The sheep-herders’ vision of the angels.

by K.W. Leslie, 20 December 2015

Luke 2.8-20.

The same night Jesus was born, a bunch of angels appeared to some nearby herdsmen, scared the bejesus out of them, told them Christ had just been born, then let ’em watch the angels rejoice at what their Lord had done. Nice.

As usual I’m gonna pick apart that story in some detail, ’cause our average Christmas stories tend not to know the background (or care) and therefore miss significant things.

Luke 2.8 KWL
Sheep-herders were in that area, keeping watch over their flocks that night.

Starting with the poiménes/“pastors,” the shepherds, or sheep-herders. Most preachers like to point out these were rough, dirty, low-class people. These weren’t like your refined upper-class Pharisees, the sort of people who thought they should be the ones to receive God’s birth announcement when their foretold Christ (or Messiah, or anointed king) had come. Nope; God hadn’t sent angels to those jerks. He sent ’em to ordinary people. Commoners. Scum of the earth. Because God came to save regular joes, not know-it-alls.

Maybe I’m biased ’cause I tend to be one of the know-it-alls. But there’s just a bit of class warfare involved in that interpretation. Bashing snobbery is its own kind of snobbery, y’know; it’s not any better. And not appropriate when we’re talking about Jesus. He came to save everybody. Commoners and the upper class, tradesmen and herdsmen, laborers and scholars, Pharisees and pagans, Jews and gentiles, jerks and humble people. This good news, as the angel later said in verse 10, is for all people. Jerks included. Really, they need God’s forgiveness more.

Preachers also tend to describe these herdsmen as societal outcasts—for no good reason. Bethlehem was sheep-herding country for thousands of years, since the time of King David—himself a shepherd from that city. Most of the Bethlehemites were either in that business, or connected with it. Ain’t no shame in that business. It’s only our culture which tends to look down on ranchers or herdsmen or cowboys, and again for no good reason. It’s a class warfare thing; it’s the assumption that if you work with your hands, you don’t often work with your brain. President Harry Truman liked to point out how back when he was a farmer, he did a whole lot of thinking while he was behind the plow. Never underestimate laborers.

Once we look at the angel’s message to these herdsmen, we’ll see the angel obviously didn’t figure these guys to be dumb. Or second-class subjects. They’re some of the people Jesus came to save, who’d appreciate hearing their King was born. Plus it was late, and they were already awake, so why not them?

Ancient Judeans used olive oil lamps for light. If you’ve ever used one, you’d know it’s a crummy light source—but they’re easy to make, and way cheaper (and more kosher) than candles. Since they were dim, Judeans tended to go to sleep soon after nightfall, and wake up round sunrise. The few who stayed up really late would either be partying, or insomniacs, or watchmen: Soldiers making sure the people didn’t get into trouble, or herdsmen ensuring the same of their herds. The herdsmen in this story had night duty, so they’d penned up their sheep, and were taking turns making sure no dogs or bears or lions got at ’em.

Quite likely Mary gave birth to Jesus late at night, which is why this annunciation took place when it did, and to whom it did. The angels were so jazzed about Jesus’s birth, they had to tell somebody, and who were the only people in their right minds who were awake at this hour? Sheep-herders, of course.

So in the middle of the night…

Luke 2.9-11 KWL
9 The Lord’s angel appeared to them. The Lord’s glory shone round them.
They were frightened—a great fear— 10 and the angel told them, “No fear!
Look, I announce good news of great joy to you, which’ll be for all the people:
11 A savior, the Christ, the Lord, was born to you today in David’s city.”

Two reasons they’d freak out at this appearance:

  • Angels don’t look like Renaissance paintings. Or even our present-day paintings of medieval knights with wings. They’re scary. Even the ones which resemble humans are scary. The ones which don’t look sorta human, often look like burning serpents with arms and legs and six wings—which is why every single human culture has dragons in their mythology.
  • Angels, in both their popular culture and ours, come to take you to paradise when you die. So if you were seeing an angel, it was probably the angel of death. Uh-oh.

But that wasn’t the case; this was a messenger of good news. So no fear.

What did the herdsmen know about Christ?

In my article about the Pharisees, I pointed out the Pharisees’ purpose was to teach everybody about the Law. That’s why they created their schools, or synagogues. That’s why they taught every Friday night, as soon as it was Sabbath. They read the Law, then taught everyone what their rabbis had decreed about it.

Mixed in among the rabbis’ teachings were some End Times beliefs. Then as now, people believed the end of the world would come: The Day of the LORD, when God decided he had enough of Israel’s enemies abusing his chosen people, and intervened with history, punished the wicked, rescued the righteous, and set over them his mešiakh/“anointed [king],” or Messiah, or as we call him, Christ. You know, like we Christians teach about Jesus’s second coming. Only as far as the Pharisees knew, there weren’t two comings of Messiah. Just the one—where he took over the world.

This is what Pharisees taught in synagogue. If these herdsmen went to synagogue, either as kids or adults, it’s what they’d hear. (If they didn’t go, chances are they’d pick it up from their Pharisee friends.) Messiah is coming!—someday. He’s coming to take over the world! If they didn’t like the Romans any (and many didn’t), he’d overthrow the Romans. If they didn’t like the leading families of Israel (and many didn’t), he’d overthrow them too. He’d get rid of all their enemies, he’d rule forever, and he’d turn earth back into paradise.

So when the angel told them Christ was born, it wasn’t telling them something they couldn’t understand. Preachers like to describe these guys as “ignorant, uneducated shepherds”—based on their uninformed assumptions about shepherds. They’re not aware how literate Judean culture actually was. Why would an angel announce “Christ is born!” to people who don’t know what a Christ is? But these weren’t ignorant guys.

Knowing God, these herdsmen were likely devout guys, people who pursued a relationship with God, who were begging him to send a savior. When God gives visions to random people, it’s usually to get ’em to stop being random, and follow him. The rest of the time, he gives visions to faithful people, in answer to their prayers. Betcha this vision was an answer to the herdsmen’s prayers. Not God bypassing people who thought they oughta be the first to know. God’s not petty like that. We are.

Don’t just take the angel’s word for it.

Luke 2.11-12 KWL
11 “A savior, the Christ, the Lord, was born to you today in David’s city.
12 The confirming sign for you is this:
You’ll find a bundled baby, and he’s laying in a trough.”

Christians have a bad habit of teaching that these angelic visions in the nativity stories were so impressive, people believed ’em immediately—or if they weren’t so sure, as Zechariah supposedly wasn’t, they were punished for their doubt. Not only is this a terrible interpretation of the scriptures, it’s bad theology.

Galatians 1.6-9 NET
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are following a different gospel— 7 not that there really is another gospel, but there are some who are disturbing you and wanting to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we (or an angel from heaven) should preach a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be condemned to hell! 9 As we have said before, and now I say again, if any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let him be condemned to hell!

Paul didn’t mince words. If anyone preached something other than the apostles originally preached about Jesus and his kingdom—even if it was one of the apostles themselves, even if it was the LORD’s own angel who hung out with God in heaven—you don’t follow them. It’s anáthema/“set aside (as rubbish),” a translation of the Hebrew kharém/“devoted (to destruction).” It’s junk, trash which you’re gonna have to burn later. Throw it out.

Other translations like to translate anáthema as “let him be accursed,” (KJV, ESV) or “let him be condemned to hell,” like the NET above. These translations are arguably accurate… but the attitudes beneath them are entirely uncharitable of the translators. Really Paul condemned the message, not the misguided messenger. Only God is infallible; humans and angels make mistakes. Sometimes big mistakes, but don’t tell people to go to hell over mistakes. Gently lead ’em back to truth. Shake their dust off your feet only after they reject it.

Anyway, because humans and angels make mistakes, don’t take anyone’s word for such things. Double-check. Test all prophecy. Toss what’s bad; keep what’s good. 1Th 5.20-22 The ancients knew this, ’cause the Pharisees taught this. If a prophet tells you anything, get confirmation. If an angel tells you anything, get confirmation. Don’t be fools, who believe everything an impressive-sounding person tells them. Don’t take my word for these things either; I’m hardly infallible. Do your homework.

Well, here the angel provided its confirmation: Christ, your king, has just been born, and for whatever reason he’s in a manger instead of a basket or crib. Not something you’d expect of any king, even though King David himself came from humble circumstances. But go looking for this infant in a manger, and there’s your proof the angel wasn’t punking you.

And if you can’t find any such baby, the angel was lying, so disregard its message as rubbish. Even if it tries to overawe you by showing you a billion angels shouting.

Luke 2.13-14 KWL
13 Suddenly there was a large number of the heavenly army with the angel, praising God,
saying, 14 “Glory in the highest heaven to God!
Peace upon the earth to the people he’s pleased with!”

The Pharisees believed there were ten heavens, and God lives in the tenth—the highest one. They wished dóxa/“glory,” the valued opinion of others, upon God; they wished peace to the people of the earth, specifically people of evdokías/“good pleasure.” Considering the context, the angels weren’t likely speaking of people who sought their own good pleasure. Maybe those who sought God’s. But more likely people whom God was pleased with. It was God’s good pleasure to save us, Ep 1.5 and Christ’s birth was part of his process of doing so.

Confirming the prophecy.

Luke 2.15-20 KWL
15 Once the angels left them for heaven, the herdsmen told one another, “We should go to Bethlehem.
We should see whether this message the Lord told us happened.”
16 Quickly they went out and found Mary and Joseph—and the infant laying in the trough.
17 Seeing this, they told the message which was told them about the child.
18 All who heard were astounded by what the herdsmen told them.
19 Mary kept this whole message, meditating on it in her heart.
20 The herdsmen returned, glorifying and praising God
for everything they heard and saw was just as it had been told them.

Responsibly, the herdsmen did confirm the angel’s message, and did find the infant in the manger. As a result, look what a blessing they became to Joseph and Mary. What reason would they have to seek them out?—an angel told ’em Christ was born. What’d the angel tell them?—that Christ was born, that he’s a savior, just as angels had also told Joseph Mt 1.21 and Mary. Lk 1.31 (Heck, for all we know, when the angel told them in Aramaic that a yeshúa/“savior” was born, it may have been referring to Jesus by name, and the herdsmen simply thought it meant “savior.”)

All who heard this story—and it wasn’t just Joseph and Mary, but likely their whole families—found it astounding. Angels appearing to common sheep-herders? Tons of them praising God and blessing humanity? God’s obviously telling everyone what he’s up to.

Mary “pondered them in her heart,” (KJV) and other bibles like to imply she treated the words as treasure. Which they were. This pondering means meditation: She turned ’em over in her mind, considered their implications, considered what sort of child she was raising—and why. Jesus was a gift God had given his people. And he wasn’t just for the mighty and wise, but for everyone. Sheep-herders too.

With that, we conclude the actual nativity stories. The next chronological story about Jesus, the bit about the magi, took place some years later, despite the magis’ appearance in our Christmas songs and nativity créches. That’d be next.