A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to appear on a top-rated national morning show. When I got the email confirming my appearance, my stomach tightened a bit, and I think my feet lifted off the ground. My first thought was, Wow, this will sell a ton of books. And my second thought was, Do I need to buy a new suit? I was excited and yet very, very nervous. Somehow I managed to get through the experience without totally embarrassing myself.

Being on a big-time television news show is one of the best ways to try to announce big news. Public-relations professionals work hard at securing these opportunities, trying to get their guests in front of millions of eyeballs. But when God announced the birth of Jesus to the world, he used the opposite approach. He didn’t send Jesus to 30 Rock, but sent the host of Heaven to a common field outside Bethlehem. And the people he chose as his spokesmen were unpolished, sweaty, uncouth shepherds.

Today shepherds are romanticized in nearly every Christmas pageant. Many of us have donned a modified pillowcase and grabbed a walking stick to appear in a Christmas pageant at church or school. But in the first century, nobody thought shepherds were cute. And certainly nobody thought they were important. But there they were, the first to know at Christmas.

A Kingdom for Outsiders

Shepherds were not really considered part of polite society in those days. They were required to tend their flocks outside the city gates. The only reason shepherds had any significance was because sheep were a valuable commodity, especially as it got closer to Passover, when many lambs would be sacrificed in the temple.

The work of shepherds was (and still is) extraordinarily difficult. They had to wrangle obstinate sheep. They had to ensure their flocks were well fed. And they had to fend off predators: wolves or even larger animals, like bears or lions. Sometimes unsavory characters would come in and try to steal the sheep. This is why shepherds were awake on this night. Most likely they were sleeping in shifts, ensuring the livestock was not compromised.

And yet there is something significant and powerful about the inclusion of the shepherds in the Jesus story. Luke is reminding us, by mentioning the shepherds, that the kingdom of God isn’t just for the insiders, but for outsiders, like shepherds, like the poor classes where Mary and Joseph came from. It reminds us that the kingdom of God is often made up not of the noble and wise, but of the underclass, those people that have no business being near royalty. Immanuel, God with us, means God is truly among all classes of people, not simply the connected or well-resourced.

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The presence of the shepherds in the Christmas story also tells us a little bit about just what kind of Messiah Jesus would be. He would come to us as a Savior, as a King, as a Lion, but also as our shepherd. Though this vocation was not viewed with respect by peers, Scripture always portrays shepherding as a high calling, perhaps the most repeated image of leadership in the Bible.

God refers to himself as Israel’s shepherd (Gen. 48:15; 49:24; Jer. 31:10). In Psalm 23, David is grateful to affirm that “the Lord is my shepherd.” And the prophets Ezekiel (22:23–29) and Jeremiah (10:21; 23:1–4; 50:6–7) often warned God’s people about poor shepherds—bad leaders who exploit rather than lead. To shepherd, in God’s world, is to sacrificially care for the vulnerable ones under your protection. Shepherds in those days didn’t drive their herds but gently led them.

Today, sometimes even in Christian circles, leadership as shepherding is viewed as negatively as it might have been among the sophisticated in the first century. Though spiritual leaders in Scripture, from the Old to the New Testament, are often compared to shepherds, many evangelical leadership texts dismiss this idea. I once heard a prominent pastor mock the idea, saying that a CEO or a general is a better description of Christian leadership. But it’s hard to dismiss how intentional the Holy Spirit is in including this vision of gentle yet firm leadership both as the way God leads his people and how God intends his followers to lead. Among Jesus’ last words to Peter were, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17). This is how we demonstrate God’s love: by taking care of others with soft hands and compassion.

This is why I believe the announcement of the coming of Jesus—himself the Good Shepherd (John 10:11)—had to happen in a shepherds’ field. Luke is telling us that this ruler who is to come would be different than the rulers his people were used to seeing. He wouldn’t be a Caesar who ruled only by brute force. He wouldn’t be a Herod, who governed by treachery, murder, and paranoia. No, Jesus would be, among all of his attributes, a shepherd. And he would entrust himself and his message to shepherds.

The Lamb of God would first be held and handled by those who knew how to appreciate and care for a lamb. And yet, more than anybody, these shepherds knew the ultimate fate of each lamb for which they cared. I imagine they heard the prophecy of Isaiah more keenly than anyone in Israel. They tended the very lambs that would be sacrificed at Passover. And yet a Lamb was come who would be the final sacrifice. This Lamb wouldn’t simply cover their sins as the sacrifices did, but he would actually become sin. John the Baptist said about Jesus later, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29, ESV).

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The good news of the coming of the Lamb of God, slain for the sins of the world, announced among lambs set aside for the temple sacrifice and in the city of David, Israel’s last great shepherd: This is God declaring to his people that Jesus, both the Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God, was coming to make true peace between God and man.

The World’s First Missionaries

One minute they were watching the flocks, maybe catching a few minutes of sleep after a night shift, and the next minute they were witnesses to salvation history. The display in the heavens must have been spectacular, as the sky around them filled with the host of Heaven praising God and worshiping him. Not even the greatest performance on earth with the most talented musicians could parallel the incredible celebration that unfolded on the big screen of the sky before these shepherds. The plan of God, conceived from time immemorial—the plan of redemption, promised in the Garden—was unfolding before their eyes.

I always find it interesting how God seems, throughout Scripture, to show up in the middle of an ordinary person’s daily routine. It’s not like the shepherds got an email invite the day before: Meet up at field 1 for an epic event! And yet even though they were caught by surprise, these men of humble means and reputation responded in ways that prove God’s wisdom in entrusting the announcement of the birth of Jesus to them.

They believed. These men saw the angels, heard the witness, and believed. The scribes were too jaded. The royals were too sophisticated. The Romans were too dismissive. But these humble outsiders had the simple faith to look up, listen, and put their faith in the Christ child.

They could be awed. The world of the first century was pretty cynical. False messiahs had come and gone. The promise of Israel’s restoration seemed more like a pipe dream. And the Roman flag waved high above the temple mount. And yet here were people still willing to be awed. Luke says the shepherds possessed great fear. And wouldn’t you? You’re a lowly shepherd in a backwater town in a ravaged land, and all of a sudden the heavens open and angels start singing! Yes, you’d be fearful.

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And yet there is something wonderful about the ability to still be awed by God. Today’s world is just as jaded as the world of the first century. Smart people are way too enlightened to believe in the supernatural. And yet Proverbs says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Real spirituality is a healthy awe, reverence, and fear of God—to know that you’re nothing and God is awesome. The closer you are to heaven, the greater your fear and awe of God.

I hope that, this Christmas season, your heart is open to awe and wonder. It’s easy to treat our religious traditions, especially Christmas, as a sort of ho-hum affair. But God visits those who are willing to fear and to awe, to wonder and to meditate. Have we stopped what we are doing long enough to see what God is doing around us? Have we sufficiently unplugged from the digital distractions that keep our minds moving but divert us from the supernatural? Are you willing to be awed by an awesome and powerful God and by the mystery of the incarnation of Jesus Christ?

Fearsome? Yes. But there is a sense in which our fear turns to faith. The angels said, “Fear not.” Why? Because Jesus is a Shepherd we should fear, but no longer have to be afraid of. This royal announcement on a cold night in Bethlehem meant that those who put their faith in this baby Jesus would experience peace with God. This is what the angels meant by “peace on earth toward men of good will.” In one sense, the angels were reminding the shepherds that the temporary peace being experienced in the Roman empire would one day give way to war. But only this Prince of Peace could usher in genuine shalom, true renewal. And this baby Jesus would offer personal peace with God. The one who came to shepherds would be the Good Shepherd of their souls. The Lamb of God would fully atone for sin. No more would worshipers need to sacrifice actual lambs.

They lived with purpose. Luke makes sure we know that the shepherds didn’t waste time gazing into the Bethlehem sky. Once they heard the witness of the angels, they “made haste,” to quote the King James Version (Luke 2:16). And wouldn’t you? They couldn’t keep this message to themselves. They abandoned all pretenses and bolted into Bethlehem, sheep and all, to find the Messiah. Imagine the sight they must have been, knocking on doors, waking up the locals, shouting the good news that the long-awaited Messiah had finally come. They didn’t simply marvel at the message. They believed it, and it changed their direction. A temptation for us, this Christmas, is to simply get full of “the feels,” the warm sentimentality of this season, and miss the good news at the heart of the holiday: Christ has come into the world to save you and to save me. The angel told the shepherds that this good news was “for you.” It was personal.

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I like how Kent Hughes puts it in his commentary on Luke: “The truth is, even if Christ were born in Bethlehem a thousand times but not within you, you would be eternally lost. The Christ who was born into the world must be born in your heart. Religious sentiment, even at Christmastime, without the living Christ is a yellow brick road to darkness.”

The shepherds left their fields and became the most unlikely of messengers. John Calvin says of them, “Though God had, at his command, many honorable and distinguished witnesses, he passed by them, and chose shepherds, persons of humble rank, and of no account among men.” They became the world’s first missionaries, the first in a long line of ordinary, unheralded messengers of the gospel. God is on the move, building his church around the world, mostly through people you will never hear of: folks without significant Twitter followings, with no official titles, and of whom the world is mostly unworthy.

Go tell it on the mountain, the Christmas hymn urges us, that Jesus Christ is born!

Daniel Darling is works for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission as vice president for communications.

The Characters of Christmas: The Unlikely People Caught Up in the Story of Jesus
The Characters of Christmas: The Unlikely People Caught Up in the Story of Jesus
Moody Publishers
192 pp., 8.07
Buy The Characters of Christmas: The Unlikely People Caught Up in the Story of Jesus from Amazon