Mary's Relatives Elizabeth & Zechariah and Their Baby

Having been told she was going to have a baby, Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth. She was also having a baby and found out about in an unusual way.

The Story in the Bible

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.

Once when Zechariah's division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: 'Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous--to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.'

Zechariah asked the angel, 'How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.'

The angel answered, 'I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.'

Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realised he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak. When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 'The Lord has done this for me,' she said. 'In these days he has shown his favour and taken away my disgrace among the people.'

Luke 1:5-25


At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!'

And Mary said: 'My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me--holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.'

Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.

When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, 'No! He is to be called John.' They said to her, 'There is no one among your relatives who has that name.' Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone's astonishment he wrote, 'His name is John.'

Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God. The neighbors were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, 'What then is this child going to be?' For the Lord's hand was with him.

His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: 'Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us-- to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.'

And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel.

Luke 1: 39-80

The History behind an Elizabeth and Zechariah in the Christmas Story

Elizabeth was Mary's cousin and a descendant of the Priest families of Israel and her father was a temple priest. Zechariah was also a temple priest. This may have been because he was married to the daughter of a priest rather than coming from a family of priests. He was thought of as a very holy and kind man, although because he came from a small village some priests though of him as a bit of a 'village hick'. Both Zechariah and Elizabeth would have been over 60 when this story took place, because people didn't think you could have children after the age of 60. Not having any children was a big social problem and sometimes seen as a neglect of a Priest's religious duty!

Zechariah was not a very important priest in the temple and this was the first time that he had the very important job of sprinkling incense on the altar to burn it. At this place in the Jewish service only Zechariah, as the incense priest, would have been in this part of the temple. His role was to pour the incense onto the golden altar and then bow in worship to God and then leave that part of the temple and say the final prayer of the service. Zechariah poured the incense on to the altar but before he could bow and leave, an angel appeared by the altar. In all the history of the Jewish religion, an angel had never appeared to someone in that part of the temple. The angel was Gabriel, the same angel that had visited Mary. If you'd like to know more about the angel Gabriel and his role as God's chief messenger, go to the section on whychristmas?com's sister site whyangels?com about Gabriel.

The name John (Jehochanan or Jochanan) means 'The Lord is Gracious'. He was to be called this because God had been kind to Elizabeth and Zechariah, giving them a child. Gabriel's words to Zechariah meant that when John was a man, he would tell the people about Jesus. Zechariah didn't really believe the angel and asked him to prove this to him, so Gabriel made Zechariah dumb, until he believed what the angel had said to him.

The other priests, waiting outside that part of the temple, would have wondered what was happening because Zechariah had taken much longer than he should have done to pour the incense. When he came out, they knew something had happened because he couldn't speak the final prayer.

Elizabeth did become pregnant as the angel had told Zechariah. She stayed in hiding for the first five months, because people might not have believed that she could become pregnant.

The words that Elizabeth spoke to Mary when they met, show that Elizabeth knew that Mary had a very important baby growing inside her; and that her baby would also have something to do with Mary's baby. The words that Mary said in reply are known as the 'Magnificat' and are a 'thank you' and worship prayer to God. When Mary left Elizabeth and Zechariah and went home to Nazareth, Elizabeth would have been about nine months pregnant and Mary would have been about three months pregnant. Mary may have gone home then because she did not want to get involved with the publicity of John's birth.

So it would not have been long after this that Elizabeth did give birth to John. When it was time to name the baby, it was natural for the family to think that it would be called Zechariah after his father, as this was normally how baby boys were named. But Elizabeth knew that he had to be called John. The family would have doubted this, so they asked the still dumb Zechariah what he should be called. As soon as he wrote down John, as the angel had said, he could speak again.

The prayer that Zechariah said then was the same one that he should have said when he came out of the temple but was unable to say. Now Zechariah could see what the words really meant. Christians believe these words are about Jesus.

There is an excellent article on the dating of Christmas based on the dates of Zechariah's experience, on the blog of theologian, Ian Paul.