The Savior was born and creation responded: a new star appeared in the sky, and an angel descended on Bethlehem with a choir in tow. But Christ’s coming slipped past many people unnoticed: while the people of Bethlehem slept, God sent his angel to a handful of shepherds tending their flocks in the hills outside town. The glory of the Lord surrounded the shepherds and the angel cried,
“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.” (Luke 2:10–11)
We’re well into Advent now, having lit the candle of prophecy and remembered the promises God has sown throughout Scripture—both the promises fulfilled and those whose fulfillment is yet to come. We lit the Bethlehem candle and reflected on the hope Christ brought to a world waiting in painful expectation for a Savior.
Today, we light the Shepherd’s Candle.
The Lord leads his people by the hands of shepherds. He put metaphorical shepherds in place in the Old Testament, calling the kings and religious leaders “the shepherds of Israel” (Ezek. 34:2), but he also put actual shepherds over the Israelites: Jacob and Joseph both kept flocks or tended the flocks of others. Moses was tending his father-in-law’s sheep when the Lord called him to lead his people—with a staff, no less—out of slavery and into the Promised Land (Ex. 3:1). David was keeping his father’s sheep when his father called him in to meet Samuel, who anointed him King of Israel (1 Sam. 16:11–13).
“He chose David his servant
and took him from the sheepfolds;
from following the nursing ewes he brought him
to shepherd Jacob his people,
Israel his inheritance.
With upright heart he shepherded them
and guided them with his skillful hand.” (Psalm 78:70)
We do not find it flattering these days to think of God’s people as sheep in need of a shepherd, and I suppose we would find it less flattering if we spent any time with sheep. But God does not seem to view shepherds the way men do. His shepherds guide their sheep faithfully, know them individually, tend to them gently, and go to great lengths to protect them—even risking their lives to defend their flocks against predators. It is a privilege to be under the care of one of Lord’s shepherds. Even David, the celebrated Shepherd King, recognized that he was under a shepherd when he wrote, “The Lord is my Shepherd / I shall not want” (Ps. 23:1).
But many of Israel’s shepherds failed to care for God’s people. Though called to lead the Israelites to the Lord, they led the people into the arms of foreign gods and watched as the nation was scattered and sent into exile. The Lord rebuked those false shepherds (Ezek. 34:1–10) and promised the people that a true Shepherd from the tribe of Judah would deliver them:
“He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.” (Isaiah 40:11)
The Israelites, who had been led by the Lord and his few faithful shepherds and been led astray by corrupt shepherds, were promised one who would tend them well and lead them gently. How they must have looked forward to his coming with joy!
But when the angels burst upon the shepherds’ camp, thundering “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace among those with whom he is pleased” (Luke 2:14), they appeared not to the priests or the king but to a group of people who, in kneeling beside God’s beloved Son where he lay cradled in a feeding trough, would illustrate again God’s grand design: this is the true Shepherd, the one before whom all other shepherds will kneel.
“And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth.
And he shall be their peace.” (Micah 5:4–5)
The child the shepherds worshipped that night would become the man who declared, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14–15).
He is the Shepherd that leads us now, the one who tends us so lovingly that he was willing to die so that we might live. God still places earthly shepherds over us, giving us pastors to teach and tend us (1 Pet. 5:1–3). We are still called to be on guard against false shepherds, who would lead us astray (Jude 10–12). But we anticipate with joy the day that Jesus will return and we will join our true Shepherd in perfect fellowship:
“For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:17)
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