Responding to God with Simple Faith | Luke 1:26-38

Today’s Scripture reading:Luke 1:26–38

Luke pairs the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5–25) with the story of Mary so that, among other things, we can compare and contrast them for our spiritual benefit.

Let’s begin with the comparisons. In both cases, the angel Gabriel announces the imminent birth of a baby boy who will play a decisive role in Israel’s history (and in the world’s). In both cases, the conception is miraculous, either because Elizabeth is barren or because Mary is a virgin. And in both cases, the women experience God’s blessing upon them.

The NIV uses one word, favor, of both Elizabeth (Luke 1:25) and Mary (verse 30), but in Greek, there are two different words: epeidon (“to consider”) and charis (“grace”). Both words connote God’s favorable disposition toward Elizabeth and Mary. Interestingly, Luke also uses charis to describe God’s blessing on Jesus’ childhood (Luke 2:40,52).

Now, consider the contrasts:

  • Zechariah and Elizabeth are old; Mary is young.
  • They are married; she is an unmarried virgin.
  • They live in Judea, near Jerusalem; she lives far north in Nazareth of Galilee.
  • They are priestly; she is a peasant.
  • Zechariah doubts. Mary believes.

That last contrast is the important one. Staring an angel in the face, Zechariah doubted the good news. Staring at the same angel with similar good news, Mary believed. By pairing Zechariah and Elizabeth so closely with Mary, Luke shows us the importance of simple faith.

Over the years, based on my theological reading and experience with Christians of different denominations, I have come to believe that Catholics place too much emphasis on Mary and Protestants not enough. Some time ago, one of the networks aired a two-part docudrama on the life of Pope John Paul II, for whom I have great respect. Just after being elected pope, John Paul II prayed, “Totus tuus, ego sum,” which is Latin for “I am wholly yours.” And he said that to Mary! Despite my admiration for the late pope, I cannot help but think that this is fundamentally wrong. We are wholly Christ’s alone, in my judgment. That does not preclude loyalties to other Christians, but it does preclude total loyalty.

On the other hand, Protestants give Mary little credit. Perhaps as an overreaction to Catholics, we downplay her role in the story of our own salvation. Think of it this way. Without Jesus dying on a cross for our sins and rising from the dead three days later, we cannot be saved. But Jesus could not have died or risen again without being human, and being human requires birth. So Jesus could not have been born without Mary. And Mary could not have given birth unless she had given assent to becoming “the Lord’s servant” (verse 38). Therefore, to a certain degree, the progress of the gospel hinged on whether Mary said “Yes” or “No” to the angel’s announcement.

But isn’t that just what salvation is all about — the grace (charis) of God calling out for a response of faith? The progress of the gospel in us, it turns out, also hinges on whether we say “Yes” or “No” to God’s grace.

P.S. This article is cross-posted at For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

The Songs of Christmas, Part 1

The Songs of Christmas, Part 2

The Songs of Christmas, Part 3

The Songs of Christmas, Part 4

Struggling with Disappointment and Doubt | Luke 1:8-23

Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:8–23

The singing season of Christmas begins in the silence of a childless home. It becomes even quieter with the doubts of Zechariah.

While Zechariah is offering incense to God in the temple, an angel appears to him and tells him that he and Elizabeth will soon give birth to a son to be named John. According to the angel, this son “will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous — to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (verse 17).

The angel’s words allude to Malachi 4:5–6, which foretells the ministry of a prophet “before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” John is that prophet. (And Jesus Christ is the Lord!)

You might think that the angel’s good news would fill Zechariah with joy. Instead, when the angel appears, Zechariah is “gripped with fear” (Luke 1:12). This seems to be the natural reaction of human beings to heavenly beings (see Luke 1:29–30 and 2:9–10, for example). But Zechariah’s fear gives way to doubt. Here’s how Luke describes Zechariah’s reaction to the angel’s message: “Zechariah asked the angel, ‘How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.’”

Have you ever struggled with disappointment and doubt? Have you ever wished that God would part the clouds and send a message directly to you, to comfort you in your situation? Many of us seem to think that we would have more faith in God if only He were a bit more forthcoming about His existence and plan for our lives.

Zechariah’s encounter with the angel Gabriel dispels such illusions. Through Gabriel, God spoke directly to Zechariah. He spoke directly to the issue of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s childlessness. He offered hope not only to them, but to all Israel (and to us as well). But Zechariah doubted anyway. And so, the angel struck him silent.

Why did Zechariah doubt? Because he put greater faith in earthly realities than in heavenly revelation. He trusted his experience more than God’s message. He believed that childlessness was his lot in life, even when an angel from heaven told him otherwise. Reason told him that he and his wife could not have a son, but reason did not factor God into the equation and so became irrational.

God speaks good news to us as well. Let us believe his Word, so that our silent fears and doubts may give way to joyful song.


P.S. This article is cross-posted at For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

The Songs of Christmas, Part 1


Silent Beginnings | Luke 1:5-7

Today’s scripture reading: Luke 1:5–7

Christmas is a singing season. Its catalogue of music includes an A to Z of joyous, hopeful tunes, both sacred and secular. Every song from “Away in a Manger” to “White Christmas” finds its proper place in this holiday season.

The singing began early with the events surrounding Jesus’ birth some 2,000 years ago. In his Gospel, Luke records the original songs of Christmas. They are best known by their Latin titles: “Magnificat,” “Benedictus,” “Gloria,” and “Nunc Dimittis.” Throughout this holiday season, I will be writing about these songs and the events that inspired them by taking a close look at Luke 1:5–2:52.

Although Christmas is a singing season, Luke begins his narrative of Christ’s birth with silence — specifically, the silence of a godly home without children. In biblical Israel, a large family was seen as evidence of God’s blessing, but childlessness was a source of shame (Luke 1:25).

The childless silence of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s home teaches us two things. First, in this life, obedience and blessing are not always linked. Luke emphasizes that both Zechariah and Elizabeth are devout Jews, not just in the eyes of other people, but “in the sight of God” himself (verse 6). Their childlessness is not a result of any sin or lack of faith on their part. On occasion, I hear of well-meaning Christians who tell sick people that an unconfessed sin or a lack of faith is the cause of their illness. But neither sin nor faithlessness explains Zechariah and Elizabeth’s childlessness here. In the providence of God — and for that reason alone — these godly people have no children.

Second, salvation begins when we recognize our utter need for God’s intervention. Luke tells us not only that Zechariah and Elizabeth did not have children, he tells us that they could not have children. Childbearing was beyond their ability, due to infertility and their advanced age. They could not have a child unless the Lord performed a miracle.

And so, the Christmas story begins with the forlorn silence of a childless home, of godly people who cannot have children. Why does Luke begin the Christmas story with Zechariah and Elizabeth? I see at least two reasons. First, He wants us to see a model of true godliness. Zechariah and Elizabeth worship God for His own sake, not for their own sake. They love God regardless of whether doing so results in this-worldly blessing. And second, Luke wants to show us our need. Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, we bring nothing to the table in our relationship with God. He alone works the miracle of salvation.

Tuesday’s Influence Online Articles

Today, over at

  • We publish our Q&A with Preston Ulmer, lead pastor of Doubters Church in Denver, Colorado. I like this quote especially: “When I was in college, serious doubts about my faith drove me into depression and anxiety. After having a season of doubt and leaving the faith personally, I found someone willing to disciple me, patiently helping me reconstruct my faith. Through the seeking and doubt, I returned to the faith and found God to be an unchanging God who I could commit to even in the face of uncertainty.” Isn’t it amazing how God uses our personal experiences–whether good or bad–to shape our ministry to others?
  • Chris Railey asks whether experiential is the new contemporary: “Emerging generations don’t want to sit and listen; they want to participate and experience, and this in many ways is the essence of Pentecostalism.” Amen to that!

Please make sure to follow and like InfluenceInfluence magazine on Facebook, Twitter, and iTunes!

Friday’s Articles

Today, over at

  • Chris Railey offers three helpful insights about the importance of delegation.
  • We interview Brian Schmidgall about how MiddleTree Church is building bridges between racial and socioeconomic divides in North St. Louis, Missouri.
  • I review Andy Crouch’s new book, The Tech-Wise Family.
  • And Christina Quick notes Pew Research about faith commitment and levels of education.

Please make sure to follow and like InfluenceInfluence magazine on Facebook, Twitter, and iTunes!

Review of ‘Doubt, Faith, and Certainty’ by Anthony C. Thiselton

Anthony C. Thiselton’s Doubt, Faith, and Certainty is not a practical book. It does not teach Christians how to overcome their doubts, increase their faith and achieve certainty. Instead, it examines the definitions of each of those three terms, painting a complex, nuanced portrait of them using the colors of Scripture, theology and philosophy.

The author is professor emeritus of Christian theology at the University of Nottingham, England. He is best known for his books on hermeneutics or interpretation, especially The Two Horizons. In addition to his hermeneutics books, he has published New Testament commentaries and several volumes on theological topics.

Thiselton opens the book by noting, “It is a practical disaster that in popular thought some view all doubt as a sign of weakness and lack of faith; while others, by contrast, extol doubt as always a sign of mature, sophisticated reflection.” Something similar could be said of the terms faith and certainty. By contrast, Thiselton’s “simple message” in this book is that “none of these terms has a uniform meaning, or has a uniform function in life. They have a variety of meanings.”

Doubt, Faith, and Certainty’s purpose is to tease out their various meanings and functions. While defining terms is not, in and of itself, a practical enterprise, Thiselton states that it nevertheless constitutes “an immensely practical and potentially liberating pastoral and intellectual issue.” Read the book for yourself to see whether and how that’s true.

Book Reviewed: Anthony C. Thiselton, Doubt, Faith, and Certainty (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 2017).

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review was written for and appears here by permission.

Review of ‘The Life of Faith’ by Cornelia Nuzum

The-Life-of-FaithCornelia Nuzum, The Life of Faith (Springfield, MO: My Healthy Church, 2014). Paperback | Kindle

[Author’s note: I wrote the Foreword to a forthcoming new printing of The Life of Faith, which I’m posting here as a review.]

The Life of Faith by Cornelia Nuzum is worth reading for historical and spiritual reasons.

As a matter of history, it reflects the emphasis on faith that characterized the first generation of Pentecostals. That faith confidently proclaimed that the believer was heir to the promises God had fulfilled through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Those promises touched on all aspects of life: salvation, sanctification, spiritual empowerment for mission, and healing. Quoting Galatians 3:13, Nuzum writes: “‘Christ hath redeemed us from the curse,’ all of it, not some, nor even much of it, but all of it.” This confident faith in Jesus Christ as Savior, Healer, Spirit-Baptizer, and soon-coming King continues to characterize Pentecostalism today, and it partly explains the rapid and extensive growth of Pentecostalism throughout the world.

As a matter of spirituality, The Life of Faith offers a standing rebuke to the shallowness and nominalism in Christian practice. Or perhaps, to put it positively, I should say that it encourages us to go deeper in our relationship with Jesus Christ. Nuzum writes:

My tongue cannot express the greatness of mydeliverance, but my heart goes out to my great Deliverer in adoration, worship, praise, loyalty, and thanksgiving. Who would not desire to be fully yielded to such an almighty, gracious loving One? My desire is to be one with Jesus in all things. How far we come short of this! How sweet are the words, “Conformed to the image of Christ.” Oh, to so live that we may not hinder God, but let Him do this for each one of us.

Some may read this little book and question its emphasis on healing. I understand their questions. As a person with a chronic illness, I struggle with why Christ has not healed me yet, despite my faith. But when I read Nuzum’s words, I am reminded that the most important thing is to be conformed to the image of Christ. Oh, that you and I may so live that we do not hinder God from conforming us to His Son!

That is the true and lasting life of faith.


P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

The Yeast of the Pharisees (Mark 8.1­–21)

Over the past two years, I have become a huge fan of television crime shows. I watch CSI, Law & Order, Cold Case, and Numbers, of course, all of which are fictional. But I enjoy “true crime” shows the most. My wife and I TiVo every episode of American Justice and Cold Case Files. What fascinates me about these shows is the way detectives patiently gather and sift evidence in order to solve the case and convict a criminal.

Mark 8.1–21 tells two stories. The first is the feeding of the 4000 (vv. 1–13). The second reports on the debriefing meeting Jesus held with his disciples after the event. The Pharisees play a negative role in both stories. In the first, they refuse to let the evidence of Jesus’ power convince them that God has sent him. In the second, Jesus warns the disciples not to become like them. Let’s take a closer look at both stories.

The Gospel of Mark is filled with stories about Jesus’ miraculous powers. In our day, people think of Jesus primarily as a teacher. In Jesus’ day, people thought of him as a teacher, exorcist, and miracle worker. He both taught about and demonstrated the power of the kingdom of God. When the Pharisees witnessed Jesus feed the 4000 with seven loaves of bread, they had already seen or heard about his many other miracles, including the feeding of the 5000, which is recorded in Mark 6.30–44.

The Pharisees’ knowledge of Jesus’ miracles is what makes their request in verse 11 so aggravating. “To test him,” Mark says, “they asked him for a sign from heaven.” Jesus responded: “Why does this generation ask for a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, no sign will be given it.” Of course, Jesus had already given them many “signs from heaven—exorcisms, healings, a resurrection, and two miraculous feedings of multitudes. The Pharisees simply refused to look at those. They wanted yet another. They are like the defense attorneys in my crime shows who, faced with a mountain of evidence against their client, think there is still a reasonable shadow of a doubt.

And that brings us to the disciples. Jesus warned them about “the yeast of the Pharisees.” This is a colorful way of talking about the Pharisees’ skepticism, which will—like yeast—spread throughout the believing community if unchecked by faith. But faith is not unreasonable. Jesus provides evidence that faith in him is well placed. He cites the feeding of the 5000 and of the 4000 as evidence in his favor. “Do you still not understand?” he asks the disciples. In other words, will you believe in me because of what you have seen with your own eyes?

There comes a point in our lives when we must make a decision about Jesus. I know people who put off that decision, also seeking more data, more evidence, more arguments in Christ’s favor. I’m always happy to give such people what they’re asking for—since there is plenty of evidence for Jesus. But at some point, we all have to make up our minds about Jesus. Asking for more evidence may be an indication of legitimate spiritual seeking. But it also may be an indicator of illegitimate, obstinate, unreasonable doubt.

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Thursday, December 22, 2011

DECEMBER 22: Happy Winter Solstice Day!

POT, MEET KETTLE: “The Accidental Universe: Science’s crisis of faith.”

That same uncertainty disturbs many physicists who are adjusting to the idea of the multiverse. Not only must we accept that basic properties of our universe are accidental and uncalculable. In addition, we must believe in the existence of many other universes. But we have no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence. Thus, to explain what we see in the world and in our mental deductions, we must believe in what we cannot prove.

Sound familiar? Theologians are accustomed to taking some beliefs on faith. Scientists are not. All we can do is hope that the same theories that predict the multiverse also produce many other predictions that we can test here in our own universe. But the other universes themselves will almost certainly remain a conjecture.

“We had a lot more confidence in our intuition before the discovery of dark energy and the multiverse idea,” says Guth. “There will still be a lot for us to understand, but we will miss out on the fun of figuring everything out from first principles.”

YEP: “Call It Christ’s Mass and Let Best Buy Keep the Holiday.”

AZUSA STREET, 100 YEARS LATER: “More Than 1 in 4 Christians Are Pentecostal, Charismatic.”

COME ON IN, THE WATER’S FINE! “Baptists, Pentecostals Seek Common Ground.”

OR PERHAPS EUROPE HAS MOVED AWAY FROM FOLLOWING? “Christianity is still the largest religion in the world but followers have moved away from Europe.”

BECAUSE VIRTUE ISN’T GOING AWAY: “Why We Need a ‘Stuck with Virtue’ Science.”

BECAUSE SOCIOLOGISTS HAVE NOTHING BETTER TO DO: “Sociological rules of Christmas gift giving.”

QUESTIONABLE RELIGIOUS STATISTIC: “Study: Atheists distrusted as much as rapists.”

GOOD FOR THEM! BUT DIDN’T SCROOGE CONVERT? “Atheists aim to change image of penny-pinching Scrooges.”

CRAP OR CONSCIENCE? “Manure Makers, Yes; Catholics, No.”


IVY LEAGUE PERVS: “The Postmodern Pedophile: Meet the academics who try to redefine pedophilia as ‘intergenerational intimacy.’”

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