By Stephen Leonard
“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an Angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.” Luke 2:8-9
The third week of Advent celebration presents a group of shepherds to your senses. We do not know how many there were, how old they variously were, nor what happened to them after, though they were apparently transformed by what happened. We can safely surmise they were poor, yet were accorded free VIP front row seats at the manger. We know nothing concerning them.
They burst on the world scene on the first Christmas, and they disappear just as quickly. Yet, they are the best-known group of shepherds in history: ones who were invited by angels to come and worship the infant Jesus.
They have either a false or true reputation as shepherds of not being believed, but people believed the accounts these particular shepherds gave of their encounter with angels, and particularly with a newborn baby lying in a manger. Most apparently, they were genuine folk who were convincing in their eye-witness. They themselves had no doubt. And their account was authentically pondered by those who encountered them.
They spent their nights and days outside with these sheep. They were used to discomfort and the vagaries of weather and temperatures. They were probably very familiar with the use of these animals, which they protected.
They understood the rudimentary elements of animal sacrifice, the substitution of lambs for sin, and the symbol for the coming Messiah, at least somewhat, if not by rote and the commonplace of everyday sacrificial practices. There is a tendency to lose the excitement of newness in the drudgery of daily chores and habits.
This night, however, stirred up the shepherd’s excitement. How could it not? They literally trembled with fear at things they had never heard or seen before. They had not previously viewed angels, nor heard such spoken words, or ever listened to such “angelic” choral music! The angels galvanized their attention, however, to say the very least. The shepherds hung on the words spoken to them. And they definitely obeyed what they heard. They went with heightened haste to Bethlehem.
They believed what they saw and heard. They actually thought this baby was the long-awaited Messiah. They did not really understand what his life would involve or that he would be the “suffering servant” of Isaiah destined for slaughter, any more than the disciples who walked with Jesus did. But they knew they were in the presence of authentic royalty, even if only for a brief moment of their lives.
You can only conjecture what this night meant after to them. You are not told if they later became close followers of the Lamb of God, who did not begin a public ministry for thirty more years. We know nothing of the lives of these shepherds after this night or even if they were aware of the “slaughter of the innocents” by King Herod a year or so later. The shepherds disappeared into obscurity as quickly as they rose to prominence.
Will we see them in the courts of heaven, in the new heavens and new earth? My conjecture is, absolutely! You will be able to interview them about the events of this night of nights. You will be able to learn of their thoughts and adoration as they knelt beside the manger with the infant wrapped in swaddling cloths.
Their thoughts and lives thereafter can be shared with you just as you share with them your own life and experiences with the Savior. This is one of the anticipated experiences of your future eternal home, just as sitting down with Moses or Paul and the countless followers of the Lord from every age and century.
The new heavens and new earth is your great hope. It is filled with anticipations fulfilled just like this: personally sitting down with the shepherds who came eagerly to the manger scene where they first laid their eyes on their infant Lord and Savior. Advent will live again in eternity like a beam of healing medicine: the medicine of a soul acquainted with the joy of redemption.
“To Bethlehem straight the happy shepherds ran, to see the wonder God had wrought for man; and found, with Joseph and the blessed maid, her son, the Savior, in a manger laid; amazed, the wondrous story they proclaim, the earliest heralds of the Savior’s name.”
(4th verse of John Byron’s hymn, “Christians, Awake, Salute the Happy Morn,” 1749)