As I began to unpack my nativity set this Christmas, I began to ponder … why the Shepherds? The Savior of all had come into the world! Why did God send His angels to proclaim the news to the shepherds first? I mean why not announce it first to the religious leaders? Why not the wealthy citizens of Jerusalem–those with the most influence? Or why not the news media?! Ok, I don’t think they had news media back then. But why not announce the news to the most talkative, chatty people in the region who could get the word out faster?

Don’t ask me why, but then I started to think about the ancient–and I do mean ancient–practice Israel had in the Old Testament, a sacrificial system of atonement. Basically, that meant that after one had sinned there was a way they were restored to right-standing with God through the death of an animal. The Book of Leviticus lays out the entire system for sacrifices that God required of the people of Israel:

  • It lists all the various reasons why a sacrifice must be presented.
  • It itemizes each different kind of sacrifice, with detailed and thorough instructions that corresponded to each.
  • It specifies what kinds of animals or materials to offer,
  • how they are to be offered,
  • what condition the offerings must be in to be acceptable,
  • the ways the priests were supposed to receive and deal with each offering,
  • how they were to kill it and offer each kind,
  • what they are to do with each part of each sacrificethe blood, the individual organs, the hide,
  • and the specific timing of when each step in the process was supposed to happen…

And what was the purpose of all this? Why was this complicated system of sacrifices being required of Israel by the Lord? Afterall, it was to deal with the people’s sins. If you sin, you kill an animal. You sin again, you kill another animal. You commit a really big sin? You kill another animal. You sin by accident? You kill an animal. This long, complicated system of sacrifices prescribed in Leviticus was all about atoning for people’s sins, whether they be intentional sins of disobedience, or even from accidental or unintentional things that may have caused them to become unclean in the sight of God.

But even this intricate and detailed system for atonement was inadequate: every form of sacrifice was only temporary. Each of the sacrifices only restored the person’s atonement until the very next time they committed sin! The atoning effect of the previous sacrifice would be gone, and they would have to offer a new sacrifice to once again restore their holiness in the eyes of God. Leviticus gives us a detailed description of what man could try to do to make himself right with God. 


This was the system Israel operated in for over 1400 years! And all of the nation’s sins that were to be atoned for was supposed to take place in Jerusalem. The same Jerusalem that was approximately 4 miles from Bethlehem, the country hillside. And you guessed it, the very animals for these sacrifices were raised and cared for and looked after by the shepherds of the pastures of the villages surrounding Jerusalem.

In order for the sacrifice to be acceptable, the lamb had to be spotless and without blemish—no broken bones, no sores, or scratches, or physical defects. So the shepherds responsible for these animals had to take very good care of them. Generation after generation after generation of Bethlehem shepherds were specifically trained in the care of the sheep who, one day, would each be taken into Jerusalem to be sacrificed to make atonement for the sins of the people.

So… Why the Shepherds? Why would the first angelic proclamation of “Joy to the World!” come to the Bethlehem shepherds? I wonder who could have had more excitement than these particular shepherds?! They certainly would have understood the gravity of the proclamation:“Peace on earth!” 

You don’t have to offer these insufficient sacrifices anymore! The gulf that stands between God and humanity is removed—through this child! This baby demonstrates that God’s favor truly rests upon humankind! His spotless and unblemished life will be the sacrifice that fully and finally unites everyone with God!

Joy to the World, the Lord is come!