Jesus’ birth was announced by angelic choirs. It was also greeted by shepherds, to whom the angels first announced the birth of the Christ. Why would the news go to shepherds first?
“And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. . . .” (Luke 2:1-20).
Commentators commonly note that shepherds were not well-regarded in first-century Israel. They were rough-hewn characters, unsettled, living on the margins of civilized life. That is perhaps one reason why Luke records that shepherds were the first to hear the news of Jesus. This is consistent with Luke’s constant theme of reversal: With the coming of the Christ, normal structures are turned upside down, as the humble are exalted and the exalted cast down (cf. 2:46-55). Luke might particularly be contrasting the Davidic king with the Roman Emperor, Augustus (v. 1): While Augustus is surrounded by armies and wealthy retainers, the King of heaven is surrounded by lowly shepherds.
Yet, there seems to be something more precise going on here. True, shepherds are despised, but Israel was a nation of shepherds. The Egyptians gave Israel the land of Goshen because they wanted to be separated from what they considered “loathsome” shepherds (Genesis 46:32-34; 47:3). The patriarchs all kept goats and sheep, and some of the greatest of ancient Israel’s heroes were shepherds – Moses (Exodus 3:1) and David (1 Samuel 16:11; 17:40).
Shepherding was so honored in ancient Israel that the king was designated as the “shepherd” of the people (2 Samuel 5:2; 7:7; 1 Kings 22:17; Psalm 78:72). Even the Persian emperor Cyrus is described as a “shepherd” (Isaiah 44:28). When the prophets denounce the “shepherds” of Israel and Judah, as they often do, they are denouncing the kings and civil rulers (Jeremiah 10:21; 12:10; 23:1-4; Ezekiel 34; Zechariah 10:3). The angelic announcement to the shepherds of Bethlehem is thus symbolically an announcement of the gospel to Israel. Israel, dwelling like the shepherds in the darkness of the old covenant, of Herod’s reign, and of Roman empire, see a great light. As Paul says, the gospel goes “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.”
Of course, the chief shepherd of Israel is Yahweh Himself (Psalm 23; 80:1). The coming of Jesus is the coming of the Shepherd of Israel (cf. Ezekiel 34:23; John 10), and the coming of the Chief Shepherd is announced to the shepherds of Bethlehem. Their worship of Jesus is a sign that they, representing Israel, acknowledge their over-Shepherd. Through Jeremiah, further, the Lord promises to raise up faithful rulers for His people (Jeremiah 3:15; 23:4). The good news of Christmas is not only the good news of the Chief Shepherd’s appearance. It’s also the good news that the Lord is going to raise up faithful pastors for His people. The announcement to the wise men symbolizes the fulfillment of that prophetic promise.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Monday, December 4, 2006 at 4:00 pm
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