t happens an amazing 255 times every minute all over the world, but when it happens to you it changes your life forever!
In 2007, statistically speaking, 255 babies were born per minute and 134 million new lives were added to a world population of more than 6.6 billion people. So 134 million times each year a first breath, a first cry, a first touch, sometimes joyfully welcomed, sometimes cruelly rejected, but always the miracle of creation taking place anew.
It happened to us on March 15, 2008, when we happily welcomed our third son into this world. He was born during the early hours of a Sabbath morning when two very exhausted parents received him from the arms of the doctor who attended his birth. Birth is possibly the most intense moment in human experience in which suffering and joy meet each other, but are resolved through the creation of a new human life. It is also the moment that redraws the act of divine creation again and again on the canvas of history. In the procreation of human life, God as the Creator has to be acknowledged when we humbly witness the miracle of birth. Even in the midst of an overcrowded planet with dwindling resources to feed its billions, the arrival of a baby is still a reason to celebrate. When I saw my wife lying happily with Matthias in her arms in the hospital bed, I could not help praising God for the miracle of creation.
The story of the Bible is a story that spans the distance from Creation to re-creation, from the birth to the rebirth of humankind, and along the way are a number of important birthdays that map out the plan of salvation.
A Nation Is Born
One of them, the birth of Israel as a nation, is hidden away in a short verse in the first chapter of Exodus. Many years are condensed in the first verses of Exodus, which outline a numerical growth from one person, the patriarch Jacob (Ex. 1:1); his 12 sons (verses 2-5); his whole clan, numbering 70 (verse 5)—to a nation. Twelve chapters later we read of 600,000 men—plus the rest of their families—who take part in the Exodus (12:37). That sounds more like a nation to me than one, 12, or even 70. Something in the realm of a population explosion must have taken place between Jacob and Moses. Exodus 1:7 provides the answer: “But the sons of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly, and multiplied, and became exceedingly mighty, so that the land was filled with them” (NASB).*
If an author uses four different verbs in one sentence to describe the same action, we know they want to make a specific point. All the expressions serve to underline the incredible population growth that turned a clan of country-searching nomads into a nation. But what is even more intriguing is the choice of verbs in this verse: all four verbs are connected to the terminology used in the story of Creation in Genesis 1 and 2 and in this way link Israel’s birth as a nation to the birthday of humanity.
Moses carefully chose his vocabulary to connect the beginning of the book of Exodus to the first beginnings recorded in Genesis. While God creates the earth and humankind in Genesis, He creates a people to serve Him in Exodus.1 For a Hebrew-speaking reader and listener the allusions must have been loud and clear.
However, while the first Creation account is full of exuberant joy, since the Fall (Gen. 3) all births have been accompanied by pain and suffering mixed with joy. The birth of Israel as a nation is also characterized by pain and suffering mixed with joy; yet, joy ultimately triumphs over the cries of mothers whose infant boys had been mercilessly thrown into the Nile River, for no xenophobic Egyptian Pharaoh could stop the process of divine nation-making. The plan of salvation moves one step forward as the daughter of the selfsame Pharaoh rescues the baby Moses from his little ark as it floats among the reeds of the riverbank, not knowing that she has just preserved the life of the future liberator of Israel.
A Church Is Born
Old Testament typologies often become a reality in the life of Jesus Christ. The birth of a nation as recorded in the book of Exodus is reenacted in the birth of a church that marks the formation of spiritual Israel. It is astonishing how even the numerical growth, as told in the Gospels and in the book of Acts, reflects the progression we have traced for Israel in Exodus. It begins with the God-man, Jesus, who is the rock on which the church is built (Matt. 16:18), the foundation (1 Cor. 3:11) and cornerstone of the church (Eph. 2:20), and the head and husband of the church (Eph. 5:23)—to mention just a few of the metaphors the biblical authors employed to describe Jesus’ role as the foundation of the church.
From the One it moves to the 12, the disciples chosen by Jesus, spiritually engendered and discipled throughout His three and a half years of earthly ministry: “He appointed twelve—designating them apostles—that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach” (Mark 3:14). From 12 the group that surrounds Jesus grows to 70 (Luke 10:1), and this nucleus of the church follows Jesus to the cross—some from a close distance, others from farther away. The next number we find in reference to the birth of the church is related to Pentecost and suddenly we are counting 3,000 (Acts 2:41), then 5,000 (4:4). Then nobody is able to count anymore and we read of “a great number of people” (11:21, 24, see verse 26), crowds (13:45), large numbers (14:21), many (17:12), and many thousands (21:20), so that by the end of the third century A.D. the Roman Empire had been thoroughly penetrated by the Christian church. The numerical explosion from 70 to 3,000, which happened in only 40 days, can be explained only by the event that stands between these two numbers, namely Pentecost. As much as God created Israel as a nation from Jacob’s clan of 70, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost marks the birth of the Christian church, which can be explained only by divine intervention: “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (2:47).
But there is also the element of joy mixed with sorrow and pain that marks every birth after the Fall, and the persecutions suffered by the emerging church are reflected in the quotation attributed to Tertullian, who wrote at the end of the second century A.D.: “The blood of the [martyrs] is the seed [of the church].” However, the birth of the Christian church could not be stopped, and the plan of salvation moved yet another step forward toward its glorious fulfillment. It is interesting how Revelation 12 picks up on this birth imagery and prophetically describes the origin of the Christian church and its accompanying mixed emotions of joy and suffering: “A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth” (Rev. 12:1, 2).
We usually celebrate our birthdays once a year with more or less enthusiasm—normally with less and less enthusiasm as time goes on and we grow older. We sing “Happy Birthday” to each other, blow out the candles, collect the presents, and move on with our lives.
But there are also different kinds of birthdays that mark our spiritual lives. Some time ago I was asked by a friend from another Christian denomination: “When were you born again?” I hesitated a bit and mentally recovered the date of my baptism, which was the answer I gave him. It obviously didn’t satisfy him, so the next question came: “And since when have you been speaking in tongues?” I was not able to give him a satisfying answer on that one, and I could see that in his opinion I was definitely not really converted nor born again. While I might not agree with my friend’s theology of Christian conversion and rebirth or the signs thereof, one part of the question stuck: “When were you born again?”
God’s universal plan of salvation is marked by a repetition of historical birth experiences: Israel in Egypt, the Christian church—I’ve taken only two examples but one could go on. “When were you born again?” I’m slowly coming to the realization that I cannot limit my conversion experience to the one day when the baptismal waters closed over my head, but that conversion is a daily process, and by necessity a continuous experience. Ellen G. White made some interesting statements on the issue: “Daily we need the converting power of God, or we cannot walk in the footprints of Christ. As the mind is enlightened in regard to what is purity and sanctification, and the heart responds to the strivings of the Holy Spirit, a daily conversion will be the result,”2 and “There is a positive necessity for a daily conversion to God, a new, deep, and daily experience in the religious life.”3
We need that daily experience of renewed creation through conversion. It comes with joy as we grow toward the final and glorious re-creation, but also with suffering as we experience the growing pains of the born-again. Growth will take place, but only as the result of divine intervention. The exponential growth curve from one to 12 to 70 to many that we’ve traced in the birth of both literal and spiritual Israel shows how the God of Creation continues to be “creative” within the human sphere.
While it might appear to be difficult, even dangerous to express personal spiritual growth in numbers, the description of the Christian growth experience as mapped out in the New Testament is not without reference to numbers. There is first the one, the “greatest of these”: love, the one spiritual gift that will outlive all others and which, at the same time, forms the basis for any spiritual growth (1 Cor. 13:13). Then there are the nine manifestations of the fruit of the Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22, 23). We could go on with forgiveness, for which Jesus recommends applying it 70 times seven (Matt. 18:22)—which could also be translated as: “Stop counting!” Finally there is the story of the talents, which illustrates how God can multiply what He has given to us when we, in turn, dedicate it in service back to Him: “For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance” (Matt. 25:29).
Creation has always zoomed in on the individual, as much as the Creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 starts with the world and ends with Adam and Eve. The Creator of the world, of Israel, and of the church is eager to create something new in you and me personally. Be born—again! Grow in Him through a daily conversion experience. And “Happy Birthday” to you today!
*Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
1The four Hebrew verbs in Exodus 1:7 (NASB) connect to the first chapters of the ?Bible in the following way: “were fruitful”—Genesis 1:22 (sea creatures) and verse 28 (humankind); “increased greatly”—Genesis 1:20, 21 (sea creatures); “multiplied”—Genesis 1:22 (sea creatures) and verse 28 (humankind); and “became exceedingly mighty”—Genesis 2:23 (Eve’s creation from Adam’s bones).
2Ellen G. White, The Upward Look (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Assn., 1982), p. 269.
3White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 4 (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing Assn., 1948), p. 559.
Martin G. Klingbeil, the proud father of three sons, is vice president for academic administration at Helderburg College, South Africa. (Published October 8, 2009)