The two main characters of Luke 1 are Zechariah and Mary. Zechariah was a priest who served in the Temple (v5). He and his wife Elizabeth “were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (v6). Zechariah was mature in age (v7) and faith, having been well acquainted with the holy and divine for many years. Mary was a young (probably barely a teenager) and unmarried virgin (v27). She was likely poor and uneducated. Betrothed to Joseph, her future prospects of prestige rose to the level of a carpenter’s wife from Nazareth.
These very different people were given a similar promise. Both received a visit from an angel who promised them a son. To Zechariah the angel said, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John” (v13). To Mary the angel said, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus” (v31). Who would you expect would more readily accept the angel’s promise? The silver-haired priest or the teenage girl? The righteous man who works in the temple or the pauper from Nazareth? Which is more unlikely—for an older couple to conceive a son or for an unmarried virgin to conceive one? The safe money is on the righteous, mature, and married priest. Surely he has every advantage in the faith department.
Yet when Zechariah receives the news, he does not seem to believe the angel. “Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years’” (v18). He is made mute for the duration of his wife’s pregnancy because of his unbelief (v20). Contrast Zechariah’s doubt and sign seeking with Mary’s faithful acceptance of the more unlikely promise. “And Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word’” (v38). The mere presence and word of an angel of God was enough for Mary to believe God’s promise. Mary even goes on to praise God in a beautiful Psalm of her own composition (vv46-55).
What do we learn from Luke 1? A nobody with big faith is greater than a credentialed priest with little faith. You don’t have to be a priest to trust God. You don’t have to be mature in age to be mature in faith—and sometimes the mature in age don’t have the faith to match. To credit Zechariah, by the end of the chapter he comes to a Mary-like faith in God, expressing complete faith in God’s promises about the mission of his son, John the Baptist (vv67-79). But it is Mary, the unlikelier of two, who leads the way in faith.