Many of the Christmas stories and tales revolve around the Virgin Mary, Baby Jesus, the glorious Star and even the gifts that the wise-men brought. But not many tales are told about the Shepherds. The shepherd who were the first to witness Jesus after his birth. So in this blog post, I am going to share some little known but interesting facts about the shepherds that, hopefully, will give you, my readers, a new look on the Christmas story.
Several people have told me that the reason why both shepherds and wise-men were present at Jesus’ birth is because God was making the point that Jesus was not just for wealthy people but poor people as well. However, the shepherds were not poor. In fact, if Jesus had wanted poor people at his birth, he could have invited several of the beggars that sat near the gates of Jerusalem. These shepherds tended the flocks of the priests. They watched the lambs that were used during the sacrifices in the temple and were paid very well for their services.
So if they were not poor, what was the reason they were there? Well, even if being a temple shepherd in Bible times was a fairly decent job it did have its drawbacks. One of them being that they smelled. Now sheep are actually very dirty and smelly creatures and not the fluffy, happy and WHITE illustrations portrayed in children’s books. So the old song, “Mary Had a Little Lamb”….well, you get my idea. 🙂 But the biggest drawback to being a shepherd was that they were forever in a state of ritual uncleanliness.
In Leviticus are the laws laid down by God for His people to follow. And among those laws were ones that forbid making contact with feces and dead things. Whenever a Jew touched either of those things there were several strict purification rights that needed to be observed. So being part of a culture that focused largely on cleanliness (cleanliness is next to Godliness right? 🙂 ) it was impossible for these shepherds to get clean. Because of their defiled conditions, they could never enter the Temple, offer a sacrifice, go to a synagogue. Now a days, as Christians, we can enjoy a relationship with God through prayer and Bible reading on our own. However to these Jewish shepherds in the time of Jesus and especially the Temple authorities the idea of worshiping God apart from the Temple was thought to be anathema. True religion was a corporate effort and not a singular relationship.
So for all practical purposes even the most pious shepherd was labelled unclean and could never come into the presence of God. But it was these shepherds that God chose to unveil His only Son first. It was these shepherds that God invited personally to come into His presence and see Him face to face. Why? Because in Christ, there is no clean or unclean. We cannot NOT come into His presence because we are “unclean”. We can enjoy a relationship with Him that is both personable and intimate. Christ was for all mankind. He removed that barriers of cleanliness because in our sinful state, no amount of ritual cleansing can make us clean. Oh physically yes, we might be spotless, but inside, we are dirty. Only the blood of Jesus can make us clean, inside and out. 🙂
I think it is pretty amazing that God chose the unclean shepherd over the Pharisees and priests to witness His birth. But the religious leaders knew about Jesus’ birth. They had read the prophecies and counted the years. When the wise-men showed up at Herod’s doorstep he called all the teachers of the law together and they were able to tell him where and when Jesus would be born. However, these Pharisees and priests were unclean too. For all of their ritual cleansing, they were white washed tombs. (Matt. 23:27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.”) They were unclean because they were dead inside.
They missed their long awaited Messiah because they were too focused on keeping the Law. They let their rituals replace the relationship. So this Christmas season, I want to encourage you to not forget the reason for the season. Yes, that is a phrase that is thrown around a lot this time of year but really, how often do we actually think of what it means. Because of Jesus’ birth, there is now no distinction, no male or female, no Jew or Gentile and no clean or unclean. We are all equal in the sight of God. If that isn’t a reason to celebrate, then I don’t know what is!