A comparison of Zechariah’s and Mary’s response to the Angel Gabriel
Written by Daphne Sidney, Church Administration GCI-Australia
The Gospel of Luke seems best placed to explore this comparison. Luke was a highly educated man, trained as a doctor (Col. 4:14) and most probably a Greek. With Luke being a Gentile, he understood what it was like to be alienated and writes from an understanding of God’s love for all peoples and often details accounts of women, children, the poor and oppressed. It’s a Gospel with a message for everybody…. With giving women and children more prominence, this Gospel contains the most detailed narratives of the birth of two very important babies, John the Baptist and Jesus the Christ.
In the first chapter of Luke we read the accounts of these two amazing births. Both were preceded by a visit from the angel Gabriel to one of the prospective parents, amazing events in themselves. Zechariah and Elizabeth are described in verse 6 as being ”righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord,” high praise indeed. Zechariah was well respected in the community as a devout and aged priest. Mary and Joseph, on the other hand, lived in Nazareth as a carpenter and his betrothed were poor, as shown by the fact that their offering at the temple after Jesus was born was the least expensive one, two doves or pigeons. Mary was a young girl, some commentaries suggest just a teenager, since that was the custom of the day
We all know the story. When Gabriel told Zechariah of the impending birth of John, he responded, “How shall I know this, for I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years?” He’d been walking with God for a very long time, but perhaps had seen a lot of life in all those years and was maybe in the habit of looking at the physical rather than just accepting in faith. He was abruptly corrected, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and bring you this good news.” Ouch, we know what happens next. Though they are blessed with the promised very special baby, Zechariah would be silent till after the birth, because “you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time” (v. 20).
We also know that after Gabriel had given Mary the news, that she, a young inexperienced virgin of humble origins, would give birth to the Son of the Most High! Mary’s response was, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Notice the difference. She didn’t doubt the angel’s word, but simply didn’t understand how it could happen. Her belief was affirmed by her second reply to the angel saying, “I am the Lord’s servant…May it be to me as you have said” (v. 38). This has been described as a quiet submission, handmaid or servant meaning a slave-girl, one who would want only to follow the will of her Master. She recognized the will of God and accepted it.
The two accounts provide a light and shade contrast between the two responses, Mary’s believing response, and Zechariah’s struggles with unbelief. There is much to be learnt from both, the yielded faith of Mary, and from Zechariah to not look at our physical limitations, but to look to God and what he can do in and through our weaknesses. And in his time. Zechariah would have been familiar with the retold story of Abraham and Sarah, who, way beyond child-bearing years, gave birth to a son. Yet Zechariah showed the penchant of all humans to default to human reasoning over and above walking by faith, and we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Notwithstanding their old age, the angel Gabriel spoke with certainty that God’s word would be fulfilled. The narrative continually shows encouragement through the angel’s message, including the words to Mary, “For nothing is impossible with God” affirming that Elizabeth was to have a child in her old age (v. 37).
By grace, God’s glorious purposes were carried out with both couples. Zechariah and Elizabeth were blessed with the birth of a Son to be named John, whose name meant the Lord is gracious, and Mary and Joseph blessed with a Son to be named Jesus, meaning The Lord saves us.
God so loves the world, that his purposes are sure and not thwarted by human frailty – and not dependent on our works, age, position, or social status. Paul reminds us that the incomparable riches of his grace are expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith – not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:7-8). By grace and faith, that no one should boast, but that God be glorified!
In Mary’s song referred to as “The Magnificat,” Mary glorifies the Lord and not herself. “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name” (vv. 47-49). Mary acknowledged that it was God who had done great things for her, and this thought continues throughout her song.
Paul echoes these remarkable events, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons” (Gal. 4:4-5). The gospel invites us to believe in the Son and trust that God is faithful to bring his promises to pass in the fulness of his time.
 Wiersbe, Warren W. Be Compassionate: NT Commentary, 2nd ed. 2010, p. 17.
 Morris, Leon. Luke. Tyndale NT Commentaries, vol. 3, IVP, 1988, p. 91.