Shepherding the Angels

This Christmas, take a closer look at the shepherds who faced the angels on the night a special baby was born.

December's column is about the most well-known and beloved angel story in the Bible. While most people know there were angels at the first Christmas, few know the details about the role they played.



Here, I share insights about angels and shepherds from the Christmas story as told in the New Testament.



1. Where is the story about the angels’ appearance to the shepherds found?

The appearance of the angels to the shepherds on the first Christmas day is only recounted once in the Bible. The story is found in Luke 2:8-14.



2. Is there any historical basis for this account?

Yes. In the opening sentences of his treatise on the life of Jesus, the Gospel writer Luke explains that he drew on eyewitness accounts as he wrote what Christians call the Gospel according to Luke. This would include talking to one or more of the shepherds who had shared this unforgettable experience.



3. Who were the shepherds and what was it like being one?

In the culture of that day being a shepherd was not considered to be a desirable job. Being a shepherd required being gone from home for long stretches of time, keeping watch over the flock twenty-four hours a day. Unlike the sheep farms of our day, there were no fences and the shepherds needed to keep sheep from wandering off. Plus, protecting the sheep from wild animals was dangerous work; it was equally dangerous to ward off the poachers who were very common at that time. Also, shepherds became unclean while doing their work, such as being in contact with blood when birthing lambs and disposing of the dead sheep, but the catch-22 was that their 24/7 work schedule prevented them from going to the temple for a ceremonial cleansing.



4. Why did the angels appear to the shepherds? Were they special?

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Yes and no. We assume that in biblical times angel appearances were an everyday occurrence, but they weren’t then and they aren’t today. Angels were supposed to appear to priests, not shepherds who were at the lowest level of the Jewish social strata. No one could have anticipated that such an audience would be the first to hear the angels give the Good News that the savior had arrived. This is what makes the Christmas account remarkable. God showed that his interest and love extends to everyone in every station of life.



5. What do we know about the sheep the shepherds were watching?

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William D. Webber
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