Each year, as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, we read the familiar passages in the Bible about the birth of Jesus, especially Luke 1. In Dan Darling’s fine new book, The Characters of Christmas, he looks at the characters who make up the story of Jesus’ birth. Two of those characters are Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth and future father of John the Baptist, and Mary, who would become the mother of Jesus.
- Both are visited by the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:19; 1:26-27)
- Both are promised the miraculous birth of a son (Luke 1:13; 1:31)
- Both are equally unfit to have a child: Zechariah’s wife is barren, and Mary is a virgin (Luke 1:7; Luke 1:27)
- Both respond with equal perplexity—”How?” (Luke 1:18; 1:34)
The angel Gabriel appeared to both of them, delivering them each a shocking message. Both Zechariah and Mary question Gabriel, but their questioning is responded to quite differently. In a casual reading of the text, you could – and I have – wondered about their reactions and Gabriel’s differing response to them.
ZECHARIAH’S RESPONSE AND GABRIEL’S REACTION:
Let’s first look at Zechariah. He was an aging priest, in the temple performing the incense prayer offering. His wife Elizabeth was long past the age of child bearing. In Luke 1:13, Gabriel tells Zechariah:
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.”
Zechariah was stunned. He says in Luke 1:18: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years”.
Gabriel reminded him who he was – “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God.” He tells Zechariah that he was sent to speak to him and to bring him this good news. But because Zechariah didn’t believe the message, he would be unable to speak until the baby was born.
MARY’S RESPONSE AND GABRIEL’S REACTION:
Now, let’s look at Gabriel’s message to Mary. This took place months after he had appeared to Zechariah. In Luke 1:28, Gabriel approaches Mary. In Luke 1:30, he tells her:
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”
In Luke 1:34, stunned like Zechariah had been, Mary replies “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel patiently explained how it would happen in verses 35-37; that “nothing will be impossible with God.”
Don’t their responses seem the same to you? I don’t know about you, but I’ve always felt that Gabriel was a little tough on old Zechariah. Don’t you wish you could hear their responses and not just read them? Different Bible translations help us to sort out the difference in Zechariah’s response. The original Greek phrases it- “by what will I know this?” The NASB says, “How will I know this for certain?” Now we’re getting to the root of the difference in the two responses. Mary is accepting of the news, and just wants to know how it will happen. Zechie doesn’t believe, he wants another sign. An angel of the Lord appeared to him standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah wants another sign? Seriously? Gabriel says in today’s language, “Hello? I came straight from standing in the presence of God to talk to you. And that’s not good enough for you?”
Darling in his book writes: “Sometimes we are tempted to confuse Mary’s inquiry with the sinful doubt we find in Zechariah, but they are different. Whereas Zechariah legitimately doubted God’s ability to have Elizabeth bear a son, Mary was curious in a good way”. Darling tells us that while Mary’s inquiries were laden with trust, Zechariah’s response was encrusted with cynicism and doubt. The angel makes it clear that he is silenced because he “did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time” (Luke 1:20).
In Mary’s case, however, Luke leaves it to Elizabeth (Zechariah’s wife!) to tell us why she wasn’t also muted. When Mary comes for a visit, Elizabeth greets her saying, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:45). (Just imagine Elizabeth saying this loud enough for her helpless-to-respond husband to overhear in the next room.)
John MacArthur writes that Mary’s question was one of wonder, not doubt nor disbelief. As a result, Gabriel did not rebuke her as he had Zechariah.
Who knows how we would respond if, first of all, we were visited by an angel, and second, it was an angel who delivered such a shocking message to us? We can be thankful that God chooses to bless us, even when we have doubt and unbelief. We can also be thankful that Mary provides us a good example in her submission to God’s word and promise in Luke 1:38: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word”.
Excerpts taken from Luke’s Lesson on Grace and Faith by Tyler Kenney