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The Life of Jesus - Series 1: Episode 9

The Birth of Jesus & the Bethlehem Shepherds

| Martin Charlesworth
Luke 2:1-20

A Roman census meant Jesus was born in simple accommodation in Bethlehem. Information is given about Bethlehem - the town of King David. Shepherds are surprised by a great light and angels announcing the birth. They visit the family.

A Roman census meant Jesus was born in simple accommodation in Bethlehem. Information is given about Bethlehem - the town of King David. Shepherds are surprised by a great light and angels announcing the birth. They visit the family.


Hello and welcome to Series 1 and Episode 9: 'The Birth of Jesus and the Shepherds'.


If you have been following earlier episodes, you will realise that we are in the middle of quite a detailed story - mostly told in Luke's Gospel but we have important parts of the story in Matthew as well. We are integrating Luke and Matthew together as we tell the story of the birth of Jesus and the associated events. Quite suddenly, some dramatic events happened to some very ordinary people in Israel. The first event was when the junior priest, the Levite Zechariah, was serving in the Temple and the angel Gabriel appeared to him saying that his wife, who hadn't been able to have children and was now quite old (past the years of childbearing), was going to have a child - a special child whose name was going to be John. This will be John the Baptist. Immediately afterwards, we hear that Mary receives a visit from this same angel, the angel Gabriel - one of the senior angels in the heavenly host of angels, as far as we can understand - who is entrusted with the tremendous responsibility of passing messages of importance to humanity. Gabriel tells Mary that she, while still a virgin - unmarried, engaged to be married - would become pregnant miraculously through the power of the Holy Spirit and give birth to a child who was going to be named Jesus and who would be the Son of God. Then we heard from Matthew's Gospel that Joseph, the engaged partner of Mary who was planning to marry her shortly, received an angelic message in a dream to reassure him that he should continue to marry Mary - despite this unexpected pregnancy and all the complications and potential social disgrace that would come from it and despite the fact that he wasn't the biological father (he was going to be the stepfather of the baby, Jesus). Joseph decided that he would marry Mary while she was pregnant with this miraculous pregnancy despite any disapproval that may come from the community - and there would have been a lot of disapproval - and he carried out this action, believing that God had called him to do it and that this miraculous child was his responsibility, humanly, as the stepfather. Here is the story so far.

We return now from Matthew to Luke's Gospel where we are going to continue the story by hearing how Luke describes the birth of Jesus. This is a long story and there had been miraculous events all the way along. We have also heard some amazing prophetic songs and statements from Mary and Zechariah who anticipated, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, the enormous significance of these two children, who would be related because their mothers were relatives (we don't know exactly what relationship they had; they were in the same wider family - they could have been cousins, they could have had a wider relationship). Jesus and John would be in the same wider family, although they would be living in two very different parts of the country: John with his parents in the Judean hills further south; Jesus with his stepfather and mother in the Galilean town of Nazareth.

The Birth of Jesus

We come to the story of the birth of Jesus and the extraordinary event concerning shepherds who were at work in the fields nearby at the time that Jesus was born. For those of you familiar with the Christian tradition and the Bible, you will know this story well; if you are not familiar with it then I am introducing it to you as a very important part of the story. Even if you are familiar with it, hopefully in this episode you will find out new and exciting things and see new perspectives on a well-known story. Luke 2 :1 - 20:

”In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things (that) had (been) heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”

Luke 2:1-20, NIV

Roman Census

Luke starts this story by referring to events in the Roman Empire and Caesar Augustus, who at that time was the Emperor of the whole Roman Empire. The Roman Empire spread all the way across the Mediterranean world to North Africa, the eastern and the western Mediterranean countries. Judea and the Jewish territories were right on the eastern edge of the empire. They were under Roman rule and Caesar Augustus decided that there was going to be a census. He wanted to identify the population, the names of people, where they lived, what their income was, their ethnic origin and so on. This was something the Romans did from time to time generally for two reasons. One was to recruit soldiers for the army - they were looking to recruit men from the different racial groups and ethnic groups in their empire and enlist them in the Roman army and, secondly, for taxation purposes - to make sure that the Romans were getting the level of taxation that they wanted from their subject peoples. The Jewish people had been exempt from the responsibility of serving in the Roman army so this was not the issue here. The issue was taxation. The request was that people should return to their ancestral home, their tribal home, bearing in mind that the Jewish people were tribal people. They associated themselves with one of twelve tribes (we have mentioned the tribe of Levi just in recent episodes concerning Zechariah and Elizabeth) and here we have the tribe of Judah involved in this story because Joseph was a member of that tribe and a member of the family of David which came from that tribe. Luke mentions not only the Emperor, but also the regional governor Quirinius, who had two periods of office at around the time that Jesus was born and just after he was born.

Joseph and Mary didn't live in their tribal area; they lived much further north in Galilee, and so they had to go from Nazareth in the north to Bethlehem in the south. Bethlehem is a small town, near Jerusalem. They had quite a long journey to travel - well over a hundred kilometres - perhaps up to 150 kilometres, depending on the road. As it happened, the census was being taken when Mary was very advanced in her pregnancy - about eight months pregnant. As we all know, travelling around on a donkey, or on an animal, carrying you on dirt roads in the Middle East when you are eight months pregnant is going to be a very difficult thing to do - not comfortable, but necessary, because it was very important for every family member to register. The Romans threatened punishment for those who didn't register for their census event. We have a very vulnerable couple; they are committed to each other; committed to be married; committed to bringing up this miraculously-conceived child. They anticipated doing that in Nazareth; they did not anticipate that they would have to leave home and travel, temporarily, down to Bethlehem at the very time that Jesus was going to be born. It was a time of real vulnerability - especially for Mary. We would anticipate, from what we know, that she might have spent three days travelling, three days in the saddle, to get from Nazareth to Bethlehem.


As they were settling in, they weren't able to find a guest room and so where did they stay? They may have stayed in a stable, as is traditionally stated, outside a house. One real possibility is that they stayed in the basement of a house because many houses in those days - particularly those where the farmers caring for animals particularly - like sheep and goats - had a basement which acted as a kind of animal enclosure, a place to look after the animals, particularly at night. One way or another, they were staying in very simple circumstances, not even in a guest room, at the time that Jesus was born. Hence the fact that a manger, a feeding trough for animals was available and was the place where the baby Jesus was laid when he was born. This was not a romantic, sentimental, or an easy circumstance. These were very difficult circumstances in which to give birth to your firstborn son: all those days of travel, being in a place miles away from home, the uncomfortable circumstances of the place where they were staying and also the fact that they were away from all their relatives. We all know that, at the time of childbirth, most women and most families want to bring their relatives around them - get support from their mothers and their aunts, sisters and their wider family. None of this was possible for Mary. She was on her own with Joseph in a rather different town, Bethlehem, which she may never have been to before.


Bethlehem is a very well-known place since the birth of Jesus and has been celebrated as a special place by Christians of many traditions ever since that time. If you go to the modern Arab town of Bethlehem, near Jerusalem, which you are able to travel around (and I've been able to do that), you will see some very old church buildings which commemorate possible places where Jesus was born - and there are a variety of churches and religious establishments there. Bethlehem is well-known to us but what did Bethlehem mean to the people in the time of these events? That is a more interesting question. Actually, Bethlehem meant quite a lot. We have spoken earlier about Nazareth, which really didn't mean anything to anyone apart from local people there. It was an insignificant town, not mentioned in the Old Testament and not particularly significant in Galilee and that was Joseph and Mary's actual home. Bethlehem had a real history amongst the Jews and that history is based on the fact that it was the home of David, who became King David.

If you go back to the book of 1 Samuel 16, you will see an amazing story which puts Bethlehem on the map. At the time, there was a king in Israel called Saul, who was failing, and God decided to appoint his own king. He asked the prophet Samuel to come to Bethlehem to meet a certain man called Jesse, David's father, who had many sons, and to anoint one of his sons as the future king of Israel. You can read the story in 1 Samuel 16, but the outcome was that David (who was the youngest boy in the family and wasn't even in the house at the time that Samuel arrived because he was out looking after sheep on behalf of the family on the hillside) was brought in. He was anointed with oil on his head as a sign of God's favour and blessing, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and was anointed as a sign that he was going to become the king of Israel. This all took place in Bethlehem and that is why it is known as the town of David. We found out from the study of the ancestry of Jesus, the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, that both Mary and Joseph were biologically related to King David. They were descendants of King David and then there is another interesting addition which we will look at further in another episode. The prophet Micah, in Micah 5, speaks of Bethlehem and makes this remarkable prophecy. Micah 5: 2:

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, (that's the tribe) out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”

Micah 5:2, NIV

So Bethlehem is not only the City of David, where he came from, the Town of David; it is also prophesied as being the place from which a future ruler, in the kingship of David, would come. The extraordinary circumstance that brought Jesus to be born in Bethlehem, allows this prophecy to be fulfilled. There is no reason he would have been born in Bethlehem but for this Roman census that forced Joseph and Mary to travel between 100 and 150 kilometres away from home to this little town of Bethlehem at the time when Mary was due to give birth. It is a remarkable coincidence of events that leads to the fact that Jesus is born in Bethlehem.


This story also features the shepherds on the hillside. Shepherds in the ancient Middle East and in Israel were largely social outsiders - almost by definition. They lived outside of the community; they lived on the hillside. There were no enclosed fields with fencing, as in many Western and developed countries around the world today. The land was open; family land was known by boundary markers and traditional understanding of whose land belonged to whom, but animals tended to roam far and wide and the shepherds roamed with them. They travelled with them and they brought them into sheepfolds, or pens, during the night time - very often for their security. Shepherds lived outside the mainstream of society. Most of the time they weren't really in community life; they worked 24 hours a day rotation, and they often had very little education. They would be working class, agricultural workers. Interestingly enough, the sheep that they were looking after near Bethlehem may well have been used for sacrificial animals in the Temple because it was only just a few kilometres up the road that the Jewish Temple was, in Jerusalem. David had been a shepherd in this same area.

To them - unexpected, unpretentious, ordinary, uneducated people, social outsiders - came an astonishing revelation. Another surprise. Zechariah had been surprised; Mary had been surprised; Joseph had been surprised by angelic revelation! The shepherds are amazed when an angel appears and begins to talk to them. They also see, in the night sky, a luminous presence; a presence of light, which is the symbolic representation of the living presence of God - the manifest presence of God coming amongst people. Lights, or fire or a mysterious cloud - these are the ways God most frequently appears to the Jewish people in the Old Testament. That is how he appeared in the Temple and the Tabernacle and during the wilderness years when they travelled around from place to place: a pillar of fire or a pillar of cloud and here is something similar. We might call it the Glory of God - something you can see, which is a brilliant light, that represents the presence of God very close at hand, powerfully working in the circumstances around where you are. That is exactly what was happening. But the angel said that he brought good news and he encouraged the shepherds not to be afraid but to go and look for a baby, wrapped in cloths and lying, surprisingly, in a manger - which would not, of course, be normal for a child to do but was brought about simply by the fact of where Jesus was born amongst the animals in an animal stable, or in the basement of a house. Good news. He was going to be the Saviour, the Messiah and the Lord. It was a tremendous surprise! They went down to the village and, of course, they found the child with Joseph and Mary.

This is a wonderful passage. The shepherds become the first people who start talking and saying something amazing has happened: God is visiting our country and he is bringing the Messiah because the angel, very specifically, said “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” The Messiah, the Son of God, the Saviour, the message is very clear: Jesus' unique status is identified very precisely. This is a really wonderful story and if you are familiar with it, take a step back from your familiarity, from its associations with children and nativity plays and Christmas celebrations. Those are important but, actually, there is a raw, tough reality to the circumstances here; a profoundly prophetic series of circumstances. This is the Town of David. David is the king to whom God had given the promise that there will be a successor to him one day who would bring about an everlasting Kingdom. The Kingdom of God would come through a particular ruler, descended from David, and we now can identify, very clearly, even from this text, that this person is going to be Jesus: biologically connected to David through his mother and adopted into the family of Joseph, who was a descendant of David; born in David's home-town; and the message about who he was, given to shepherds who were in similar fields to those that David was when he was called into his father, Jesse's, house and the prophet Samuel anointed him with oil and said that he was going to be divinely appointed king of Israel. These are all very profound symbolic spiritual realities taking place. This is a very prophetic series of circumstances.

Joseph and Mary remembered all these things and Mary had a particular capacity to treasure everything in her heart - to think about things and think about the significance of all these extraordinary things that are happening to her? She was entering into a time of extraordinary events - her whole life had been turned upside-down and the radical things that were happening to her were not going to end here because further, and very challenging, events were going to take place shortly after this event - when the local king, ruling on behalf of the Romans, Herod the Great, whose palace was in Jerusalem just a few kilometres away found out (as he was shortly going to do) that there was a special child born in Bethlehem. We will find out more about that shortly.


What reflections can we bring as we end this episode? I love the thought that God calls ordinary people. There are so many ordinary people in this nativity story: Zechariah Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds are just ordinary people like you and me. You would never notice them as key people in society. God always calls ordinary people and he is doing it today. You may consider yourself just a very ordinary, unspectacular person and not worthy of any particular focus on you in your life but God calls you whoever you are to faith, and he also calls you to step out and obey him and do things for him that you would never imagine are possible. Mary could never imagine that she could have gone through these experiences successfully; she held it all together and built a family around these remarkable and miraculous circumstances.

Another reflection, going back to previous episodes and repeating things I have said there in more detail with emphasis, is that we need to admire Mary and Joseph - they really are two outstanding characters. They proved their courage and their willingness to be very sacrificial and flexible in the events that have led up to this point and they are going to continue to prove themselves to be excellent parents to Jesus: mother and stepfather.

One other thing I love about this story is the focus on joy. The sheer joy given to the shepherds: to be visited by angels, to hear this amazing news. The joy of the angels to have the privilege of declaring to mankind for the first time “Glory to God in the highest and on Earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” They are joyful. The angels are joyful and the shepherds are joyful; they are joyful because God has suddenly broken in and that is a key part of the message of Christianity. When Jesus came, God suddenly broke into the life of this world - not just the people of Israel but all the nations of the world - and he changed everything. He made a new relationship with us possible; he made it possible for our sins to be forgiven and for us to enter into his living family, permanently, and for our lives to be changed forever. God has broken in and this story tells us, vividly, how God broke in and how his Son, Jesus, in his humanity, was born in Bethlehem in Judea.

Thanks for reading this episode.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. In many countries, the birth of Jesus has been made to seem beautiful. Look at the factual account given in the Gospels. What was it really like?
    2. ‘Suddenly’ the lives of the shepherds were changed forever. Have you experienced a 'suddenly'?
  • Discipleship
    1. Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph and the shepherds are just ordinary people like you and me. God always calls ordinary people and he is doing it today. What is he calling you to?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Bethlehem is known as the City of David. What can you find out about Bethlehem?
    2. Plot the journey made by Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem on a map from that time.
    3. What is the significance of God choosing the outsiders, the poor shepherds, to witness the birth of Jesus?
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