Tattoos are all the rage. Men and women, young and old, non-believer and Christian—everybody’s doing it. A young Christian man I know wants a tattoo with a strong Christian theme. His rationale? He wants to use it as an invitation to explain it’s meaning as an avenue for sharing his faith in Jesus Christ. But before he does it, he wants to know what God wants.
There is only one verse in all of Scripture which specifically addresses the practice of tattooing. The Lord says in Leviticus 19:28, Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD. As always, context here is very instructive. Equally instructive is the lack of other teaching in Scripture concerning this practice. It is always unwise to build a doctrine on the strength of one verse.
For the context, we must begin with the verse itself. Unlike the ten commandments which give unconditional instructions and prohibitions, the proscription against tattooing in Leviticus 19:28 has to do with marking or cutting the body as part of a spiritual ritual in memory of someone who has died. This was a very common practice, along with cutting one’s flesh as an emotional expression of grief.1 God’s instruction to the Israelites was designed to set them apart from the way the cultures around them either abused their bodies or decorated their bodies as a way of remembering loved ones who had died. God’s people were to be different, using their bodies to glorify God rather than memorialize the dead (see Lev. 21:11; 22: 4; Num. 5: 2; 9: 6, 7, 10; 6: 6; Deut. 14: 1).
The command against tattooing is actually just one of many examples given in Leviticus 19 of ways in which the people of God are to set themselves apart from the ungodly cultures around them. God’s Word to His people is be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy (Lev. 19:2).
This is the true message to God’s people for all time: Be like God, not like the rest of the world—in this case, in the way you treat your body. As Paul says in Romans 12:1, Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.
The question for the believer today, as it has always been, is one of holiness: Will tattooing your body set you apart as a child of God or identify you more with the ungodly of the culture in which you live? Will tattooing your body be holy and pleasing to God—a spiritual act of worship?
Ultimately, this becomes a very personal matter between the believer and God. Leviticus 19:28 provides an example from everyday life in ancient Israel on how to treat your body in a way holy and pleasing to God that would mark you as a believer. Every generation has its own challenges in how to live as God’s children in the world without being mistaken for being just like the rest of the world.
Personal holiness is the response of an obedient heart lived out in the actions of an obedient life.
1 Commentary on the Old Testament, electronic version, by C.F. Keik & F. Delitzsch, Hendrikson Publishers, 2006. In loc.