"Do not eat meat that has not been drained of its blood. Do not practice fortune-telling or witchcraft. “Do not trim off the hair on your temples or trim your beards. Do not cut your bodies for the dead, and do not mark your skin with tattoos. I am the Lord. Do not defile your daughter by making her a prostitute, or the land will be filled with prostitution and wickedness. Keep my Sabbath days of rest, and show reverence toward my sanctuary. I am the Lord. Do not defile yourselves by turning to mediums or to those who consult the spirits of the dead. I am the Lord your God." (Leviticus 19:26-31)
This passage from Leviticus is the primary addressing of tattoos in the Scriptures, which first tells us that the Bible is almost completely silent on the issue. Examining this passage in its context as a message to Israel reveals 8 COMMANDMENTS within the 6 verses that share a common theme SANCTIFICATION (DON'T BE LIKE THE IDOLATROUS PAGAN CULTURE AROUND YOU).
The statement I am Yahweh your God bookends this section (at the end of 19:25 and the end of 19:31). The statement emphasizes God s uniqueness and holiness as opposed to Egyptian, Canaanite, or other pagan gods. The 8 COMMANDMENTS (mostly prohibitions) are as follows:
1) You shall not eat anything with blood. A practice of pagan cultures in association with religious rituals, including drinking animal blood.
2) You shall not practice divination or soothsaying. Occult (supernatural or magical) practices were popular among the pagan cultures, while sometimes legitimate and sometimes not, and ultimately performed by Satanic power. Divination and soothsaying are both attempts to know the future or tell fortunes.
3) You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads, nor harm the edges of your beard. Apparently God didn't allow the bowl cut. This fashion of having sideburns shaved and hair perfectly round around the top of the head was popular among the Egyptians and worn by many idolaters in the ancient world. Further evidence of this haircut associated with idolatry is found in Jeremiah 9:25-26; 25:23. God wants His people to withdraw from anything associated with idol worship.
4) You shall not make cuts in your body for the dead. Another common practice among pagan cultures was for individuals to cut themselves on the face, arms, and/or legs during a bereavement period for a lost friend or family member. These cuts would ultimately serve as memorial scars. God does not approve of this type of self-inflicted pain.
5) You shall not make tattoo marks on yourselves. Tattoos in the ancient world were usually made by means of a hot iron, ink, or paint. Many people branded themselves with a tattoo as a tribute to a particular god or goddess. This was what a tattoo almost always represented. Evidence of a tattoo or brand - mark representing devotion to a deity is found in Revelation 13:17 "No one will be able to buy or sell, except the one who has THE MARK, either the name of the beast or the number of his name." The MARK OF THE BEAST (666 , Rev. 13:18) is a symbolic tattoo. In the context of Revelation, the beast from the sea and the beast from the earth represent the Roman Empire and the enforcement of empe ror worship. The TATTOO OF THE BEAST is symbolic of those who support the worship of a man (specifically the emperor but could apply to any idol) through their words and actions, not necessarily accepting a literal tattoo.
Revelation 14:1 - "The Lamb was standing on Mt. Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty - four thousand, having His name and the name of His Father written on their foreheads." The contrast to those with the TATTOO representing their devotion to the world is those who have the name of God tattooed on their forehead. This is another symbol for devotion to God instead of to the powers of the world. This does not mean that we must literally have God's name tattooed on our forehead in order to show our devotion to Him. We show our devotion through our words and actions that confess Christ. Similarly to God prohibiting a GRAVEN IMAGE to be fashioned since we as humans are the image of God, God prohibited Israel from trying to brand His name or the name or symbol of any other god on their skin. This was another way to set His people apart from the pagan culture. He wanted them to know that devotion to YAHWEH is different than devotion to any other god.
6) Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute. Obviously, God doesn't approve, but this was a common practice among the pagan cultures.
7) You shall keep My Sabbaths and revere My Sanctuary. Pagan cultures had temples (sanctuaries) as well, but they did not reverence those areas. They were often centers for sexual immorality, the drinking of blood, and other immoral activities associated with the worship of their gods.
8) Do not turn to mediums or spiritists. Another very real form of the occult by Satanic power. Mediums and spiritists attempted to contact the dead
Christian Interpretation - What does this mean?
Since Jesus nailed the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us (the commandments of the Old Covenant) to the cross (Col. 2:14) and has made the first covenant obsolete (Heb. 8:13) and inaugurated a new covenant through His death (Heb. 9:15-18), this section of Leviticus 19 cannot apply directly to us. It was intended for Israel under their covenant so that they would be separated from the pagan cultures and the temptation to fall into pagan worship and lifestyle. If we say we should bind the tattoo prohibition on Christians, you better be prepared to bind the haircut law of the previous verse, the dietary restrictions, and the rest of the 613 commandments of Levitical Law.
What does the New Testament say?
The New Testament scriptures are actually silent on the issue with the exception of the noted passages in Revelation where TATTOO is just a symbol of devotion to a deity. The closest reference we find is in:
Galatians 6:17 - "From now on let no one cause me (Paul) trouble, for I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus."
Paul is not saying that he got a long-haired picture of a good-looking Jesus or even the name of Jesus tattooed on his body. He is most likely making reference to the scars he has received from the beatings, scourgings, and stonings that he has endured for Jesus's sake. He doesn't need a tattoo to show his devotion to his God. His scars in service of his God are a more powerful witness. This also fits into the context of Galatians, where he says that neither the marks of circumcision nor uncircumcision matter for the Christian. These are not signs of devotion to Christ, but evidence of faithful service is.
So, are tattoos a sin?
Since the New Testament does not directly address tattoos and we should not be bound by Israel s covenant, we must place tattoos under the UMBRELLA OF LIBERTY. Christian Liberty is chiefly addressed in 1 Corinthians 8-9 and Romans 14. A practice that is not addressed either by command, example, or necessary inference should fall under LIBERTY or MATTERS OF CONSCIENCE. Eating meat of animals that were sacrificed to idols is the classic New Testament example. Liberty means that there is not a definite yes or no to the question of whether a Christian should get a tattoo. It becomes a matter of personal conscience. And one better be sure in his conscience that he is okay with the decision, because whatever does not proceed from faith is sin (Rom. 14:23).
Questions for the Conscience:
These are my suggestions of questions that someone should ask and pray about before getting a tattoo of any kind.
1) What are my motives for getting this tattoo? Possible wrong motives? To draw sexual attention to myself (TRAMP STAMPS and such)? To defy those who don't think I should (Grandma doesn't want me to, so IN YOUR FACE, GRANDMA!) To fit in with the world? (Remember that we are not to be conformed to the world but transformed - Rom. 12:1-2)
2) Will this bring glory to God or to myself? Even with a religious tattoo, it is a legitimate question. Remember those who use religion to put the focus on themselves (Matthew 6).
3) Will the tattoo be a source of contention between myself and my family?
4) Would getting a tattoo cause me to disobey my parents? An especially important question for teens and those who are still under their parents support.
5) Would my future spouse approve?
6) Will I still love this tattoo years from now? Skin will eventually sag. Your taste will change. Tattoos are permanent!
7) Would this tattoo affect my future employment opportunities? This is a practical one we do need to consider. If you re gonna get one, you better have it somewhere you can cover it up or you will immediately be disqualified from a lot of jobs
8) Even if the tattoo is permissible, is it beneficial? In 1 Corinthians 6:12 Paul quotes the Corinthians who say, "All things are lawful" but then follows it by saying "But not all things are helpful/beneficial." Too many times we ask the wrong question. Instead of: Is this wrong?, we should ask, Is this right? Instead of just pushing the limits of what God allows, we should be considered with how will this glorify God or benefit others?
I can't say that the Bible condemns a Christian getting a tattoo. But I do think it wise to consider the possible consequences, pray about the issue, and come to terms honestly with your conscience before deciding to get one. My suggestion is waiting until you are at least well into your 20s (my wife, who knows some neurology, says 25 cause that's when the frontal lobe that controls JUDGMENT is fully developed) before making an informed decision.
Tattoos and body piercings are often some of the first things we notice about individuals. We need to be careful to follow Jesus's instructions: Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment. (John 7:24)
We tend to stereotype people, especially if they re ALL TATTED UP. Remember that we don't judge a book by its cover. Tattoos do not mean that someone is in a gang, a convict, a drug dealer, a thug, or dangerous to your children. Love that person's soul, see them as God sees them, and don't be afraid to approach them and share Jesus with them. And if they're already members of your church, do not treat them as lesser class citizens or as if they have a disease. You are not morally superior to them.
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Caleb Cochran is the Minister at Rockville Church of Christ in Rockville, Maryland. He is passionate about learning and teaching the Word and tries to devote himself to the cause of evangelism. Caleb also enjoys reading, music, tennis, basketball, hiking, and most outdoor activities.