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The Mystery Of Bethlehem

The Mystery Of The Shepherds

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | December 20, 2009

Selected highlights from this sermon

God brought shepherds to greet His Son in the flesh. Shepherds were despised, so why would God choose them to be the first to receive the news of the birth of the Savior?

In this message, Pastor Lutzer not only gives us insights about the shepherds on that blessed night, but also the parallels between them and the Good Shepherd.

As we think about Christmas, will we, as the shepherds did two thousand years ago, tell everyone about the Child who came to redeem us?

The story of the angels being with the shepherds, and revealing to them that Jesus is to be born in Bethlehem is known to all the different religions of the world. Everyone knows the story. And the reason that it is so important is because of who was born in Bethlehem and the transformation that He can make in our individual lives.

I want you to look very briefly at Luke 2. It’s a story that we know by memory because we have read the Christmas story so often, but there are several things that we know about the shepherds, God bless them. First of all, we know where they were. You’ll notice that it says in verse 8, “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field keeping watch over their flock by night.”

Now the “same region,” of course, is Bethlehem, but Bethlehem is close to Jerusalem. Today when you go from one to another you hardly know when you are leaving Jerusalem and entering Bethlehem, but in those days they were about five or six miles apart. Today the cities have expanded, but in the Temple area sheep were offered every single day. Sheep were to be offered both morning and evening. An unblemished lamb was to be offered, and it is said that the lambs that they used were those that were taken care of in the Bethlehem area. So it could be that these shepherds were actually herding Temple sheep that would be used for sacrifice. And Jesus, of course, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, is the One who will become the ultimate sacrifice for our sins.

So we know where they were but we also know what their occupation was. We know what they did. They were shepherds, and shepherds in those days were despised for a number of different reasons. First of all, it was because it was a dirty job. You know when some of those shepherds left home they’d be gone for two or three weeks at a time, and during that period of time they wouldn’t take a bath. They were, of course, taking care of sheep. You’ve heard me tell the story before about a man who said to a Bedouin, “How can you live with a goat in your tent?” And he said, “It’s no big deal. Eventually the goat just gets used to it.” So you can understand what kind of a life the shepherds lived.

They were despised because it was a dirty job, but there was another reason, and that is that the Orthodox Jews had made so many different regulations and so many different rules about cleanliness and washing that no shepherd could really live up to these, so oftentimes they were looked down upon. But it was in the midst of this that we have the angel coming.

An angel of the Lord, the Bible says, appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear, and the angel said, “Fear not, for behold I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” And so they had this revelation of Jesus. So here we have shepherds. We know where they were. We know what they did, and we know where they went. They went to the little town of Bethlehem as the angel told them to do.

Now why Bethlehem? Why this little town? I think that one of the reasons is because Bethlehem in the original Hebrew means house of bread - Bet-le-hem – House of Bread. In fact that’s why when you read the book of Ruth there’s some irony there. It says that there was a famine in the House of Bread. There may be another reason and that is that Bethlehem was indeed the City of David. That’s the town in which David was born.

Now were it not for the fact that the prophet Micah predicted where Jesus would be born - in Bethlehem, there would be no way for us to try to second guess God to know where Jesus would be born. I’ve discovered in my life, as I’m sure you’ve discovered in yours, that God is very unpredictable. He could have used Jerusalem. Jesus could have been born there. He could have used Rome. He used a little town. It was not the smallest of all towns but one of the smallest of all towns because God’s ways are unfathomable. You and I don’t understand it, do we?

I remember a seminary professor who used to say that long ago he gave up on the idea of trying to predict whom God would mightily use. Here you have a student who gets straights A’s. He’s one of the most gifted and qualified, and lo and behold, he doesn’t end up anywhere, and then you have somebody else who struggles and you think to yourself, “He’s not going to make it,” and yet God mightily uses him.

God is that kind of a God. He breaks into our lives and He does the unpredictable even in your life today. You see you are here because you are worshiping the Lord in Moody Church, or maybe you are here because a friend brought you. Maybe you are here to see the children. For any number of reasons you may be here today but God may have you here for an entirely different reason, and that is to show you His glory and that you might connect with Jesus Christ, His Son.

So we know where they went. We also know what they saw. What is it that they saw? The Bible says that they came to Bethlehem and they saw Mary and Joseph and the Child. The text doesn’t say it but I have no doubt that these shepherds were devout people. I have no doubt that they worshiped the Lord Jesus Christ. And those Christmas cards that you get with the shepherds bowing to the One who is there in the manager in the stable – the little baby, those are authentic in terms of their historical significance because that’s where the shepherds came. And there’s no doubt that they bowed before the Baby, and they were willing to give praise to God because the angel had said that a Savior would be born to them.

And so they saw this. They saw the One who would eventually die on the cross and then rise again. And of course, as I’ve told you many times every Christmas (sometimes almost every Christmas Sunday), when they looked at the Baby Jesus there was much more to Jesus that they could not see. His divine nature was invisible to them, but in that baby localized was God. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” the Bible says.

Well, what is it that they experienced? They experienced the joy of knowing that they had seen the Savior, and what courage it gave them. You’ll notice it says in verse 16, “And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it they made known the same that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.”

You can imagine their excitement. They suddenly now become evangelists, and they are telling everybody about the angels. They are telling everybody about the baby that was wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in the manger, and they are spreading the Word. Can anyone remain quiet after they have seen Jesus, the Savior? I don’t think so, and that’s why the shepherds kept telling everyone who would listen that they had seen this baby in accordance with what the angels had mentioned to them.

You know as I looked at this text, and as I pondered it this week, I’m asking what is really the bottom line? What’s going on here? Why the shepherds? Why would they be the ones who would be chosen by God for this special experience? And it occurred to me that this is really an example of the shepherds coming to the Chief Shepherd. Maybe one of the reasons that God chose the shepherds to be the ones to whom the angels would come is because He knew that His Son would grow up and become a Shepherd.

You know the imagery in the Bible is that we are sheep and He is the Good Shepherd. Now we are sheep because the Bible says, “We’ve turned everybody to his own way.” Sheep are notorious for getting on the wrong path and going the wrong direction and being stubborn about it, and that’s the way we are. We are sheep, going to hell, as it were, in our own way, because of our own reasons and because of our own sins that we like too much to try to ask forgiveness for, and so we are as people scattered and doing our own thing.

Sheep sometimes choose false paths because they look at some windswept area of the desert and they think that it is a path, or they try to make it into one even though it leads nowhere, which is really a story about human beings. Today I am speaking to some of you and you know that your life is really going in the wrong direction, but still you like it too much to deal with it and to deal with the Savior who came to save us from our sins.

Now what about the “Good” Shepherd? Jesus said of Himself as He grew up and became a man and began to teach, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd (number one) knows His sheep.” He knows them.

These shepherds, I’m sure, knew their sheep. I’m told that shepherds have a name for every sheep, and the sheep recognizes his or her name, and the shepherd knows them, and they know his voice. They recognize it. You see the relationship that Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, wants to have with us is a personal relationship. The Bible says that He knows us all by name. He knows the sheep by name. The shepherds knew their sheep but Jesus knows millions of His sheep, millions who have believed on Him. He knows them by name exactly, doesn’t He?

One time Rebecca and I were driving with an old couple, and they were pointing out to us where they had bought some cemetery plots, and they said, “Will God know where we are buried? Will He remember our names?” Well, the answer is yes. The Good Shepherd never loses His sheep, and He knows them by name, and they know Him. So I have to ask you today if you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? Is He someone simply to be worshiped and admired and talked about at Christmas, but that’s it? No, He’s to be our personal Savior.

Also the relationship of the Shepherd is such that the Shepherd leads them. Jesus says He leads His sheep, and shepherds have the responsibility of taking sheep sometimes where they don’t want to go because the shepherds know where the grass is, and sheep again are notoriously difficult to lead. And sometimes what a shepherd will do when he can’t get the sheep to go where he wants them to go he’ll actually reach into the flock and he’ll take a little lamb and put it on his shoulder, and he’ll carry it, and then he’ll begin to go up the ridges where he wants the sheep to graze during the summertime. And eventually when that little lamb begins to call out for its mother, the mother (the ewe) begins to go, and then others begin to go, and pretty soon you’ve got the whole flock of sheep going in the right direction.

And isn’t that exactly what Jesus, the Good Shepherd, does? Sometimes when He wants us to think about eternity and heaven He will reach down and He will take a lamb. Some of you know what that is like today, don’t you? I’m thinking of those of you who lost children this past year. The shepherd looked down and He took them to Himself, and took them all the way to heaven. And now because they are there we begin to look in the right direction. We begin to think heavenly thoughts because we know that this world is not our home. We are simply passing through, and the Good Shepherd takes His sheep home with Him, and that’s what He does. And at the end of life’s journey we will go home to be with Christ because the Good Shepherd loves His sheep.

His relationship with them is personal. His relationship with them is practical. He leads them. And during this past year we can look back despite the heartaches, despite the difficulties and the disappointments. We as God’s people have been led by the Good Shepherd, and for that we are deeply grateful.

But Jesus said something else. When He spoke about being a shepherd He said, “If you hire somebody to look after the sheep, when the wolf comes that hired hand will run. He’ll let the wolves devour the sheep.” But Jesus said that in that regard He’s not a hired hand. He says that He protects His flock and He guides us all the way to heaven, but also He says, “The Good Shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” And that’s the bottom line when we think of the Christmas story.

We always have to be able to transport people from the story of the manger all the way to recognize that Jesus came ultimately to die. We could say that that little baby that was in a manger was actually born crucified. He came to save His people and He came to die to do it. And the reason is that this sense of alienation, this sense of separation from God because of our sin that we’ve all experienced is a situation that you and I cannot repair. We can’t make it any better. We can’t manage it. There’s nothing that we can do about it. All that we can do is to try to do the very best that we can, going from pillar to post, being caught in the wheels of the spider web of our own bad decisions and sins. But Jesus came to die for us, to give His life on our behalf that we might be saved because, you see, we owed God what we could not pay. Justice demanded a kind of perfection that we do not have and Jesus said, “I’ll pay it. I’ll do it for you.” And that’s the Christmas story.

During the 1800s in Russia, there was a czar by the name of Nicholas the First. It is said that he appointed a friend of his to be a paymaster. In those days a paymaster had the responsibility of giving the payment to the soldiers and making sure that the money was divvied out correctly. So he dealt with an awful lot of money. This paymaster unfortunately was not up to the task in terms of his character and he actually took some of the money and he gambled it away. And now when it came time for him to pay the troops as he was supposed to do, he realized that he was out an awful lot of money, and there was no way that he could possibly pay what he owed.

So the story is that he actually sat down and made a list of all of the debts that he has incurred because of his sin of gambling. He listed them and then wrote on a piece of paper, “Too much to pay! Who can pay?” His intention was to commit suicide, but as he was there with his gun, thinking that he could commit suicide at midnight, he fell asleep eventually that night. And he woke up in the morning and he saw the piece of paper that he had written out, and it had a signature on it. And it said Nicholas. Now he didn’t believe that it was his friend, the Czar, but it was. He actually checked the signature against one that he had on file. Who can pay? The answer is Nicholas, and Nicholas did pay because he sent a messenger the next day to make up for the man’s transgressions, and to pay the soldiers.

Now, folks, you and I are in that predicament. Who can pay? Who can be the one who can take our sins away? Who is the one who is able to guide us when life gets difficult? Who cares sometimes when we are out of work and we don’t know where to turn? Who can meet all of these obligations? Jesus came. The Good Shepherd gave His life that we might be saved. And so these shepherds returned from their experience, having seen the Good Shepherd, and they told everyone what they had seen.

Today, as we think about Christmas, people are in a mood to be able to accept exchanges of gifts and kind words. Let it be said of us that we, like the shepherds, tell everyone that we meet about the Jesus who came to save us, the Lamb of God, the Shepherd who died for His sheep.

I want to conclude today talking to you very directly because it can be said of some of you here that you’ve played by all the rules. You’ve done all the right things. You consider yourself even to be good and to be religious but what you can’t explain is the emptiness that there is within your heart and in your soul today. Would you come to the Good Shepherd? The Good Shepherd, about whom we read, said, “As many as received Him to those He gives the authority to become the children of God, even to those who believe on His name.” Let this Christmas be the Christmas that God changes you. You are allowing Him to do it. Let’s let that happen in our lives today.

Would you bow with me as we pray together?

Our Father, we want to thank You so much for this story of the shepherds – the true story. Thank You for the angels that led them to Bethlehem, and thank You that there they saw the Shepherd who would give His life for the sheep. Help us this day to be encouraged. May we remember that He knows us by name. May we remember that He guides us to green pastures. May we remember that He gave His life for us.

And we pray, Father, for those who have never trusted Christ as Savior. They’ve never believed on Him. At this moment I pray that they might be caused to see their need, and they may believe on Jesus.

If you’ve never trusted Him before would you right now pray to Him, and say, “Jesus, I do trust You as my Savior, dying in my stead, paying a debt I could not pay.”

We ask, Lord, that You shall do that. In Jesus’ blessed name we pray, Amen.

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