Women at the Beginning: Elizabeth’s Faith

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5 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. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. . . .
24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25 “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” . . .
39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
(Luke 1:5–7, 24–25, 39–45 ESV)

Key Observation. Sometimes faith takes a long time to prove true.

Understanding the Word

Although prophets had preached about the coming of the Messiah for hundreds of years prior to Jesus’ birth, women are the first to proclaim the good news that the Christ has arrived. This week we will explore the ways in which God speaks through these faithful women.

Elizabeth is the wife of a priest. She is from a good family—her ancestors were priests too. Nonetheless, Elizabeth faces disgrace because she is barren. She lives in a culture where having children to carry on the family name means everything. If God doesn’t bless a family with many babies, people suspect that some hidden sin is the cause. This belief forces Luke to state that both Elizabeth and her husband are blameless (v. 6). Sometimes bad things do happen to good people.

Elizabeth has a second strike against her. She is elderly and has already gone through menopause. Even though she and Zechariah have prayed for children, their years of waiting have proved fruitless. Elizabeth’s frustrating situation mirrors that of Israel. The chosen people of God have longed for freedom from the rule of idol-worshipping foreigners. Blessed but barren; favored but conquered.

The personal and national woes begin to find relief when the angel Gabriel speaks to Zechariah during his temple service. Not only will Elizabeth bear a son, but this child will become a great prophet, filled with the same Holy Spirit as the prophets of old. He will prepare the people of Israel for the fulfillment of God’s great plan. But the elderly priest of God doubts. Of all people, he should remember the biblical stories about barren women giving birth! In response, Gabriel strikes Zechariah mute. Zechariah’s lack of faith is contrasted with the faith of his wife, who remains in seclusion while she reflects on all that God has done for her.

Elizabeth’s seclusion is broken when her young relative, Mary, comes to visit. After five months, Elizabeth’s pregnancy is now visible and undeniable; it provides a clear sign for Mary that God does indeed create life in impossible places. Gabriel’s prophecy that Elizabeth’s baby would be filled with the Holy Spirit “even from his mother’s womb” (v. 15) has come true; when the baby hears Mary’s voice, he begins to jump in Elizabeth’s womb. Elizabeth, too, is filled with the Holy Spirit and she prophetically sees that Mary is pregnant and the child will be her Lord. Elizabeth’s rejoicing (“blessed is she who believed” in v. 45) points out the ironic contrast between Zechariah and Mary: the young, uneducated girl believes the angel, whereas the experienced priest did not.

One of Luke’s themes throughout his Gospel is the reversal of fortune—the weak and lowly are raised up while the rich and powerful are brought low. In a culture where women had little status or honor, Luke begins by describing a doubting man and a faithful woman. He will revisit this theme at the end of his story when faithful women at the empty tomb proclaim to the doubting disciples that Jesus has risen.

  • Which character do you identify with most? Why?
  • How were Elizabeth’s prayers met beyond her wildest expectations?
  • What are ways to be encouraged and keep the faith when it seems that God is taking a long time to act?

As a general rule, women had fewer rights, social status, and power than men in the ancient world in which the Bible was written. But Jesus regularly defied these social conventions, fulfilling his mission and purposes through faithful women and giving them dignity and purpose.

In this OneBook Daily-Weekly study, Suzanne Nicholson highlights the qualities of several women in the New Testament that Jesus asks all believers to possess: faithfulness, persistence, and a boldness to follow him even at great personal cost to ourselves. These stories help us to better understand not only our own calling, but the very nature of the gospel itself.

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Suzanne Nicholson (PhD) is professor of New Testament at Asbury University. She is an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church. She received a PhD in New Testament studies from the University of Durham. Her husband, Lee, is a youth pastor and together they have two children.

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