Bible students have often been puzzled by an apparent inconsistency in the events leading up to the birth of Christ. An angel of the Lord appeared and spoke a word from God to two parents-to-be. Both had similar responses, but got very different results.
When Zacharias was told that in his old age he would miraculously father a son, he had a question:
Luke 1:18 And Zacharias said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years.”
Then the angel appeared to Mary and informed her that she would miraculously conceive a child who would be “the Son of the Highest.” She, too, had a question:
Luke 1:34 Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”
The seeming inconsistency in these two accounts arises because when Zacharias questioned what he was being told, he was struck dumb for not believing the angel’s word. On the other hand, Mary’s questioning of the angel brought her no rebuke at all. The angel seemed to treat it as a perfectly natural question, and gave her a full explanation:
Luke 1:35-37 And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. 37 For with God nothing will be impossible.”
In one way, the responses of Zacharias and Mary to the angel’s announcements were very similar. In essence, both were saying, “What you are telling me is a natural impossibility, and I don’t understand how it can possibly happen.” So, if Zacharias’ response indicated a failure of faith worthy of rebuke, why didn’t Mary’s?
The short answer to that question (and the only one that is unquestionably true) is that God looks upon the heart rather than on the outward appearance. While the questions Zacharias and Mary asked may appear similar from the outside, God knew that two very different levels of faith were at work. I think Luke’s account provides some clues to that difference.
Luke 1:11-12 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.
The angel appeared to Zacharias as he ministered in the inner sanctuary of the temple, a place where no other man could be. Yet, Zacharias apparently never asked, “who are you?” or “how did you get in here?” Instead, after hearing the angel’s remarkable announcement, which could have only come from God, Zacharias’ first response was to ask, “how can I believe what you are telling me?” To me, this indicates that Zacharias realized almost immediately that he was experiencing an angelic visitation. So, his issue was not confusion about who this person was, but rather whether he was to be believed, even though he was an angel speaking for God.
Mary’s case, it seems to me, was different.
Luke 1:28-29 And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” 29 But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was.
It appears that the angel “came in” to the location where Mary was. What she saw was a man, not a being with a halo and wings. It would have been similar to the angelic appearances to Abraham in Genesis 18, and Lot in Genesis 19. Both found themselves entertaining what appeared to be human travelers, who only later were revealed to be angels.
Mary saw the person standing before her as a man, and thus was surprised and troubled at the way he greeted her. She did not immediately perceive him to be an angel. So, when she asked how the things he said to her could be, she was asking a strange man what he was talking about, not doubting the word of an angel of the Lord. Once the man gave her more specific information, Mary realized who he was and immediately responded:
Luke 1:38 Then Mary said, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
Once she knew it was God speaking to her, there were no questions, no doubts, just immediate and total acceptance, with great humility. “Let it be to me according to your word.” What a powerful statement of faith and faithfulness!
To me Mary’s response to the angel’s announcement shows faith of the highest order. She may have been young, but I don’t think she was naïve. She would have been immediately aware of what the circumstances of her pregnancy could mean to her. She was engaged at the time to Joseph, a righteous man, who in the normal course of events would have quietly ended his engagement to a woman who got herself pregnant by someone else. The angel didn’t explain to her that his next stop would be to make sure Joseph didn’t follow that course. As far as Mary could know at that moment, her life was on the verge of being completely turned inside out. Nothing would ever be the same for her again. Yet she could say, with no hesitation or reservations, “Let it be to me according to your word.” I very much admire that spirit.
When I am being honest with myself, I sometimes detect within me a little resistance to “let it be with me according to God’s word.” I want it to be with me according to my word! I want life to be comfortable and predictable and prosperous, with no unpleasant surprises or challenges, and as free of painful circumstances as possible. But I know that’s not the life Jesus promises to believers. He was quite clear about that:
John 16:33 These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
Somehow Mary understood that long before Jesus ever spoke those words. She had not only peace, but joy and excitement about what God had purposed to do in her life. There would be a cost. But she knew, beyond any doubting, that to fulfill God’s calling on her life would be well worth the price she would pay. To me, that is faith in its highest degree.