Summary: The Bethlehem shepherds left their lambs being born in the fields to attend the birth of The Lamb of God who is also the Good and Great Shepherd. But, they were also unique as they pastored the Temple flocks of lambs who would die at the same place, time
The Deeper Significance of the Unique Bethlehem Shepherds
"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night." (Luke 2:8)
Shepherds are correctly included in every Nativity scene and church Christmas pageant … usually attired in bathrobes. But, as we dig into the Christmas story, the role of shepherds beckons to a deeper spiritual significance and symbolism of the shepherds.
This question begs asking: Why was the sign of Christ’s birth of a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manager given to the shepherds? It is curious that of all the professions God could have first announced the birth of His Son he chose shepherds. Much has been made that shepherds were the lowest on the social rungs of society at that time and that they were seen as spiritually unclean. And how this pictures for us how God reaches down to us. But, there is even more about the shepherds from Bethlehem that God has for us to see.
The passage of Luke 2 gives a phrase that tells us that Christ’s birth was NOT on December 25. The Bible makes the distinction that on the night of Christ’s birth the shepherds were “abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night” (Luke 2:8). Instead of having their sheep in a fold (John 10:1), they were out in the fields. When and why were they there?
Some have proposed that the shepherds were in the fields because it was time of the Feast of Tabernacles, which would have at the time of late September to late October, and so naturally they would be camping out in the pastures at that time. This is a reasonable possibility which cannot be discounted. But, there is an even more reasonable functional explanation for why the shepherds were in the field with their flocks that night that Christ was born.
The Shepherds and the Lamb
Shepherds would often be out in the fields when the weather was suitable such as from spring until fall, i.e. April to November. (1) Therefore, Jesus’ birth would NOT have been in December or on December 25th. We will later explore the sinister implication of that particular date.
The reason the shepherds would have been in the fields at that time was for “lambing season,” the time of year when lambs were being born. These shepherds would have been in the fields assisting with the delivery of the lambs and protecting them from adversaries such as wolves and thieves. (2)
However, these were not just your ordinary shepherds common throughout Palestine; these shepherds from Bethlehem had some very special qualities.
First, these shepherds made a sacrifice that night Jesus was born. These shepherds were supposed to be taking of their own flocks that night near Bethlehem, but they left behind their own sheep and lambs being born on that night to instead attend the birth of “The Lamb of God”!
John the Baptist twice referred to Jesus proclaiming, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:29, 36). Jesus is the Lamb of God because He is our Passover Lamb; “for even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” (I Corinthians 5:7). Peter referred to “the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (I Peter 1: 19). Throughout the book of Revelation, Jesus Christ is entitled as “the Lamb.”
The Messiah passage of Isaiah 53 prophesied that “he was brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth” (verse 7; emphasis added). This was the exact passage that the Ethiopian eunuch was reading (Acts 8:32) which prompted him to receive the salvation of Jesus Christ – the first individual report in the New Testament of an Gentile being saved and becoming a Christian! It must have an evangelistic influence upon him.
So, although there is nothing in the Luke 2 passage to directly indicate that the shepherds knew that the baby that they were looking was indeed the Lamb of God, this is indeed the symbolic picture for us.
They made a great exchange which is an example to us. They left their work of caring for their own possessions, taking the risk that those things may not be there when they returned, and it exchanged it for a higher purpose and calling. They left their livelihood to find the giver and source of true Life.
What are you willing to leave behind in exchange for God’s higher calling and purpose for you? These verses are examples of the exchanged life in Christ:
“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)