Shepherds were outcasts from polite society in Israel at that time. Theirs was a generally despised profession and they were not even allowed to bear witness in court even if they were eyewitnesses to a crime.
Yet how fitting that the good news about the Lamb of God should be given first to shepherds. Shepherds were not easily fooled. They were practical men who had little to do with fantasy. If they said they saw angels and went and found the Messiah, then you could believe them. (Wiersbe 176)
The first announcement of the Messiah’s birth was given by an angel to some anonymous shepherds. Why shepherds? Why didn’t they go to the priests or the learned scribes instead? Why a field and not Temple Mount?
Historians tell us that in all probability these shepherds were guarding lambs who were destined for sacrifice at the Temple. They were very vigilant in their callings, because the lambs for sacrifice had to be without any blemish. Shepherds were also responsible for determining which lambs were the first born, which some specific offerings required.
Shepherds were brave boys and men as well, for in those days bears and lions still roamed in Judea.
The manifestation of rejoicing angels to the shepherds in the fields nearby is a lovely assertion at the very beginning of the story of redemption that the grace of God in Christ is for the meek of the earth.
Jacob, Moses and David were all shepherds, and these humble men of Bethlehem were heirs to their faith and godliness. At first only one angel was visible to them, and he was accompanied by a manifestation of the resplendent Glory of God.
In Jewish writings we find this quote: “Four things were missing from Herod’s Temple; namely: the Ark of the Covenant, the Urim and Thummim, the oil of anointing, and the Glory of the Lord.” The “Glory of the Lord” was referred to as “Shekinah” glory – or the glory of the Holy Spirit. That glory had departed Israel in the days of Ezekiel. Because the people refused to repent, it, along with the prophets, had disappeared from Jewish history. Many righteous people for hundreds of years had mourned its loss.
Now it had returned to announce the birth of Israel’s True King. Such a wondrous event as the King of Israel being born required a sign to these humble witnesses. The sign was that they would find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. One would normally expect that a baby born to be king would be wrapped in luxurious garments, surrounded by servants, and reposing in a palace. With a simple trusting faith, they went searching for the new babe, and found the manger.
God’s glory had dwelt in the tabernacle and the Temple, but had departed because of the nation’s sin. Now God’s glory was returning to the earth in the person of His Son. That lowly manger was a Holy of Holies because Jesus was there. (Wiersbe 176)