God invited shepherds to visit the manger that night, then bear witness – not religious, civic, or business leaders (Luke 2:8-18). The God and Friend of ancient shepherds – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Abel, Moses – was not just being social. He was continuing a frequent and powerful symbol, declaring both who Jesus is to us – Shepherd and Lamb – and who we are to him. (See Isaiah 53:6-7; 1 Peter 2:25; 1 Nephi 13:41; Helaman 15:13.)
Observers of shepherds’ ancient ways report details which help us understand the symbolism.
Shepherds lead from the front, instead of driving from behind. (“Follow me” – see Matthew 9:9; John 1:43.)
A shepherd knows the face, personality, and name of each sheep.
Each shepherd has a unique call, which his sheep recognize. (“My sheep hear my voice . . . and follow me” – John 10:27.)
Sheep generally follow their shepherd, but sometimes bolt. The shepherd knows which sheep is missing and goes to find it. Bringing a sheep back on one’s shoulders is heavy, smelly work.
A proper shepherd doesn’t recoil from an ailing sheep. He ministers.
A shepherd is compassionate. Jewish tradition tells of Moses tending a flock before his prophetic call. One sheep bolts. He pursues it all the way to a familiar watering hole. He is kind and understanding, not angry, and says, “It was because of thirst that you strayed.” He lets it drink, then carries it back to the flock.
Finally – as a prelude to our year’s study of the New Testament – when sheep hear their shepherd’s voice, they raise their heads, turn to him, listen, and gather to him.