By: John L. Terry, III
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” (Luke 2:8-20 NIV)
It has been commonly reported the angel appeared to the lowly shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem to demonstrate the Messiah had not just come for the affluent, but for the common man. While this may be true, the real impact of why the angels appeared, and to whom, is a story that is worth telling.
After the death of Rachel, Israel settled near the area of Eder (Genesis 35). From there, the children of Israel spread out to colonize the land of promise and establish the 12 tribes of Israel. This area remained significant throughout the OT, and a prophecy in Micah 4 predicts the coming of Messiah to this area. To the casual eye, it is an unbecoming plot of pasture land between Bethlehem and Judea where sheep are raised. But this where the story gets interesting. Why? These are not common shepherds, and the sheep that graze there are not ordinary sheep.
The area of Migdal Eder, resting between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, is known in common terms as the Watchtower of the Flock. This area throughout the OT and into the time of Jesus is where the sheep that would be used in Temple sacrifice are raised and cared for. For centuries, the shepherds who lived in this area had been specifically trained to inspect the newborn lambs for imperfection, and to protect and preserve the spotless lambs for their role in Temple sacrifice. These shepherds learned the skills of wrapping newborn lambs in swaddling cloth, strips of clothing to protect the young ones from injury and insulate them from the elements, often laying them in a nearby manger near their birth mother shortly after they were born to keep them warm, safe and protected. They nurtured them from birth, keeping watch over the flock 24/7, to protect these spotless lambs from the elements, predators, pestilence and disease. They were the first to witness the birth of a lamb and pronounce it as spotless, and worthy of future sacrifice.
Fast forward to that fateful night in Bethlehem. The shepherds were engaged in their due diligence as watchers of the flock when an emissary from the Throne of God appeared to them. They were not taken by surprise, for they knew the OT prophecies of the coming Messiah and that his announcement would take place at Migdal Eder. For centuries, the shepherds waited in anticipation of the Messiah’s announcement as they faithfully watched over the spotless lambs, awaiting their turn on the Temple Altar. It was no accident the angel appeared to these shepherds, as these shepherds were the lamb inspectors, the first to proclaim a newborn lamb as “without spot or blemish” and worthy of sacrifice for the sins of the people.
Imagine the conversation as these shepherds left their flocks to travel to bear witness to the birth of the spotless Lamb of God. The excitement in their voices and the anticipation as they sought out the birthplace of the newborn King of Kings. Imagine the whispering and curiosity of those who saw them heading to Bethlehem, searching out the Christ-child, wondering what brought these unique shepherds from their appointed task at Migdal Eder…then realizing that prophecy may be being fulfilled before their very eyes. Did others follow them? Scripture doesn’t say, but you can imagine the buzz in the community surrounding their visit days and even weeks thereafter.
Imagine Mary and Joseph’s wonder as the Lamb Inspectors were the first to come and see the Christ-child, lying in the manger. They knew the significance of who these men were, and what their role was in Jewish society. It was a confirmation of what angels had spoken to them some 9 months ago when the Christ-child was miraculously conceived in Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit. He who would save the people from their sins had been born. The shepherds of the Watchtower of the Flock had come to inspect the Lamb of God for spot or blemish, and found Him wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. To the shepherds, the imagery is unmistakable. They realized with great awe the magnitude of their discovery, and its implications on mankind. It was a night none would ever forget, for they had witnessed prophecy being fulfilled before their very eyes.
Who better than the shepherds to first “inspect” the Christ-child, the spotless lamb who had come to take away the sins of the world, as John the Baptist later revealed to the crowds at Jesus’ baptism in John 1. Is it any wonder Luke records that Mary treasured “all these things” and pondered them in her heart.
The shepherd's task completed, returned to their appointed duties, keeping watch over their flocks, giving glory and praise to God for being the generation who were able to be the first to inspect the spotless lamb of God. And the word of their angelic visitation, and subsequent inspection of the Christ-child was told far and wide. For a people who for centuries had eagerly anticipated the coming of Messiah, can you imagine the enthusiasm and excitement? For a king who later heard, and felt his kingdom (and the prestige, power and wealth behind it) threatened, can you imagine the fear and apprehension at the coming of the “King of Kings”?
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay, takes on a new, grander meaning when you consider the first visitors to the manger setting, and the significance of this visit in light of prophecy and the specific task to which these shepherds had been assigned.
And you thought they were just lowly, insignificant shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night.
As Paul Harvey eloquently said time and again, now you know the rest of the story.