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Shepherds in Bethlehem (Luke 2:8-20)by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Other online lessons from Luke | Lessons in book format
 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 of great joy that will be for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ 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,
and on earth peace to men 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."
 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.  When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child,  and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.  But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.  The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
You might also read my short story on this passage entitled "Shepherds, Angels, and a Manger," which appeared in The Joyful Heart, 11/20/99. http://www.joyfulheart.com/xmas/shepherds.htm
You've heard the Christmas story dozens of times. But I want you to slow down and consider what it was like to be a shepherd -- seeing and hearing what they saw and heard that night. I've taken some effort to research the various aspects of the story and angel's message. Ssssh. Quiet, now, the sheep are resting quietly....
Shepherds Keeping Watch over Their Flocks (2:8)
"And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night." (2:8)
Tending flocks, with agriculture, formed the basis of the Palestine economy, and sheep raised on the hillsides around Bethlehem may well have been destined for temple sacrifices in Jerusalem, only six miles to the north.
Jeremias describes a shepherd's life: "The dryness of the ground made it necessary for the flocks of sheep and cattle to move about during the rainless summer and to stay for months at a time in isolated areas, far from the owner's home. Hence, herding sheep was an independent and responsible job; indeed, in view of the threat of wild beasts and robbers, it could even be dangerous. Sometimes the owner himself (Luke 15:6; John 10:12) or his sons did the job. But usually it was done by hired shepherds, who only too often did not justify the confidence reposed in them (John 10:12-13)."
Some of Israel's great heroes were shepherds -- Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David. Both Psalm 23 and Jesus compare God's care to that of a Good Shepherd. But in the First Century, it seems, shepherds -- specifically, hireling shepherds -- had a rather unsavory reputation. Jeremias cites Rabbinic sources to the effect that "most of the time they were dishonest and thieving; they led their herds onto other people's land and pilfered the produce of the land." Because they were often months at a time without supervision, they were often accused of stealing some of the increase of the flock. Consequently, the pious were warned not to buy wool, milk, or kids from shepherds on the assumption that it was stolen property. Shepherds were not allowed to fulfill a judicial office or be admitted in court as witnesses. A midrash on Psalm 23:2 reads, "There is no more disreputable occupation than that of a shepherd." Philo, a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher of Alexandria (25 BC - 45 AD), wrote about looking after sheep and goats, "Such pursuits are held mean and inglorious."
In contrast to rabbinical contempt for shepherds, however, Jesus distinguishes between the good shepherd and the hireling (John 10:11-13). He tells a parable of the shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep in the fold while searching the hills to find the missing one (Luke 15:3-7). Perhaps this is because Jesus, who has fellowship with the despised and sinners, knows and appreciates them as people. There is no suggestion that the shepherds to whom the angels appeared were not devout men, though they were from a despised class.
They lived most of the year outside, away from the townspeople. "Abiding in the field" (KJV) is the Greek verb agrauleo, "live out of doors." Flocks were kept outside in this way from April to November, and, sometimes during the winter in suitable locations. They were constantly with their sheep, since the sheep were vulnerable to all kinds of trouble. "Keeping watch" is a combination of two related Greek words. The verb is phulasso, "to carry out sentinel functions, watch, guard." The noun is phulake, "the act of guarding." Together they carry the idea of "keep watch, do guard duty." The shepherds made sure that the sheep were safe from wandering off and injuring themselves, as well as dangers from thieves and wolves.
The Glory of the Lord (2:9)
One minute the shepherds are talking quietly in the blackness of the winter sky. The next moment the hillside is ablaze with light and booming with the sound of an angel's voice.
"An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified." (2:9)
This appearance wasn't at a distance, but upfront and personal. "Appeared" is the Greek verb ephistemi, which here means "to stand at or near a specific place." Often this use of the verb occurs with the idea of suddenness.
The brightness is more than just mega-candlepower. It is the radiance of God's own glory. "Glory" is the Green noun doxa (which we also see in verse 14). Here it refers to "the condition of being bright or shining, brightness, splendor, radiance." Throughout the Old Testament the presence of God is referred to as overwhelmingly bright, burning as fire, such as the cloud above the temple by day (Exodus 16:7, 10; 40:34-35; 1 Kings 8:11; Isaiah 6:3; 40:5; 60:1; Ezekiel 3:23; 2 Corinthians 3:18; 4:4; etc.). God's angels sometimes bear this same bright glory (Matthew 28:3; Luke 24:4; Daniel 10:6). In this case the glory shines around the whole area (Greek perilampo). The result in the shepherds is predictable -- abject terror. "Terrified" (NIV) or "sore afraid" (KJV) reads, literally, "feared with a great fear."
The Good News Angel (2:10-11)
The angel moves first to calm their fears....
"But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.'" (2:10-11)
This Good News angel has the enviable task of being the first herald of Messiah's birth. "Bring good news" (NIV) or "bring good tidings" (KJV) is the Greek verb euangelizo, from which we get our English word, "evangelize." Here it means, "bring good news, announce good news." Later in the New Testament it is widely used for "proclaim the message of salvation, preach the gospel." The message the angel brings is very good news that results in joy. "Joy" is the Greek noun chara, "the experience of gladness, joy." Here joy is intensified by the Greek adjective megas, "great, pertaining to being above standard in intensity" -- great joy!
Notice how broad is the angel's message. It's not for just the pious or the Jew, but "for all the people." What wonderful news for those who are estranged from God and struggling under oppression! The baby is not just born to Mary and Joseph. Verse 11 indicates that the baby is born "to you" -- to the shepherd recipients of the message and all others. This birth is unto everyone and to everyone's benefit. It is also an immediate message -- "Today" (NIV) -- "this day" (KJV).
"The town of David" reminds the reader of the Messiah-child's connection with his ancestor David. Prophecy indicates that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. And what a fitting prophecy for these Bethlehem shepherds to recall:
"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times....
He will stand and shepherd his flock
in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
will reach to the ends of the earth.
And he will be their peace." (Micah 5:2-3, 5a)
Finally, the angel utters the words that Jews had longed for centuries to hear -- "He is Christ the Lord."
A Savior (2:11)
The angel terms this baby as a "savior," Greek soter, "one who rescues, savior, deliverer, preserver." In the prophecies about Jesus' birth in Luke 1-3 we observe this theme several times:
"He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David" (1:69)
"... salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us..." (1:71)
"to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins..." (1:77)
"For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel." (2:30-32)
"And all mankind will see God's salvation." (3:6; quoting from Isaiah 40:5)
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (4:18-19, quoting from Isaiah 61:1-2)
This Savior will bring both salvation from enemies and from sin -- but not just to the Jews but also to the Gentiles -- all people!
Christ the Lord (2:11)
Our English word "Christ," of course, comes from the Greek adjective christos, "anointed ... fulfiller of Israelite expectation of a deliverer, the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ." The Hebrew equivalent, mashiah, is transliterated in English as "messiah." In the Hellenistic period of Judaism (after 331 BC), Jews came to use "messiah" to designate a future agent to be sent by God, usually to restore Israel's independence and righteousness. However, there is some variation in the way messiah figures were pictured -- not all the references are concerning a Davidic messiah. Hope for this coming messiah is not centered on religious concerns, primarily, but in some kind of triumph in the last days. The Jewish expectation alluded to in the New Testament seems to be an expectation of a divinely appointed royal deliverer who will purify the nation.
The angel's declaration, however, doesn't use the word "Christ" by itself, but in the phrase, "Christ the Lord." "Lord" is the Greek noun kurios, "owner, lord, master, of earthly beings as a designation of any person of high position." When Jews read the Hebrew scriptures, whenever the divine name "Yahweh" appears, it is never pronounced, but the Hebrew noun adanoi is substituted. The Greek Septuagint Old Testament usually employed kurios, "Lord" to translate the Hebrew adanoi.
What did the angel mean by putting these two words, christos and kurios, together? This phrase is used nowhere else in the New Testament in exactly this way. A minor textual variant renders it "the Lord's Anointed," but the meaning seems to "the highest conceivable and most lofty designation of Christ," that is, "The Lord Messiah" or "the Messiah (and) the Lord" with connotations of kurios used of Yahweh himself, rather than just of an exalted personage -- a Savior who can be regarded as the Messiah-Yahweh. When the shepherds -- and later, Mary -- begin to ponder the angel's exalted title for this baby, the implications are staggering!
At the Sign of a Manger (2:12)
How would the shepherds know that the angel's message is true?
"This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." (2:12)
"Sign" is the Greek noun semeion, "a sign or distinguishing mark whereby something is known, sign, token, indication." The sign consists of two elements. The baby is:
- Wrapped in cloths, and
- Lying in a manger.
"Baby" is the Greek noun brephos, "a very small child, baby, infant." The term can even be used of an unborn child or fetus. The phrase "wrapped in swaddling clothes" (KJV) or "cloths" (NIV) translates the Greek verb sparganoo, "to wrap in pieces of cloth used for swaddling infants, wrap up in cloths." These were "strips of cloth like bandages, wrapped around young infants to keep their limbs straight". There is nothing unique about being wrapped thus. While an infant wrapped in swaddling cloths would be a newborn, there were perhaps several newborns in Bethlehem wrapped up in this manner that evening.
However, the second sign was that the newborn would be found in a manger -- that was unique! The Greek noun is phatne, "manger, crib, feeding-trough." A manager would indicate the location in some kind of stable -- a Second Century legend indicates that this was in a cave.
Glory to God in the Highest (2:13-14)
After the angel's startling declaration, the heavens reveal a huge crowd of angelic beings:
"Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
'Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.'" (2:13-14)
The crowd is described with two phrases: (1) "great company" or "multitude" (Greek plethos, "crowd, throng, host, assembly") and (2) "heavenly host." "Host" is the Greek noun strateia, a military term that means "army." God's heavenly army is mentioned several times in scripture (Joshua 5:14; 2 Kings 6:17; Psalm 34:7; 103:21; 148:2).
This heavenly army is praising God. The Greek verb here and in verse 20 is aineo, "to praise," with the root idea of "express approval." It may have been a heavenly choir as in popular Christmas lore, but the scripture doesn't explicitly say that they are singing as the angels in Revelation (5:11-13; 15:3). Here they seem to be chanting in unison or speaking (Greek lego, "utter words, say.").
The content of their praise is (1) to give glory to God and (2) to offer a blessing of peace to men. "Glory" is the Greek noun doxa, which we saw in verse 9. Here it used in another sense: "honor as an enhancement or recognition of status or performance, fame, recognition, renown, honor, prestige." "Glory" is often used in the New Testament the context of praise (Luke 19:38; Ephesians 1:6; 3:21; Philippians 2:11; Revelation 5:13). These angels honor God as being highest (Greek hupsistos) in a spatial sense, in contrast to earth (mentioned in the next phrase).
The angels promise peace (Greek eirene) -- peace between God and mankind, which essentially amounts to salvation.
We're used to the wording: "on earth peace, good will toward men," (KJV) but more ancient Greek manuscripts indicate that a better translation is better "on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests" (NIV). The idea is that God extends his peace and salvation to his favored people, those whom he sovereignly chooses or elects to favor and save.
The Shepherd's Response (2:15-18)
Now the shepherds have a choice.
"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.' So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them." (2:15-18)
They hurry to Bethlehem. Where do you find a manger? In a stable, of course. So they check out the stables in this village and come across one with a baby sleeping in it. They meet the Holy Family and share with them their story of the angelic visitation. Then they go and tell others what the angels have told them, just like the villagers did after the remarkable birth of John the Baptist (1:65). The NIV's translation "spread the word" seems to miss the point, which is rendered well in the KJV and NRSV: "They made known what had been told them about this child." The angel's announcement of "a savior, Christ the Lord" is spread throughout the area, resulting in amazement in the hearers.
Mary Ponders the Shepherd's Report (2:19)
"But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart." (2:19)
If you are Mary, you have much to think about. Luke uses two verbs to describe her thinking process:
"Treasured up" (NIV) or "kept all these things" (KJV) is the Greek verb suntereo, "to store information in one's mind for careful consideration, hold or treasure up (in one's memory)." "Pondered" is the Greek verb sumballo (a compound word made from sun, "together" and ballo, "throw"), which means here, "to give careful thought to, consider, ponder," something similar to our colloquial "get it all together."
Consider what she has to make sense of: (1) her own announcement of the birth by Gabriel (1:26-38), (2) the story of Zechariah's vision in the temple (1:5-25) which she heard when she visited Elizabeth, (3) Elizabeth's prophecy (1:39-46), (4) her own prophetic praise (1:46-56), and (5) Zechariah's prophecy when John the Baptist was born (1:57-79), which she may have been present to hear -- a lot for a teenage girl to integrate into her own understanding and circumstances.
Joyful Shepherds (2:20)
"The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told." (2:20)
The final scene in this passage is the shepherds climbing back up the hill to where their flocks lie. The angel had told them what to expect and that's just the way they found it. We leave them glorifying (Greek doxazo, the verb form of doxa discussed in 2:5 and 2:12) and praising (Greek aineo, discussed in 2:13) God.
Lessons for Disciples
What are we disciples supposed to get out of this telling of the story of Jesus' birth? Several things:
- God brings Good News to the poor and humble . The shepherds, sometimes despised by their countrymen, were the first recipients of the Good News of Jesus' birth. Since God is no respecter of persons, we aren't to show favoritism either.
- The glory of the Lord is powerful and huge . Just because we don't see it visibly doesn't mean that God isn't active. He often works in quiet ways. Only occasionally does he confirm his presence in miraculous ways.
- Jesus is the heir of David.
- Jesus is the expected Savior, Messiah-Master-Lord-God in our midst.
- The Good News is for all people , Jew or Gentile
- Not all people, however, receive God's peace , but only those whom he has sovereignly chosen. Don't let suggestions of predestination trouble you. Be humble enough to allow God to be sovereign beyond your own meager understanding of these things. Deal with it! :-)
- Appropriate responses to this Good News include "great joy" (2:10), praise (2:13-14, 20), curiosity to confirm its truth (2:15-16), amazement (2:18), telling others (2:17), and thoughtful meditation (2:19). No where do we see unbelief.
Father, what an amazing night the shepherds had! To have a glimpse of your heavenly glory, to hear a mighty army of praise, to see the Messiah-Child, to listen to the angel recite his glorious title -- Savior, Messiah-Lord. Thank you for letting us hear the story again. Write it large and indelibly in our hearts the we might be fervent Good News tellers, too. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.
"For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord." (Luke 2:11, KJV)
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- Why do you think the message of Jesus' birth comes to shepherds, of all people? (2:8) What point is God making?
- What is the "glory of God" that the shepherds glimpsed? (2:9, 13-14) Is this glory present if we can't see it? Why are we so conditioned to look to the temporal rather than the eternal? (2 Corinthians 4:18)
- What are the three titles of Jesus given in 2:11? What does each mean? What does this tell us about Jesus' true identity?
- Extra Credit: In what way is the Good News universal? (2:10) In what way is it restricted? (2:14b)
- Which of the responses to the Good News are present in your life? In what manner do they show themselves? (Great joy, praise, curiosity, amazement, telling others, thoughtful meditation) If some are missing, why? What can you do to recover these responses.
Common Abbreviations www.jesuswalk.com/faq/abbreviations.htm
- Morris, Luke, p. 84. He cites Rabbinical sources to the effect that flocks were only to be kept in the wilderness (Mishnah, Baba Kamma 7:7; Talmud Baba Kamma 79b-80a). Any animal found between Jerusalem and a spot near Bethlehem must be presumed to be a sacrificial victim (Mishna, Shekalim 7:4).
- Joachim Jeremias, "poimne, ktl.," TDNT 6:485-502.
- Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (SCM/Fortress Press, 1969), pp. 304-305. He cites b. Sanh. 25b; Strack and Billerback II, 114; M.B.K. x.9; T.B.K. xi.9, 370; b. Ket. 62b; b.B.K. 94b Bar. Green, p. 130, disputes this analysis. Rather, he sees them merely as "peasants, located toward the bottom of the scale of power and privilege." Marshall, p. 108, too, notes that the tradition of despised shepherds is late.
- Jeremias, TDNT 6:489.
- Midrash Ps. 23.2, ed. Buber, Vilna 1891, 99b.12, cited by Jeremias, Jerusalem, p. 311, fn. 42.
- Philo, de agric. 61, cited by Jeremias, Jerusalem, p. 311, fn. 42.
- Morris, Luke, pp. 84-85.
- BDAG 15.
- Marshall, p. 108, cites Strack and Billerback II, 114-116 and Morris, Luke, p. 84.
- BDAG 1068.
- BDAG 1067.
- BDAG 418-419.
- BDAG 257.
- BDAG 402.
- BDAG 1077.
- BDAG 623-624.
- "City" or "town" is the Greek noun polis, which can refer "a population center of varying size," BDAG 844-845.
- BDAG 985.
- BDAG 1091.
- See notes on TWOT #1255c.
- L.W. Hurtado, "Christ," DCG, p. 107. Also Adam Simon van der Woude and Marinus de Jonge, "chrio, ktl. -- Messianic Ideas in Later Judaism," TDNT 9:509-527.
- BDAG 576-579.
- A textual variant renders kurios in the genitive or possessive case, but it has little external support. Walter Grundmann, "chrio, ktl.," TDNT 9:532-33, fn. 276.
- Ibid., quoting H. Sahlin.
- Marshall, p. 110. Cf. Green, p. 135.
- BDAG 920.
- BDAG 183-184.
- BDAG 936. We don't use the English word "swaddle" much any more, but it is derived from the Old English word swathain, to swathe, bind, wrap.
- Marshall, p. 106, cites Ezekiel 16:4 and Wisdom 7:4.
- BDAG 1050. The lexicographer indicates that the term "could perhaps be a stable or even a feeding-place under the open sky, in contrast to kataluma, a shelter where people stayed." The predominant idea of this word group is of feeding animals. Martin Hengel, phatne, TDNT 9:49-55, denies the possibility in our context that this can be translated "stall."
- Ibid. Also Joachim Jeremias, "poimne, ktl," TDNT 6:491, fn. 59. A cave in Bethlehem was honored by Christians as Christ's birthplace as early as the early Second Century AD.
- BDAG 825-826.
- Otto Bauernfeind, "strateuomai ktl.," TDNT 7:701-713.
- BDAG 27.
- BDAG 257-258.
- BDAG 1045. Also Georg Bertram, "hupsistos," TDNT 8:619.
- The meaning of this phrase depends upon the case (nominative or genitive) of the Greek noun eudokia, which can mean either, (1) "state or condition of being kindly disposed, good will," or (2) "state or condition of being favored, favor, good pleasure" (BDAG 404-405). The KJV translation based on the Textus Receptus that renders "good will" (Greek eudokia) in the nominative case. However, newer translations, based on the oldest Alexandrian and Western Greek manuscripts, render it in the genitive case, "on earth peace among those whom he favors" (NRSV). Similar Semitic phrases -- "sons of his [God's] good pleasure and "the elect of his good pleasure" -- occur in several Qumran hymns. (Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (United Bible Societies, 1971), p. 133, citing 1 QH iv.32f.; xi.9; viii.6. Marshall, p. 112.)
- BDAG 975.
- BDAG 956.
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