The Women of Christmas (1): Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-7, 24-25, 39-45, 57-66)
There are countless lessons to learn from the so-called “men” of Christmas: Joseph, Zechariah, the Magi, the shepherds, and above all, obviously, Jesus himself. But there is as much to learn, if not more, from the women associated with that momentous, epoch-making event.
In this first meditation, I’d like for us to look at Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah and mother of John the Baptist. There are five qualities in her that warrant mention and imitation.
First, observe her holiness of life. We read in Luke 1:5-7 that “in the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.”
They were both “righteous” (“upright” in the NIV) “before God.” There are many, I suppose, who are righteous in the sight of men yet repulsive in the sight of God. Not Elizabeth! Unlike the Pharisees and religious leaders of her day whose “righteousness” was often merely external and feigned, Elizabeth’s was internal and genuine.
She walked “blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” Note well: not talked but walked. Her profession was matched by her practice. Neither she nor her husband dared to declare a commitment that was not manifest in appropriate deeds.
I strongly suspect that Luke’s description of her as “blameless” is designed to tell us that her barrenness was not due to sin (as over against what we read in Lev. 20:20-21 and 2 Sam. 6:23). Elizabeth is barren, no doubt, for the same reason the man in John 9 was born blind: “that the works of God might be displayed in him [her]” (John 9:3).
Barren, yet blameless. For a woman wanting children but unable to conceive, this would be incredibly difficult. If ever anything tested her faith on a daily basis, it was her failure to bear a child. It could so easily have bred bitterness in her soul. It could so easily have been used to justify disobedience and rebellion and indifference toward God: “Why should I worship and serve a God who refuses to answer my prayers for a child?” But not Elizabeth.
She undoubtedly knew what the Old Testament said about God being sovereign over the womb (see 1 Samuel 1:5; Genesis 29:31). Still, she served him! Still, she loved and worshiped and obeyed him.
Would she have felt envy toward those blessed with children, especially the ones who seemed less devoted to God than she? Was she tempted to resent God for what he had done, or, in her case, failed to do? We don’t know. What we do know is that her spiritual passion and commitment to purity were not diminished by the repeated No she heard in response to her prayers for a child.
Second, I point you to her gratitude for God’s gracious act in eventually opening her womb. Her husband, Zechariah, was first to receive the good news. But his skeptical response to the angel’s word led to temporary muteness. There’s a lesson here: If Gabriel ever shows up with a message, believe him!
We are told in Luke 1:24-25 that after Elizabeth conceived “she kept herself hidden” for “five months,” saying, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” There are many explanations for this act of seclusion, but John Nolland is probably correct that “with a sense of privacy about the precious and intimate way that God has dealt with her in her old age, [she] withdraws into seclusion with her secret, until the stage where her pregnancy will be physically obvious” (33). As far as Elizabeth was concerned, this was no mere physical phenomenon but a spiritual visitation of sovereign love and mercy for which she needs time alone to pray, worship, and above all give thanks to God for what he has done (see Psalm 113:9).
Third, her humility is profound. Mary’s journey of approximately 90 miles to visit Elizabeth was motivated by at least two factors: her desire to congratulate Elizabeth (she undoubtedly knew of her despair over being childless for so long) and her desire to share her own good news of Gabriel’s announcement. Now read with me Luke 1:39-45.
“In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord."
Some say the emotional trauma of Mary’s arrival caused a movement of the fetus which Elizabeth mistakenly interpreted as a symbolic reflection of her own joy. On the contrary, this was a miracle of grace. Remember that John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in the womb (Luke 1:15). Thus, not only does Elizabeth rejoice for Mary, John rejoices for Jesus (cf. John 1:6-8; 3:28-30). John’s witness to Jesus began not in the waters of the river Jordan but in the amniotic fluid of his mother’s womb!
Elizabeth is immediately filled with the Holy Spirit which, in Luke, is typically followed by prophetic speech or praise (cf. Luke 1:67). But notice especially her humility and the three ways it is revealed.
First, in v. 42, she acknowledges that Mary is more blessed than any other woman, even more so than she herself. Notwithstanding the marvelous, merciful, and miraculous thing God has done for her, Elizabeth readily subordinates herself to the blessedness of Mary. Second, according to v. 43, Elizabeth is flabbergasted that Mary would visit her. The miracle in her life has bred no pride. We read nothing along the lines of: “Well, in view of the favor I have with God, it’s only right that people like Mary should show me a little attention.” Third, let’s not forget that Elizabeth’s son is destined to serve Mary’s. Yet, there’s no hint of rivalry or resentment or the slightest comparative or competitive spirit in her. As important as Elizabeth’s son will be, he is but the forerunner of the Messiah, a voice in the wilderness pointing to One greater still.
We now turn, fourthly, to Elizabeth’s faith. In v. 43 she refers to Mary as the mother of “my Lord,” thereby giving evidence of her conscious need of a savior. And in v. 45 she confesses that she too, no less than Mary, believed in the announcement of a virginal conception. Elizabeth, no less than Mary, trusted in the God of the impossible (cf. Luke 1:37) to fulfill what he had promised.
Fifth, and finally, we see her obedience in vv. 57-66. There we read,
“Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, but his mother answered, ‘No; he shall be called John.’ And they said to her, ‘None of your relatives is called by this name.’ And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And they all wondered. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, ‘What then will this child be?’ For the hand of the Lord was with him.”
People close to my parents expected that I would be named for my grandfather, Charles Samuel Storms (I’m CSS, II). And those who knew Zechariah and Elizabeth likewise anticipated that this miracle child would be called “Zach, Jr.” or some such ancient equivalent. But Elizabeth remembered what Gabriel had told her husband: “you shall call his name John” (John 1:13).
The surprise and even disdain of the community could not sway Elizabeth. Violating custom and tradition on this occasion was an easy thing. Obedient unto the end, she declared, “God has given us his name. He will be called John.”
People today measure greatness in a variety of ways, usually based on influence, popularity, wealth, beauty, strength, or some such earthly standard. Elizabeth was a great woman, but not for these or any such reasons. Her greatness was seen in her holiness, her gratitude, her humility, her faith, and her obedience. She is a model not only for women but for all mankind. May we too, by the mercy of the Lord, embrace the virtues for which she is justifiably remembered.