Dueling Birth Announcements
DECEMBER 3, 2020
In Luke chapter 1, at the dawn of the New Testament era, we find the story of two birth announcements — John the Baptist's and Jesus's.
There are no pregnancy tests, no creative social media posts, no cakes, no gender reveal parties (though the genders are revealed), but the manner by which the announcements come theologically, the order by which they come, and the distinctions they carry teach us about what we are to expect this new era to be like; indeed, much as well about how we are to understand the complex narratives of the Bible themselves.
The birth announcements are similar in some important ways: both are angelic, miraculous, and come with awe and fear. In the case of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the seemingly insurmountable obstacles of old age and barrenness are overcome. For Joseph and Mary, the miracle is even greater since she is a virgin!
But this shouldn’t surprise us. God has overcome barrenness before, many times, and not just because he loves to answer prayer and give good gifts to his children. He does so to communicate an important truth, a truth that we learn way back at the beginning of the Bible — the first time barrenness is overcome, in Sarah — to show us that God alone can make life come from non-life. God alone can raise the dead. God alone can save us from our sins.
It’s hard to miss in these two birth narratives: human frailty and inability juxtaposed to divine power and willingness to give to us. It’s no coincidence, then, that — narratively speaking — we would see the last of these biblical barrenness stories occur with Jesus’s mother Mary. Jesus is the reason these stories exist, because he would be the one who would come to end barrenness in all of us, whether man or woman, married or single, barren or fertile. All have become spiritually barren (or, dead!) and have fallen short of the glory of God, and are saved by his grace as a gift, purchased for us through his blood on a cross 2,000 years ago.
That’s great news! But this is where the similarities in these two stories end and the stark differences become apparent. And the differences ought to teach us as much as the similarities. Let’s walk through them, focusing on the responses that Zechariah and Mary bring to their respective announcements.
And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”
And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.
Notice both sections begin the same way: “And [Zech/Mary] said to the angel…”. But then comes the sharp disparity: Zechariah is stricken with muteness until the day John is born because he fails to believe. But with Mary, it’s different. She too has trouble believing the angel. But the angel’s response to her is much more gracious. Instead of punishment, she is doled out more grace in the form of a promise: “God will do this!” she is told.
So, why the differences here? Why wasn’t Mary made mute by the angel? Seems unfair, doesn’t it? — as if the interactions are playing out by different rules. The answer has to do with how these two couples (and these two sons) represent two different covenants, in the spirit of how Paul says in Galatians 4 that Abraham’s two wives represented two covenants as well. This is a repeated theme in the Bible so that its importance might be underscored and not missed.
Zechariah is a priest who is literally in the temple when he is struck mute. Not only does he represent the Old Testament covenant here “professionally” (as Levitical priests do elsewhere), but he is also experiencing the full weight of what the law did to Israel and the watching world, that is, cursed those who couldn’t keep it. Here, Zechariah is disbelieving God by way of the angel, which is a sin, and he is punished for it. Notice the type of conditionalism in play: keep the law, or else; believe God, or else; do what is right, or else.
In the same way, the law crushes us. It holds out a promise to us that can never be grasped like a carrot in front of a donkey. But later in Luke, Jesus tells us that the law and the prophets were “until John”. We know that he was the last of his kind, the final preparatory step in a marathon of promises that led up to Jesus, so it makes sense that John’s birth announcement and his birth would come before Jesus’s, just like the Old Testament came before the New Testament, and the era of law came before the era of grace. But this is why the better way comes second, and Mary gives us a clearer glimpse into what the gospel truly is.
Mary, a Judahite (by way of Joseph), represents the New Testament. She represents that the time when God would forget our sins is here, like he’s doing for Mary. She is being passed over by wrath. Her sin is being placed on the head of the scapegoat and it is wandering off into the wilderness. The Old Testament looked ahead to this time, but now the time is finally here, and it’s coming with the establishment of a new system altogether, one built on the work of the Holy Spirit and not ours. More clearly: it will come through her son Jesus, who is not a Levite, but from the tribe of kings, Judah. He is associated more with giant slaying and enemy-love, like David before him, than he is with law-centered conditionalism. No more muteness, no more Tower of Babel-like punishment. Just reconciliation with God through Jesus’s shed blood forever.
The beauty in the contrast
So, as readers we have a choice here. We can read the Bible in a “flat” manner, which is to say we can read the Bible as if there is no contrast, but only a flattened, mono-covenantal way of God relating to his people. This would lead us to read John’s birth announcement in a blended manner with Jesus’s, which inevitably leads us to view the Christian life as contingent on our obedience and our response to his commandments, his will, and his plans for our life. “Jesus has saved us,” we might say, “but there are still divine consequences for breaking the rules.” But we also shouldn’t throw out the old stories altogether. Instead, we learn and uphold the whole story, recognizing the dynamic, contrasting presentation of the dark background of the old system making way for the bright foreground of the new.
Zechariah’s lack of faith mirrors ours, but the good news is it gives way to a time when Jesus would bring forgiveness and not retaliation. “The power of the Most High will overshadow” us, the angel promises. Isn’t that amazing news? The gospel says that God’s power through his Son Jesus will always “overshadow” anything and everything we do, even on our best days, because it’s not about us. It’s about him!
So don’t let others (nor your wandering hearts) add to Jesus. The Bible assures us of his love and it distinguishes him from Zechariah and John so that we would no longer look to temples, man-made sacrifices, or our own good works to save us. But instead, we are to look to the bloody tree where Christ died among criminals, where the one who spoke the world into existence put on the muteness we deserved to make a way back to paradise. Birth announcements — yes, even birth announcements — teach us this gospel truth: we are saved by grace, not by works! Let all the weary, stubborn sinners out there (like me) say, “Amen!”
For more on this topic, check out the current series on Key Life here.