Zacharias and Elizabeth are the only other truly elderly couple in scripture to bear a child, besides Abraham and Sarah. There are a lot of parallels between Isaac and John the Baptist. Why this couple, and why now? Why did his need to be a “miraculous” birth?
Gabriel did tell Zacharias that his prayers for a child were heard (Luke 1:13), so we know that Zacharias and Elizabeth wanted children long before this. Zacharias’s response to Gabriel’s good news was skepticism, based upon their ages (Luke 1:18), which suggests that he’d given up praying for children long ago, when he thought that it was too late. But given all the promises in scripture for fertility for those who followed the Lord, and the fact that this couple was blameless (Luke 1:6), I’m sure they wondered why it seemed that the Lord had not fulfilled His end of the promise. Elizabeth also called her barrenness a “reproach” (Luke 1:25). We know from the question the disciples asked Jesus about the man who was blind from birth (John 9:1-5) that it was a common belief among Israelites that physical ailments were a direct punishment for personal sin. Thus, like blameless Job, the people likely would have believed that it was some sin on their part that had kept them from bearing children all these years.
Yet God had not forgotten them… it just took faith and patience (a lot of it!) for them to inherit this particular promise (Hebrews 6:12). One reason for this likely is because John’s conception and birth would have caused such a stir, and attracted such attention. Gabriel appears to Zacharias while he is performing his duties at the Temple, and the fact that he is subsequently struck dumb alerts everyone who was waiting for him outside the temple that he must have seen a vision (Luke 1:21-22). Then, after five months of seclusion, elderly Elizabeth reveals to all that she is pregnant. Imagine the whispers! She gives birth to the child, and then on the eighth day they break with all tradition and name him John, a name found nowhere in their lineage. As soon as Zacharias complies with Gabriel’s final decree, his tongue is loosed, and he announces to all the onlookers that this is to be the prophet they have all been waiting for these four hundred years. Had his conception and birth been ordinary, this child would not have caused such a stir, or such expectation (Luke 1:65-66).
That’s one reason why the Lord probably chose an elderly, faithful couple to be the parents of John the Baptist. But I suspect the other reason is because Elizabeth and Mary were close relatives (Luke 1:36). (In my retelling, I imagined that she was her great aunt, though the scriptures don’t say what their exact relationship is.) They obviously knew each other well, though, because Mary goes to stay with Elizabeth for three months. This close relationship with another woman who had a miracle pregnancy was probably very important for Mary, who was being asked to take such an enormous step of faith, knowing she would be ostracized for getting pregnant out of wedlock. Not only does Elizabeth’s pregnancy confirm Gabriel’s words for Mary, but then the Lord reveals to Elizabeth that Mary, too, is pregnant, by the Holy Spirit, and with the Son of God (Luke 1:42-45)! I’m sure Mary very much needed this confirmation of the angel’s word to her, and the encouragement.
While scripture never talks about the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist as children, given the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth and the prophetic connection between the two boys’ lives, they must have known each other before they each stepped into their ministries. And Jesus was born “in the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4-7); he could not have come any earlier than He did. His forerunner had to just barely precede him. So had the Lord granted Zacharias and Elizabeth’s prayer for children any earlier, they could not have been the parents of John the Baptist. I also suspect that John’s later evangelistic success was in part due to the widespread knowledge of his miraculous birth. This great honor was reserved for a faithful couple, a couple who would continue to believe in Him, even when it looked like His word had failed. But this couple—or Elizabeth, at least—knew that God’s promises never fail (1 Kings 8:56). He cannot lie (1 Samuel 15:29). His word is firmly fixed in the heavens (Psalm 119:89-90).
Zacharias’s muteness may have been a punishment for his unbelief, but I think Elizabeth’s interpretation in the retelling is more accurate. Scripture makes very clear that death and life are in the power of the tongue (Proverbs 18:21, and throughout Proverbs), and that we will have what we say (Numbers 14:28-29). Zacharias’s protest to Gabriel expressed unbelief; it may well have been that Gabriel struck him mute so that he could not stop John’s conception and birth from coming to pass by speaking forth his doubts.
The end of Malachi 4:6, prophesying the return of Elijah before the Messiah, says, “lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.” That was the last word from the prophets for four hundred years. What a strange statement—that without the forerunner to prepare the way for the Lord, Jesus might have cursed the earth rather than redeem it! It’s hard to imagine Jesus doing such a thing; yet in His second coming, He will judge those who refuse to repent. Apparently the first and second coming could have been one and the same, without John’s six month ministry calling the people to a baptism of repentance (Luke 3).
In those six months, John became incredibly well known, and his impact continued even long after his death. In fact, after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the great apostle Apollos preached the Word accurately, but he knew of only the baptism of John (Acts 18:25). Paul found that even Gentile believers in Ephesus knew only the baptism of John, and had not heard of the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:1-5). John’s teaching of repentance from sins clearly spread far and wide, long after both his death, and the death and resurrection of Jesus. His ministry, preparing the way for the Messiah, long outlasted him.
Many churches today, and many believers, in a way still only preach the baptism of John. They focus exclusively on repentance from sins, a necessary first step to prepare the way for the fruits and gifts that come from the baptism of the Holy Spirit. But repentance is meant to be the preparation, not the end in itself. John himself said this (Luke 3:16). We need the baptism of the Holy Spirit, just as the disciples did in order to fulfill their calling (Luke 24:49). We can’t do it without Him.
“Goodbye, my love.” Zacharias kissed me, and threw his traveling cloak around his shoulders before mounting his donkey. Then he added with a teasing wink, “Try to stay out of trouble.”
I smiled at his little joke. We lived in the hill country of Judea, we kept no servants, and we were childless—so I would be all alone, and could not possibly get up to any trouble even if I had wanted to. Usually when Zacharias’s turn came to serve as a priest in the temple, I spent the time gardening, tending our few livestock, and experimenting with new dishes to feed Zacharias when he returned home.
“What will you do with yourself?” he asked the customary question, expecting my answer to be the same as always.
Today, though, it wasn’t. “You know… I’ve been drawn to the books of the kings lately, for some reason. I think I’ll study that.” My husband had taught me to read in our early marriage. When I was younger, I required his help in interpreting what I read. Now that I was in my seventies, though, I knew the texts almost as well as he did.
Zacharias pursed his lips before moving his donkey forward. “Elijah?” he guessed, and I nodded. “Funny. I’ve been drawn to those passages too, of late.”
“Oh really?” I mused. “Perhaps the time is drawing near?” After four hundred years of prophetic silence, the last verse in Malachi promised that Elijah himself would return as the forerunner of the Messiah.
Zacharias chuckled. “Perhaps. Every generation has believed that theirs would be the one to see the Lord’s anointed. But, someone will have to be right eventually!” He winked and dug his heels in to his donkey’s side. I watched him ride to the top of the hill, waving, until he was out of sight.
Then I looked up at the sky to judge how much time I had to spend upon my studies, and went inside, withdrawing the scrolls Zacharias kept of the Hebrew texts. I meant to go straight to the records of the kings, but the scroll unrolled of its own accord to Exodus. A passage that I had meditated on years ago practically leapt off the page at me: None shall miscarry or be barren in your land.
I blinked, and tried to shake it off. I kept unrolling, and one of the scrolls fell to the table, exposing a text opened to Deuteronomy.
There shall not be male or female barren among you.
I closed my eyes, breathing through the unexpected stab of an old wound. I had clung to these verses and many others that promised the same thing in my youth, even in to middle age. But when my cycles had ceased, I realized I had a choice. Either I would believe that God had forgotten to honor His covenant, that His promises to me had failed, that He had forsaken me—or, I would consider my continued barrenness a mystery and decide to trust in Him anyway, believing that one day it would make sense. I chose the latter, since I knew the former would lead only to bitterness.
God is good. He is faithful. I had staked my entire life upon that, and I would not waver now.
Yet I had never revisited those passages in all these years. They were too painful.
I breathed through it until the emotion subsided. Another scroll slipped free, revealing the latter psalms.
Children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb His reward. Like arrows are in the hand of a mighty man, so are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.
“Stop,” I gasped out loud, clutching my chest. I wasn’t sure if I was begging the Lord to stop, or some outside force… I only knew I did not want to revisit this subject.
There was more to the issue of being a barren woman than not having a child. That by itself would have been bad enough. But Deuteronomy made it very clear that God would bless those who obeyed Him, and curse those who disobeyed Him. Because of this, the common belief among the Jews was that those who suffered a curse of any kind were receiving their just deserts. The story of Job should have dispelled the concept that affliction is always connected to personal sin, and yet the idea persisted.
Zacharias and I were not perfect of course, but we believed in the Lord and in His promises, like Abraham had done. I was sure that like Abraham, our faith was counted to us as righteousness. Yet despite this, and despite the very clear promises in scripture, we remained childless. I knew that many secretly wondered what sin I had committed to merit such a punishment. I had asked the Lord about this for almost a year after my cycles had ceased, but eventually I stopped asking. I had to. The question was driving me crazy.
I took another deep breath, and opened, finally, to the records of the kings. I reread the familiar story of Elijah’s sudden arrival, announcing the famine to King Ahab. What a man he was! He reminded me a bit of King David in his outrageous faith. Without any direct word from God, he decided to take God’s statement of a famine as part of the curse in Deuteronomy, and just go declare it to the king. I could just see God watching Elijah in heaven, shaking his head and smiling—almost with incredulity, if God could be incredulous. This guy was incredible.
Over the next couple of days of Zacharias’s absence, I pored over the story of the famine, the ravens that fed Elijah by the brook Cherith, the widow of Zarephath, and the first recorded story of the resurrection of the dead. How did Elijah know that resurrection was even possible? It had never been done before, and there was no record that God had told him anything about it. But if anybody was going to test the boundaries of what was possible in God, it was he.
My favorite was the story of Mount Carmel. Surrounded by enemies, Elijah was supremely in control of himself, jeering at all the 750 false prophets. Perhaps your god did not answer because he was relieving himself! he taunted. I laughed out loud at that every time. Then he doused his own offering in water multiple times to make it as hard as possible to set ablaze before he called upon the Lord. Fire fell from heaven at once, of course, consuming not just his offering, but his entire altar, and every last drop of water!
I realized I was grinning with pride, and stopped to wonder at my own reaction. Pride implied ownership, didn’t it?
Strange. I paused in my reading, and prepared for myself an easy supper of bread and milk. I could cook, but I didn’t feel like it right now—I had no one to feed but myself, and I was too otherwise engrossed.
The day I expected Zacharias’s return, I skipped to the story in the latter kings, where God took Elijah up to heaven in a chariot of fire. Elisha, meanwhile, stood down below and watched, as Elijah’s prophetic mantle passed to him.
Then I opened to the passage at the end of Malachi: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.”
What did this mean? I wondered. Send Elijah? Would he return the way he left, in a chariot of fire? Would he return in the same body, with the same mind and personality? The scripture gave no indication that a person who died could return to earth in a new body—but then, Elijah had never actually died. He was one of only two people recorded in scripture who had not, the other being Enoch from Genesis.
“And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.”
Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse? I had never thought about this passage before either. Did this mean that without Elijah preceding the coming Messiah, the Messiah might find that the hearts of his people had grown cold, and might curse the earth, rather than redeem it?
That was a chilling thought. It certainly made Elijah’s second coming critical.
It occurred to me that Zacharias should have been here by now. I looked out the window at the position of the sun: it was late afternoon. Usually he returned on the last day of his service by midday. I determined not to worry about it, since there was nothing I could do anyway, and rose from my studies, grabbing my basket. I went out into my garden and began to collect vegetables and herbs for supper that evening. I rose when I heard the faint clop of donkey’s hooves behind me.
“Finally!” I cried out, turning around. I shielded my eyes from the late afternoon sun, squinting to see Zacharias atop the donkey in his traveling cloak. “It’s almost sunset, what kept you so long?”
He did not answer, though the donkey plodded on. I frowned. Hadn’t he heard me?
Still he did not reply, though he waved and nodded that he had heard me. Something was very strange. I dropped my basket and walked forward to meet him. When I came close enough, he made an exaggerated mime of writing. Then he pointed at the house. I read his lips and saw that he mouthed the words, Get me a scroll and pen.
“Can… can you not talk?”
He shook his head no, and dismounted, leading his donkey by the reins to the stable. I stood dumbfounded as well, wondering what to make of this. Was it an illness of some kind? But if that were the case, if he had merely lost his voice, surely he could still at least whisper. Yet no sound escaped his lips at all.
Finally Zacharias joined me, putting a hand on my lower back and ushering me inside. I found for him the scroll, jar of ink, and pen, and set them on the table beside the open scriptures. He scribbled as fast as he could, I saw an angel in the temple. He said his name was Gabriel.
My heart started to gallop. “The same one who appeared to Daniel?” I gasped, and my husband nodded vigorously.
The very same, he wrote. He says you are going to bear a son.
He stopped writing and looked at me. I stared at the words. My mind went blank, but my knees suddenly gave out, and I sank to a seat beside him. Zacharias reached out and took my hand in his, nodding at me as if to say, I mean what I say.
Children are a heritage of the Lord, the verse echoed in my mind. Heritage, as in, inheritance. It’s a promise.
I looked up to heaven and whispered, “Why now? Why not… I don’t know, forty years ago?”
Zacharias wrote, We are to call him John. I know there is no one in our family by that name, he added, as if he thought that would be my next question. He is to be the forerunner of the Christ, and will come in the spirit and power of Elijah.
My mouth fell open.
That was why the Lord had taken me back to all those passages. The promises for a child. The story of Elijah. The promises for the forerunner.
That meant the Messiah was coming—soon. Probably in my lifetime.
My hands absently sought my belly. Zacharias placed his hand over mine. I looked up at him.
“But… why can’t you talk?” I whispered.
He looked a little bit bashful, and hesitated before he wrote, I talked back to Gabriel.
I let out a short little guffaw. “You did what?”
He nodded, gave me a sheepish grin, and wrote, I told him we were too old to have children. He said I would be mute until the day of John’s birth.
Now I laughed out loud. “Well, it serves you right!” I teased him, wiping away the tears that I suddenly realized had leaked onto my face. Then I caught my breath. “Wait a minute—Zach.” I shook my head. “‘Death and life are in the power of the tongue. Those who love it will eat its fruit’… that wasn’t a punishment. It’s because our words can stop it from coming to pass if they don’t agree with what the Lord said…” I clamped my hands on my cheeks, squeezing my eyes tightly shut. In a strange way, I was grateful for my husband’s affliction, because it served as a sign to me. I had not seen Gabriel, but Zacharias would not invent such an ailment. He never even would have thought of it. Without his muteness, I might have wondered in time whether he had imagined the encounter. But here was proof!
I lifted both hands in the air and whispered, “Praise You, Lord of heaven and earth. You have not forgotten me. You have taken away my reproach among my people. You have granted me the high honor of not only bearing a child past the age of childbearing, like Sarah, but the honor of bearing a great prophet, like Hannah.” I grinned at Zacharias. “He’ll be a firebrand, too, if Elijah was any indication!” I sniffled, wiping my tears away with the back of my hand. “I can hardly wait to meet him!”
Over the next several days, I pumped Zacharias for information until he had written down every detail of his encounter with Gabriel. I wanted to know exactly what the angel looked like, and exactly what he had said. I wanted it to be as if I had seen him myself. For the thousandth time, I was grateful that my husband had taught me to read. He wrote of how he had lingered in shock inside the temple long past the end of his service, which was why he had been late getting home. Then when he finally emerged, the people guessed that he had seen a vision when he could not speak to them.
“But you haven’t told anyone,” I pressed. “Right?” He shook his head no, and I breathed a sigh of relief. “Good.” He gave me a quizzical look, and I tried to put my feelings into words. Finally I said, “You know what people will say, Zach. I’m seventy, and I was barren even when I was young. They’ll be well-meaning, but they’ll try to talk me out of it, because they don’t want me getting my hopes up. Death and life is in the power of the tongue, and—” I groped for words. “I just don’t want anyone to see me until it’s undeniable. Right now, let’s just keep this between us. We’ll study Elijah, study the Messianic prophecies so we can guide John in his purpose when the time comes, rehearse what Gabriel told you, and then just… introduce the world to our son.”
Zacharias reached out, took me by both hands, and squeezed. Then he moved one of his hands to my soft, slightly sagging belly. He leaned forward and kissed me.
For five months I remained at home, meditating upon what the Lord had done for me, and dreaming of the days to come. Then, finally, I came out of seclusion. I said nothing to anyone about the little bulge as I went into the marketplace, whistling like I had a great secret. I saw people looking and whispering, but no one was brave enough to ask me. They probably had convinced themselves that I had just put on weight in a strange way. Or perhaps that I had a tumor.
In my sixth month, Zacharias and I were at home, and I heard that we had a visitor. He answered the door, though I ran to intercept whoever it was, since of course Zacharias could not speak to them. I heard the young female voice of my grand-niece Mary, and at once, I felt little John give a great kick. It doubled me over, and in the moment I tried to catch my breath, a flash of insight came to me.
Mary is pregnant with the Messiah!
I blinked, tears of joy pricking my eyes. The thought arrived with such absolute conviction that the Lord might as well have said it out loud.
I heard Mary awkwardly trying to understand why my husband would not greet her, and I straightened, calling out as I approached, “God has blessed you above all women, and your child is blessed!” She startled, and grew suddenly pale. I grinned back knowingly. “Why am I so honored, that the mother of my Lord should visit me? When I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said!”
Mary gave me a quavering smile, her eyes full of tears, and I understood that the Lord had given me those words for her sake. She was unmarried, a virgin, and newly pregnant—her miracle was even greater than mine. But she was not showing yet, and she was struggling to believe. That was why the Lord sent her to me: to see my miracle, as an encouragement to her! Her eyes went to my belly, and I beamed proudly, putting a hand on either side of it. She ran forward and hugged me, and burst into a song of praise worthy of King David, bless her little heart. I joined in, and though Zacharias could not, he watched us and raised his hands up to the Lord in worship.
“Stay with us,” I urged Mary when we had finished, all three of us grinning and exultant. “At least until you are showing. It’s easier that way, believe me.”
Mary’s joyful expression faltered. “But… Joseph doesn’t know yet.”
“Who’s Joseph?” I asked.
“My betrothed,” she murmured. “He had only just asked for my hand, when the angel Gabriel appeared to me—”
“Oh, Gabriel was the one who came to you too!” I cast a fond look at my husband, who looked bemused.
Mary nodded, and confessed, “I love Joseph. But I know what he will think—obviously. What else could he possibly think? Why would he believe such a story?”
I squeezed Mary’s hand. “Let the Lord take care of it,” I advised her. “It’s His problem, after all. He got you into this mess; He’ll work out the details.”
Mary giggled, and I watched her fondly. She was so very young. What an incredible weight to place upon those narrow shoulders! And yet, the Lord would never have chosen her if He did not know she was up to the task.
“Stay with us,” I urged her again. “Until John is born, at least.” I gasped, as it had just occurred to me right then—“They’ll be cousins, then! John and the Messiah!”
“Yes!” Mary laughed. “And only six months apart in age…”
“They will have to play together as children,” I asserted at once. “They’ll grow up to be great friends.” Then I added, musing aloud, “I wonder when we should tell them?”
Mary puffed out a heavy breath. “One problem at a time, please!”
I chuckled. “Very wise, child. Very wise.”
Mary did remain with us for three months. I still went out to the marketplace until just before my time, and by then, all my friends and neighbors knew my real condition, and marveled.
When I gave birth, I was so enamored with my child that it took me almost a full day to notice that Zacharias still could not speak. I was rather used to his silence now, but this confused me, and upset him.
When the time came for the child’s circumcision on the eighth day as prescribed by the law, it was also time to officially declare his name. They asked me what he was to be called, whether we would name him Zacharias, after his father. This had never occurred to me.
“No!” I asserted at once, “his name is John.”
“John?” asked the priest, perplexed. “But there is no one among your relatives who is called by that name. Surely, he will be Zacharias.”
They turned to my husband, who gestured for a writing tablet. He wrote very clearly, His name is John. As the priests stared at the tablet in wonder, Zacharias burst forth, “Praise the Lord!”
I gasped. “You can speak!”
Zacharias, laughing and crying at once, hugged me and took the little bundle from my arms. He gazed down at John with such love that for a second, I had the strange thought that I was looking into the face of God, seeing His love for my newborn child reflected in my husband’s face.
“Praise the Lord, the God of Israel,” he proclaimed, “because he has visited and redeemed his people. He has sent us a mighty Savior from the royal line of his servant David,just as he promised through his holy prophets long ago. Now we will be saved from our enemies and from all who hate us. He has been merciful to our ancestors by remembering his sacred covenant— the covenant he swore with an oath to our ancestor Abraham. We have been rescued from our enemies so we can serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness for as long as we live”
I blinked at Zacharias, astonished, and looked around the room to see the reactions of the rest of the priests. It was clear to me, at least, that the words were not Zacharias’s own. Something—the Holy Spirit, surely—had taken hold of him.
He went on, gazing down at John, “And you, my little son, will be called the prophet of the Most High, because you will prepare the way for the Lord. You will tell his people how to find salvation through forgiveness of their sins. Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace.”
I suddenly realized I wasn’t breathing. I sucked in a breath, and turned to one of the priests.
“Did you write all that down?” I demanded.
As if galvanized by my words, he jumped up to find a scroll and ink. I looked at Zacharias and whispered as I caressed our son’s head, “He’ll want to hear his father’s prophecy about him when he grows up.” I kissed his forehead and added tenderly, “Our little Elijah.”