Advent, which will begin in a little over a week, celebrates the coming of the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. The good news of his arrival is first announced to actual shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem. That’s a clue to the scope and aims of Jesus’s mission, a sign the coming of the Good Shepherd will produce a host of good shepherds.
Bethlehem’s worshipful shepherds symbolize Israel. From the beginning, Israel was a nation of shepherds. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob cared for flocks of sheep and goats. When Jacob’s household moved south into Egypt, Pharaoh segregated them in the land of Goshen because the Egyptians found this race of shepherds repellent. Moses and David were literal shepherds, Moses appointed Joshua to shepherd Israel to the promised land, and Israel’s prophets regularly portray kings as shepherds. According to Isaiah, Israel will be led out of exile by a Gentile shepherd-king, Cyrus.
Many of Israel’s shepherds ignored and viciously attacked Yahweh’s flock. During the reign of Ahab, Israel was left wandering, like sheep without a shepherd. Israel’s prophets regularly denounce the shepherds. In one of the most scathing prophecies in Scripture, Ezekiel charges that Israel’s shepherds eat the flock instead of feeding them, and slaughter sheep instead of protecting them. Shepherds are supposed to strengthen, heal, and bind up the weak and sick, but instead they dominate them. Shepherds prey on the sheep and leave the flock of Jacob vulnerable to other predators.
Yahweh, Ezekiel prophesies, isn’t going to tolerate this abuse. He takes his stand against the bad shepherds to deliver the sheep from the mouth of predatory kings and leaders. Yahweh threatens to destroy “the fat and the strong” who have gorged themselves on his flock. Of those who feed themselves, he says, “I will feed them with judgment.” And he promises to shepherd Judah personally. Yahweh himself will care for his sheep, gather them from all the places where they’ve scattered, “feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams.” He will lead them to good pasture so they can graze on mountain heights. At the same time, Yahweh promises to set a new David over them as shepherd to feed and lead the flock of God.
Jesus is the good shepherd of Ezekiel’s prophecy. He’s Yahweh and David united without separation, without confusion, in one shepherd, and he both attacks the bad shepherds of first-century Israel and gathers the lost flock, which now includes many who are not of the fold of Israel.
In Jeremiah 23, a prophecy that runs closely parallel to Ezekiel’s, Yahweh further promises to raise up other shepherds to assist the new David: “I will raise up shepherds over them and they will tend them; and they will not be afraid any longer, nor terrified, nor will any be missing.” Jesus fulfills this prophecy too, and this is why shepherds are the first to learn of the Shepherd-King’s birth. When Herod, the official shepherd of the Jews, hears of Jesus, he commissions his soldiers to slaughter all the newborns around Bethlehem. He’s Pharaoh rather than David. When the shepherds hear the angels’ message, they praise God, honor the infant king, and announce his arrival throughout the region. The shepherds of Bethlehem are a pledge that Jesus’s birth will usher in a new era for the people of God, when sheep will no longer be terrified by their own shepherds.
As Mary sings in the Magnificat, Jesus comes to scatter the proud, bring down rulers from their thrones, and send the rich away empty. Mary’s song isn’t metaphorical, and we shouldn’t spiritualize it, any more than we should spiritualize the similar song Hannah sings at the birth of her son, Samuel. Like Samuel, Jesus revives his people, and to do that he needs to topple bloodthirsty kings like Herod and cast down scribes who, like Pharaoh, weigh down the people with unbearable burdens. When Jesus is finished with Israel, she has a new elite. Humble fishermen are exalted to the chief seats, the poor and hungry are filled. Peter, James, and John replace Herod’s court, and the converted Pharisee, Paul, displaces greedy, glory-seeking Pharisees as chief teacher.
It’s been happening ever since. Wherever the gospel takes hold, it initiates a revolution of elites: Christian kings replace pagans; pious bishops rise to prominence; compassionate peacemakers establish hospitals, orphanages, hostels, and other institutions of mercy. This is what Jesus came to accomplish. He lived, died, rose, and ascended to give gifts to men—prophets, apostles, teachers, shepherds, evangelists—so the church might grow to the full measure of the stature of Christ. Advent celebrates the coming of the Good Shepherd, who always comes with good shepherds.
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute, and organizing pastor of Immanuel Reformed Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.