To the shepherds of Bethlehem the angels announced a Saviour. But to the eastern sages the Scriptures announced a Shepherd. When they asked Herod where the king of the Jews was to be born, the priests and scribes told him Micah had said, “‘In Bethlehem of Judaea, for so it is written by the prophet: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” ’ ” (Matthew 2:5-6)
Such are the twists of the Christmas story. And as we shall see, Jesus the Shepherd will provide us with plenty more twists.
Micah’s prophecy that Herod’s clerics cited to their very unshepherd-like king and his visiting dignitaries reveals Jesus in a rich metaphor. The shepherd was a biblical description of a king. It did not emphasize the king’s majesty and authority, but his duties and responsibilities to his people, his flock.
Israel’s first great king was a shepherd in his youth, a true shepherd king. From David’s time on Israel’s kings and leaders were seen as shepherds of the people. Jesus the Shepherd was David’s direct descendent.
Just after the House of David lost political power in Judah to the invading Babylonians, the prophet Ezekiel berated the shepherd rulers of Israel for exploiting the human sheep for whom they had responsibility (Ezekiel 34). Instead of feeding the sheep, they had devoured them. Weak, sick, injured and lost sheep were abandoned instead of being strengthened, healed, bound up and rounded up.
God’s under-shepherds had failed. Now the Chief Shepherd, God himself, would have to step in and do the job properly. His plan was to have one shepherd, whom he called his servant David (Ezekiel 34:23-23). Herod’s visitors would soon come face to face with God’s new shepherd king, who could be relied on to care for God’s sheep as God would wish.
Matthew’s Christmas account takes another twist as he reveals the identity of God’s shepherd is not disclosed to Herod or his clerics, but to Gentiles, non-Jews! Thirty years later the Shepherd announced, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16) God’s Good Shepherd would not only be Israel’s Good Shepherd, but the Good Shepherd of all who would hear his voice, Jew and Gentile alike.
And as the Good Shepherd explained his mission there came a further twist in the story. The Good Shepherd would lay down his life for the sheep (John 10:11, 15, 17,18). Emaciated by neglect and exploitation of shepherd leaders who were more thieves and robbers, human sheep have a terminal condition that has only one cure. Jesus came as the Shepherd sent by God to announce and dispense that cure. Jesus “came that [we] may have life and have it abundantly.” He said, “I give [my sheep] eternal life, and they will never perish” (John 10:10, 18).
Jesus’ death is our only means to life because the Shepherd became a sacrificial Lamb. Thirty years after he was announced as the Shepherd, John the Baptiser pointed him out to the crowds who heard him preach his fiery message, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
Jesus died to cure our terminal condition, what the Bible calls sin. He died to give us life, abundant life, eternal life. His death paid the ransom to release us from the bondage of our sin that would ultimately squeeze the very life from our beings. As the prophet Ezekiel described it, “The soul [i.e. the person] who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4, 20). Jesus’ apostle Peter later described Jesus’ death like this: “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver of gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (1 Peter 1:18-19)
I cannot help but wonder if Peter’s mind went back as he wrote those words to the day his brother Andrew told him he had come face to face with the Lamb of God (John 1:35-42). Three years later Jesus died at the time of the Jewish Passover feast. At the first Passover a lamb had died in place of every Israelite firstborn son. Saved from death, he and his family were also ransomed from the cruel bondage of Egyptian slavery. Now the Passover had been re-enacted. This time it was life-size, even supersize. In Egypt one lamb had been sufficient for a family. Now one Lamb was sufficient for the whole world. And like the passover lamb, God’s Lamb was without blemish or spot.
Peter was not the only one to spot the connection with the Passover. His disciple colleague John did too. He’d been there with Andrew the day John the Baptiser pointed out the Lamb of God, as he recounts at the start of his Gospel (John 1:35-42). And in his account of Jesus’ crucifixion he indicates clearly that Jesus died as the Lamb of God. He tells us that when the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side instead of breaking his legs it was a fulfilment of the Scripture that said “Not one of his bones will be broken” (John 19:36). The Passover account said just that (Exodus 12:46, cf Numbers 9:12).
What the Passover did in picture format, Jesus did for real. His death paid the ransom required to release men and women from sin’s bondage. When he died “he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). Those who respond to Jesus’ voice as God’s Shepherd “were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of [their] souls” (1 Peter 2:25).
Christmas is not about shepherds and lambs, it is about God’s Shepherd and God’s Lamb. If we see only shepherds and lambs we’re in danger of not hearing the Good Shepherd’s voice, calling us to real and lasting life. That’s the real Christmas present, purchased at the cost of the life of the Lamb of God.
This was first posted at Gilnahirk Baptist Web site on 5 Dec 2010.