Luke 1: Questions, Doubt, and the Faithfulness of God
In an attempt to set my attention and affections on the birth of Christ for December, I am slowly reading and studying the book of Luke. As I read through the familiar stories of Zechariah and Elizabeth (the parents of John the Baptist), and Mary (earthly mother to Jesus), I was stopped by the questions posed to the angel, Gabriel, at the miraculous news they both received.
Why did Zechariah receive a consequence for his question while Mary did not? What can we know from the actual text? Was it the actual questioning, a tone we can’t detect, or merely a way for God to fulfill His purpose?
After reading through several commentaries, there seemed to be some differing opinions (not surprising) on the response of the angel and inferences made based on historical knowledge. So, I am merely walking through the text, looking up key words in Strong’s concordance, and asking God’s Spirit to teach me. I would encourage you to read through Luke 1 before reading further so we are on the same page. 🙂
Here is what we know about Zechariah and Elizabeth from Luke 1:6-7:
- They were both from the priestly line of Aaron, and Zechariah was a Jewish priest.
- They were both righteous in God’s eyes, careful to obey all God’s commands and regulations. They didn’t merely go about the motions, but served God with sincere hearts and belief — their faith, demonstrated through works, made them right before God.
- They had no children and were past the childbearing years.
While Zechariah was on duty in the temple burning incense, an angel appeared to him. Understandably so, he was “shaken and overcome with fear” (NLT) when he saw Gabriel (v. 19). But the angel immediately told Zechariah not to fear, for God had heard his prayer.
So, Zechariah had been praying. But for what? When had he made this request? The time is not given in the text other than prior to this moment.
Gabriel goes on to say that Elizabeth would give him a son, and they were to name him John. They had prayed for a son, an heir.
Now, remember, they were very old and had most likely given up on asking God to give them a child as it was physically unlikely — seemingly impossible. Yet, even in their sadness and societal disgrace (due to cultural perceptions), they chose to serve and walk with God.
After the angel expresses how God is going to use their son, John, to turn the hearts of His people back to Him, in verse 18, Zechariah says,
“How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.”
Because of their age, Zechariah sought a sign of how this would come to pass. He didn’t say God couldn’t do it but wanted more assurance. This is similar to the response of Sarah in Genesis 18:11 after she was told she would have a son in her old age. Sarah laughed at the thought of her aging body giving birth.
Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.”Luke 1:19 NLT
From the Strong's concordance, believe is defined as: πιστεύω pisteúō, pist-yoo'-o; from G4102; to have faith (in, upon, or with respect to, a person or thing), i.e. credit; by implication, to entrust (especially one's spiritual well-being to Christ):—believe(-r), commit (to trust), put in trust with. So, Zechariah did not have confidence in the angel's message. Notice that the angel accused Zechariah of not believing him -- not God. From Gabriel's response, we can glean that Zechariah questioned whether God was behind the angel's words. Even though as a priest he would have known that God was capable of giving him a son through Elizabeth, just as God had done for Sarah and Abraham, Zechariah wanted more details -- proof that what Gabriel said was actually a promise from God. And he desired an explanation.
As a result of Zechariah’s mistrust, he was rendered mute until his son was born. He came out of the temple making gestures and not able to speak and communicate to the people. But we see that soon after returning home from the temple, Elizabeth conceived a child, causing her to praise God in verse 25 for the kindness of God. Their societal stigma as barren had been lifted, despite her husband’s questioning of Gabriel.
In Luke 1:26, we see the angel, Gabriel, visit a virgin named Mary in the village of Nazareth. She was engaged to be married to Joseph, a descendant of King David. Gabriel enters with these words, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!”
Mary’s response? She was confused and disturbed (v. 29). In the Greek, it means to be wholly disturbed or greatly agitated. This is similar to Zechariah’s first response to encountering the angel (v. 12).
Again, Gabriel quickly asks her not to fear and proceeds with the announcement that she will conceive a son, which she will name, Jesus.
After the angel rejoices that her baby would be the Son of the Most High, in verse 34, Mary asks Gabriel,
“But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”
Gabriel simply answers her question with the specific way this will happen. He tells her the Holy Spirit will come upon her, making the impossible, possible.
Unlike Zechariah and Elizabeth bearing a child in their old age, there was no historical/religious precedent for a virgin to conceive by the Spirit of God. Humanly speaking, she had no idea how that would occur. She didn’t say it couldn’t happen but that she didn’t understand how it would happen.
Mary’s response to Gabriel’s explanation?
“I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.”
Wow. For a young woman in her time, this was a huge leap of faith and confident belief in who God was. We see her song of praise to God in verses 46-55, signifying the deepness of her love and trust for her Savior.
Zechariah is still mute when Elizabeth gives birth to their son in Luke 1:58. It is not until Elizabeth goes against the tradition of naming the firstborn son after their father that we see Zechariah believing the words told to him by Gabriel all those months ago. He writes down the name John for all to see and immediately he could speak again.
The text says that awe fell upon all the people. God used the restoration of Zechariah’s speech and the confirmation of his son’s name to impact the belief of the people. They witnessed firsthand that the hand of God was on Elizabeth and Zechariah’s child and wondered what would become of him.
And just as Mary had done, Zechariah, filled with the Spirit, praised God. He also prophesied about how God would use his son,John, and Mary’s son, Jesus, “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace” (vs. 79).
“Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us.”Luke 1:78
Moments of Grace
Here are a few beautiful takeaways:
- God fulfilled His plans despite their questions and unbelief. He is sovereign over all.
- God did not disqualify Zechariah over his need to verify Gabriel’s message, but through his consequence/pause, he experienced the power of God in a life-changing way. He was given grace and a second chance to praise and trust.
- Sincere questions from Mary received clear answers.
- God used Zechariah’s temporary trial to reveal His glory and make it known in the hearts and minds of those looking for a Messiah.
- Despite Zechariah and Sarah’s unfulfilled desires, they kept serving God. They prayed for their desire to be met.
- Despite Mary’s deepest questions and fears about how she would walk this hard road, she willingly obeyed.
- Long awaited prayers were answered.
- Salvation arrived.
- Light from heaven broke through.
- A long-awaited promise and covenant was fulfilled.
And all His people said, Amen.
We may not have encounters with angels, although they may have visited us unaware (Heb. 13:2), but we all have times when life disappoints, our prayers go unanswered in the ways we want them to, we don’t understand how God will provide or rescue, we are unsure if we heard God right, or we simply can’t wrap our heads around what God is doing.
We can know that God hears our prayers. He is always working. We can bring our honest questions before Him.
If we have seen God’s faithfulness and fail to rehearse and recall it, we will be vulnerable to unbelief. Without intervention — without holding tight and fighting for faith — unbelief can grow into doubt and disobedience. Disobedience never leads us to the fullness of God.
Once we know the truth, God expects us to walk in it. And the end result should always be the utmost desire to praise God for His goodness and faithfulness to us in every situation.
He is the One who answers our deepest questions, strengthens our doubts, and gives life through His son.
He is worthy!