Mary and Zechariah share much on common in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Both are visited by the angel Gabriel. Both receive blessed news from him. Both learn they will have a child through miraculous or out of the ordinary means—Zechariah and Elizabeth are greatly advanced in years (1:7, 18) as the narrative constantly reminds us, while Mary is a virgin as the narrative also reminds us. Both children fulfill a significant Old Testament prophecy (John – Elijah and Jesus = Davidic Messiah). Both question God’s message from Gabriel.
At this point, a chasm of difference arises. One the one hand, because of Zechariah questions how he can have a child, he is silenced until God fulfills his word. On the other hand, when Mary questions how she can have a child, she is re-assured that God will work through his Spirit to make it happen.
What’s the deal? Is God arbitrary in how he treats his people? Not at all. Listen to these questions:
After Gabriel told him his wife would bear a son named John who will come in the spirit and the power of Elijah, Zechariah said, “ “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Lk 1:18). Now, this is a rather odd response for a number of reasons. First, Zechariah was a man of God (1:6). Second, he was burning incense in the temple of the Lord alone, probably near the holy of holies (1:9). This is a significant role as he was close to God. Third, a divine and famous messenger from God is speaking to him (1:11, 19). For all these reasons, one would think Zechariah would immediately believe on account of the miraculous nature of the events transpiring.
Not only that, but if he (and his wife) was “righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (1:6), then he would know that Sarah was barren and her body old when she gave birth to Isaac. He would have known that Isaac’s wife Rachel was barren but God blessed her with child. He would have known that Hannah was barren until God opened her womb and she bore Samuel. In truth, the theme of Miraculous pregnancies or of God opening the womb of the extremely old or of the extremely barren in order to bring about a child of promise was prevalent in the Old Testament. How could Zechariah miss this?
In my opinion, I don’t think Zechariah missed either the miraculous nature of the events around him or the Old Testament examples of miraculous births. It was simply a case of unbelief. Gabriel declares that Zechariah will be unable to speak, “because you did not believe my words” (1:19).
So what about Mary? Gabriel visits her in another unlikely manner, revealing an even greater fulfillment through her seed—the divine, spirit filled Son of God who will fulfill all the Davidic promises and redeem Israel will come through her! Like Zechariah, she also questions God’s messenger and says, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (1:34). The big difference here is that her question is not one of unbelief but of misunderstanding. She does not understand how she should obey or believe this message from God.
She might not understand how this will happen, since she is only betrothed and not married to Joseph, the descendent of David (1:27). If her child is a son of David, would she need to have him through Joseph a descendent of David? But what did the angel mean, then, when he said, “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son” (1:31)? For these reasons, Mary asks in order to clarify or to better understand how she should believe. Gabriel answered, “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” (1:35).
In this way, both Zechariah and Mary question God. While one questions God in unbelief, the other questions God to believe.
HOW TO QUESTION GOD
Belief seeks understanding when it turns to God in ignorance or misunderstanding. On the other hand, unbelief asserts that something is impossible and turns to God only in skepticism. It is right to question God when you do not understand something; but it is wrong to question that God will do what he says. He is faithful to do what he has promised. You may not know how this will happen but be assured that it will happen. Seek understanding and do not think you understand what is and what is not impossible with God.
Ask to understand not because you already understand.