Today, people celebrate birthdays in many ways, from simple family gatherings to elaborate parties. We may wonder where these traditions come from—and if the Bible has anything to say about how we should celebrate.
Do We See References to Birthdays in the Bible?
The word “birthday” appears twice in English translations of Scripture. The first one is found in Genesis 40. Genesis 40:20 follows the story of Joseph interpreting the dreams of the cupbearer and the baker. Both men were released in time for the pharaoh’s birthday bash.
Some commentaries believe this birthday celebration was to honor the Egyptian Pharaoh as a god, usually done on the third day of the party. His actual name is unknown—“pharaoh” was the title of the king. Things did not go well at this birthday party—at least not for the chief baker. As Joseph predicted, the baker lost his life.
Let’s move to the New Testament and look at another king’s birthday bash. The story about King Herod and John the Baptist is in Mark 6 and Matthew 14. Earlier, John the Baptist had warned Herod he was living in sin, an unlawful marriage with Herodias, his brother’s wife. And for his warning, he was placed in prison.
“But when King Herod’s birthday was celebrated, the daughter of Herodias danced before them and pleased Herod. Therefore he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask” (Matt. 14:6-7). The next verses give a gruesome account of how John the Baptist’s life was taken.
Neither birthday gives us a godly reason to celebrate a birthday.
So then, why did God want these stories documented? Why would the authors give us these horrible, gruesome accounts of a birthday gathering? The accounts are there for a reason. Consider the following:
- There is one example from the Old and the New Testaments.
- Both men served as kings.
- A specific date or year is not given for either individual mentioned.
- Culture and customs played a significant role in what was allowed.
- Both individuals demonstrated a worldly, selfish mindset in a pagan culture, and neither professed belief in the one true God.
What Does the Bible Say about Jesus’ Birthday?
Scripture doesn’t tell us about the exact day and year of Jesus’ birth. In the Old Testament, we are told to expect His coming (Isaiah 9:6-7). Then we see the fulfillment in the Gospel of Luke:
“So it was, that while they (Joseph and Mary) were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:6-7 NKJV)
From this point forward, we don’t know anything about Jesus’ birthdays. Wise men brought gifts around two years after Jesus’s birth. (Matthew 2:1-12). But it wasn’t because of His birthday. They were looking for the “King of the Jews.” When they found Him, they fell and worshipped him.
Two other events refer to Jesus’ age. Luke 2:42 references that He was twelve when his family traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of the Passover. The next time His age is referenced is Luke 3:23b, “Now Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age.”
If we don’t know the exact day Jesus was born, the most important moment in history, why do we celebrate His birthday on December 25? If you would like to learn more about why Christians celebrate Jesus’ birthday on December 25, read “Why do Christians Celebrate Jesus’ Birthday?”
Charles Spurgeon’s sermon “The Great Birthday,” from his collection The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Volume 22, highlights why Christians should be discerning but not overly concerned about whether they can worship Jesus’ birthday on a day when it didn’t happen:
“There is no reason upon earth beyond that of ecclesiastical custom why the 25th of December should be regarded as the birthday of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ any more than any other day from the first of January to the last day of the year; and yet some persons regard Christmas with far deeper reverence than the Lord’s-day. . . At the same time, the day is no worse than another, and if you choose to observe it, then observe it unto the Lord.”
In God’s plan and sovereignty, Jesus came to earth for one purpose: to pay the debt for humanity’s sins. He became flesh and dwelt among us. He died a horrible death on a cross, placed in a tomb, and arose on the third day. The resurrection brought redemption for every person who willingly repents and places their faith and trust in Him (John 3:16).
What Can We Learn from These Birthdays in the Bible?
As stated previously, the two main birthday parties mentioned in the Bible show the darker side of human nature—evil behavior—pagan examples from men who didn’t know the one true God.
Furthermore, we don’t read about the disciples or other biblical characters celebrating their birthdays. Yet we read references to their age—how old they were when they had a child or when certain events happened and when they died.
We do see references to other kinds of rites of passage—for example, Jesus going with his family to the temple in Jerusalem when he was 12. G. Campbell Morgan explains how that coming to the temple at that age meant Jesus was undergoing an important rite of passage:
“The purpose of the coming to Jerusalem in Luke 2:42 on the part of Mary and Joseph was undoubtedly primarily that of fulfilling the requirements of the law, the bringing of Jesus to His confirmation. At this point the boy was supposed to enter upon that period of life when He should have immediate dealings with the law, receiving it no longer through the instruction of His parents; but having been brought by them into a knowledge of its requirements, He would now take upon Himself the responsibility. The rite, which is still in existence, consists in the preparation by the candidate of certain passages of the law, which are to be recited, and his presentation to the rulers and doctors, that in conversation with him, they may ask him questions, testing his knowledge, and he may submit to them questions arising out of his training. It was to this ceremony of confirmation that Jesus was brought at the age of twelve.
The picture of Christ here is very full of beauty, although too often the natural fact is obscured by false ideas concerning the attitude of Jesus towards the teachers. A very popular conception of His action here is that of a boy delighting to ask questions that will show His own wisdom and puzzle the doctors. This would seem to be utterly contrary to the facts. Jesus, a pure, beautiful boy, physically strong, mentally alert, spiritually full of grace, moving into new and larger experiences of His life, answered the questions of the doctors with a lucidity that astonished them and submitted problems to them which showed how remarkable was the calibre of His mind and how intense the fact of His spiritual nature. So great an opportunity was this to Him that He tarried behind, still talking with these men.
Supposing Him to have been with the company, His parents had started on the homeward journey, and missing Him, returned. Here again violence has been done to the character of Christ by the tone in which His question has been repeated. There was no touch of rebuke in what He said to His mother. It is far more probable that there was a tender expression of surprise that she from whom He had received His training, and under whose direction His mind had developed, and His spiritual nature been nurtured, should not know how “the things of His Father” were to Him the chief things.”
(Adapted from The Crises of the Christ, Book II, Chapter VII, by G. Campbell Morgan. Previously published as “Why Did Jesus Go to the Temple at 12 Years of Age?” on Christianity.com on September 13, 2010)
Jesus didn’t have cake and balloons for this rite of passage, but it was an important one that his family would have remembered and commemorated. It became still more important when Jesus did something surprising (staying behind to talk in the temple) that showed he truly was becoming an adult instead of a child . . . and a very special adult.
How Can We Celebrate Birthdays in Ways that Honor the Lord?
Now, for the big question: If Moses, Jesus, the disciples, and Paul’s birthdays are not mentioned and celebrated, should believers today celebrate birthdays?
No clear-cut Scripture discourages or encourages a Jesus follower not to celebrate a birthday. Therefore, believers go back to 1 Corinthians 10:23-33, where Paul talks about believers having the freedom to do many things but to remember to do “all to the glory of God.”
So, it goes back to the motive. Is celebrating purely for self-gain? Or is it a way to glorify God, celebrating with a purpose?
How can we focus on a birthday celebration that gives God glory? The following are a few suggestions:
1. Let’s begin with Psalm 139 and giving Him praise because:
- God knows everything about us (vs. 1-6)
- We can never flee from His presence (vs. 7-12)
- He formed our inward parts; we are to praise Him because we are fearfully and wonderfully made; we are made in the image of God (vs. 13-16)
- God’s thoughts for us are beyond being numbered (vs. 17-22)
- He knows our hearts and our wicked ways, and yet He loves and leads us (vs. 23, 24)
2. Celebrate a person’s birthday as an evangelism tool. Use it as a time to also celebrate their spiritual birth. The following books can give you some ideas:
Tea Parties with a Purpose: 10 Simple and Fun Party Ideas for Kids of All Ages by Bobbie Wolgemuth
Parties with a Purpose by Karol Ladd
Party with a Purpose by Page Hughes
3. Cards and letters are an excellent way to express birthday sentiments. Make it personal by choosing a verse or passage of Scripture that best relates what this individual means to you and how they have impacted your life. Words of encouragement, blessings for the next year, or write out a prayer. Here are some Scriptures to help you start: Lamentations 3:22-23, Ecclesiastes 11:8, Psalm 71:6-8, Proverbs 16:20.
Birthdays are a time to celebrate God’s gift of life, physically and spiritually, as well as an individual’s unique gifts, talents, and abilities. They allow us to thank the Lord for His kindness, goodness, blessings, and more. A birthday celebration is an excellent opportunity to praise Him, for we are created to bring Him glory!
Photo Credit: Rahel Daniel/Unsplash
Laura Lee Leathers is a writer and speaker. Imagine Lois Lane, over sixty-five, and living on a farm. Her metropolis is the area of freelance writing. Her primary love interest is the Word of God. She digs for information, interviews fascinating people, offers a cup of biblical hospitalit-tea, encourages, and helps others with the ‘how-to’s’ of life. To sign up for her newsletter, connect with her at http://lauraleeleathers.com - - - “Helping You Flourish in Faith & Finish Well by His Word”
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