After a class I was teaching, an attendee mentioned to me that his Christian son showed up on a construction site where he encountered a heavily-tattooed man. The Christian struck up a conversation with the tattooed man who commented that he was surprised that he spoke to him as hardly anyone every did so. He believed this was because of all his tattoos, giving the Christian the in-road to minister to him.
I remembered a Christian biker preaching from the pulpit, his Popeye forearms covered with tattoos as he spoke, and how the young guys flocked around him to talk afterward.
MAN LOOKS AT THE OUTSIDE. GOD LOOKS AT THE HEART.
Getting a tattoo is all the rage these days, and many Christian are trying to decide if they should get a tattoo or not. To tattoo or not to tattoo? THAT is the question.
What does the Bible say? Many Christians will quote Leviticus 19:28 as support to their claim that Christians should never get a tattoo: "Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD." - Leviticus 19:28. Can one believe that Jesus is Lord and that He came to save the world through grace and love and still accept this verse as applicable to us today? It sounds harsh, but it's true. Why? The answer is simple. Christ gave us a New Law, one that supersedes Old Testament Laws like this one in Leviticus.
Oddly, proponents of this verse neglect to consider some other verses in that same book, Chapter 19. There's verse 9, that says: "When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest." Verse 19 reads: "Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material." Verse 26: "Do not eat any meat with the blood still in it." Verse 27: "Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard." Verse 28: "Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord."
As you can see, many of the other rules laid out in Leviticus are not followed today. This does not mean that the whole book of Leviticus, or even the Bible itself, should not be followed. It just means that we need to carefully analyze what the theme of the Bible is, and realize what it means for us today.
The book of Leviticus contains laws intended to keep the children of Israel healthy and holy for God. Tattoos were extremely dangerous and could result in injury, disease, or death. The verse also refers to a pagan ritual of putting tattoo marks on oneself for the dead, in order to protect oneself from the spirit world and the wrath of other gods.
Many Christians do not fully understand the saving grace that was given to us through the humanity and death of our Lord, Jesus Christ. We are under a new covenant where His sacrifice covers our sins in a different way than the old Levitical laws did, which is seen in the letter to Hebrews which states: "But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises. For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another," Hebrews 8:6-7.
Now, this does not give us license to sin (we don't need one for we will all sin anyway; it's what we do). We are still responsible for our behavior and how it affects our spiritual lives and the lives of others. For example, the letter to the Romans states: "Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall." -Romans 14:20-21.
From this we can see that it is important to think carefully through all of the effects that getting a tattoo can have on oneself, on our relationships, and on one's future. For some this may mean that getting a tattoo will increase their ability to witness to others, while in other communities having a tattoo would greatly diminish this ability.
SHOULD A CHRISTIAN GET A TATTOO?
The conclusion then is that there may not be an answer to "Should Christians get tattoos?" Each of us may have to answer this question for ourselves after taking time to think and pray about it. But, let's be careful not to shun those who have sell or display tattoos, or make the blanket statement that they can't be a Christian because they have a tattoo. To do this would be "destroy the work of God" instead of taking time to reach the lost. The burden lies with those Christians who choose to get a tattoo. They need to prove to their critics that their faith is based on more than just tattoos; it is supported by good works as well. And they must pray as often as possible that divisive but trivial issues (such as body art) are cast aside in favor of more pressing problems: inequality, hunger, Christian unity and spreading the Good News.
Here are some verses that display at least an acknowledgement of religious markings:
"And it shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the LORD may be in your mouth." -Exodus 13:9
"It shall be as a mark on your hand or frontlets between your eyes; for by a strong hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt." -Exodus 13:16
In these two quotes from Exodus, God is telling his people that while many - especially pagans - use tattoos and religious totems, He will give the Jews something greater: a celebration of the day they were saved and brought out of Egypt. For the Jews, this will be their unique mark. This seems to contradict our position. However, the verses show that tattoos were a normal aspect of society. God never tells the people that tattooing is wrong or immoral. He doesn't even say that they need to stop doing it. He only tells them that He will make them different than all others through their celebrations.
"This one will say, 'I am the LORD's,' another will call himself by the name of Jacob, and another will write on his hand,
'The Lord's,' and surname himself by the name of Israel." -Isaiah 44:5
"Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me." -Isaiah 49:16
Here Isaiah is speaking God's word to the more conscious minorities of Israel who, during their exile, are worried about becoming lost amidst the pagans of Babylon. Through Isaiah, God reminds His people that he will never forget them because He loves them, and as proof that He will never abandon them, He tells the Jews that He has graven [carved into...written permanently] on his hands a reminder to save them.
"And the LORD said to him, 'Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it'." -Ezekiel 9:4
The mark in this verse refers to the letter "T" or the Hebrew letter "Tau," which appears as the shape of a cross, and which was painted in lamb's blood on the door posts to save the "remnant" of Israel when God wiped out all the first born of Egypt during the last plague. In this instance, the mark will be placed upon believers who are saddened by the sins committed in Jerusalem.
"Henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear on my body the brand marks of Jesus." -Galatians 6:17
Here, Paul is likely discussing the beatings and punishments he endured for the sake of the Gospel of Christ (see 2 Cor. 11:24-28). This is a pointed jab at those who believe they are justified by other marks, that is, circumcision. Undeniable, though, is the tattoo imagery. Brand marks are what Roman slave owners tattooed on their chattel to display ownership.
"Then I saw another angel ascend from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying, 'Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God upon their foreheads.'" -Revelation 7:2-3
"On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, King of kings and Lord of lords." -Revelation 19:16
This last verse from Revelation is part of John's prophecy about the destruction of the Roman Empire and the heretofore-invincible Roman armies. The verse shows Christ as the "Master of the Universe" whose Name, which is the Word of God (and, in essence, everything), is more than just a title on a royal garment. Instead, it is something that belongs to Jesus alone and is intrinsically linked to He who is Lord of all...through a unique marking on his body.
Again, I want to stress that these verses do not show that God endorses tattoos but that tattoos were an accepted part of society during the biblical era and that there is little evidence to show that God explicitly disapproves of such body art.
USING THE VEHICLES OF EVANGELISM
Finally, it's important that Christians realize that Jesus doesn't want us to hide our faith or keep our faith to ourselves. Just the opposite. He commands us to do everything within our power to let our brothers and sisters know the one true Word, Jesus Christ.