While Shepherds Watched their Flocks (Advent: Day 14)

This Advent hymn centers around the shepherds who were the first to hear the glorious, angelic proclamation of Christ’s birth. As mentioned in a previous Advent post, these shepherds were not ordinary shepherds. The more I’ve studied this, the more I’m in awe of how God orchestrated the Christmas story.

Rabbi Jason Sobel says of the shepherds, “They were Levitical shepherds, trained and tasked with the responsibility of tending and guarding the flocks used for sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem” (encouragement cafe).

Sacrifices went on everyday at the Temple, but there were yearly feasts and celebrations that also took place. Passover was (and is) one of the biggest celebrations of the Jewish calendar year. Celebrated in each Spring, Passover commemorates the miraculous liberation of the Jews from Egypt. It really is a holiday about freedom. Freedom doesn’t come without cost, and blood had to be shed before the Children of Israel could be set free.

The blood that was shed at Passover was that of innocent lambs.

About two million Jews attended the Passover annually. “Josephus records that “up to 260,000 lambs would be sacrificed at the Temple in Jerusalem” during Passover” (Dwight Longenecker). I also read that (according to Josephus’ numbers), it would have required at least 144 priests sacrificing around 80 lambs per minute. As horrific as this sounds, it shows how serious sin is to a Holy God.

And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.

Hebrews 9:22 (NASB)

“Bethlehem was the ancestral city of King David, who had been a shepherd boy on those same hills. He went on to become the shepherd king and write Psalm 23 with the beautiful words, “The LORD is my shepherd.” The image of the Shepherd King was an important pointer to the coming Messiah. In the Old Testament, Ezekiel the prophet speaks the words of the Lord Himself who says, ‘I will come and be the Shepherd of My people Israel” (Dwight Longenecker).

I love Micah’s prophecy about Jesus spoken 700 years before His birth.

And He will arise and shepherd His flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD His God.

Micah 5:4

Micah goes on to say in verse 5, “This One will be our peace.” Think about it. The angels came to the Levitical shepherds to announce the birth of the Shepherd King who was also the sacrificial “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29).

“A few days before Passover, the shepherds would carefully bring thousands of sheep north from Bethlehem through a series of valleys ending in the Kidron Valley. It’s situated between the towering Temple, Mount of Olives to the east and Mt. Scopus to the north, making a natural pen for the thousands of sheep” (Bill Perkins).

The location of Jesus’ birth and death were not random. They were orchestrated by God to illustrate His sacrifice in such a clear way. In fact, the night of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, He was in the Garden of Gethsemane which is situated in the Kidron Valley. “The garden is very near where the paths from the East Gate and the Sheep Gate meet” (Bibleref.com). It was probably only about an 8 minute walk from the garden to the Sheep Gate.

Jesus’ story started where Passover lambs are birthed and ended at the Sheep Gate where the lambs went to be sacrificed. The salvation God has provided for us is truly amazing! In closing, consider these two passages.

Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, SAT DOWN AT THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD, waiting from that time onward UNTIL HIS ENEMIES BE MADE A FOOTSTOOL FOR HIS FEET. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us; for after saying, THIS IS THE COVENANT THAT I WILL MAKE WITH THEM AFTER THOSE DAYS, SAYS THE LORD: I WILL PUT MY LAWS UPON THEIR HEART, AND ON THEIR MIND I WILL WRITE THEM.’ He then says, ‘AND THEIR SINS AND THEIR LAWLESS DEEDS I WILL REMEMBER NO MORE.

Hebrews 10:11-17 (NASB)

Now may the God of peace – who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus, the Great Shepherd of the sheep, and ratified an eternal covenant with His blood – may He equip you with all you need for doing His will. May He produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to Him. All glory to Him forever and ever! Amen.

Hebrews 13:20-21 NLT

All glory be to God on high, and to the earth be peace; to those on whom His favor rests goodwill shall never cease.


Advent Reflections:

1. How does knowing more details about the shepherds speak to your heart?

2. Read John 10:11. What does Jesus say about Himself?

3 Read Psalm 23. What things does the Good Shepherd do for us?

4 In Hebrews 10:11-17, how do the sacrifices the preists offer compare to Christ’s sacrifice?

5 Read Hebrews 13:20-21. How does the Great Shepherd equip us?

Click here to watch Luther College Aurora choir sing this song on YouTube.

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