Question: Why did Gabriel punish Zechariah for disbelieving his message about Elizabeth getting pregnant in her old age, yet did not punish Mary for disbelieving his message that she would conceive a child as a virgin?
The two examples of Gabriel’s apparent contractor behavior are both found in the Gospel of Luke:
Luke 1:18-20 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”
Luke 1:34-35 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”
First, it is important to recognize that Gabriel’s role is simply that of a messenger. Everything he communicates to both Zechariah and to Mary comes from God, not himself (Lk. 1:19).
Second, the very fact that the two conversations with Gabriel are presented back-to-back shows that God wants us to see how He responded differently to Zechariah and Mary. They are examples for us in how we respond when God speaks to us.
The truth is, Zechariah did not believe the message delivered by God’s angel Gabriel:
“How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years” (Lk. 1:18).
Translated more literally, his question reads: “Against what am I to know this?” In other words, “What evidence do you have to convince me this is true?” Zechariah did not trust the message. Beyond that, he did not trust the messenger Gabriel. He did not believe his was experience was real, so Zechariah demanded that Gabriel prove himself.
Compare this with Mary’s question: “How will this be…since I am a virgin?” (Lk. 1:34) In other words, “How will this happen—what process will get around the fact that I am a virgin?” Mary did not doubt she was actually speaking with an angel, nor did she doubt that what the angel said would come to pass. She was simply curious as to how God was going to get around the normal process involved in conception.
Now, you and I might feel a bit sympathetic toward Zechariah—that perhaps nine months without being able to talk was a bit harsh on God’s part. After all, conversations with angels are not exactly an everyday experience! But God obviously expected Gabriel’s appearance to be proof enough of his reality and the genuineness of his message. You can almost hear the offense in Gabriel’s voice that Zechariah doubted him and demanded a sign: “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news” (Lk. 1:19)!
The problem is this—Zechariah, a religious leader, was considered “righteous” in his lifestyle (Lk. 1:5-8). Yet when God showed up in the presence of an angel Zechariah did recognize Him! He was typical of many in his day (and ours) who live a clean, religious life but who do not really know God Himself. They live by “works” rather than by “faith,” and therefore demand proof when confronted with God in the spiritual realm. This is what grieved Jesus so much as He sought to open the eyes of the spiritually blind:
Luke 11:29 As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.
Well, for you and me the sign God promised—the sign of Jonah—has been given! Jesus Christ, the virgin-born Son of God sacrificed His life on the cross, taking the punishment for the sins of the world upon Himself, and God raised Him from the dead!
Do you believe?