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December 31, 2016 by William H. Scarle, Jr. 813-835-0129

The Neighbors Come To Visit

Mary and Joseph were not settled in Bethlehem when Jesus was born.  They did settle there some months later.  They were in Bethlehem because of the required registration in celebration of Augustus’s twenty-fifth anniversary as emperor.  It was also the beginning of Israel’s high holidays and Mary was pregnant.  They were staying in the home of a relative of Joseph who was a native of Bethlehem.  However, the guest room (Gr. Katalumati) was occupied.  The barn or cave used by the family to house their animals was coopted as a delivery room.

Bethlehem was a small town just six miles south of Jerusalem.  It had always been a town of shepherds.  David who lived a thousand years before the birth of Jesus was a shepherd.  During the years of the first and second temples the importance of Bethlehem grew.  The Temple sacrificial system required a continual supply of sheep, and the animals for sacrifice had to be “without blemish.”  Bethlehem must have a major provider of the animals used for sacrifice, and its shepherds must have been a class by themselves.  Micah predicts the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2).  This was the prophecy given to the Magoi by the Rabbis and which led them to the home of Joseph and Mary.  However, Micah 4:8 states that the messianic king shall come from the “Migdal Eder,” or the Tower of the Flock.  This tower is located just outside the city and is the watchtower used by priests to supervise the flocks destined for the Temple.

These shepherds must have been residents of Bethlehem.  The town was not that large.  Perhaps Joseph knew the families of these men who were responsible for raising the animals used in the Temple rituals.  They came to visit with a strange tale of angel choirs and a message now known throughout the civilized world.  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.”

There must have been some family gathered around Mary and Joseph shortly after Jesus’ birth.  When the shepherds arrived they shared their experience with the young couple.  However, the text goes on to say, “And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.”  I think we all would wonder at such a story.  The appearance of angels is not an ordinary event and a “multitude of the heavenly host” is rare indeed.  I can think of only one other incident where the “multitude” was revealed.  In II Kings, chapter six, God allows Elisha’s servant to observe the hosts of heaven protecting the prophet.

Mary and Joseph, of course, had no doubts about the story of the shepherds.  They had already had conversations with angels.  They understood the importance of this birth.  “Mary treasured up these things, pondering them in her heart.”

It is very likely that Luke heard this story from Mary herself.  He wrote his Gospel during Paul’s captivity at Caesarea by the Sea in the years between 59 and 61 AD.  Mary lived in Jerusalem under the protection of the Apostle John, and was available as an “eyewitness,” as mentioned in Luke1:2.   These shepherds who were raising sheep for sacrifice were the first to visit “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Jn. 1:29).”

(Bill Scarle can be contacted at END-whs