And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.
Mary stayed with Elizabeth for a long time! Think with me for a few minutes about that visit. There are five relationships I want to think about.
Mary and Elizabeth
This relationship is the most natural. The two women are blood relatives, although the Bible is not clear how closely related they are1.
Elizabeth is significantly older than Mary. Again, we’re not sure how much older, but we can assume Elizabeth and Zechariah are well past childbearing age, or John’s birth would not have seemed like a miracle. They were “advanced in years” (Luke 1:7); in their “old age” (Luke 1:36).
Mary, on the other hand, is extremely young. She is unmarried, which indicates she is likely in her early to middle teenage years.
I like to think of Elizabeth as Mary’s older aunt, a kindly relative but also a mentor for her as she recovers from the shock of the angel’s message. Elizabeth has never had a child, but she is, like Zechariah, “righteous before God” (Luke 1:6) and even of the priestly line herself (Luke 1:5).
So Elizabeth can help Mary prepare for having the baby and prepare for being married and prepare for being the Lord’s anointed—all things wildly foreign to Mary, for which she will need all the help she can get.
Mary and Zechariah
Don’t forget that Zechariah is there, too! He’s a priest of the Most High God, and has himself spoken to an angel just as Mary has. He reacted rather less well than she did2, but nonetheless decades of service in the temple has surely put him in a place to be of great spiritual help and comfort to her as she works through what’s happening to her.
The Bible kind of glosses over Mary’s reactions to this news as if they were all good. Mary says to the angel, “Let it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38), and later, with Elizabeth, “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46). But in the nine months she carries Jesus, surely not every day was full of bliss and praise.
Elizabeth can help with the physical, mental, and emotional challenges. Zechariah, mute though he is during this period3, can bring to bear all his priestly training to help whenever she cries out, as she must have, “Why me?”
Mary and Joseph
Where is Joseph during this period? I assume he’s hanging around Nazareth doing carpenter things, perhaps preparing a house for Mary and himself.
Perhaps it doesn’t bother him that she just up and left. Despite the visit from the angel (Matthew 1:19–25), he’s probably not super calm about the whole situation. Some separation during this phase of their betrothal probably does them both some good.
Nonetheless, I can’t help but wonder how I would have felt if my fiancée had just taken off for three months while we were engaged.
Elizabeth and Zechariah
I’m also not sure I’d want this teenager around while I tried to figure out what was going on in my life.
As a guy, I naturally identify with Zechariah here. He’s long since given up on children, but he is faithful to his wife (which, sadly, we can’t say about most men of the Bible who have barren wives) and to his God (which we also can’t say about most men of the Bible, even kings like David and Solomon).
He was going about his business, burning incense and making sacrifices and worshiping God, when a terrifying angel appeared with an insane, impossible prophecy that he would have a son.
This guy has spent decades, probably, most of his life, trying to get over the idea of never having a son. Without a son, his family dies; his name dies. Without a son, he is a laughingstock, along with his wife.
And this angel shows up and reverses all of that.
Oh, and strikes him mute because he didn’t immediately believe the insane things the angel said.
So he goes home, hopeful, and sure enough Elizabeth gets pregnant. He cannot possibly be happier, mute or not, and for six months he’s walking on clouds.
I suspect Elizabeth feels most of these things, too: the shock of the pregnancy (though surely Zechariah figured out how to tell her about the prophecy), the reversal of shame, the contentment in their marriage that they hadn’t even been missing, but that now has been revealed to them.
But they can’t tell anybody. For one thing, given Elizabeth’s age, they might lose the baby, and that shame compounded with still not having a son would be unbearable. Plus, really, who would believe them? They’re way too old for that.
And here comes Mary. She’s also in a weird pregnancy situation4! They’ve invited her to visit to help out, or something. We don’t know where Mary’s parents were, but for some reason everybody knows this is where Mary needs to be.
So here are Zechariah and Elizabeth, in the middle of a marriage that suddenly looks different than it ever has before, somehow more hopeful and happier even though it had previously lacked nothing5.
And despite my earlier misgivings, maybe Mary is perfect. They can share the news with her! She, alone of all people in the world except maybe Joseph, understands.
And she needs their help. They are suddenly both real parents and surrogate parents (and, soon, surrogate grandparents, or aunt and uncle, or… something6).
I don’t know what Mary’s visit did to Elizabeth and Zechariah’s marriage. I imagine it was glorious. It may have been annoying at times—a three-month visit is not short. But even though the gospel writers don’t talk much about them, I like to think about how this couple’s life changed, so late in their seasons, and how Mary’s visit may have impacted it for good.
John and Jesus
I have to come clean to you, reader. I wrote all this just to get to this relationship. It’s by far the most interesting one here.
John and Jesus are… cousins? Related somehow, because their mothers are related somehow. But that’s less important than their amazing spiritual connection. They are closer than their bloodlines would suggest.
Elizabeth says to Mary, “When the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” (Luke 1:44) At this point, Elizabeth is about six months pregnant, and Mary is very early in hers (Luke makes it sound like Mary took off for Elizabeth’s house the day after the angel’s visit). And yet, John recognizes his Savior and rejoices.
And then these unborn children, one six months older than the other, get to spend the next three months together in some sense.
How must this have felt for Elizabeth, for John to jump for joy every time Mary walked into a room?
On one hand, probably annoying. These weren’t exactly big houses, so Mary probably walked into the room a lot. On the other hand, it reinforces that there’s something special, something unique, happening here, far beyond just two miraculous pregnancies.
Now, we don’t get to see John and Jesus grow up. We don’t know how old John was when he left to live in the wilderness (Luke 1:80). We don’t know whether they played occasionally as boys. But given how close Mary and Elizabeth were, and how close in age the boys were, I would guess they grew up knowing and loving each other. At least they would likely see each other every feast day, a few times a year in Jerusalem.
There’s another famous friendship in the Bible: David and Jonathan, perhaps the greatest story of friendship in the Old Testament, or maybe ever. But the love between John and Jesus is deeper than that, because John is also the prophet of Jesus, the man coming in the power and spirit of Elijah to baptize Israel and prepare her for the coming of her Lord and Savior, John’s childhood friend.
Come with me, please, across a brief story of the rest of their lives.
John is born. Six months later, Jesus is born. They grow up not together, but (probably) not apart.
At some point, John leaves for the wilderness to prepare for his public ministry.
Some time later, John begins his ministry, preaching baptism and the forgiveness of sins, and also that the savior is coming. The real one, the ultimate one, the Messiah.
He’s a bit crazy, a bit disheveled, and he eats locusts and honey and never cuts his hair. But tons of people see past this and flock to him for baptism and to hear his words.
Meanwhile, Jesus grows up. We don’t really know what He’s up to or where He is, but I think it’s more likely than not that He mostly grows up like a Hebrew kid from Nazareth, but with a fantastic fascination and connection with Yahweh, and wisdom beyond understanding.
Jesus turns thirty. He’s ready. And where does He go first?
John reacts basically the same way he did the first time Jesus came to visit him, thirty years prior, while they were both still unborn.
John jumps for joy, crying, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” This parallel to when they first met all those years ago makes me intensely happy.
John baptizes Jesus, the heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends like a dove, and God proclaims Jesus as His Son.
Now it’s Jesus’s turn in the wilderness, and John presumably goes back to preaching and baptizing, although now he has an actual human to point to.
Here’s where things get interesting. As part of his ministry, John has been correcting the people’s ways, since they have strayed so far. He instructs the crowds, the tax collectors, the soldiers, how to live; he calls the Pharisees, those (supposedly) holiest of men, a “brood of vipers”; and he really gets after a guy named Herod for marrying his brother’s wife and for being a generally evil guy.
Unfortunately for John, Herod is the tetrarch of Galilee. Not technically a king, but he may as well have been. And Herod is, in fact, a generally evil guy. So he locks John up in prison, but because has a feeling John is actually a righteous, innocent man, he doesn’t kill him despite his wife’s urging. Until a famous birthday party where they all get drunk and Herod’s wife’s daughter dances for them and Herod makes a stupid vow and ends up beheading John.
Well, Jesus hears of it. Matthew says John’s disciples immediately run and tell Him; the other gospels are less clear.
Either way, Jesus is stunned. His cousin, His Elijah, His friend, is dead—and not for some good reason, but because Herod was dumb and drunk and Herodias was evil and angry.
I cannot put myself in this mindset, but I can watch what Jesus does. He runs. No, that’s not right. He retreats. He goes, with haste, to “a desolate place by himself.” Not even taking the apostles, who are out on mission at this point. He needs to be alone.
Would you want to be alone? Your oldest friend, your greatest supporter, and the only person who truly understands who you are, has just been murdered for preaching the truth to power. Really dumb, evil power.
I think I agree with Jesus: I would want to be alone. But I know plenty of folks who would want to be anything but alone, who would gather their friends and family and mourn together. That’s what His friends do when He dies.
Anyway, that’s not what happens. Jesus is Jesus, and He doesn’t get to be alone. A massive crowd follows Him, begging for signs and miracles and teaching and healing and truth and, eventually, food, because they get hungry. You may recall this story: there are about five thousand of them, beside women and children.
The feeding of the five thousand, one of the most famous miracles, happens the day Jesus learns of John’s death. It is the event that caps their relationship on Earth.
And it started with Mary’s three-month visit to Elizabeth, way back here in Luke 1.
As I was pondering all these relationships, I kept wondering, “Why three months?” Luke’s a historian, so he’s pretty precise with his dates, but he’s not super clear on why.
But Luke is also a physician, and I know how to count.
We learn in Luke 1:24–25 that Elizabeth hides her pregnancy for five months.
Then in Luke 1:26, Mary hears from Gabriel in “the sixth month.” If you start reading in this verse, which at least in the ESV is natural because there’s a giant heading above it that says, “Birth of Jesus Foretold”, it sounds like maybe the sixth month of the calendar. But Luke didn’t write that heading, and Luke didn’t separate his text into verses, and Luke meant Elizabeth’s sixth month of pregnancy, because six comes after five.
Now Mary comes and visits for three months, and six and three make nine. And Luke, the physician, surely means that Mary stayed with Elizabeth and Zechariah until John was born. Perhaps she even stayed until the eighth day when Zechariah named him John and could speak again.
What a great celebration to have with this older relative, to see the birth of her son and the healing of her husband!
And having witnessed this, Mary can go home to Nazareth, to Joseph, with confidence and joy instead of the fear and trembling she must have felt that drove her to Elizabeth in the first place.
I have to say at the end here that we have extrapolated more than two thousand words of cool observations from a single verse with a single number. We’ve explored five relationships that we may never have considered in this light, because the gospel writers were concerned with different parts of the story.
But these were real people, with real lives, and they were not so different than we are. We can and should follow the Scriptures where they lead us, and today they have led us here, to these people and these relationships that we can recognize and rejoice in.
Maybe you’re Elizabeth, mature and wise and able to mentor a young woman who needs your guidance.
Or maybe you’re Elizabeth, content with your life, but suddenly everything is upside-down, and you’re not sure how to deal with it.
Maybe you’re Zechariah, a good husband who works hard and loves his wife and worships his God, a rock in an uncertain world.
Or maybe you’re Zechariah, so shocked that his life could possibly be made whole that he argues with an angel.
Maybe you’re Mary, rejoicing in the role God has given you.
Or maybe you’re Mary, young and inexperienced and suddenly lost and alone and looking for any source of comfort, of advice, of stability. If you are, by the way, find you an Elizabeth and a Zechariah. They need you, too.
Maybe you’re all of these folks or none of them. Whoever you are, you can see these glorious realities springing up from the Word of God.
Getting to Delight
One last thing: how did we get here? We started from one verse, sure, and we dove into it with all we had for all its worth. But we had to bring in huge amounts of the rest of the gospels to do it. We needed four different perspectives on Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, John, and Jesus.
The fullest delight in one verse took knowledge of a lot more.
How do you get this knowledge so you can do this yourself?
Well, I have some ideas, but you’ve already started: let someone else do the work for you. And not just at the beginning, when you don’t feel like you can do it yourself. The most experienced theologians read not just the Bible but the thousands of books and sermons that other people have written. And it doesn’t have to be books; podcasts work just fine, or Sunday sermons, or in-person classes, or, you know, blogs. Wherever wisdom is found, be there.
Second, get into the Word. This step may sound obvious, but there’s no true substitute. Why not start with the stories in this post?
Third, use your resources. Ask other people, search your Bible app, read commentaries, pick up a fancy concordance, or just use Google. There are thousands upon thousands of resources, and many of them are free.
But the most important part is to know that delight is there. To know that the end of all this reading and thinking and writing and working and talking is pure, utter joy in the Word of God. The psalmist captures and promises this joy:
Your testimonies are my heritage forever,
for they are the joy of my heart.
Go get it.
While some English Bibles read “cousin” in Luke 1:36, many translations simply say “female relative” to avoid the modern implication that they are first cousins. ↩
Did he, though? Compare Luke 1:18 with Luke 1:34; they seem equally incredulous to me. On the other hand, Zechariah is an old priest and should know better, while Mary is a child and maybe can be forgiven her brief disbelief. ↩
He can’t speak again until he names the boy John in Luke 1:63–64, but we know from the same passage he is literate. ↩
What an understatement. She’s in the weirdest pregnancy situation in the history of the universe. ↩
This dynamic, by the way, is exactly the dynamic of Jesus. He does not ask us to choose between good and bad—we already know good and bad. He wants to take our lives that we didn’t know could be better and make them spectacular. And He does it here: Elizabeth and Zechariah had surely contented themselves with childlessness, and here comes Jesus, and suddenly a life that was just fine is now supernaturally amazing. ↩
Can we please agree to call them godparents of God? ↩