child" (Luke 2:17). At that moment of belief, the shepherds join Zacharias, Elizabeth, Joseph, and Mary as witnesses to the greatest news mankind will ever know. What was their instant and abrupt response? They conveyed the story. Can you imagine them running throughout the town sharing the story of the angelic hosts, sharing the story of Joseph and Mary, sharing the story of seeing the baby Jesus lying in a manger, and sharing within everyone that they had met that the Savior, the Messiah, the King? It has been said that this small group of shepherds became, in effect, the first New Testament evangelists. They couldn't restrain themselves from sharing the good news of the advent of heavenly joy.
The response of the people at such magnificent news was marvel and astonishment. Luke tells us, "all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds" (Luke 2:18). The clear indication is that the news being reported by the shepherds was created quite a stir among the citizens of this small Judean town. Sadly, like most good news, the people marveled for a few moments and then went on with their lives. How often we tend to do the same. We are held in momentary amazement of the glory and grace of God, only to quickly get on with our lives. Instead of dismissing the angelic visit as an apparition to be questioned, the shepherds embraced this message from God. They were caught up into wonder and amazement as they took into themselves all the sights of heavenly glory, sounds of celestial worship, words of Joseph and Mary, and the sight of God wrapped in flesh. Their mundane, simple, wearied existence would be changed forever.
The shepherds story is analogous to the Christian life--it begins in the depths of sinful despondency, God invades our lives with the revelation of his gospel, we receive his good news by embracing Christ, and having become witnesses to a divine salvific transformation of our lives we immediately proclaim what has happened to us. This Christmas season, may we be held in the same glorious wonder that spurred the shepherds to widely broadcast the good news that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).
Dustin W. Benge (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is editor of Expositor Magazine, a publication of OnePassion Ministries, and lives with his wife, Molli, in Louisville, Kentucky.