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?
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.
The sheep were not ordinary. Since the shepherds’ fields in Bethlehem were close to the temple in Jerusalem, the fields were the domain of the temple and the sheep were used in temple sacrifices. The shepherds were responsible for raising healthy, unblemished sheep to be offered on the altar of sacrifice even though these same shepherds were excluded from the temple because they were considered to be ceremonially unclean.
6. Who was the angel that appeared to the shepherds?
Luke simply reports that it was the “angel of the Lord” without giving a name. It is likely the shepherds never learned the name of the angel. Some Bible scholars suggest that it was Gabriel who was the messenger angel in other parts of the Christmas story.
7. What was the light that surrounded the “angel of the Lord”?
“The glory of the Lord” that shone around the angel (Luke 2:9) terrified the shepherds who were unprepared for such a sight. No doubt they were also fascinated and drawn to this unique experience. “The glory of the Lord” is a technical term in the Scripture for what is also known as the “Shekinah” or the brightness of the perfection of God. Theologians have tried to explain it by writing that the sum total of God’s attributes combine together to make a brilliant, perfect light. This is what the shepherds saw on the Bethlehem hillsides. In the Old Testament, the Shekinah was the symbol of God’s presence with his people. For more info, see Exodus 24:16, Numbers 16:19, and 1 Kings 8:10-11.
8. What was the “angel of the Lord’s” purpose?
A primary function of angels is to serve as messengers. In fact, this is the basic meaning of the word angel. In the Christmas narratives within the Gospels, angels brought messages to Mary (Luke 1:26-38) and Joseph (Matthew 2:13), as well as to the shepherds. The message the “angel of the Lord” proclaimed to the shepherds was that Jesus was born.
9. How was the “angel of the Lord’s” mission different from the mission carried out by the heavenly hosts that the shepherds also heard?
While carrying messages is an important task of the angels, it is not the only thing angels do. In fact, the Bible indicates that it may be secondary to their primary task in heaven: praising and worshipping. The many passages that show angels in perpetual worship include Isaiah 6: 3 and Revelation 4 and 5. How glorious must have been the anthem heard by the shepherds as the heavenly hosts lifted their voices in worship and the heavens rang with their words, “Glory to God in the highest!”