A Question About Zachariah and Mary
Question: What is the difference between Zachariah questioning Gabriel in Luke 1:18 and Mary questioning him in Luke 1:34?
Answer: Thank you for your question. Here we have two people, two righteous people (Zachariah is called “righteous” in v. 6, and Mary is called “favored one” in v. 28), both of whom are presented with some unbelievably good news, both of them respond with a sense of incredulity, and Zachariah is struck dumb, but Mary is not. What’s going on here?
Let’s begin with Zachariah. He is a priest and he’s serving in the temple when the angel Gabriel appears before him. After feeling troubled at the appearance of an angel, Gabriel comforts him and reveals that his prayers have been answered and that his wife, Elizabeth, will bear them a son, whose name will be John. Upon hearing this wondrous news, Zachariah asks Gabriel how this can be so. The reason for his question is that he and his wife are both old, and presumably past prime child-bearing years. In fact, back in v. 6, we learn that Elizabeth was barren. It is interesting how many times we see in the Bible how redemptive-history is advanced through barrenness.
Now what Zachariah is really trying to say when he says “how can this be,” is “can you give us a sign that these things will come to pass?” Obviously Zachariah and Elizabeth want children because we’re told that they have been praying for children. So upon news that their prayer had been heard and that Elizabeth would bear a son, poor Zachariah responds with some doubt; this seems too good to be true. Thus Zachariah asks Gabriel for a sign to confirm the truth of his statement. Gabriel’s response is both gracious and a rebuke. He agrees to give Zechariah a sign, but the sign is that he will be mute until John’s birth. This, as Gabriel says, is “because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” An obvious lesson here is don’t be surprised when God answers your prayers!
Now let’s jump to Gabriel’s visit with Mary. Gabriel greets her with an amazing greeting, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you.” Mary, like Zachariah, is troubled at the appearance of Gabriel. After comforting her, Gabriel reveals to Mary that she will be the mother of the long-awaited Messiah. She responds in much the same way as Zachariah when she says, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Now I said, “in much the same way.” Mary’s response differs from Zachariah’s response in that Zachariah responds with doubt when Gabriel says his prayers have been answered. Mary, as far as we can tell, is not barren. She’s not even fully married, but only betrothed. She was not praying for a child or anything of the sort. Her response seems to be more from a point of amazement rather than unbelief. She is a virgin, she has not had sexual relations with a man, so she cannot fathom how she will bear a child. Gabriel, after telling her how she will become pregnant, says to Mary, “nothing is impossible with God.” Mary then responds by humbling submitting to the will of God; no doubt, no unbelief, just “let the Lord’s will be done.” I hope this helps!
~ Pastor Carl