Question: "Why was Zechariah punished for doubting Gabriel's message, but Mary was not, even though she also doubted?"

Answer: In Luke 1, both Zechariah, an elderly Jewish high priest, and Mary, a teenage virgin, received a visit from the angel Gabriel announcing their parts in the arrival of Israel’s long-awaited Savior. While Zechariah was in the sanctuary burning incense to the Lord, the angel of the Lord appeared and said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John” (Luke 1:13, NLT). Gabriel explained that the baby would grow up to be God’s chosen instrument, a great prophet like Elijah, who would prepare Israel for the Messiah’s coming (see Luke 1:14–17).

About six months later, Gabriel visited Mary, declaring, “Don’t be afraid, Mary, . . . for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!” (Luke 1:30–33, NLT).

Zechariah and Mary were unlikely candidates for their God-selected missions, and both received the staggering news with fear and wonder (see Luke 1:12, 29). Each of them questioned how such miracles would be accomplished (Luke 1:18, 34). But Zechariah was punished with muteness until his child was born (verse 20), and Mary was not upbraided at all. Why was Zechariah chastened, but Mary was not?

At first glance, Gabriel’s response to Zechariah’s question does seem a bit unfair compared with his reply to Mary’s. But a closer look reveals a significant difference. Hearing Gabriel’s announcement, Zechariah asked, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years” (Luke 1:18, NLT). Overwhelmed with doubt, Zechariah asked for a confirming sign. Gabriel quickly pointed out that the appearance of God’s messenger in the temple should have been enough of a sign: “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time” (Luke 1:19–20, NLT).

Zechariah’s request for a sign came from a place of unbelief. Even though he and his wife had prayed for a child, the couple had abandoned hope of God ever answering their prayers. Gabriel’s announcement brought their answer. God had heard their prayers (Luke 1:13). But Zechariah responded not in faith but in doubt. He needed a “sign.”

James taught about prayer, saying, “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do” (James 1:6–8). Zechariah was double-minded. With his eyes on his human limitations, he could not see God pulling off this miracle. According to the apostle Paul, Zechariah’s unbelief was a sin because “everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).

Like many who came before him—Moses (Exodus 3:11; 4:1, 10–13; 6:12, 30) and Gideon (Judges 6:15, 17, 36–40), for example—Zechariah struggled with doubt and unbelief. Like many Christians still do today, Zechariah doubted God’s Word. As a priest serving in the Jerusalem temple, Zechariah would have been familiar with Old Testament Scripture, especially the five books of Moses. He would have known that the same promise made to him in his old age was also given to his forefather Abraham (Genesis 12:1–9). Abraham had doubted the Lord, too (Genesis 17:17). But God said, “Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son” (Genesis 18:14). Zechariah should have recalled these words to Abraham as well as the fulfillment of the promise (Genesis 21:5), but at that moment, he faltered. God silenced Zechariah’s unbelief, and the Lord’s plan was fulfilled.

Now compare Zechariah’s response to Mary’s. When Mary heard Gabriel’s promise, she said, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). Zechariah doubted and asked for a sign, but Mary believed, wondering, “How will this happen?” Her concern was more about logistics. She was confused about her role as an obedient servant, especially an unwed virgin. Perhaps she wondered how the birth announcement could come before the marriage. Would she and Joseph need to move up the wedding date? The angel did not rebuke Mary for her honest concerns. Mary’s question was grounded not in doubt but faith and obedience—the kind of questioning Scripture commends (Proverbs 25:2; Acts 17:11).

Gabriel explained to Mary how it would happen—the Holy Spirit would perform a miracle! It would be something brand new that no human could imagine, that had never occurred in all of history. Mary would conceive a child—not by a man but from God Almighty through the power of the Holy Spirit. Within her womb, the Son of God would grow and be born. He was destined to be Israel’s Messiah, the Holy One and Savior of the world (Luke 1:35).

Gabriel concluded his message, echoing the words of God to Abraham: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:37–38, ESV). Mary believed the Lord’s messenger. She responded in faith and submitted to God’s will.

Zechariah expressed unbelief; Mary revealed faith. Zechariah was not punished arbitrarily or unfairly. Both Zechariah and Mary were treated according to their reaction to the message. One doubted; the other believed. The aging priest refused to believe the answer to his own prayers; Mary believed something she had not prayed for and could never have imagined.

Despite Zechariah’s doubt, God abundantly blessed him and his family. The Lord caused Zechariah to be silent not merely as a punishment for unbelief, but as a sign, first to Zechariah and then to all the people around him (see Luke 1:20–21, 59–79). After John the Baptist was born and God reopened Zechariah’s mouth, “awe fell upon the whole neighborhood, and the news of what had happened spread throughout the Judean hills. Everyone who heard about it reflected on these events and asked, ‘What will this child turn out to be?’ For the hand of the Lord was surely upon him in a special way” (Luke 1:65–66, NLT). Through it all, God was working out His plan of salvation and bringing “all things together for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).