[The following excerpt has been adapted from chapter 22 of Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative, by Russ Ramsey.]
The shepherd’s life was ironic. Their job was to care for the animals that would be sacrificed to atone for the sins of the people. Yet because of their handling of these dirty creatures, they themselves were unclean and thus prevented from keeping the ceremonial law. And because they were ceremonially unclean, they were often regarded as untrustworthy, irreligious, and poor in reputation.
Nevertheless, it was also expected that one who did his job well, a good shepherd, would be willing to lay down his life for his sheep. (John 10:11) A good shepherd was someone who cared deeply for the lambs under his watch, many of which were appointed to die on the altar of the Lord for the sins of the very people who looked down on the shepherds.
The shepherds’ lives were, in effect, sacrifices.
On one particular night, in the pastureland skirting Bethlehem’s northeast side, some shepherds sat like sentinels at their posts, keeping watch over their flocks, unaware of the angel regarding them from the skies overhead.
What would an angel think of their strange vocation? It was God’s idea that in this world sheep would depend on shepherds to watch over them. The Maker could’ve made them differently—and yet there sat the musty men with their staffs and their rods, cooperating with the order of creation, lest the beasts under their care perish. Though their solitary work afforded them many silent nights except for what they chose to speak or sing over their flocks, this night would be different.
A sudden, glorious light shone in the darkness as the angel of the Lord appeared among them. The shepherds were terrified. Of course they were. So wide was the gap between God and man that whatever information an angelic messenger was dispatched to deliver seemed more likely to be bad news than good. They were afraid because they knew they had reason to be afraid.
But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid. Listen, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people!”
The angel’s words painted a picture of the glorious presence of the promised Redeemer. He used names to describe the coming Messiah to these shepherds—names that spoke to his purpose. He called him the Savior, meaning he would atone for the sins of the people. He called him Christ, distinguishing him as their deliverer. He called him the Lord, identifying him as divine. (Lk 2:11)
The shepherds might have wondered why the angel chose to reveal this to them. This sort of news seemed to belong to people of influence or nobility. It was hardly the kind of report they ever imagined would be exclusively for men of their vocation, let alone reputation. But then the angel used one more expression which brought overwhelming clarity to this moment. He told them Christ the Lord had been born “unto you.” (Lk 2:11) The divine Savior and Messiah had been born unto them!
Though they lived most of their lives on the outside looking in, they would not be outsiders to this gift. They were the recipients of it.
This was big news. The shepherds sensed it, but the angels in Heaven knew it, and their behavior offered a glimpse into the cosmic weight of this announcement. Initially, it was just one glorious but solitary angel who appeared to these men in Bethlehem’s fields. But as soon as he announced Jesus’ birth, “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God.” (Lk 2:13)
It was as if there were millions of angels hiding just behind some celestial door, and once they heard, “Unto you is born this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!” they were unable to contain their joy any longer and all rushed in, praising God, singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.”
For the poor, helplessly earthbound shepherds, this was a lot to take in. What had they just heard? What did it mean? How should they respond? Wisdom suggested that if the angelic hosts of heaven offered unfettered joy in response to this message, their reaction was appropriate. Though none of those shepherds ever before had an angel of the Lord tell them of the coming of the Savior of the world, the spontaneous eruption of angelic praise became the lens through which they would see this moment: God was at work. This much was plain. But why had the glory of all glories appeared to the lowest of the lows? Why had the angel chosen to reveal this message to mere shepherds, unclean as they were?
Because poverty is relative. Could it be that from the perspective of heaven, the poor shepherds outside Bethlehem were no more or less poor than the rest of the world sleeping under its watch? Could it be that the poor of the earth were in fact all the people of the earth—poor in spirit, mourning and meek, hungry and thirsty for righteousness? (Mt 5:2-12) Could it be that the Savior’s coming was for them as much as it was for anyone, and for anyone as much as it was for them?
The angels gave the shepherds a sign that left them speechless. Their Messiah and Savior could be found where the young lambs were kept. He would be the one not covered in wool, but wrapped in a swaddling cloth.
Where the lambs are kept? This they needed to see.
When they found Jesus in the manger as the angel said, the very location of his birth was drenched in significance. The Savior had been born into their unclean world in the same manner as a lamb. The symbolism was not lost on them.
When the shepherds saw Jesus there, they saw not only that he had come, but they got a hint as to why. He came to be the perfect lamb, the ultimate, lasting sacrifice. This baby’s coming was to accomplish and establish peace between the God of all creation and his image-bearers who habitually rejected him.
And so it would be all his days.
From the manger in Bethlehem to the cross on Calvary, Jesus moved among the people, came into their homes, touched their blind eyes, and permitted their unfaithful hands to touch him. He taught them profound lessons from ordinary events. He defended the defenseless and opposed the self-righteous. He ate at their tables, laughed with their children, and wept over their grief.
Never did he abandon His purpose for coming, which was to die for a world of spirit-poor outsiders as the Lamb of God who takes their sin away. Jesus was born poor. He lived poor. And he died poor for the sake of his people.
The shepherds could not have known that this boy came into this world in the same way he would leave it: out in the open, among the outcast, poor, and despised, but driven by one purpose—to ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile until the Son of God appears.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).