Tea towel-turbaned children and cosy Christmas card scenes often spring to mind when we think about the shepherds. But what were these first eyewitnesses of the manger really like?
Our research takes us to the account by Luke, the historian amongst Jesus’ four biblical biographers. But what would it have been like for Luke to do his research. We imagine a conversation with a shepherd, as Luke interviewed him when writing his Gospel.
Luke: I’m glad to find you, because in my research I keep coming across stories about shepherds seeing Jesus in the manger.
Shepherd: I’m not surprised. We were so excited that we told everyone we saw.
Luke: Let’s start at the beginning and get things in order.
Shepherd: That night we were keeping a look out as usual — that’s what we were paid to do. With meat being so expensive, thieves love to get their hands on a lamb. And our master would not have been happy if a wild animal had got its teeth into one.
Luke: But it was no normal night. You remember it well?
Shepherd: How could I ever forget? I’ve spent hundreds of nights outside, but that one in my youth I can relive almost by the minute! One minute it was dark and the next there was the brightest light I’ve ever seen — much brighter than the sun at midday. It was God’s glory. I was petrified.
Luke: What did you see?
Shepherd: First off, there was this angel, like a grown man, in this brilliant bright light. He told us not to be scared because he had come to tells us amazingly good news.
Well, this was incredible. Here I was, a low-born labourer, and God sent an angel to speak to me! Us shepherds weren’t ceremonially clean, so the Jewish religious leaders didn’t rate us. But God sent his messenger to us!
Luke: What was the good news?
Shepherd: That the Messiah had come, our Lord and Saviour. The angel said the Messiah had been born that very day. We must have heard the news within hours, because our days start at sunset.
Luke: Did the angel say where the Messiah was?
Shepherd: He certainly did. The angel said our Messiah was born in the city of David, Bethlehem. That made sense — the prophets predicted our Messiah would be from King David’s family.
But this angel also said we’d find him in a manger. Now that was weird. The most important man in Israel’s history lying in an animal’s feeding trough? If an angel hadn’t said it, I wouldn’t have believed it.
Luke: Was there just the one angel?
Shepherd: We just saw one to start with. But suddenly there a whole angel army. It was terrifying to see all those perfect and powerful angels. This angel army could have been announcing war — we certainly deserve God’s judgment for breaking his laws — but instead they had an amazing message of peace.
Luke: What happened next?
Shepherd: Well, it was suddenly dark again. After that amazing light it seemed really, really dark.
Luke: Did you think you had just dreamt it all?
Shepherd: This was nothing like a dream. Besides, we wouldn’t all dream it together. We were all talking about it. The angel had said you will find the baby in a manger, so he obviously meant us to look. So that’s what we did, we were all sure we should go to Bethlehem to see. We didn’t hang around.
Luke: And what did you find?
Shepherd: The baby was there in the manger as predicted. His mother Mary and Joseph weren’t as shocked as I thought they might have been (I think they might have seen angels too). Mary was especially thoughtful. She knew her baby was very special.
Luke: What did you do?
Shepherd: We were so thankful to God. He sent angels to make us witnesses to the Messiah’s birth. We told everyone about what had happened and praised God.
Luke: What were the main things you spoke about?
Shepherd: Obviously seeing angels and finding the baby Messiah. And the angels’ puzzling message. People were expecting the Messiah to be a man of war, overthrowing the Romans. But the message of the angels was one of peace.
And it was not peace between humans; it was peace between God and humanity. We knew something about making peace with God. Lots of sheep were regularly taken for sacrifice in Jerusalem to help the worshippers make peace with God.
Luke: And now we know that all those sacrifices were only pictures of what Jesus as the Lamb of God did when he died in the place of sinners.
My good friend Paul speaks a lot about God’s message of peace. The angels announced peace at Jesus’ birth because the Messiah was born to die. God’s Son came into this world to deal with the reason we are not at peace with God: it is our sin that offends him. Jesus’ death on the cross for sinners removed the reason for the hostility between us and God.
Shepherd: Paul preaches the same message of peace that we heard from the angels?
Luke: It is just the same message for rabbis like Paul, doctors like me, and shepherds like you. We’ve all got the same problem, our sin; and we all need the same remedy, Christ dying for sin.
Paul Smith is pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Broadstairs, Kent