Bethlehem, Shepherds, and Angels

Travis Rogers, Jr.

Bethlehem, Shepherds, and Angels

5 mins
December 28, 2021

Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 

[When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.] 

This passage in the Gospel According to Luke is the one that we quote from every Christmas. No doubt, it is the most famous narrative of the nativity that we have. You have heard it read probably every year of your life but I would like for us to have a different, an historical, look at it.

These 20 versus begin by showing us that Gabriel has proved to be a reliable announcer for God regarding John the Baptizer birth and now also faithfully brings to completion the promises concerning Jesus. There are some important things to note here.

First, we should note that the news of Jesus’ birth does not go to the elite, to the powerful, but to lowly shepherds. There is no fanfare announcing the birth of Jesus in the Roman court, no herald that appears to the Roman governor, not even the Jewish Sanhedrin court receives any news. The news goes to shepherds.

The second thing is to look at the titles give it to Jesus, that is, Savior and Lord. These were titles that were given to the Roman emperor, as well. As we watch Luke's narrative unfold, we see him establishing the sharp contrast between Jesus and his reign as opposed to the emperor Augustus and his rule.

In the first seven verses, the narrative setting—the census and the city of Bethlehem—help to mark the significance of Jesus’ birth. The census is the mechanism that is used to bring Mary and Joseph to the city of Bethlehem but it also serves to point out the political importance of the birth of Jesus. The census symbolizes Augustus’ sovereignty over what was understood by the Romans as the civilized world. The use of the word all in verse 1 and verse 3 shows that, as far as the Romans were concerned, the Roman Empire represents all of civilization. Outside the empire does not matter to them.

Why a census?

The main purpose of the census was to establish a regularity and a mechanism for collecting taxes. This becomes a marker that describes Rome's domination over Palestine.

Why Bethlehem?

It is a reminder of Micah 5:2, which reads, “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” 

Bethlehem is the Hebrew word that means the House of bread. Keep that thought in your head for a minute.

Why Joseph?

It seemed that Joseph's main role in the narrative of Luke is to embrace Jesus as his son, thus making Jesus a descendant of David. This was important to the understanding of Jesus as the Messiah: he comes to Bethlehem, the city prophesied by Micah, and he is shown to be a descendant of the great king of Israel.

No Room in the Inn

It really should not be read as inn at all. The more appropriate use of the word is “guestroom.” What is Luke referring to? Luke is referencing a peasant house in which family and animals slept on different levels in the same enclosed space. In this case, we're talking about a home of family or friends that was so overcrowded that the baby would have to be put into a feeding trough.

A feeding trough. A feeding trough for animals. A feeding trough for animals in the House of Bread, Bethlehem. Should we draw a connection here between Jesus being laid in a feeding trough in a city called the House of Bread and he would later take bread and break it, like his body was broken, and feed us who are all too often not much better than animals?

Shepherds and Angels

In verses 8 through 20, both shepherds and angels are both there to provide responses to the birth of this baby. There are the shepherds who rank low, very low, on the scale of power and privilege, especially in contrast to the emperor. With them is a multitude of angels. The text reads “there was with the Angel a multitude of the heavenly host.” My goodness, how we misinterpret that. What is a host? It's not someone who opens their home to entertain family and friends, especially in this context. No, when the Bible uses the phrase host, it is referring to an army. So, we should read it as, “there was with the Angel a multitude of the heavenly army.”

Take that, Caesar Augustus! Caesar had the mighty legions of Rome but Jesus has the heavenly army. But this gathering of angels appears at a farm. The announcement doesn't take place in the Temple in Jerusalem and it certainly does not take place in the palace of Caesar. 

It is not the palace nor is it even the temple that is the meeting place between God and humanity. It is on a lowly farm. This is where God meets us, in our lowest place. The place where we walk with animals. It is actually a view from God's side. This is the good news for all people. All people. Starting at the bottom with the lowliest citizens, the good news comes to everyone. And it is the angels who show us what our response should be; we should respond with praise. After the shepherds relate the message told them, they also respond with praise.

In this season of the appearance of the Messiah, let us praise and give our most heartfelt gratitude to the one who came to heal us. We use the word salvation or saved but a better rendering of the word is healed or even made right. The savior has come to make everything right.

This article was orginally reported by
Travis Rogers, Jr.

Travis is a contributor in religion and entertainment.