Dec 23, 2014

Why Did the Angels First Announce the Birth of Messiah to the Shepherds?

The Angels and the Shepherds

We all know the story.  The shepherds were sitting there on the hillside minding their own business, looking after their sheep, when suddenly a single angel appeared to them and announced the birth of Jesus.  This was then followed by the appearance of a multitude of angels praising God.  Why did the angels appear first to the shepherds?

To answer that question, we need to backtrack a little.  Remember we said that Bethlehem was a centre for the production of wheat and barley but also a place where sheep were raised?  But these weren't just ordinary sheep.  They were lambs destined to be sacrificed in Jerusalem at the temple.  The law required that every household had to sacrifice a lamb at Passover time - if they could afford to do so.  This amounted to a very large number of lambs.  Moreover, the regulations dictated that each lamb had to be without blemish.  (Ex 12:5). 

The corrupt sacrificial system which was in operation during the time of Jesus ensured that the Temple always made a fat profit.  If you brought your own lamb to sacrifice, it was inspected by one of the Temple priests and the chances were high that it would be rejected as having some blemish.  You were therefore forced to buy a lamb from the Temple itself.  These lambs, naturally, commanded a high price and you couldn't just buy one with ordinary money.  You first had to change your money into Temple money - at a disadvantageous exchange rate!  These are the moneychangers referred to in passages such as Matt 21:12 and it was these types of "sharp" practices which made Jesus so angry.

The bottom line is that the Temple not only sacrificed lambs, but it supplied them too - in industrial quantities!  Where did these lambs come from?  The answer is that many of them were reared in fields near Bethlehem by shepherds who effectively worked for the Temple in Jerusalem.  Now here's the important part: whenever a new lamb was born, it was the duty of the shepherds to immediately inspect the new born-lamb to determine whether or not it had any blemish.  A lamb which had some deformity (no matter how slight) was of absolutely no use for Temple sacrifice.  It was slaughtered immediately. 

This is the reason the angel appeared firstly to the shepherds: the most important sacrificial Lamb of all had just been born, and the angel therefore sent the shepherds hastening to see the One who, thirty-three years later, at Passover time, would be lifted high on a cruel cross as the one, perfect sacrifice for their sins. 

For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us. (1 Cor. 5:7)
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.[1]

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)."[2]
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.[3] Shepherds were not allowed to fulfill a judicial office or be admitted in court as witnesses.[4] A midrash on Psalm 23:2 reads, "There is no more disreputable occupation than that of a shepherd."[5] 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."[6]

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.[7]

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."[8] Flocks were kept outside in this way from April to November, and, sometimes during the winter in suitable locations.[9] 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."[10] The noun is phulake, "the act of guarding." Together they carry the idea of "keep watch, do guard duty."[11] 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.[12]

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."[13] 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."[14] The message the angel brings is very good news that results in joy. "Joy" is the Greek noun chara, "the experience of gladness, joy."[15] Here joy is intensified by the Greek adjective megas, "great, pertaining to being above standard in intensity"[16] -- 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).
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