How Should We Think About Birthdays?

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

Studying to preach on Matthew 14 has me thinking about birthdays. There are two, and only two, birthday celebrations mentioned in the Bible. The first is Pharaoh’s birthday feast, recorded in Genesis 40:20-22, where Pharaoh restores his chief butler and has his baker hanged. The second is Herod’s birthday celebration, recorded in Matthew 14:6-11 (parallel account in Mark 6:21-28), where John the Baptist’s head is brought on a platter.

Suffice it to say, the celebrating of birthdays is off to a rough start. And why not? Birthdays have always been a me-me-me proposition anyway, have they not?

Now consider the thoughts of John Calvin:

“The ancient custom of observing a birth-day every year as an occasion of joy cannot in itself be disapproved; for that day, as often as it returns, reminds each of us to give thanks to God, who brought us into this world, and has permitted us, in his kindness, to spend many years in it; next, to bring to our recollection how improperly and uselessly the time which God granted to us has been permitted to pass away; and, lastly, that we ought to commit ourselves to the protection of the same God for the remainder of our life.” – Calvin’s commentary on Matthew 14:6

That is a different angle entirely, and one worthy of some reflection. Calvin counsels us to use birthdays as a tool to do three things:

  1. Thank God for life. Life doesn’t result from boy-meets-girl. It is a gift from God. David declares this in Psalm 139:14, “I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well.” We have something to celebrate: God gave us life and has sustained us for another 365 days. That is praiseworthy, worth a day of intentional thankfulness.
  2. Reflect on the use of time. There may be no better day for taking inventory. How are we investing these lives God has given us? In Matthew 25:14-30, the parable of the talents, one man exercises good stewardship, turning his five talents into ten, and he is greeted by his Master, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Another man buries what his Master has given him, and his Master calls him wicked, lazy, and unprofitable and casts him out. Ephesians 5:15-16, “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”
  3. Commit ourselves to God. Don’t we need to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? Don’t we want to? Then let birthdays be days of pleading with God for progress, consecrating ourselves to His use in the coming year. As Paul writes in 2 Timothy 1:12b, “…I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day.”

It is small wonder that pagan kings use their birthdays for all manner of self-serving wickedness. The people of God, however, are a peculiar people, turning our sights to our glorious God and King at every opportunity. A birthday is one such opportunity. Use birthdays to acknowledge God as the giver and sustainer of life, to reflect on the use of the past year, and to commit to His good pleasure as many years as He would be pleased to give.