​The Shepherds’ Story

How to be a faithful eyewitness.

Timothy Nixon

“After seeing him,
the shepherds
told everyone . . .”
(Luke 2:17, NLT).1

Eyewitness testimony has for ages been the most reliable testimony in courts of law. It is the bedrock of the American judicial system. Individuals have lost freedom and life based solely on eyewitness testimony.

Vision Depends

Usually what one sees and does not see is determined by one’s perspective. In recent years sociologists and other behavioral professionals have done many tests of the reliability of eyewitness testimony. The tests have shown that the way questions are phrased to eyewitnesses can cause them to add information or details to their recollection that never happened. But eyewitness testimony continues to be the most reliable means of establishing truth.

Sadly, our idea of authority correlates too closely with who the witness is: man over woman because men are deemed more analytical, and women more emotional; rich over poor because the rich have not much, if anything, to gain; American over foreigner; Caucasian over person of color; orthodox accent over foreign accent, etc.

The Nativity disrupts all this: in announcing Messiah’s birth, God could have used any virgin of Davidic ancestry from Israel’s elite or priesthood. Mary was not the nation’s only virgin. But God chose her—poor, teenaged, unmarried—to bear the Messiah. Jesus’ dedication could have been before one of the powerbrokers of Israel’s priesthood. But instead God allows an old man, not much known, to dedicate the Christ child. He allows an aging widow to witness the dedication. He sends a star to guide foreigners to the place of His Son’s birth.

These commoners are the people who will serve as eyewitnesses to the story of the birth and infancy of Jesus Christ. And in the ranks of God’s chosen eyewitnesses, there’s a team of shepherds.

Meeting the Shepherds

Luke’s introduces them “staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flocks by night” (Luke 2:8).2

Shepherds were unnamed, unknown, undistinguished, and distrusted, known to confuse “thine” with “mine.” They lived in the fields both day and night, after the rainy season of April and before the rains of November, the time when sheep were kept outdoors.

This shepherd company would prove themselves trustworthy. And in selecting them, God would show that stereotypes and prejudices do not determine whom He will use to advance His kingdom. Inspiration tells us that these shepherds were among those who longed for the Messiah to come.3 They discussed and prayed about it. And on that night God would dramatically answer their prayer.

God takes the ordinary from obscurity and places them in the limelight of opportunity.

Faithful people, likely of limited literacy and Bible knowledge: their selection teaches that every now and then God takes the ordinary from obscurity and places them in the limelight of opportunity—what I once heard labeled “the aristocracy of the ordinary.” The angelic announcement given them of the birth of Christ is not what today’s political operatives would have recommended for an introduction. You and I have seen inaugurations of new leaders, of college and university presidents perhaps—people and processes I admire and support—but with full respect for Jesus’ warning to beware of heights: Beware of obsessing over recognition. Beware of the potential dizziness of prestige and titles. When God announced Christ’s birth, He taught something unique, something distinctive, about His kingdom; something upside down about the salvation that He brings. God does not save from the top, down; He saves from the bottom, up.

Message for the Shepherds

The shepherds’ message comes by supernatural delivery:“an angel of the Lord suddenly stood near them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them,” leaving them “terribly frightened” (verse 9). The shepherds will be eyewitnesses of the Messiah’s birth. But how confident, and how credible, will they be? Neither angels nor good news are frequent events. Indeed, for an angel to appear to them, they probably thought it meant judgment. And judgment, for outsiders such as they, was usually bad news. This angel appearing to society’s despised could have been their undoing, given how they were looked upon. So often society, even church society, has made some person or group feel unworthy before others, and even before God. But instead of threatening rejection or punishment, these angels calm the shepherds’ fears: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people” (verse 10).

How powerful the gospel is! The God of the universe comes to pitch His tent next to the worn and tattered shelters of this earth. Sinners though we be, God sends the gospel so we may feel good about ourselves. The good news is that no matter how sinful we may be, or what we’ve done, there is hope, salvation, healing and reconciliation in Jesus Christ.

And the good news is accompanied with “great joy.” I reflect on the stern, sad countenances that we have associated with sainthood—statues as well as breathing saints—when salvation is supposed to bring great joy. “The joy of the Lord is [my] strength” (Neh. 8:10). It’s the joy of salvation for all people. For God’s good news is for everybody. In a world that votes some in and others out it’s good to know that the Savior is for everybody. The Messiah the shepherds had been praying for came to save everybody, including them.

God wants to make salvation accessible and available to all people.And the shepherds are told that the sign of messiahship will be a humble, unassuming entrance into the world, not in a mansion but in a manger; wrapped, not in satin sheets but in swaddling clothes: born, not in a gilded city but in Benton Harbor, or a Mexican barrio, or Korea Town in San Francisco, or Chicago’s South Side.

It reminds ofJesus’ parable about a great man, a great banquet, and a great bunch of superficial excuses by the greats who were invited.So the man sent his servants out into the streets and alleys to invite the poor, crippled, blind, and lame: He means for His banquet hall to be full (see Luke 14:16-24).So too,God sends His angels into the highways, hedges, and alleyways of Judea; sends a star to the Magi from the East while the priests, who count them heathen, remain in Jerusalem. He invites shepherds from the fields to worship the Christ child, while the Sanhedrin who know the prophecies of His birth remain in the temple.

The experts are not always right. Sometimes the theologians get it all wrong, charged with great information but lacking divine inspiration. Trusting in ourselves, our own knowledge and understanding, instead of trusting in God, can be our greatest danger. If we listen as the shepherds did, we may learn of a greater and higher focus: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among people with whom He is pleased” (Luke 2:14).

Impact of the Message

The angels showed up, spoke, sang, and departed, leaving great agitation behind: “The shepherds began saying to one another, ‘Let’s go straight to Bethlehem’” (verse 15).

Sometimes we hear a message from heaven, powerful and moving, life-changing and mind-altering, convicting and animating, and leaving us in wonderment. And we prove its moving, life-changing power by a response of action. Whenever we encounter Jesus—for the first time or all over again—whenever we encounter God’s good news of saving grace, we are compelled to act. No matter whether it be alone in a room, watching a movie or at a party with friends, listening in person at church or tuned in to virtual worship: wherever God’s grace confronts us, the Spirit of God demands a decision.

And we know, unmistakably, that making no decision is a decision: “I called and you refused, I stretched out my hand and no one paid attention” (Prov. 1:24, 25). “You neglected all my advice and did not want my rebuke” (verse 25). “The complacency of fools will destroy them” (verse 32).

Divine moments of invitation come to each of us. When we make no decision, we choose to be, and find ourselves right back where we were before God’s visit and message. And a fool’s complacency has been known to lead to dreadful ends, ends much worse than before (see, e.g., Luke 11:20-26; 2 Peter 2:21).

For the shepherds of Bethlehem the angels’ message was life-changing, and they realized it; they could not just sit there tending their flocks. They could not continue doing what they had done all night and for so many other days and nights. They could not stay still. They had to make a move. They told each other, “Let’s go straight to Bethlehem, then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us” (Luke 2:15).

If famous American investor Warren Buffett were to seek you out, give you a guaranteed investment tip, and then tell you, “You’ve got 20 minutes to make the investment or the door will close,” how long would you wait? The shepherds got their tip, their news, their chorus. And acted. Have you ever thought, What if they had delayed? Who knows? Would we ever have heard the news? Might they themselves have missed Jesus? Might they have undone their own status as eyewitnesses?

One of the important aspects of validating the accuracy of an eyewitness testimony is communication. In eyewitness testimony, communication is the ability of an eyewitness to describe an event in a manner that converts the memory’s image into language that transforms into an image in the receptor’s mind. The ability of the eyewitness to articulate descriptive facts determines the reliability of the testimony. So, as you speak it, the spoken word converts the event you witnessed into an image in the receptors of your brain. Think of what could have happened to the truths they experienced that night if they’d kept the story to themselves! Instead they “made known” what they had been told (verse 17). The last we hear and see of them, they’re returning to their duties on the hillside, “glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them” (verse 20).

So what’s your story? Do you too have a story to tell? Have angels visited and sung for you? Have you seen the Baby Jesus? Or maybe the crucified Jesus? You don’t have to be a shepherd. And you don’t need a story like anybody else’s. But if Jesus has shown up for you—in a feeding trough or on the cross—you already know it’s worth telling. If heavenly angels have sung for you, go tell the world, because it’s sure to be good news.

  1. Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
  2. Except otherwise stated, Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995, 2020 by The Lockman Foundation. All rights reserved.
  3. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898, 1940), p. 47: “Through the silent hours they talked together of the promised Saviour, and prayed for the coming of the King to David’s throne.”

Tim Nixon, a pastor in the state of Michigan, works for the Lake Region Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Timothy Nixon