Something that has recently become very popular in American Christianity is tattoos. If you look close enough, you can see all kinds of people with tattoos: pastors, worship leaders, youth leaders, seminary students, and missionaries. While some of these tattoos may have came from a mistake in the past, many get tattoos as a declaration of their faith or to memorialize something extremely special to them.
Even with this new wave in tattoo art, there still remains negativity and uneasiness towards them. Many have been raised to think that tattoos are evil and that no Christian can have one. Biblically, tattoos aren’t mentioned much at all. Most people who state that the Bible is against tattoos use Leviticus 19:28 which states,
You are not to make gashes on your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves; I am Yahweh.
Now, when read alone, this verse seems pretty self-explanatory. Yahweh says no tattoos, so that means no tattoos, right? Well, as with everything else in Scripture, it is extremely important to understand the context of this verse as well as ask yourself “why?” Asking “why” does not necessarily mean that you are questioning the authority of God but is rather a step towards a fuller, more comprehensive understanding.
This command falls under the Civil Law that God gave to Israel. For a better understanding of Old Testament Law in light of the New Covenant, see this recent post. As a type of civil law, it is important to understand why God gave it and under what conditions God gave it.
Well, tattoos are extremely old. Cultures and civilizations have been using tattoos longer than history can even tell us. Often, tattoos were used for religious ceremonies, adulthood ceremonies, gender identification, healings, and the like. Israel was surrounded by people groups who used tattoos for demonic, pagan purposes. God wanted His people to be separated from others. He wanted others to know that Israel worshipped and served Yahweh Elohim alone. So it makes sense that God would demand Israel to not be tattooed.
However, because this was civil law for a specific culture, it no longer applies in the same manner. If we were to say that tattoos are never permitted for Christians then we must also say that Christians can’t wear cotton/polyester blend clothing either (Leviticus 19:19, Deuteronomy 22:11).
In Christ, the law is already fulfilled and we are free to serve in the new covenant. Some may still feel uncomfortable about tattoos because of tattoo history and their personal Holy Spirit-driven convictions; and that’s ok. But know this: the Gospel redeems not only people, but also all of creation. Just as Paul told the Corinthians that food offered to idols is really nothing (1 Corinthians 8), the history of tattoos is also nothing in light of the Gospel.
So, do we have the freedom to have a tattoo? Absolutely, but with all things, we must use wisdom. We must do all things for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31); this includes the decision to get a tattoo. For some, they can permanently record their transformation in Christ, or use tattoos to show the world around them the grace of God. For others, there is no need for tattoo art and that is perfectly ok.
How amazing it is though, to take something born from sin and redeem it through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.