A Baby Born in Bethlehem: The Shepherds


This is part-four in a series, read about Simeon’s response to the baby born in Bethlehem, the response of King Herod & the Sanhedrin, and the response of the wise men.

On the 21st of June, 1982, William Arthur Philip Louis was born to mother Diana and father Charles at St Mary’s Hospital, London, weighing in at 7 pounds 1.5 ounces. William’s birth was announced around the world. The UK Daily Mail announced in huge typescript, “IT’S A BOY!” as did The Sun, the Daily Express, while People Weekly decided to be punny – “OH, BOY!”

Why all this publicity for the birth of a baby boy? Because William Arthur Philip Louis is more commonly known as Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, and the second in line to succeed his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, as monarch of England.

When a future king is born, the whole world knows about it. Newspapers are informed, TV stations cut to breaking news, and world leaders and dignitaries stop what they are doing to offer their congratulations. Prince William was baptised by none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury, the senior bishop and principal leader of the Church of England, and the symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Prince William, when he is crowned with St Edward’s Crown, will be monarch of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Head of the Commonwealth, and king of at least 12 other countries.

 “For a child will be born for us,
a son will be given to us,
and the government will be on His shoulders.
He will be named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.”
Isaiah 9:6

These are only some of the titles given to Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, the Christ, Messiah, the Word.

“He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn over all creation.
For everything was created by Him,
in heaven and on earth,
the visible and the invisible,
whether thrones or dominions
or rulers or authorities—
all things have been created through Him and for Him.”
Colossians 1:15-16

And yet, when Jesus Christ was born, he was not born in a hospital as well equipped and staffed as St Mary’s in London. He was not announced to the world by heralds, angelic or otherwise. Almost nobody knew of His birth. The only announcement that Jesus Christ received was in a lonely field, filled with some hungry sheep and tired shepherds:

“In the same region, shepherds were staying out in the fields and keeping watch at night over their flock. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today a Saviour, who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David.” – Luke 2:8-11

'The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds' by Thomas Cole

‘The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds’ by Thomas Cole

If we were to compare God’s publicity department to that of the House of Windsor, we would clearly question God’s decision-making. Instead of sending His angels to the rulers of the nations, God sent them to a bunch of shepherds and sheep. They might have been nearby – so maybe God saved on angel transportation – but other than that, on the surface of it, we must wonder why God chose these shepherds to receive news of His Son’s birth. “As a class shepherds had a bad reputation. The nature of their calling kept them from observing the ceremonial law which meant so much to religious people. More regrettable was their unfortunate habit of confusing ‘mine’ with ‘thine’ as they moved about the country. They were considered unreliable and were not allowed to give testimony in the law-courts”[1].

Yet God not only sent an angelic messenger to tell these unclean and shifty shepherds of His Son’s birth, but added an angelic host for good measure.

“Suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:

Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and peace on earth to people He favours!”
Luke 2:13-14

It is important to note here that none of our earthly renditions of the angels’ visit to the shepherds has ever done justice to the actual event. Luke says that “there was a multitude of the heavenly host”. The word ‘multitude’ speaks for itself, while ‘host’ refers to an army – not a contingent, or a legion, or a battalion, but an army. This army was so numerous that Luke felt the need to add the word ‘multitude’ just to properly convey the scene that these poor and frightened shepherds faced.

Can you imagine the terror of the shepherds? It was bad enough when one angelic figure appeared to them – “they were terrified” (Luke 2:9) – but can you imagine what would have come over them when the angel’s buddies showed up?

According to the author, these shepherds seem to have gotten over their fright relatively quickly – the angel did say “Don’t be afraid” – for, “When the angels had left them and returned to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go straight to Bethlehem and see what has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’” (Luke 2:15) In fact, the shepherds “hurried off” in search of Mary and Joseph, and this boy child of whom they had been told.

The translations available to us don’t necessarily do justice to what Luke was intending. “Both the idiomatic particle , which conveys a note of urgency … expressed in the NIV’s ‘let’s go’ …, and the words ‘hurried off’ … heighten the sense of excitement and determination that propelled the shepherds to the baby’s side.”[2] The news the angels brought was such good news that it scythed through all fear and doubt and set these lowly shepherds running for the nearest stable in an effort to get a glimpse of the “Saviour, who is Messiah the Lord” (Luke 2:11) as soon as possible.

These shepherds ran to encounter the baby born in Bethlehem, and when they did, they went out to tell others.

“They hurried off and found both Mary and Joseph, and the baby who was lying in the feeding trough. After seeing them, they reported the message they were told about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. … The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard, just as they had been told.”Luke 2:16-18, 20

“The shepherds, like Mary, were given an angelic message. In response they listened well, overcame their fears, and went out into the world carrying the joyful news to others.”[3] They not only ran to encounter Jesus, the shepherds wanted others to hear of what they had been told, and told everyone who would listen. Even when their job was done, and all who could hear had heard, the shepherds returned to their flocks “glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard, just as they had been told.” (Luke 2:20)

This Christmas, when you hear about Jesus Christ born in a manger, no crib for a bed on that silent and holy night, how will you respond? Whether you’ve heard it before, or for the first time, will you run to seek Him out? Will you tell anyone and everyone you can find about the good news you have found? Will you do as the shepherds did and, dropping everything, run to find Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour?

[1] Luke, Leon Morris, p. 84 (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries)
[2] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary – Luke, Walter L. Liefeld, p. 79 (ed. Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland)
[3] Hidden Christmas, Timothy Keller, p. 101