Apart from Joseph and Mary, the shepherds were the first in the scriptural record to see the Lord Jesus, Luke 2.16. Their environment and occupation immediately prior to this revelation suggest lessons for those who seek to shepherd the flock of God today.
Firstly, they were abiding in the field. They had not slipped from warm beds for a few short hours to make a cursory check on the flock, nor had they brought the sheep down to a place where they could be watched over from the comparative comfort of their own homes. The place where nourishment could be obtained was up in the green hills, and for the sake of their charges the shepherds stayed up there with them. Certainly this implied inconvenience, probably hardship, possibly danger, but the prime concern was the wellbeing of the flock, and the comfort of the shepherds must be subordinated to the requirements of the sheep. It was not of course left to the sheep to make the choice; this was willingly made by the shepherds themselves.
“Feed the flock of God which is among you”, 1 Pet. 5. 2, exhorts Peter upon writing to fellow-elders, the sense implying shepherding in its fulness rather than the mere provision of food. “Feed the church of God”, Acts 20. 28, urges Paul in his farewell message to the Ephesian elders. But the provision of food convenient entails knowing where such food may be found. Fresh pastures are often necessary, but are discovered only after much searching. To be able to feed God’s people involves first having fed deeply on God’s Word oneself, 2 Tim. 2. 15. This may mean, as in the case of the shepherds in Luke 2, the denial of otherwise legitimate occupation of time.
Such ministry will involve both labouring in the Word and doctrine, 1 Tim. 5. 17, and the careful and illuminating public reading of the Scriptures. “Give attendance to reading”, 1 Tim. 4.13, was one of Paul’s instructions to Timothy, a man of whom the apostle wrote to the Philippians, “I have no man likeminded, who will naturally care for your state”, Phil. 2. 20.
To know the immediate needs of the flock means being close to them at all times. To safeguard the flock necessitates an awareness and recognition of what may be dangerous to them., together with the ability either to drive away the danger or to guide and shepherd the flock away from the dangerous locality. Wolves who seek to steal the sheep must be kept out; unwholesome pastures which would cause sickness and weakness must be avoided. Spiritual discernment, essential for both these activities, is cultivated only in the Lord’s presence, where we learn to see things in their true perspective and from His viewpoint.
Secondly, these shepherds in Luke 2 were keeping watch over their sheep. They were not merely watching them in a cold dispassionate manner, ready to drag them back at the first or slightest hint of deviation. “Not by constraint … not for filthy lucre … Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock”, 1 Pet. 5.1,2, is the attitude that Peter encourages elders to cultivate. The writer to the Hebrews, enjoining obedience amongst believers towards their leaders, reminds them that “they watch for (over) your souls, as they that must give account”, Heb. 13. 17. Shepherding cannot be undertaken in a spirit of superiority, or as an imposed task which is accepted as being necessary but undesired. It can be undertaken only with deep assurance and conviction of appointment by the Holy Spirit, balanced by an equally deep affection for Christ’s people and a consequent desire to serve Him by serving them. Watching over the flock will be motivated, not by a desire to ensure a well regimented, placidly orthodox assembly, but rather a desire for a healthy, happy, virile and active company of believers. It will involve encouragement of evident budding gift, and of desires after the things of God. Such encouragement is given as much by positive example as by precept.
Thirdly, their vigil was accomplished by night. It is during the short time until “the Sun of righteousness (shall) arise with healing in his wings”, Mai. 4.2, that shepherds are required for God’s people. In the hours of darkness when we must walk by faith and not by sight, natural understanding, natural wisdom and the ability to organise in the natural realm are of little value in caring spiritually for the saints. Paul makes no mention of these things when he lists the qualifications of elders, i Tim. 3. 1-7; Titus 1. 7-9. The requirements are of a spiritual nature, such as will manifest themselves in practical living. It is at night when dangers multiply, and it is at night when natural vision is of least avail. It is during Christ’s absence from this scene that shepherds, conscious of their own inability, must learn complete reliance upon, and trust in, Him who has called them to such service. Their reward is not to be sought for down here, since it is not thus promised. The lack of reward in this scene did not deter Paul, who wrote, “I will very gladly spend and be spent for you; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved”, 2 Cor. 12. 15. So speaks the true shepherd, since it is, above all else, the welfare of the flock that he seeks. Such an attitude is seen in divine perfection in the Lord who said, “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep”, John 10. 11.
If a reward is not to be sought for down here, one is certainly promised above, for “when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away”, 1 Pet. 5. 4. This is not a fading crown of approbation or adulation from men; rather it is a glorious unfading crown from Him, for whose sake and for the sake of whose sheep, we seek to be found of Him at His coming, as those of old, “abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night”, Luke 2. 8.