Jesus Christ was born to die. The circumstances surrounding his birth as well as the events recorded up and until he went to Egypt, all testify of His mission to come to earth and atone for our sins. By examining the text with this in mind, we see things that we might otherwise miss. Sometimes is it useful to just go through the text with students, letting them see Jesus Christ for who and what He is. By taking the time to do this, we will see Jesus’ love for us as well as gain a greater love for the beauty of the scriptural text.
Temple Sheep and Temple Shepherds
It is highly probable that the angels who visited the shepherds in the fields on the night of the Savior’s birth were special shepherds tending very special sheep. Elder McConkie had this to say concerning these shepherds:
In the Old World the message came from heaven in a different way. In the fields of Bethlehem, not far from Jerusalem and the Temple of Jehovah, there were shepherds watching their flocks by night. These were not ordinary shepherds nor ordinary flocks. The sheep there being herded—nay, not herded, but watched over, cared for with love and devotion—were destined for sacrifice on the great altar in the Lord’s House, in similitude of the eternal sacrifice of Him who that wondrous night lay in a stable, perhaps among sheep of lesser destiny. And the shepherds—for whom the veil was then rent: surely they were in spiritual stature like Simeon and Anna and Zacharias and Elisabeth and Joseph and the growing group of believing souls who were coming to know, by revelation, that the Lord’s Christ was now on earth. As there were many widows in Israel, and only to the one in Zarephath was Elijah sent, so there were many shepherds in Palestine, but only to those who watched over the temple flocks did the herald angel come; only they heard the heavenly choir. As Luke’s idyllic language has it: “And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 1
Who were the shepherds?
Alfred Edersheim had this to say about the shepherds:
According to Luke’s gospel, the angelic annunciation of the birth of the Savior of the world came not to important dignitaries or kings, but to shepherds tending their flocks in the middle of the night. While the recipients of the message were certainly important to God’s plan, equally so were the sheep they watched…
We can imagine, then, the somber conditions into which angelic light blazed to life with a message not heard since the days of Isaiah the prophet. Although we know very little about these shepherds, they likely did not observe religious practices, since their isolation in the fields and the necessity of their constant attention made this impossible. But their lack of religious obligations doesn’t mean their service was strictly secular.
Somewhere deep in Jewish tradition (revealed in writings called the Mishnah), a belief had arisen that the Messiah would be revealed from the Migdal Eder (“the tower of the flock”). This tower stood close to Bethlehem on the road to Jerusalem, and the sheep that pastured there were not the type used for ordinary purposes. The shepherds working there, in fact, took care of the temple-flocks, the sheep meant for sacrifice.
We can trust that God had a specific purpose for this shepherd audience, and the work they performed suggests the reason. These men who watched the sheep meant for the slaughter received a divine message about the ultimate Lamb who would take away the sins of the world through His death and resurrection. 2
The Stable, Swaddling Clothes, and Manger
The stable was in all likelihood a cave in the limestone rock surrounding the hills in Bethlehem. The image of God’s Son born in a cave should bring to mind the events surrounding his death when His body was placed in a cave.
It has been suggested that in ancient times in the Middle East that when folks traveled great distances that many would take with them, a long, thin, gauze-like cloth, and wrap it many times around their waist. This cloth would be reserved for death, if in case this will happen while they are traveling. If someone died during the journey, their friends and family would use this cloth and wrap the body from head to toe, just like a mummy, so they could complete their journey. It is very likely that this is the type of cloth, a swaddling cloth, that Jesus was found wrapped in when he is met by the shepherds (Luke 2:12-19).
The manger is often shown as a feed box made of wood. It is probable that the manger Jesus was placed in was much like the one shown here, a stone box such as was used in the time that He lived. So what do we have? A baby wrapped in a swaddling cloth, or a death cloth in a cave, placed inside a manger, or a stone box used to feed animals. The imagery cannot be missed. He was born to die. Did Mary know she was doing this? Certainly she was a product of her environment, doing what was natural at the time, in her circumstance, but the imagery is powerful and persuasive!
I think it not by chance that we see these images. There are times and places in the text that the authors of the gospels want to focus on the fact that Jesus was crucified. I know that we emphasize His resurrection from the dead, but at the same time we must face that reality that it is the crucified Jesus that is the captain of our salvation.
Elder Holland stated:
The wounds in [the Lord’s] hands, feet, and side are signs that in mortality painful things happen even to the pure and the perfect, signs that tribulation is not evidence that God does not love us. It is a significant and hopeful fact that it is the wounded Christ who comes to our rescue. He who bears the scars of sacrifice, the lesions of love, the emblems of humility and forgiveness is the Captain of our Soul. That evidence of pain in mortality is undoubtedly intended to give courage to others who are also hurt and wounded by life, perhaps even in the house of their friends. 3
1. Elder Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah: From Bethlehem to Calvary, 4 vols. [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1979-1981], 1: 347.
2. Adapted from Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Book II, Chapter VI).
3. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, Christ and the New Covenant: The Messianic Message of the Book of Mormon , 259.