Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Before our holiday season ends, we need to go back a bit and look at some verses that are not typically read at Christmas to fully understand the significance of the birth of Christ. In Exodus, 29:22, “Take from this ram the fat, the fat tail, the fat on the internal organs, the long lobe of the liver, both kidneys with the fat on them, and the right thigh.” 1It is somewhat shocking to our society today but there was a special type of sheep used for Levitical sacrifices in the Old Testament. The species type was a broad-tailed sheep (ovis laticaudata 2) and is still found in the Holy Land today. The ram was used for ordination and other special ceremonies while the lambs might be used as Passover meals.

We next move to another book from Micah, one of our minor prophets. In Micah 5:2, he prophesies the following: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Here we find the ancient name of Bethlehem in Judah (Genesis 35:16 Genesis 35:19; 48:7). In Ruth 1:2 it is called “Bethlehem-Judah,” but the inhabitants are called “Ephrathites;” in Micah 5:2, “Bethlehem-Ephratah;” in Matthew 2:6, “Bethlehem in the land of Judah.” In Psalms 132:6 it is mentioned as the place where David spent his youth. The significance of this location helps us identify the probable Temple that the sheep were being raised for, the Temple at Migdal Eder. This temple was located about a mile from Bethlehem itself. The shepherds in the Christmas story would have raised and tended these sheep in the hills near Bethlehem and, as history has it, play an important part of our Christmas story.

Because of the value of these specific sheep, the shepherds duties would have included protecting them from theft and injury. Only the unblemished sheep would be considered suitable for sacrificial purposes. Their flocks could be used for producing dairy and wool, but they were of such value that they would not be considered part of anyone’s daily menu. Tradition has it that because those shepherds were raising Levitical sheep for the nearby temple, their responsibility of providing the “lambs without blemish” would have had special care from their birth. The selected lambs would have been wrapped in ribbons of cloth at birth to protect them from injury. The process was called swaddling. It was also customary during those times to wrap newborn infants in the same way and hence, the term “swaddling clothes” referred to the wrappings or protection for newborns.

While we do not know the date of Christ’s birth, it is believed to have coincided with a time when the lambs were also being born. Our shepherds, birthing the sacrificial lambs, would have been most receptive and understanding to the significance of their angelic visitor’s message: Luke 2:10-12 “But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” The shepherds would have also known of Micah’s prophecy, they would have known about the purpose of the Messiah, the Messianic Hope coming from the city of David, they would have understood the significance of the swaddling clothes and why the “Lamb of God” would be lying in a manger. While the shepherds were responding to prophecy, we know more today: 1 John 2:2 “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”

The angel never told the shepherds where to look. In fact, their first reaction was sheer terror. However, the shepherds made a key decision, they could not pass up the opportunity to go find the Lamb of God. It is the same decision that we all make in the world today, to search for God. Remember, it was a short walk, probably less than a mile and they knew where all the stables and birthing caves were located. There they found a child wrapped in swaddling clothes. Their actions afterwards are worth noting. The shepherds not only praised God for both hearing the good news and finding the child, but they also shared the good news with others (Luke 2:17-20 “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”).

Our Scriptures are not just a compilation of historic random events but are a carefully executed plan by a God who cares for humanity! From David, the shepherd boy who became king, through the prophetic hope of a savior born in David’s city, by a miraculous incarnation of God Himself into humanity as a child, we are blessed with a Christmas story that was foretold at the time of Creation itself. Christmas brings us the Light of the World so that we can see our very Creator in action. Amen for the shepherds, they got it right.

Contemplations

  • What knowledge or experiences did the shepherds have that gave them the courage to believe what they were told and search for the newborn  Messiah?
    • Ideas to explore: Where they lived, their job and responsibility, their understanding of prophecy, peer reinforcement (multiple witnesses), actually finding the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes (evidence).
  • Life itself can be filled with frightening moments. What prepares us to respond in a faith-filled way to fear so that we overcome the fear and accomplish God’s purpose?
    • Ideas to explore: Use the list above created for the shepherds but think about where you live, your own job and responsibilities you have or had, how well you understand the Bible, what your family and friends mean to you for support, how adventurous you are in setting out to discover truths. What has God been preparing you for?
  • Sacrifice was a normal part of the culture during those times – What do you think has desensitized people today to the idea of sacrifice?
    • Ideas to explore: The transfer of the idea of sacrifice to a wealth-based view of life, our own affluence, a lack of understanding of the concept of sacrifice, movement away from an agrarian society to a distributed and manufacturing society, advertising, a low value placed on human life.
  • The shepherds shared their experience with others. Why is it important for us to do the same, especially when we believe we have encountered Christ? 
    • Ideas to explore: What exactly did the shepherds share, who did they tell, is the shepherd’s story more believable because they were eye witnesses. What story do you have to tell?
  • What do you think God’s purpose was  for including shepherds in the Christmas Story in the first place?
    • Ideas to explore: Did God know they would be eager to share with others, God wanted the world to view His Son as a shepherd, God was setting the stage for Christ as a sacrificial lamb.

Notes:

  1. NIV New International Version Translations
  2. https://evangelicalfocus.com/magazine/4246/The-fat-of-rams
Share