Birthdays and the Bible

The question of whether or not the celebration of birthdays is biblical is one that many have not even considered. Birthday parties, sending of cards, presents, and best wishes, have become a common part of our culture. For the most part, Christians have adopted such practices without question or examination. A few small, though often vocal, Christian groups have taken the stance that all birthday celebrations are wrong, banning any such celebrations. They, of course, cite their Scriptural reasons for such a drastic stance, all of which must be considered here as well. The first time someone meets an individual that doesn't celebrate their birthday (for religious reasons) it is usually a member of the widespread Jehovah's Witnesses (Watchtower) cult, which has a universal ban on such practices. Some branches of Islam (Muslims) also do not celebrate birthdays (though others especially celebrate Muhammad's birthday). While the reasons given by non-Christians are irrelevant to the question at hand, Christians do need to be able to answer why we do what we do in answer to their objections. If we truly believe that the Bible is our guide for all of life, then the greater questions pertain to those who are part of God's church...

  1. Does the Bible command us to celebrate birthdays?

  2. Does the Bible command us to not celebrate birthdays?

  3. Does the Bible show us (by positive example) that we should celebrate birthdays?

  4. Does the Bible show us (by negative example) that we should not celebrate birthdays?

  5. Does the Bible give us freedom to celebrate birthdays?

Commands of Scriptures are the easy thing to deal with. If the Bible says we are to do something, or not do something, that is the clear-cut bottom line. Take adultery for example, God clearly says it's wrong and that we're not to do it (i.e. Exodus 20:14, Deuteronomy 5:18, Matthew 5:27-28, Matthew 19:18, James 2:11). There are no outs, exceptions, or things left open to interpretation or speculations. But, God does not always teach in such a fashion. Sometimes God has established principles, or examples, from which we can logically deduce what is right or wrong. This enables us to apply His word to our specific circumstances, which may be far removed from those of ancient times (...consider that we have cars, guns, internet, television, etc.).

Conclusion regarding questions 1 and 2: A thorough search of Scriptures finds absolutely no command, positive or negative, specifically concerning celebrating of birthdays.

The next phase of our search is for positive, or negative, examples of birthday celebrations (questions 3 and 4). This quickly results in finding a pair of direct references...

Genesis 40:20-22 Now the third day was Pharaoh's birthday, and he gave a feast for all his officials. He lifted up the heads of the chief cupbearer and the chief baker in the presence of his officials: 21 He restored the chief cupbearer to his position, so that he once again put the cup into Pharaoh's hand, 22 but he hanged the chief baker, just as Joseph had said to them in his interpretation. (NIV)

Matthew 14:6-11 On Herod's birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for them and pleased Herod so much 7 that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. 8 Prompted by her mother, she said, "Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist." 9 The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted 10 and had John beheaded in the prison. 11 His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. NIV [Also Mark 6:21-28]

These were quite the birthday parties. In the first instance, Pharaoh celebrated with a feast along with a display of his power for his guests. The result of his judgments was the death of one (presumed guilty) prisoner and the pardon and release (of an innocent, or perhaps guilty) prisoner. In fact, there is nothing negative given here regarding this birthday celebration. We hear of no riotousness, gluttony, drunkenness, and the matter of judgment was merely Pharaoh exercising his God given right and responsibility of government (see Romans 13:1-4). The second celebration, and only other time the word "birthday" is found in Scriptures, was that of Herod Antipas (son of Herod the Great). Here we find his party featuring wanton sensuality and a great perversion of justice. Obviously both of these features are prohibited by God.

With only two examples, one having nothing apparently wrong and the other blatantly so, the focus has to be on the actions of the key figures, namely that of pharaoh and Herod. As such, the passages do not pass judgment, for or against, the event at which they were committed.

Scriptures' lack of additional specific instances cannot be construed to say that only kings or rulers celebrated birthdays either. Many relatively regular (daily, weekly, annual) actions of common life in Bible times are not given us in detail or at all (but are known from other extra-Biblical sources). At best we can say that God did not feel it necessary to provide more examples or provide a specific yeah or nay to this practice. The party, as such, was really an incidental setting for the events being considered in the two given examples. Certainly a king, or ruler, had more resources to celebrate in a first class fashion than any of the commoners.

There is additional, indirect, evidence that most individuals "celebrated" birthdays through Biblical history. Part of the question now becomes "what is a celebration?" In a simple sense, as soon as you single out something or commemorate a specific day, in any way, you are celebrating it. For example, birthday celebrations have never been a big thing in our family. Often we would be away traveling in ministry, so the entire birthday celebration may consist of some scattered "Happy Birthday!" wishes and perhaps eating out at a favorite restaurant. Is this a celebration? Certainly, though not on the scale some are accustomed to.

The date, or day, of one's birth was marked throughout Biblical history. More than one hundred times the phrase "years old" is given accompanied by a number. A few general examples...

[Abraham, the man of faith] Genesis 17:1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, "I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. (NIV)

[Sarah, Abraham's wife] Genesis 23:1 Sarah lived to be a hundred and twenty-seven years old. (NIV)

[One of the believing spies sent into the Promised Land] Joshua 14:10-11 "Now then, just as the Lord promised, he has kept me [Caleb] alive for forty-five years since the time he said this to Moses, while Israel moved about in the desert. So here I am today, eighty-five years old! 11 I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out; I'm just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then. (NIV)

[Wicked king] 2 Kings 21:1 Manasseh was twelve years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem fifty-five years. His mother's name was Hephzibah. (NIV)

[Good king] 2 Kings 22:1 Josiah was eight years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem thirty-one years. (NIV)

[Good king] 2 Kings 18:1-2 In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, Hezekiah son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. 2 He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem twenty-nine years. (NIV)

Every one of these people kept track of, or marked the day of, their birth in some fashion for the purpose of keeping track of their age. As to any extent of this, Scriptures is silent, but it is certain that the marking, or commemorating of the day, in and of itself, is not wrong. Even in regards to Jesus, his parents did the same...

Luke 2:41-42 Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. 42 When he [Jesus] was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom. (NIV)

Does getting to go to the festival for the first time, when reaching a certain age, constitute a celebration? Every child would certainly hold this to be so! How many times have we heard a parent say, "When you are xx years old, you'll get to do... "? Age-based presents don't have to be material goods.

A person, even today, might celebrate reaching a particular birthday because of the extra privileges, or age-based, benefit they are now eligible to receive. This could be for attaining the age necessary to get a driver's license, to drink alcohol (this is the focus of another article), or even retirement. In a more general sense, merely reaching the age by which you are counted as an adult (to vote, leave home, get married, etc.) is another such milestone. Many of these were reasons people marked, or celebrated, reaching a particular birthday even in Bible times...

[Age basis for tabernacle/temple head tax] Exodus 30:14-15 All who cross over, those twenty years old or more, are to give an offering to the Lord. 15 The rich are not to give more than a half shekel and the poor are not to give less when you make the offering to the Lord to atone for your lives. (NIV) [While getting to pay a tax might not sound like a reason to celebrate, it showed that the individual was fully a productive adult member of the nation of Israel with all of the responsibilities and privileges that entailed.]

[Minimum age for military service] Numbers 1:20-21 From the descendants of Reuben the firstborn son of Israel: All the men twenty years old or more who were able to serve in the army were listed by name, one by one, according to the records of their clans and families. 21 The number from the tribe of Reuben was 46,500. [See also Numbers 1:24, 26, 28, 30, 32, 34, 36, 38, 40, 42, 45] (NIV)

[Age basis for working at the tabernacle/temple, or retiring for this work] Numbers 8:23-26 The Lord said to Moses, 24 "This applies to the Levites: Men twenty-five years old or more shall come to take part in the work at the Tent of Meeting, 25 but at the age of fifty, they must retire from their regular service and work no longer. 26 They may assist their brothers in performing their duties at the Tent of Meeting, but they themselves must not do the work. This, then, is how you are to assign the responsibilities of the Levites." (NIV)

[Minimum age for additional/management responsibility at the temple] 1 Chronicles 23:3-5 The Levites thirty years old or more were counted, and the total number of men was thirty-eight thousand. 4 David said, "Of these, twenty-four thousand are to supervise the work of the temple of the Lord and six thousand are to be officials and judges. 5 Four thousand are to be gatekeepers and four thousand are to praise the Lord with the musical instruments I have provided for that purpose." (NIV)

Even Job, whom God called "blameless and upright (Job 1:1)", appears to have a family that celebrated each other's birthdays. The passage in view, from two different English translations...

Job 1:4-5 His sons used to take turns holding feasts in their homes, and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. 5 When a period of feasting had run its course, Job would send and have them purified. Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, "Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts." This was Job's regular custom. (NIV)

Job 1:4-5 His sons regularly went to one another's houses, and every one on his day gave a feast: and at these times they sent for their three sisters to take part in their feasts with them. 5 And at the end of their days of feasting, Job sent and made them clean, getting up early in the morning and offering burned offerings for them all. For, Job said, It may be that my sons have done wrong and said evil of God in their hearts. And Job did this whenever the feasts came round. (BBE)

The second translation better emphasizes the "every one on his day" which is clear in the Hebrew text. A regular feast, on a person's "day", is what we call "a birthday!" (Note Job's use of the word "day" in association with his own birth in Job 3:1). When "a period of feasting had run its course", or in other words, when all of the children had had their birthdays that year; Job offered an annual sacrifice on their behalf, acting as a priest for his family. The bottom line is that Job's family celebrated their birthdays, complete with a birthday meal (feast) and fellowship!

These indirect examples of birthday celebrations leave us (and encourage us) to apply other Biblical principles as to the extent (or how) we should be celebrating. Fear of, perhaps, any excess has led many professing believers to withdraw from anything offering any potential for excess or indulgence. This is the mindset that led to monasticism and a belief that withdrawing from all worldly things (and other people) would make a person holier. In fact, legalistic sets of rules don't deal with the real problem. Only Christ sets us free from sin and only God can enable us to take every though captive and give us self-control. While this may give us personal cause to stay away from specific things, persons, or circumstances - knowing our own weaknesses - this cannot be the basis to establish "new law" and then impose it on the church. (For example, a person who has trouble with sexual thoughts may choose to never go to the beach. Another, who doesn't struggle in that area, can go and not yield to temptation. Both are correct, but the former should not decide to ban beach-going on behalf of the church. This is true legalism, creating a law or standard that God never intended for all.)

Colossians 2:20-23 Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 21 "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"? 22 These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (NIV)

As believers, who have been set free, we are warned to not let ourselves be enslaved again to the Old Testament Law or any other system of slavery (legalism).

Galatians 5:1 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (NIV)

Does this give us license to indulge in everything? - God forbid! Our freedom comes with boundaries, namely the admonition to not indulge the sinful nature. Our freedom allows us to do anything but sin, as He personally leads and guides us. What God may allow one person to do, He may not permit another, but no believer is ever allowed to sin! My freedom may allow me to go to Africa; yours may keep you from ever going there. To go or not go, of itself, is not sin, but it would become such if God had directed you personally to not go and you did, or to go and you didn't.

Romans 14:3-6 The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. 4 Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. 5 One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. (NIV) [See also Romans 14:23]

Galatians 5:13-14 You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. 14 The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." (NIV)

The apostle Paul even makes clear the identifying marks of those seeking to gratify the sinful nature versus those who are living empowered by the indwelling of God's Holy Spirit.

Galatians 5:19-23 The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (NIV) [See also Romans 13:13]

Obviously, the birthday party full of drunkenness, or having an orgy, has shown itself to be wrong because of what it contains. A Satanist, for example, would celebrate their own birthday as being a high holiday, because they see themselves as the focal point, as such placing themselves as god (not much different that some of the ancient rulers, including some of the Egyptian Pharaohs and Roman Caesars). Again, even if their birthday contained no other debauchery, it would still be wrong because it is celebrated as a form of idolatry.

For the believer, our celebration of a birthday should be with a completely different focus. Even as we celebrate the passing of a calendar year, thanking God for what He has done in the past, and looking forward to the next, so too our birthday is a celebration of God's goodness to us. Our parties are not filled with wickedness or self focus, but - as with our entire lives - they should be an opportunity to give glory to God.

1 Corinthians 10:31 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. (NIV)

Colossians 3:17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (NIV)

Additional general thoughts about birthdays

Consider that the Exodus (Passover and Feast of the Unleavened Bread) was an annual celebration of the birthday of the Jewish nation. Pentecost (or some say Easter) perhaps could be considered an annual celebration of the same for the Christian church, but I tend to think that Sunday is the weekly celebration of this. Yet each of the commemorative dates is truly a celebration with a focus on what God has done. Every annual milestone God enables us attain (personally or as the church) is equally an opportunity for the same.

Wicked people will always misuse and distort anything that is good. Their wicked actions should not cause us to flee from using (or reusing) these things for good. The message of Scriptures is that of redemption. Believers need to be redeeming that which has been (or is being) used for evil and using them for the glory of God. What a testimony this becomes to an unbelieving world! Sadly, both Jewish and Christian histories testify that their reaction has been one based in fear. For fear that people cannot be taught to do right; the easy reaction has been to ban. For example, the wickedness of Herodian and Roman type birthdays led the later Jews to ban the celebration of birthdays as part of idolatrous worship, rather than to reaffirm that it was the idolatrous worship that was wrong. Branches of the church have been filled with examples of such arbitrary legalism.

Writers of the early church viewed the celebration of birthdays as a pagan custom, again mostly for what had become the common practice of the culture around them. (Origen, circa 185-254 A.D. stated his view that it was sin to celebrate any birthday including that of Christ). This led to recommendations of ignoring a person's physical birthday in favor of celebrating the "birthdays" of saints and martyrs, believing that the day they suffered death and were reborn to the glory of heaven was worthy of celebration. Modern evangelical preachers have sometimes asserted a view not far from this, telling people that they should celebrate their spiritual birthday, the day they became a believer.

Psalms 90:12 Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (NIV)

(c) 2007 Brent MacDonald/LTM. Duplication is permitted as long as the source is cited.