By Nicole R. Pramik
The story of Christ’s birth has a rather diverse cast, from his earthly parents, to a host of angels, to some simple shepherds, and a group of Magi. Yet while we casually mention them in song, the shepherds and the Magi are actually pivotal figures as some of the first persons to meet Christ. But what similarities could possibly exist between pastoral caretakers and religious academics?
While both groups had encounters with Christ, God uniquely engineered their individual paths in life to share his message of goodwill and salvation that still applies to us today. Though they represent two starkly different demographics, the shepherds and the wise men are windows into how God communicates with people from all walks of life. Through a variety of means and circumstances, he directs open hearts and minds toward Christ as everyone comes to salvation in uniquely dissimilar ways.
Bethlehem’s Blue Collars
We might label the shepherds as Bethlehem’s blue-collar workers. They labored with their hands, spent the majority of their time outside, and probably dealt with a variety of working conditions. Being a shepherd was undoubtedly difficult, from contending with tricky terrain and changing weather patterns, to tending animals that aren’t known for their submissiveness. Yet no formal education was required. These shepherds might have been nearly illiterate, uneducated, or undereducated. They were probably more concerned with the affairs of day-to-day life as it applied to them and their herds and less for the religious, scientific, or philosophical matters of the day.
Perhaps you or your family and friends might identify as shepherds. You engage in manual labor, such as an auto mechanic, a janitor, or a fast food worker; maybe you have a job other people might find degrading. Your education may come on the job as you developed your trade or from simply living life; perhaps anything that doesn’t directly pertain to either of those two spheres doesn’t intrigue you. Thus, much like the shepherds, you may not be particularly swayed by well-crafted rhetoric or deep philosophical discussions. Your life and work may be grueling, often gritty. Yet God meets you in the middle of your toil much like he engaged the shepherds.
Luke’s account states that the shepherds were on the job when God’s angel delivered the news of Jesus’ birth. Rather than have the angel discuss ancient prophecies concerning Christ, he extended a greeting before explaining the good news: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11). He then gave a single sign, “a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (v. 12). But why only the one? If we go on the assumption that these shepherds were probably not well-versed in the details of the Messiah’s coming, then a long list of signs could have been lost on them. Instead God delivered a simple yet powerful message marked by an unmistakable, uncomplicated sign. This information was to the point and direct, something the shepherds would have been able to engage without feeling disinterested or insulted.
God speaks simply today as some of us are searching for meaning, peace, or joy in our lives but basically just want to get through the day. When we are embattled in the trenches of life or work, dealing with stubborn circumstances or people, we aren’t interested in magniloquence. We want something straightforward and readily applicable to our lives. Thus the shepherds teach us that God cares for the downtrodden and the struggling as he hasn’t forgotten the “least of these” (Matthew 25:45).
Yet not everyone can relate to these shepherds, which is why God allowed the Gospel writer of Matthew to relay a different reaction to the young Christ.
Looking to the Stars
On the other side of the occupational spectrum were the Magi, the wise men. Regardless of the lack of specifics in Scripture, we can deduce that the Magi would have been the white-collar workers of their day. They were evidently familiar with the Messianic prophecies as well as astrology, astronomy, and the geographic locations around Israel—all of which indicate they were, at the very least, religious intellectuals.
Unlike the shepherds, the Magi were not given a direct message about Christ. Instead, they were presented with a puzzle to solve by going on the move to find the prophesied “king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2). Their search took them to Herod’s court, to Bethlehem, and finally back to their homeland. Along the way, these men followed clues, from knowledge of the coming of a king, to an emergence and presence of a star in the sky, to a dream instructing them not to report back to Herod. While the Bible never tells us exactly what motivated the Magi to persist in their search, they obviously believed the trek was worth it, as their journey ended in a moment of worship and gift giving to the young Christ (Matthew 2:11).
Thus, rather than speak to the Magi in direct terms, God presented to them a decipherable riddle. Being learned men, it was probably in their natures to explore and research a matter rather than assume conclusions based on a surface examination alone. That was why they took it upon themselves to follow the star and did not stop until they had found Christ. While we can’t be certain, it is safe to assume that just as a star in the sky without overt explanation might not have meant much to a group of rustic shepherds, who wouldn’t have had the means or background to determine what it signified, so a direct message by an angel and a simple sign might not have impacted the Magi.
In our modern setting, you or your loved ones might relate to the Magi, especially if you are educators, scientists, researchers, or philosophers, or perhaps familiar with aspects of Christianity but not intimately knowledgeable about the actual person of Christ. While your own knowledge can sometimes be a stumbling block, God can use what you have learned to communicate the truth of the gospel. While a more direct message of Christ’s love and peace might impact someone struggling in the trenches of life, a more subtle message—from witnessing order in the universe to analyzing messianic themes in a work of literature—might impact you through your intellect. Just like with the Magi, God presents a solvable puzzle to learned people today if you open your eyes and minds to perceive it and seek out the true answers.
So which person are you in the Christmas story? Are you a shepherd, concerned mainly with the day-to-day grind, dealing with stubborn issues of life? Or are you like the Magi, learned yet seeking answers your own knowledge can’t provide? Perhaps you fall somewhere in the middle, so you can easily relate to both groups. Regardless where you fit in, these secondary characters in the Gospels’ Christmas accounts show us that God has no favorites—he wants everyone to know Jesus; yet everyone comes to know Christ in ways unique and meaningful to them. As John Fischer once observed, “Jesus is the only way, but there’s more than one way to Jesus.”
Though we may never see a gathering of angels or a mysterious star, God uses a variety of communication today when it comes to his truth, from simple and direct messages to subtle inferences and deep reflections. While the message’s delivery methods may differ, much like they did at the time of Christ’s coming, the content remains the same for persons from all of life’s backgrounds: the Savior has come, and he is Christ, the Lord and King.
Nicole R. Pramik is a freelance writer from Kentucky.