When we read the Bible we tend to gravitate to the “big names” – Abraham, Moses, David, Peter and Paul. Perhaps there are another fifty characters that get significant attention in our churches. But there are at least another thousand people mentioned by name, some counts going much higher. (Forgive me for not researching this number myself for this post!) Perhaps we too easily skim over these more minor characters that fill the pages of our Bibles?
There are at least three benefits that can come as we focus in on the more minor characters of the Bible:
- The fact that they are noticed, noted and named is an encouragement in itself. Most of us don’t feel like major characters in the epic history of God’s great plan as it is being worked out in our generation. We know we are minor characters. And if we have our eyes open to see the minor characters in the Bible, then we can be encouraged to know that our small part in God’s big plan also matters.
- Whenever we see any detail about a character in the Bible we will tend to see them involved in real life situations (since that is the nature of God’s inspired Word) – and consequently we can see both good and bad examples that can be so helpful for us in our contemporary circumstances. It would be naïve to think that there is nothing to learn from the many examples presented in Scripture, but it would also be a real shame to stop at mere example.
- God inspired the Bible so that the characters in it are more than examples to copy or learn from, they are also part of a story that is pointing the reader to God – his redemptive character and plan. The Bible is not a collection of historical tales with good moral lessons to be gleaned. It is God’s self-revelation to a world that desperately needs what only God can offer.
Let’s look at an example. Elizabeth only appears in one chapter in the Bible (Luke 1). It is a story with two or three major characters, as well as two very significant babies, and Elizabeth is relatively minor in comparison. There is the angel Gabriel bringing a message to Zechariah in the temple, and then several months later to young teenage Mary in Nazareth. Two very different recipients, in two very different locations, with two significantly different responses. Then in the second half of the chapter we see two great exclamations of praise – first Mary’s “Magnificat” and then Zechariah’s “Benedictus.” These two passages are triggered by two events. For Zechariah it is the birth of his son John, and the reinstatement of his voice. For Mary it is the declaration of Elizabeth when the two mothers-to-be met.
What can we legitimately learn from looking at Elizabeth in Luke 1? First of all, let’s evaluate some of the observations we might make. It is right to observe the details in the text, but not every observation should be applied in our lives. Some things were specific and not intended to function by way of example for us. Generally, the more we know our Bibles the easier we will find it to not apply observed details inappropriately. For instance, the rest of the Bible does not teach people to go into hiding when they discover they are pregnant. Nor does it support the idea that when a child moves inside the womb we should interpret the significance of that movement prophetically.
However, the rest of the Bible would support several possible observations from this passage:
- God hears and answers prayer – even if the years have passed and hope has apparently dissipated, God hears and answers prayer. We should continue to trust in God’s goodness and God’s plan. (See Luke 1:13)
- Every moment matters – Elizabeth, like most characters in the Bible, is offered to us in light of one incident in her life. What about the other 60 or 70 years? God noticed and noted their blameless living (see Luke 1:6). While our righteous choices don’t earn, they do matter.
- Our most significant role may still be future – Elizabeth supported her priestly husband faithfully over the years. This was her ministry. But then, out of the blue, came a role she never anticipated – she was to be the mother of the forerunner of the Messiah. That role is finished, but it is fair to say our most significant moment of ministry may be completely unknown to us and still future.
- For those of us who are parents, our most significant ministry may well be the children we raise – This passage, like many others in the Bible, underlines the significance of the children God gives to us. We live in a world that may seem desperate to protect children (at least those who have been born), but it is a world that constantly undermines the value of parenting. Time in passages like Luke 1 will reinforce our confidence that time invested in our little ones is time well spent.
These are some Biblically supportable observations from the story of Elizabeth. But these are somewhat at the level of surface observation, even if the points are theologically important. What does the text itself underline for the careful reader?
Elizabeth stands at the hinge of the story, between the two angelic visits and the two great exclamations of praise. She is not just the hinge of the chapter, she is the meeting point of the two pregnancy stories. She was the one who lived in hiding with this miracle child inside her. Surely, she quietly longed for conversation while her husband lived in wide-eyed silence because he had not believed the angel’s words. Then when the angel told Mary the great news of her soon-to-be pregnancy, he anticipated her need to talk things through with someone that would really understand, and so mentioned that her cousin was also with child. When Mary greeted Elizabeth there was a leaping of John within, and the Spirit of God poured out on her. The silence was broken, a great cry came out, and Elizabeth’s celebratory exclamation builds to the climactic point: “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
She’d lived with the consequences of disbelief, and now she could not contain her joy at the blessing of belief. Trust what God says and experience the blessing that follows. You and I will never have the same role as Mary or Elizabeth (for several reasons!), but that exclamation stands true for us today: let us trust what God says and experience the blessing that follows. At work, at home, in parenting, in ministry, in life.