5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.
8 Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9 according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said to him, "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. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared."
18 And Zechariah said to the angel, "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years." 19 And the angel answered him, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time." 21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. 23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25 "Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people."
---> A couple things:
According to v6, Zechariah and Elizabeth were both faultless, blameless and honored all of God's statutes. They knew the Law and they obeyed. They were the models for exemplary behavior. So it strikes me as odd that God had not honored their prayers for a child (v7); if they were faultless and blameless, it would seem to me that God would be more than happy to give them a child! This, however, is not how God does things.
I often marvel at how some of the greatest in God's Kingdom were born from the most perplexing of situations.
Much like Zechariah and Elizabeth, Abraham and Sarah also did not conceive until they were very, very old -- well beyond the (naturally) normal child-producing years (Genesis 11:30), In fact, when God promised them a child, Abraham didn't even take Him seriously! He laughed -- nay, guffawed -- at the idea of a 100 year old man and a 90 year old woman having children (Genesis 17:17).
It almost seems like a prerequisite for people in Biblical times who were to lead significant, historical lives to have miraculous birth stories.
Consider, for example:
The very first births -- Adam and Eve. Adam was formed in the image of God, by God, from a pile of clay. He learned to breathe when God breathed life into his nostrils. Eve, on the other hand -- God constructed her with one of Adam's ribs. These two people lived in daily communion and fellowship with the Ultimate Creator and fathered and mothered all of mankind. Foolish, unnatural, miraculous.
Moses, born a Hebrew peasant in times when Pharaoh was rounding up all the Hebrews and making them slaves. His mother put him in a basket, sent him floating up the Nile River and was discovered by one of Pharaoh's wives. Moses was raised in the Egyptian courts, grew up (for all intents and purposes) an Egyptian and, yet, managed to lead the Hebrews out of Egyptian bondage. Foolish, unnatural, miraculous.
Joseph was born in a completely natural way, but the story of his birth was totally unnatural. His mother, who died in child birth, was called Rachel and his father, Jacob, was a slave for Rachel's father for 14 years because she was the love of his life and he knew he absolutely had to be with her. He worked her father's fields for 14 years just to gain his approval! Joseph would grow up to be hated and envied by his brothers, beaten up, thrown into a well, then sold into Egyptian slavery, then made Pharaoh's right-hand man for his dream-interpreting skills, then, ultimately, became one of the highest ranking officials in Egypt. Foolish, unnatural, miraculous.
But this is the way in which God operates; this is the way He goes about things. God chooses the foolish things of the world, that he might confound them that are wise; and God chooses the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong (1 Corinthians 1:27).
So the fact that Gabriel came to Zechariah and foretold that Zechariah and Elizabeth would have a child called John shouldn't have been too surprising, considering how tantamount that story is to Old Testament births.
Then, most miraculously of all, there is the story of Jesus's birth:
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."
34 And Mary said to the angel, "How will this be, since I am a virgin?"
35 And the angel answered her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy — the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God." 38 And Mary said, "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her.
So, now we have two stories that are not identical, but very, very similar. In both stories, Gabriel comes to two sets of people and prophecies miraculous births to both: one birth to a very elderly couple who have been married for many years and are well beyond their prime, and one birth to a very young couple who are not married and are both virgins (v34)! These two stories, in the natural, make no sense. It's the pinnacle of foolishness to believe that these two couples would give birth!
However, again, God uses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise and the weak to put to shame the strong.
What I find interesting, though, are the reactions Gabriel receives from both parties he talks to and the responses these reactions elicit from Gabriel: both immediately doubted his words, but Gabriel responds differently to them. When Zechariah expresses his doubts (v18), Gabriel silences him -- he makes him literally dumbstruck -- because of his lack of faith (v19-20). When Mary expresses her doubts, on the other hand (v34), Gabriel deals with her gently and calmly explains the specifics of the situation (v35-37). Why the disparity between the two stories?
I think it has to do with the status levels of the two parties involved.
On the one hand, we have Zechariah -- a man who is, as aforementioned, faultless and blameless. He was a priest and communed with God in the holy of holies -- he burned incense before the Lord while the other priests were content to stay outside and pray on their own (v8-10). He was raised in the faith, lived out the faith, perfected the faith, preached the faith and loved the faith. He knew the Scriptures inside and out, was well-versed with the miracles that God -- the God of Abraham and Jacob and Isaac, his forefathers -- performed for the benefit of His people.
And, yet, for all this knowledge, he still had the audacity and lack of faith to go so far as to try correcting God's messenger. Rather than falling to his knees, with tears streaming down his face, thanking God for His blessings of provision, his immediate reaction was to doubt God's word. So, Gabriel silenced him for his lack of faith.
I also find it interesting that the first several verses of Luke directly deal with doubt -- first, Theophilus in v1-4, then Zechariah in v18-23 and, finally, Mary in v26-34. Hmmm... Do I sense a theme? Perhaps a bit of foreshadowing of things to come? Oh, Luke -- you and your stellar writing abilities -- you do go on!
Now, at first, I will admit, I thought Zechariah's punishment seemed a little harsh; one slight indiscretion, one slight moment of doubt, and Zechariah is doomed to nine months of muteness. But, upon reading this selection again, I have to wonder whether or not Gabriel really had any other choice but to silence him. I mean, Zechariah was a high priest -- a leader and teacher of men. What sort of message would be conveyed to His people if God had not punished Zechariah for his doubtfulness? If God were to allow Zechariah's doubt to go unpunished, who's to say what sort of agnosticism would stem from Zechariah's congregation?
Mary, on the other hand, was not punished for her faithlessness (v34). As aforementioned, Gabriel calmly explained the situation to her (v30-37) and she was excited at the prospect of being the Holy Mother (v38). But Mary, on the other hand, was not a priestess -- she wasn't a leader. She wasn't even a leader in her household! Her gender automatically negated her leadership abilities, her age negated her leadership abilities and her social status negated her leadership abilities. Don't hear me wrong -- I'm not saying she wasn't capable of being a leader (she is, after all, the Holy Mother), but she was not able to lead in her day and age because of those three things. A believer though she may have been, there wasn't any need to punish her for her doubts. I'd like to believe that God had mercy on her, despite her doubts, because of the road that lied ahead of her.
See, when Elizabeth would conceive, all of her family members and contemporaries and peers would congratulate her and Zechariah and hail them as faithful to God's promises. They would recall the stories of the Old Testament and praise God for, once again, miraculously bringing a child into the world. When Mary conceived, on the other hand, she would become despised by those around her. She was a very young, single woman. When she told her family and friends that she was pregnant and single (the ultimate single mother), they would call her a slut, a harlot, a Jezebel. When she'd tell them that was still a virgin, that the Holy Spirit impregnated her rather than Joseph, they would call her insane and, quite possibly, stone her to death for blasphemy.
I think there is also a lesson to be learned here regarding the power of the tongue:
1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
See, according to v1, Zechariah had to be greatly punished for his one single act of doubt. Furthermore, Luke even writes:
1 And he said to his disciples, "Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! 2 It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin."
There are serious consequences for tempting believers to stumble -- this is one thing that Jesus did not take lightly. Have you ever seen a millstone?? They are massive pieces of masonry -- about half the size of a man and considerably more heavy. According to Jesus, it would be better to have one of these things tied around your neck and to have you tossed into the ocean than to tempt someone to sin. So, really, Zechariah got off easy -- he was just silenced for nine months so that he wouldn't be able to spread his doubt to others.
I quite like the way Adam Clarke's commentary puts it:
Dumbness ordinarily proceeds from a natural imperfection or debility of the organs of speech; in this case there was no natural weakness or unfitness in those organs; but, for his rash and unbelieving speech, silence is imposed upon him by the Lord, and he shall not be able to break it, till the power that has silenced him gives him again the permission to speak! Let those who are intemperate in the use of their tongues behold here the severity and mercy of the Lord; nine months' silence for one intemperate speech! Many, by giving way to the language of unbelief, have lost the language of praise and thanksgiving for months, if not years!May this be a lesson to us today, to tame our tongues -- to be wary of professing and/or spreading doubt and unbelief.