The contrasting story of Zachariah and Mary
Can any of us imagine being visited by an angel and receiving the same news that Zachariah and Mary received? Would there be doubt? Would we ask questions?
God chose to bless these two people. He brought them into a plan to change the course of mankind in a way they couldn't have ever comprehended. The roles they would play were more than they could have ever prayed for. God chose them specifically for this privileged role, so why was Zachariah so harshly punished for questioning the angel and yet Mary did the same thing and didn't seem to meet the same consequences?
When Herod was king of Judea, there was a Jewish priest named Zechariah. He was a member of the priestly order of Abijah, and his wife, Elizabeth, was also from the priestly line of Aaron. Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous in God’s eyes, careful to obey all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations. They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to conceive, and they were both very old.
One day Zechariah was serving God in the Temple, for his order was on duty that week. As was the custom of the priests, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and burn incense. While the incense was being burned, a great crowd stood outside, praying.
While Zechariah was in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the incense altar. Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him. But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John. You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.”
Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.”
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 : 5-20 (NLT)
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favoured woman! The Lord is with you!”
Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favour with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”
Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”
The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she has conceived a son and is now in her sixth month. For the word of God will never fail.”
Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her.
Luke 1 : 26 - 38 (NLT)
It is worth noting that there is a subtle, often missed, difference in their responses. Zachariah by saying “How can I be sure this will happen” seems to test God. Rather than simply wait to see if Elizabeth becomes pregnant he wants a sign. In contrast Mary asks “But how can this happen?” She seems less concerned with proof and more curious of how God will fulfil His promise. Could it be so straight forward that Zachariah wanted a sign and so the angel obliged and gave him one in the form of his muteness?
I think as is so often the case God looks through to the heart of his servants and responses to them accordingly. He is looking for faith and trust from a seeking heart that yearns to do His will. So was unbelief the issue here? After all the angel responses to Zachariah by saying “because you didn't believe.”
Did Mary believe in her heart that God COULD do what the angel declared but simply pondered the physical logistics where as Zachariah didn't just think it was physically unlikely but didn't believe God could do it? This is backed up later on when Mary and Elizabeth meet and Elizabeth indicates Mary’s strong faith.
“….You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said.” - Luke 1 : 45 (NLT)
Maybe it was his standing as a man of God that lead to his forced silence. After all there is a considerable difference between a well educated priest in a position of authority and what historians believe may have been a young girl possible as young as 14. Did God simply meet Mary where she was with patience where as more was expected from Zachariah who should have known better than to have doubted? He was after all a priest, His role was to act as a bridge between the Israelite people and God. To then doubt a word from God was certainly problematic.
But Zachariah was a man of God. Scripture confirms Him and his wife Elizabeth were righteous in God’s eyes, careful to obey all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations. They would have known the scriptures and strictly kept them. But this is different from KNOWING God. And was that Zachariah’s fault? After all how many times had Zachariah done this particular role of service. Entering the sanctuary to burn incense. Can you imagine what it was like to find an angel stood before you? It’s been 400 years of silence since the old testament. This would have been the last thing Zachariah expected. Or was it? Because this wasn't a random work from God. It was actually a direct answer to prayer. The angel says “God has heard your prayer.” Zachariah and Elizabeth desperately wanted children, God knew this and Zachariah would be well aware of God’s provision to Abraham, Isaac and others who had conceived children in what appeared to be hopeless situations. In contrast Mary certainly wouldn't have been praying for a child so to be told she would have one while still an unmarried virgin was something she had a right to be shocked by. Should Zachariah have had more faith that God could and would provide for him as he had done for his ancestors.
We may never really know the complete answer to this question. But what we do know is God is just and fair and only corrects us for our own good. What ever the reasons, he treated them differently because they needed to be and isn't that the inspirational message to take from this story. That God knows each one of us and meets us where we are with what we need. That he will correct us in a way that is appropriate with the purpose to bring us closer to Him and grow our understanding of His will and holiness so that we may be fully equipped to go out to show His love and glorify Him. This maybe is the same here with Zachariah. If we changed our mindset from Zachariah’s muteness being simply a punishment could we then start to see it as God’s provision? While silenced it is unlikely he would have been able to preform his priestly duties. Maybe a forced time of silent contemplation was exactly what Zachariah needed. God would have known this better than Zachariah and it would appear to have had the desired effect because later on after the birth of John Zachariah uses his first chance to speak to lift Gods name in praise.
Instantly Zechariah could speak again, and he began praising God - Luke 1 : 64 (NLT)
Trust God’s ways in your life. Trust that he treats all His children appropriately from a place of love. When they seem out of step with the world, what’s happening to other people or our own expectations or they even feel like a punishment, trust that God’s will is for you to come into closer relationship with Him and His ways are always an attempt to bring this about.