The Importance of the Shepherds in the Christmas Story

Even if we haven’t had the delight of watching children perform in a Christmas pageant, we know that the Christmas shepherds appeared during the night of Jesus’ birth. Let’s take a look at the passage where this story is found in the Bible and why they are so important to the Christmas story - 

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.”  Luke 2:8-15

But what do we know about these shepherds, apart from the fact they appeared in the story of Jesus' birth? Why did God choose to let the shepherds know the good news first? Let’s dive into these questions and more.

What The Bible Says About the Shepherds

Apart from the narrative above, we don’t have much detailing on the shepherds. We know it was likely close to springtime, the time in which shepherds were out in the fields. And they worked, essentially, the second and third shift, staying up with the sheep. They would’ve lived outside of the borders of the town.

We don’t really have to stretch our suspension of disbelief to know they didn’t work a glamorous job. No one woke up in Bethlehem and said, “Aww, gee, I hope I grow up to be a shepherd.” They represented one of the lowest of the low in terms of social strata.

What else do we know about these shepherds?

According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary, “In early morning he led forth the flock from the fold, marching at its head to the spot where they were to be pastured. Here he watched them all day, taking care that none of the sheep strayed, and if any for a time eluded his watch and wandered away from the rest, seeking diligently till he found and brought it back. In those lands sheep require to be supplied regularly with water, and the shepherd for this purpose has to guide them either to some running stream or to wells dug in the wilderness and furnished with troughs. At night he brought the flock home to the fold, counting them as they passed under the rod at the door to assure himself that none were missing. Nor did his labours always end with sunset. Often he had to guard the fold through the dark hours from the attack of wild beasts, or the wily attempts of the prowling thief.”

In essence, the job never stopped. In a modern context, we may know someone who works more jobs than they can handle just to pay the bills. These shepherds had to keep watch at night in case a wild beast or thief attempted to infiltrate the flock.

Which Angel Appeared to the Shepherds in the Christmas Story?

Their typically nightly duties hit a snag when the angel of the Lord appears to them and tells them the good tidings of the Messiah. Even if they didn’t have the strongest education, they would’ve had to memorize the first five books of the Bible in their youth. They had a familiarity with the prophecies of this Messiah.

As for the angel, the Bible doesn’t name him. But we can assume Gabriel makes for the most likely candidate to fill this slot. Often Gabriel comes with messages from God, in the Old and New Testament, and he did give some Christmas tidings to some women prior in the narrative.

Why Did God Choose to Shepherds About the Birth of Jesus First?

Now comes the ultimate question: why the Christmas shepherds? It does, after all, take the Magi (kings) two years to make the trek to Bethlehem. These shepherds are the literal first witnesses of Jesus’ birth, apart from the animals in the barn. We may often hear the reason, “Because God doesn’t care about riches. So he chose one of the most humble people in the land to witness the humble birth of our Savior.”

True, but the answer lies beyond just this. It foreshadows the important role Jesus will play as our Good Shepherd. Also, it foreshadows how Israel will treat the Good Shepherd. Like the shepherds, Israel looked down and scorned Jesus.

But when the shepherds witness the birth first, this underscores the tone of Jesus’ life and ministry on earth. Instead of choosing a life of luxury and power, he has humble origins and exercises humility to the point of death on a cross. It all starts with the shepherds. It has to.

4 Facts about the Christmas Shepherds 

What else should we know about these characters that can help enhance our understanding of the passage found in Luke 2?

First, we should know that the Israelites had a shepherding heritage, whether they liked it or not.

The patriarchs themselves had hosts of sheep that they looked after. Job had 14,000 sheep. And the land abounded with these creatures. Even if these shepherds experienced derision from their fellow citizens, they had a wonderful history that made up the very fabric of Semitic life.

Secondly, the youngest boy of the family often ended up in the role of a shepherd. This makes sense as to why David cared for flocks while his brothers went off to war. As the last in the birth order, his father gave him the lowliest of positions. Imagine the ire of his brothers when they watched their lowliest brother become the high king of Israel.

Thirdly, shepherds also operated as physicians for the sheep. Sheep can often get sunburned or run into a scraggly bush (they aren’t the brightest of creatures). The shepherds administered medical care for their livestock. Similarly, Jesus calls himself our Great Physician. He binds up our wounds and heals us. Like sheep, we can often find that we bruise or cut easily. But we have a Healer and Provider in our flock.

Finally, because of the Roman rule and the bountiful offspring of the Israelites, the population swelled. This meant that people had fewer options when it comes to pursuing more desirable careers. Most of the Israelites would’ve gotten involved in the livestock business. Still, people often viewed shepherds as unskilled or uneducated, hence the stigma during Jesus’ day. Although there would’ve been a lot of shepherds, they would’ve received a lot of upturned noses.

How wonderful that God chose the lowest of the low to see the most important birth of all time. Because of their humble origins, the shepherds cannot help but rejoice and tell everyone they see about the birth of the Messiah. If God had chosen a king or a religious leader, the situation would’ve played out very differently. Instead, he picks a group of shepherds who set the tone for Jesus’ life and ministry.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/KristiLinton

headshot of author Hope BolingerHope Bolinger is a multi-published novelist and a graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 1,200 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her modern-day Daniel trilogy is out with IlluminateYA. She is also the co-author of the Dear Hero duology, which was published by INtense Publications. And her inspirational adult romance Picture Imperfect releases in November of 2021. Find out more about her at her website.

This article is part of our larger Christmas and Advent resource library centered around the events leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ. We hope these articles help you understand the meaning and story behind important Christian holidays and dates and encourage you as you take time to reflect on all that God has done for us through his son Jesus Christ!

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