Of all the mini-stories that makeup the Christmas story, have you ever wondered why the “good news of great joy” was shared first with shepherds? Is it merely because they were the only people outside at that hour of the night to witness what the heavenly host was proclaiming or is there truly more to the story? Many commentators remark on the cultural insignificance of shepherds in that day but I find God’s view of shepherds much more significant and relative to the true meaning of Christmas. For perspective, let’s walk our way through His Word and discover the key role that shepherds and shepherding plays in the life of the Church.
Numbers 27:15-17. Early on in Scripture, we see God’s people referred to as a flock in need of a shepherd. In Matthew 9:36, Jesus referred to this commissioning of Joshua when He had compassion on the people of His time who were “distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.”
1 Samuel 16. In this familiar story of the initial anointing of Israel’s second king we find Samuel headed off to Bethlehem. A couple generations prior Boaz had married Ruth, a Gentile from Moab, “the widow of Mahlon…so that the name of the deceased will not be cut off from his brothers or from the court of his birth place.”(Ruth 4:10) Ruth and Boaz had a son named Obed, who had a son named Jesse, who had a son named David. (Generations later, Joseph and Mary end up in Bethlehem to register for the census since Joseph “was of the house and family of David.”) In verse 11, David was tending sheep when Samuel found him, just like Moses was when God appeared to him at the burning bush.
2 Samuel 5:2b. At the “ironic” age of 30, David is officially anointed King of Israel when the people remind him of what The Lord had said: “You will shepherd My people Israel, and you will be a ruler over Israel.” Where did David turn for help with such a monumental task? In one of the most famous Psalms David ever penned – 23 – we learn The Lord Himself was his Shepherd.
Isaiah 40:9-11. We quickly see in Scripture that imperfect mankind is going to need that perfect Shepherd too. A glimpse of this coming “good news” is revealed when we read, “Like a shepherd He will tend his flock, in His arm He will gather the lambs and carry them in His bosom.” Why do we need a perfect Shepherd? Isaiah 53:6a. “All of us like sheep have gone astray; each of us has turned to his own way.” God speaks through shepherd-turned-prophet, Amos, five times in Amos 4 that despite numerous warnings and trials: “Yet you have not returned to Me.”
Ezekiel 34. This is where we see the shortcomings of earthly shepherds who were supposed to be shepherding God’s people. They were feeding themselves, not their flock. They were not strengthening the sickly. There were not healing the diseased. They were not binding up the broken. They were not seeking the lost. They were not bringing back the scattered. They were forceful, severe and dominating. They didn’t keep the flock from wandering off. They didn’t protect them. They sure didn’t lead them to rest.
Micah 5:2-5. Where do we look for this perfect Shepherd? The chief priests and scribes paraphrased Micah 5 when they told Herod, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, Land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah. For out of you shall come forth a ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.'”
Zechariah 13:7-9 & Matthew 26:31. Unlike earthly shepherds who put themselves first, the perfect Shepherd would put His flock first by sacrificing his own life for them. This sacrifice is what enables the fulfillment of God’s Genesis through Revelation longing for a relationship (not religion) with mankind: “They will call on My Name, and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are My people.’ And they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.'”
So the fact that the birth of Jesus was first announced to shepherds is much more than mere coincidence. And while the Old Testament background provides amazing context to the significance of shepherds, it doesn’t end with that story of the first Christmas night in the pasture. There’s plenty to find in the New Testament about Jesus fulfilling His role as “the great Shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20) then commissioning us to also serve as shepherds.
John 10. “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep…My sheep hear My voice, and I know them and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.” After Jesus provided purification for sins, He instructed Peter that, if he truly loved Him, he would help “shepherd My sheep.” (John 21:15-17) Peter goes on to tell us that we too should help “shepherd the flock of God” until “the Chief Shepherd appears.” (1 Peter 5:1-4)
Dr. Lincoln has stated the role of a shepherd is to guard, guide and feed. What might that look like? Here are some practical tips for shepherding those within your particular sphere of influence, using Ezekiel 34 as a reference.
- Feed the flock. By all means, study God’s Word, but do it with the intent to not only feed yourself but also share what you’ve learned with others.
- Strengthen the sickly. When is the last time you visited someone who was sick that wasn’t your close friend or family member?
- Heal the diseased. Like it or not, we know the cure for the cancer of sin. Will you share it with those who need it?
- Bind up the broken. There are plenty of reasons why our brothers and sisters can get broken in this world. Will you be around to help bind up those wounds?
- Seek the lost. It’s one thing to have an evangelistic moment thrust upon you. But will you intentionally seek out opportunities to share your Faith? Jesus did – see Luke 19:10.
- Bring back the scattered. Who in your flock have you not seen in a while? Will you take a moment to reach out and maybe help bring them back in the fold?
- Be gentle, humble and kind. One of the traits of God often overlooked and therefore not practiced by His followers is lovingKINDness.
- Keep the flock together. Is church unity as important to you as it is to Jesus?
- Protect. Believers are often under attack and need the steady support of fellow believers, particularly through the power of prayer.
- Lead them to rest. Will you encourage fellow believers as long as it is called today? Christians have the hope of Heaven but need to be frequently reminded.