“they saw it.” Literally, this verse reads “having seen, they made known.” Some versions supply “it” (ESV; KJV) or “this” (NRSV; NASB), while other versions supply “him” (NIV; NET) or “them” (HCSB). The difference in translation affects the reader’s understanding of whether the shepherds saw the fulfillment of the sign of the child lying in the manger (“it” or “this”), or they simply saw the child and his parents (“him” or “them”). The context indicates that “it,” meaning the fulfillment of the sign, is what the shepherds saw and this made them go and make it known. Verse 16 employs the definite article “the,” indicating that they found “the” manger, namely, the one just foretold by the angel in verse 12, and having seen it they went and made the event known.
We do not know how late at night Jesus was born, but there was always a great celebration among family and friends when a baby boy was born. There is nothing in the text to indicate that the shepherds had to wake the townspeople up in the middle of the night; many people in the village would have been awake and rejoicing that a baby boy from the line of David had been born in the City of David.
“they made it known.” The Greek verb translated “made known” is gnōrizō (#1107 γνωρίζω), and it means “to make known.” The shepherds, upon seeing the baby Jesus, made known what had happened to them and the message of the angels. The Bible does not say the extent to which the shepherds spread the message they had heard, but Luke 2:18 tells us that “all” who heard it were amazed. Some later Greek manuscripts have the verb diagnōrizō (#1232 διαγνωρίζω) instead of gnōrizō, and diagnōrizō is an intensified form of gnōrizō and is the reason that versions such as the King James say that the shepherds “spread abroad” the news. However, study of the Greek text of the New Testament shows that gnōrizō is the correct reading, and thus the text is telling us that the shepherds made known the message of the angels, but it does not tell us the extent to which they made the message known.
“about.” For the significance of peri, see commentary on Luke 2:15; “thing.” The shepherds did not just tell others what the angels said, they told “about the message,” that is, they told the whole story about the angels, the light, what the angels said—the whole picture. However, we should not miss that the emphasis here in the text is “the message,” not the whole event. The Bible does not say, “the shepherds told what happened,” they told about “the message.” While that included how the message was delivered, the great truth is what the message itself contained, which was the Messiah, the Savior of the world had been born. Of course the shepherds knew it would be years before the baby grew and fulfilled his God-given purpose (which they misunderstood at the time), but even so, they knew their salvation was near, and they may have thought it could perhaps happen even while they were alive (we don’t know the age of the shepherds), and they would have told everyone that the Savior had been born. At that time, no one really knew the Messiah would come twice; once to die and once again to conquer the earth and set up his kingdom on earth.
The message is always more important than the way it is delivered. The angels and the great light were very powerful, but the really important thing was that the Messiah had been born.
“message.” From the Greek rhema (#4487 ῥῆμα). See commentary on Luke 2:15; “thing”.