Luke's Lesson on Grace and Faith

Though their stories in Luke 1 are strikingly similar, Zechariah and Mary have two significant differences that Luke highlights to teach an amusingly ironic and encouraging lesson about grace and faith.

Here are their similarities:

  • Both are visited by the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:19; 1:26-27)
  • Both are promised the miraculous birth of a son (Luke 1:13; 1:31)
  • Both are equally unfit to have a child: Zechariah's wife is barren, and Mary is a virgin (Luke 1:7; Luke 1:27)
  • Both respond with equal perplexity—"How?" (Luke 1:18; 1:34)

One indication that Luke is intentionally trying to compare Zechariah and Mary is that he has bothered to list these parallels at all. He didn't have to mention them. Matthew didn't in his Gospel. But Luke does, and by drawing them out he prepares us to see Zechariah and Mary's substantial contrasts.

Two major contrasts exist between Zechariah and Mary:

1) Zechariah is a law-abiding, married old man and temple priest (Luke 1:5-7)

Mary is a young and obscure single woman (Luke 1:26-27)
2) Zechariah is struck dumb (literally!) for his response to Gabriel (Luke 1:19-20) Gabriel answers Mary graciously (Luke 1:35)

Consider the first contrast. Zechariah's "credentials" would seem to commend him as a more likely recipient of God's grace. He is a priest. He is a law-keeper. He is a man. He is old like Abraham. And he is married. Mary, on the other hand, appears to have far less going for her. She is a woman. She is young. She holds no titles or positions in the community. And she has no husband (yet).

Nevertheless, despite these differences, God chooses to bless both Zechariah and Mary. He miraculously gives each of them a son who will bring about the fulfillment of the ancient promises he made to the patriarchs (Luke 1:54-55; 68-75). These sons will be the two greatest people to ever walk the face of the earth (Matthew 11:11; Philippians 2:9)! But it's not dependent on either Zechariah or Mary's "credentials" that they find this favor with God. In his grand purpose to save Israel and, through them, save people from every tribe, tongue, and nation, he has purposed to bless them too. And so they are blessed.

Now look at the second contrast. Why is Zechariah struck dumb and Mary isn't? Luke spells this out for us. When Zechariah questions Gabriel about the possibility of conceiving, the angel makes it clear that he is silenced because he "did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time" (Luke 1:20).

In Mary's case, however, Luke leaves it to Elizabeth (Zechariah's wife!) to tell us why she wasn't also muted. When Mary comes for a visit, Elizabeth greets her saying, "Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord" (Luke 1:45). (Just imagine Elizabeth saying this loud enough for her helpless-to-respond husband to overhear in the next room.)

So, though Zechariah again seems more positioned by his age, experience, and exposure to the word of God to believe God's promise, we see that it is in fact Mary who has the greater faith.

Through these two contrasts, Luke teaches us that

  1. God doesn't bless people according to their age, sex, or station in life. He blesses them according to his own good purposes. Grace is free and God has chosen to pour it out abundantly across the spectrum of humanity.
  2. Faith is the right and pleasing response to God's promises. And, as with grace, it isn't reserved for the spiritual elite. Young women can (and often do) surpass old men in trusting God.

Father, in Jesus' name, grant us to have faith in your gracious promises like Mary did.

Tyler Kenney (@tylerkenney) is a former content strategist at Desiring God. He and his wife, Kristen, live in the Twin Cities.