The two opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel record the angelic visits to Zacharias and Mary, and the conception and birth of John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus Christ. The way in which Luke records these events seems to invite us to notice certain contrasted features in the visits of Gabriel, the reactions of Zacharias and Mary, and the birth and upbringing of John and Jesus.
In the first place, something of the impartiality of God is evident in the two angelic visitations. Gabriel visits exalted Jerusalem, then despised Nazareth. He enters the magnificent house of God, then the humble home of Mary. He speaks first to an aged and venerable man, then to a young and pious woman. We thus learn the simple but encouraging lessons that when God is at work for the blessing of mankind, He is as willing to move in scenes of obscurity as of grandeur; He is as willing to involve the young as the aged; He is as willing to confide in a woman as in a man.
The grace of God, too, is discernible in these visitations, when it is realized that in effecting these momentous interventions into human affairs, God confided in and used a small number of humble, obscure and godly souls. He by-passes entirely the nation’s political and religious leaders in order to accomplish His purpose with some of the “nobodies” in the land. This strongly suggests what has often proved to be the case, that the contribution which, under God, a man may make to the blessing of his fellows can be out of all proportion to his social standing among them.
The angelic announcements reveal also something of the power of God, as it was to be demonstrated in the birth of the sons of Elizabeth and Mary. John would be born to Elizabeth after it seemed humanly possible, and Jesus would be born to Mary before it seemed humanly possible. The second miracle, of course, would be infinitely greater than the first. There had, indeed, been a precedent for the first, in the birth of Isaac to Sarah, whereas the virgin birth of the Saviour was absolutely unique, and will ever remain so.
Turning now to consider the circumstances in which these two sons were born, there is surely some significance in the fact that, whilst Elizabeth bare her son when she was in advanced years, Mary brought forth her firstborn during her young womanhood. John the Baptist was to be the last of a long line of prophets sent by God to Israel during many centuries, and thus he came in the evening of the Old Covenant period. The Lord Jesus, by contrast, was born to introduce a new period in the dealings of God both with Israel and with the world at large.
Of great significance, too, are the contrasted reactions of Zacharias and Mary to the messages of Gabriel. Zacharias, learning of the impending birth of the final prophet of the Old Covenant period, was guilty of unbelief, which was one of the dominant failings which had so often hindered and impoverished Israel during their long history from the Egyptian exodus and onwards (a fact readily confirmed by a reading of Hebrews 3-4). Mary, on the other hand, learning of the impending birth of the Initiator of the New Covenant, displayed wonderful faith, the very quality which is so vital to an appropriation of the blessings of that covenant. (It should be noted that the questions which Zacharias and Mary addressed to Gabriel are only superficially similar; for whilst the first reflected unbelief, Luke i. 20, the second did not question that the miracle would take place, but sought information on the manner of its accomplishment, 1. 34. The words of Elizabeth to Mary remove all doubt about this matter, “blessed is she that believed, for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord”, 1. 45.) It is most remarkable that whilst Zacharias failed to believe that God could do again what He had done in the past, Mary readily believed that He could do what He had never done before.
When the time at last came for each child to be born, how striking was the contrast between the two events. John was born at home, under his parents’ roof, in an atmosphere of family and social rejoicing as relatives, friends and neighbours gathered to share the joy of the aged couple, 1. 57-58. Jesus, on the other hand, was born many miles away from His family home, and drew His first breath in the stench of the cattle shed behind Bethlehem’s crowded inn; thus, no friends or relatives were present to rejoice at His birth, the whole setting being uncongenial and totally lacking in the barest comforts of life. Yet there was a certain appropriateness in all this, for we see that the Stranger from heaven was born as a Stranger on earth, occupying the outside place from the very beginning of His earthly pilgrimage.