February 7, 2013
As a pastor, I am frequently asked by young Christians what I think about tattoos. I have found that this is an involved question and difficult to answer in a brief conversation. A question with various associations and of life-long significance should not be addressed flippantly. Therefore, I have sought to put something in writing that addresses the question carefully.
Of course, what I think doesn’t matter at all. The only opinion that matters is God’s. So in the interest of helping Christians think about tattoos in relation to God and his will, I offer ten questions. These are questions for a Christian to ask himself or herself before God. At the end of the day, it is one’s own answer to the issues I raise that will determine where he stands. I simply desire to aid contemplation.
Before getting into the list, I want to drop a few disclaimers.
First, the purpose of this piece is to help a Christian who is truly zealous to follow after Jesus to make a wise choice about the tattoo question. If you are not such a person, I do not expect you to be much affected by the following considerations. You may wish to stop reading right now. I would much prefer you to read the gospel story and respond to God’s invitation to receive Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord.
Second, the reader should know from the start that this piece expresses many reservations about Christians getting tattoos. I do not intend to be dogmatic, but I do intend to be serious. I am seriously concerned over the wild popularity of tattoos in our culture and deeply concerned over the effect of that popularity on the church. I am concerned that the church’s witness may be negatively affected by its failure to distinguish itself from the world on this issue.
Third, I am not writing to condemn people who have tattoos. There are definitely larger issues in life than this one, and I certainly do not think that Christian fellowship stands or falls on this question. I consider the issue a “disputable matter” (Rom 14:1) which means there is room for disagreement and fellowship among the saints. If you already have a tattoo, this piece may or may not be very compelling to you, but please know this: If you trust in Jesus, I love you as a dear brother or sister in Christ.
Fourth, though tattooing is not the most important issue; it is, nonetheless, an important issue. Even disputable matters have strong and weak perspectives that impact one’s ability to glorify God. I believe that the strength or weakness of a perspective is determined by the degree that it is informed and motivated by the Bible and the gospel it proclaims. In the case of tattoos, there are many motives at play that may or may not flow out of the gospel. Consider this: What we do with our bodies often reflects what we believe in our hearts. Therefore, our heart motives can be reflected by our external choices. If there are negative motives that commonly lead to tattoos, the actual existence of a tattoo on a person’s skin may point to such motives in the heart. And understanding our heart motives is serious business.
Fifth, that being said, I do not deny the possibility of good motives for getting a tattoo. Rather the purpose here is to suggest that there are probably lots of motives that influence such a decision, some good, some not-so-good. Here, I simply question whether the good motives are sufficient justification in the face of other considerations. But again, my questions are merely questions to be answered by the reader.
Sixth, I personally love the visual arts and have great admiration for the abilities of tattoo artists. I recognize that many tattoos are amazing in and of themselves. I can look at tattoos with admiration for their creativity and artistry while at the same time questioning justifications for having them applied to the body.
Seventh, my biggest concern is to see Jesus Christ glorified among his people. I confess that I too operate with my own a mixture of motives. It is truly hard to be purely focused, but my desire is that the reader hear my heart for godliness in this piece. Even if you ultimately disagree with my considerations, please know that they come from someone who wants to see Christ magnified in all things.
Question 1: Have I really considered the Scriptures openly, thoughtfully, and seriously on this subject?
I start with this question, because it is really the main question. Every consideration must eventually come back to the Bible. If we agree that the tattoo question is a question of motives, it seems to me that a Christian must go to the Word of God which, according to Hebrews 4:12, judges “the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
We humans love to think that we know the purity of our motives independently. But the Bible tells us that we need God’s Word to truly evaluate our motives. In James 1:23-24, God tells us that the word is like a mirror that offers us a correct assessment of ourselves. A failure to heed the Word is just like thinking we can adequately evaluate our appearance in the morning without the aid of a mirror.
So have you honestly sought the scriptures on this subject? Or has your consideration of the Bible been influenced by little more than a few passing thoughts? I’ll give you an example.
You may or may not already know that the Bible does address this issue directly in one place, Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead, nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.” That is pretty direct. Case closed, right?
Well, no. The first thing that a Christian pro-tatter inevitably says in response to this authoritative command is that it was only binding on ancient Israel. “After all,” someone says, “in the same chapter the Israelites are prohibited from wearing clothes made from two different types of material.” Okay, so I have to confess, I have some sixty-forty blends in my closet. I don’t follow that OT command. So I guess this new observation flips things around. The commands in Leviticus 19 are irrelevant to Christians today. Case closed, again . . .
Well, no. All we have done is scratch the surface of Leviticus 19. We have heard a very forceful command, and we have observed a question of Israel’s national accountability. My question for you is this: Are you content to stop there, or are you drawn into a closer reading of Leviticus 19?
Would it intrigue you to note that, depending on how you count, there are some fifty-five commands given in Leviticus 19 and that thirty-five of those commands clearly carry directly over into our modern Christian context with great force? Of those fifty-five commands, I see thirty-four in the form of a prohibition, and of those only twelve seem questionable for today. Therefore, the large majority of the commands from this chapter easily translate into the modern Christian’s moral code. Read the chapter for yourself.
Now again I ask, are you sure that God’s command against tattoos in Leviticus 19:28 is irrelevant for you? Are you sure that God has not expressed his heart regarding the question? Have you really considered the context of that passage and why God may have given that command?
I will consider the context and interpretation of Leviticus 19 more specifically below. For now, I just want to address the issue of honesty with the Word. Are you motivated by a careful, thoughtful, and serious consideration of the Bible?
Question 2: Am I sure that a tattoo, even a Christian one, will not hurt my witness in this culture?
One thing I have noticed about lost people: They have a nose for inconsistency. One of the jobs that carried me through seminary was that of being a server at a local restaurant. This particular work environment was quite lost. The language and attitudes were typically not God-honoring, and most everyone there knew my Christian identity. I truly sought to be a witness through my attitudes, behavior, and speech, but it was amazing to me that if I just slipped-up for one moment with my tongue, how a co-worker would call me out. I remember one time I was frustrated and tired at the end of the night, and I slipped: “Man, I hate closing.” My overhearing boss instantly interjected, “Christians aren’t supposed to hate their jobs.” He was right. Had he heard anyone else say those words, he would not have thought twice, but for me, the Christian, he smelled hypocrisy.
Perhaps the same principle applies with the issue of tattoos. We live in a culture that increasingly glorifies tattoos, and those tattoos are most commonly associated with vanity, pride, and rebellion. Consider the cultural icons that you instantly identify with tattoos. Whether they be actors, athletes, musicians, rappers, criminals, models, bikers, gangsta’s, whatever, the instant association is with macho-ness, sexiness, anger, godlessness, vanity, pride, and rebellion. We live in an idolatrous society and, like it or not, tattoos are a regular stamp of such idolatry.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that every person who has a tattoo is a self-absorbed atheist, but I am strongly saying that tattoos heavily represent negative qualities in our secular culture.
Now, let’s go back to Leviticus 19. It is important to understand the context. First, we must understand that the book of Leviticus is a key book for relaying the national laws of Israel. The tabernacle is built, and the people are still at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Now through Moses, God is instructing Israel regarding their unique rituals and ceremonies. Therefore, it is true that this book is full of cultic and ceremonial laws essential to the Old Covenant that have become obsolete through Christ (Heb 8:13).
However, chapters 18 and 19 of Leviticus are somewhat unique in that God gives a long series of particular laws, most of them in the form of prohibition, that are not simply regarding the cultus of the Old Covenant but really more concerned with the morality of their behavior amidst other nations. Chapter 18 specifically concerns sexual morality, and chapter 19 concerns a broader list of issues. Most of the commands in these chapters relate directly to the Ten Commandments. Chapter 18 obviously relates to the command against adultery while chapter 19 relates more broadly to all of the Ten Commandments. So these two chapters, though given specifically to Israel, are heavily concerned with the broader ethic of God’s moral law.
This is important to observe because the book of Leviticus, and really the entire Pentateuch, does not reduce Israel’s obedience merely to rituals and ceremonies. These foundational books are, at their core, concerned with Israel’s heart.
So then, if Leviticus 18 and 19 are focused on God’s moral law, a good question follows: Is there an overarching moral concern in Leviticus 18 and 19? I believe the answer is “Yes.” Look with me at how both of these chapters begin. Leviticus 18:2-3: “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘I am the LORD your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices.’” Leviticus 19:2: “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.’”
These verses echo a repeated principle in the Pentateuch and specifically establish the unifying concern in all of the commands of these two chapters: God wants his people to be holy like him. In these chapters, the word “holy” means something like “distinctly set apart for God.” The last thing God wants is for his people to do things based on what is common among the pagan peoples around them.
It is within this context that God commands: “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD” (19:28). So here is a verse that offers two parallel thoughts which both forbid permanent scaring/marking of the skin. The question is why? Well, the main answer is given at the end of the verse: “I am the LORD.” That statement is repeated throughout chapters 18 and 19 to highlight the theme of holiness. With each repetition, it reminds them of their reason to obey. More fully, it means, “I am the LORD who is set apart and you are my people who I have set apart; therefore, don’t get sucked into the idolatrous ways of the nations.” And that idolatry is what both the cutting and the tattooing of the body reflected, heavy association with the false gods of the Canaanites.
So here is an important question: How would God have responded to an Israelite who received a tattoo of something positive like the Ten Commandments? The answer is clear, isn’t it? He would not have been pleased. Not only would there have been direct disobedience to his prohibition, but no matter the justification, the idolatrous association of tattooing should have overridden the justification to get one. The witness of Israel, in terms of being set apart for God, would have been harmed no matter the rationale.
If that was the case then, are you sure that isn’t the case now? In our culture, where tattoos are symbols of many forms of idolatry, are you sure that your witness as one who is set apart for God is not going to be harmed by getting a tattoo?
In 2 Corinthians 6, Paul reflects the same concern of Moses for purity in a lost culture. Before getting a tattoo, I encourage you to read this entire chapter and diligently seek to understand it. Paul says in verse 3, “We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited.” Later in 6:17-7:1 he says, “Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty. Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” From these comments, is it more likely that Paul would understand a tattoo to be an acceptable permanent option or a defilement of the body that would likely cause stumbling and discredit the Christian witness among many? Have you seriously considered this possibility?
Question 3: Am I sure that my biggest motive isn’t just that I want to be cool?
This is a big question that ties back into the previous question because “coolness” is a major form of idolatry in our culture. Among young people, it is one of the biggest of all. Now, don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with wanting people to like you or wanting to have a good reputation. I would suggest that all of us want to be “cool” on some level among some group of people and that this basic desire is not inherently wrong.
So when does “cool” become idolatry? Isn’t it when the desire to be cool starts to rule our choices? Cool is cool as long as it doesn’t freeze out more important considerations. It should never be our basis for life-long decisions. As soon as it becomes the basis, we are giving allegiance to an unworthy idol.
So among all of the mixed motives that may lead someone to get a tattoo, frequently, one of the biggest is the desire to do something cool. Have you honestly evaluated the strength of that motive in your own heart? Here is another question: Are there any other life-long decisions that you would encourage people to make on the basis of coolness? I can’t think of any.
Question 4: Have I considered the addicting power of tattoos?
Now, I don’t understand this personally because I don’t have a tattoo, but it seems clear to me that people who have tattoos frequently want more, and many people become overrun with them. You may not say that one tattoo is mutilating to the body, but there is a point where it becomes a very grotesque form of body mutilation. I mean this with a heart of compassion not judgment, I truly feel for people who have allowed an addiction to tattoos lead to the complete defacement of their bodies.
There is an addicting power that accompanies tattoos and can lead to a sad destination. How many people start smoking because it is cool and completely underestimate the addicting power that will carry body-destroying consequences? I would suggest that tattoos have a similar kind of effect on many people. Have you considered this possibility?
I should pause here and say that a person obviously may come to Jesus after receiving tattoos, maybe even many tattoos. In such a case, God may use those marks as a powerful sign of his redemptive power. But the reason that this is possible is that the marks themselves represent a negative power from which the person was redeemed. In such cases, I praise God and gladly enjoy the testimony and fellowship of my newfound brother in Christ. But this situation is clearly different from the follower of Christ who becomes consciously committed to marking up his body with tattoos. One is a picture of redemption; the other a picture of addiction.
Question 5: Am I sure that I’m not just hungry for some attention?
This question explores your personal security and your understanding of modesty. Is it possible that a major motive for wanting a tattoo is that you want to do something to yourself that will bring you some attention? If so, how great do you feel the need for attention?
Here is the thing, a tattoo inherently focuses attention upon our skin, our bodies, ourselves. There is no getting around that fact. Central to the art is the desire for someone to gaze at us, study what is on our flesh, on our biceps, on our back, belly, leg. Is this a good thing? Perhaps the whole thing is characteristic of too much emphasis upon ourselves.
In 1 Peter 3:1-4, Peter offers an exhortation specifically to the women in his audience. He tells them that they should not be overly concerned with their outward adornment. Peter says that it is much more important to have “respectful and pure conduct” and to “adorn the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.” Note that the concern for purity is akin to God’s concern for holiness in Leviticus 19. In a world where the external flesh of women is glorified, Peter wants Christian women to focus on glorifying God with their behavior and their spirit. That is not to say that women should intentionally be drab and unpretty, but they should be very careful about getting wrapped up in external appearances. Modest adornment that merely accents femininity and does not draw direct attention to the flesh is not necessarily what Peter has in view, but things that do draw direct attention to the flesh press the limits of Peter’s concern. Tattoos do this on a level that even modest jewelry does not.
In 1 Peter 3:1-4, there is also an application for men. If the principle of inward purity over outward appearance applies to women, doesn’t it also apply to men? If Peter doesn’t want the women focused on their flesh but on their behavior, doesn’t he certainly desire the same for the men.
Specifically, men should ask: Do I want to be the kind of guy who is concerned about decorating myself? Isn’t it true that even the toughest, baddest, coolest tattoo on the toughest, baddest, coolest guy comes from a felt desire to get attention for himself by accentuating himself? Is it perhaps more manly just to be content with how God made us?
Now, I should add that decoration is not the same thing as personal hygiene and appropriate clothing because cleanliness and clothing are necessary aspects of daily functionality. Perhaps a concern for modesty should lead us to be clean and clothed even while it leads us away from being tatted.
So is it possible that the strong, secure, stance on tattoos, for both men and women, is just not to want one out of a sense of contentment and modesty?
Even if you would say that you are not motivated by a felt need for attention, you should at least consider how a tattoo might come across to others? Is it possible that a person with tattoos inherently communicates the message that he needs some attention? Isn’t it possible that many will get that impression? Do you want to communicate such a message about yourself?
Question 6: Am I sure that the tattoo I want isn’t just silly?
The reason I ask this question is that so many are. Surely you have seen tattoos on others that you thought were a big mistake. Are you sure that your great idea is really so great? Are you sure you will want it there when your fetish for dolphins, this year’s championship team, or Betty Jones fades away? You know exactly what I’m talking about because you have seen such tattoos on others. Norman Rockwell once painted a funny scene of a sailor at a tattoo parlor. The tattoo artist is applying a seventh female name to the sailor’s arm. The other six above it are crossed out. We laugh, but have you considered that you may commit the same kind of error?
I remember being at a water park a few years back, and there was skinny high school guy in front of me in line. He had a tattoo on his left shoulder. It was a big, red heart with a large banner across it that just said, “DANCE!” I’ll just leave that one to speak for itself, but here is another example: I was recently at another park and passed a twenty-something year-old girl who had miniature footprints walking across her chest. Beyond the fact that her tattoos inherently draw attention to her chest which points back to question 5, surely the question of silliness applies as well. Have you contemplated your tattoo idea from this angle?
Question 7: What do my parents think?
Well, what do they think? Daughter, does your dad want you to get stamped? Son, does your mom want you to get inked? This is a question for you to answer even if you live on your own now. If your parents are okay with it, you may skip to the next question, but if your parents are not, it is significant.
If you are a young person, chances are that you have not thought from a parental perspective very much in your life yet. So let me share a father’s perspective for you to consider: I have four daughters. They are the most beautiful creations I have ever held and beheld, ever. I watched each one of them being born. I have scrubbed away their dirt, changed their diapers, and bandaged their scrapes. A huge concern of mine is that their skin, which is perfectly beautiful, be kept as pure as possible in a world that does everything it can to stain, defile, and wound.
What if one day, when they are all in their twenties, they go on a trip together, and when they get home, they proudly reveal that they have all gotten tattoos together? Now, all four of their perfectly beautiful bodies has an un-natural, un-accidental, un-removable spot. Would it be considerate for them to do this without the approval of my wife and me? Would I perhaps feel a bit disregarded as their father who loves them more than anyone on the planet? The answer is that I certainly would feel disregarded, and many other parents would feel the same way. I’m not saying that parents have the right to influence all the choices of their twenty year-old children, but I am saying that they still may have strong feelings and convictions that deserve to be considered.
This is a huge question because it goes straight to the issue of honor. The command to “honor your father and mother” (Ex 20:12) has life-long implications.
Further, if you are still under the care and support of your parents, you may add to the issue of honor the issue of obedience. “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord” (Col 3:20). Don’t miss the fact that the verse says, “in everything.” Have you asked the question: What do my parents think?
Question 8: Have I considered that I am not my own?
In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul is calling the church to glorify God in both body and spirit. His basic motivation for this call is expressed in verses 19 and 20: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” Paul desires that the church not ever reason from the standpoint, “My body my choice,” but rather, “His body his glory.”
The question of tattoos is not really just a personal question regarding the property which is your body. It is a stewardship question regarding the property which is his body. So is your desire to get a tattoo more for your purposes or God’s? Further, are you sure that you even have the right to permanently mark that which belongs to God? If so, what gives you that assurance?
Have you ever driven under an overpass that has “John 3:16” spray-painted across it? I have, and I can only image the justification and motives that were behind the scribe who left the mark. Perhaps he said, “This will be a great spiritual conversation starter for thousands who drive under this bridge.” Or maybe he thought, “If I can just get one person to open his Bible because he saw this graffiti, it was worth it.” Well, guess what? No matter his good motives, that guy sinned. He defaced property that wasn’t his. He presumed to have a right that he did not have. Are you sure that a Christian who gets a tattoo isn’t doing the same thing? The Bible clearly says, “You are not your own.”
Question 9: Have I recognized that my whole body is already a work of art?
Along with the previous question of ownership comes the issue of God’s creative rights over your body. God as the creator has already accomplished an amazing work of art on your body. It is called “your skin.” This issue also goes along with the above question of security. Do you recognize what an amazing work of art that you already are as a creation of God? If you do, it may go a long way to making you secure enough in your appearance that you won’t be compelled to permanently mark it.
The human body is not a blank canvas for the human pen; it is a completed masterpiece of the living God. This consideration moves beyond the overpass illustration above to an illustration that incorporates an important work of art.
Have you ever considered that a tattoo on your body may be very much like graffiti on the Washington Monument? That great obelisk is a work of art clean and strong. It stands tall as a reminder of America’s great founder and leader. Here is the question: What American has the right to spray paint “Washington’s” on the side of this monument? Does it matter how cool or pretty the design is? Who has the right no matter how much he desires to honor a great national hero? Such an act would be presumption and warrant arrest. Further, what need is there to do such a thing? The very attempt to embellish and label insults the established reputation. There is no right for such an act, and there is no need for such an act. The very motive, pure on one level, is mixed with many impurities.
In the same way, a godly man is called to stand clean and strong. He is not his own possession, and he is not his own design. How would you justify the desire to embellish or label that which God has already created and named? Who would add a single mark to the Mona Lisa? to the Sistine Chapel? to a Monet? A masterpiece so priceless must be preserved lest insult fall upon the master. Are you sure that adding marks to God’s pinnacle creation, human beings, will not insult the master?
Question 10: Have I thought about the fact that I am already an image bearer?
The desire for a tattoo is a desire to bear an image. The Christian already does this.
First, as a human, he is created in the image of God (Gen 1:27). The fact that man is created in God’s image may help to explain why tattoos have a long history of idolatrous associations. The forces of evil hate the image of God and rejoice to see it marred and destroyed. Though a theology of the image of God extends far beyond man’s physical appearance, the permanent defacement of man’s skin is representative of the attack.
At this point, we are drawn back to Leviticus 19:28 to consider the full reason for God’s prohibition against cutting for the dead and tattoos. The demonic, idolatrous divination associated with these practices, found expression in the defilement of the human body. Perhaps God’s prohibition is motivated not just from the idolatrous associations but also from the fact that such associations were blatantly attacking his image.
So I suggest that Leviticus 19:28 combines two reasons for the prohibition against tattoos that show it applies to Christians today. These reasons help explain the difference in the abiding force between this prohibition and other prohibitions in the chapter such as those against blended fabrics and trimmed sideburns. These two reasons are the idolatrous associations and the attack on the image of God. To put them together, we might say: Tattooing is inherently conducive to idolatrous associations for all times and places because it represents a permanent marring of the image of God.
This may explain why, in modern culture, clean hair cuts and cotton-poly blends have no associations with idolatry while the practice of tattooing still heavily does. It also may explain why God did not hesitate to change the food laws explicitly (Acts 10) while never readdressing the tattoo question in the New Testament. Perhaps tattooing always will be associated with idolatry because of the very nature of what it is? Have you considered this possibility?
Further, the New Testament believer has an added dimension to bearing God’s image. A Christian has the redeemed privilege of being conformed to the image of Christ (Rom 8:29). A follower of Jesus has this call over his life: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:2). That transformation is the very process of becoming more and more like Jesus. When this privilege is profoundly grasped in the heart, it may just remove any felt need for other images, no matter the subject matter or artistic beauty. It may just trivialize the whole idea of tattoos because a desire to model the all-surpassing image of Christ becomes so much greater than a desire to model other images. In light of this call to transformation, does the receiving of a tattoo look more like conformity to Christ or conformity to the pattern of this world.
Have you thought about the fact that you are already an image bearer?
I hope it is obvious that my questions are motivated by a desire to see God glorified through the church and to help young people to make wise decisions.
Remember, the strength or weakness of a perspective concerning a disputable matter is measured by the degree that it is informed by the gospel. It is not an informed gospel position to simply say, “I am free to do what I want with my body.” First, that isn’t true, but second, our justifications must run deeper. We must think biblically and contextually from a concern for both obedience and witness. Given this standpoint, I encourage you to scrutinize your motives and ask whether the potential value of tattoos outweighs the questionability of them.
As stated in the introduction, if you can read these ten questions and still, before God, justify the decision to get a tattoo, I do not judge you. In fact, I rejoice that in the gospel, we can disagree and still love one another in Christ. Perhaps this piece helped you to think better about the issue regardless. If so, I praise God. But if you cannot confidently address the concerns of these questions, I would suggest that you follow this good advice: “If there’s a doubt, do without” (Rom 14:23).
Four End Notes Concerning Common Attempts to Justify Tattoos Biblically
Note 1: Some people argue that getting a tattoo is justified because Jesus is described with a tattoo in Revelation 19:16: “On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.” This argument is not a very formidable justification for tattoos. I believe it actually weakens the case because it is an obvious stretch for a biblical justification. There are several reasons why.
First, it is not at all clear that John intends to say that Jesus has a tattoo. The combined phrase “on his robe and on his thigh” could be two ways of referring to the same name that is on the thigh of his robe. This interpretation is supported by the fact that the verse points to a single name and by the fact that Jesus is wearing a robe. Is it more likely that John intends for us to imagine that he was seeing two marks, one on the skin of Jesus’ thigh and one on his clothes, or that he simply intends to locate the single mark that is on Jesus’ robe near his thigh?
Second, the symbolic nature of Revelation is so prominent that one must be very careful about taking descriptions from this book and applying them personally and literally. In other words, attempting to take this image of Jesus and make an argument about tattoos, is a huge step from the author’s purpose. This seems to me to be strikingly obvious.
Third, even if John was intending to describe an actual tattoo on Jesus’ thigh, this would be a far cry from permission for Christians. In this verse, the authority of Jesus is emphasized which means that he has prerogatives that we do not. He does all kinds of things in Revelation that we have no right to do.
Note 2: Someone might argue that the disputable nature of tattooing suggests that the position of permission is actually the strong spiritual position.
The biblical reason for this opinion might be that in 1 Corinthians 9-10, Paul identifies the strong position about food sacrificed to idols as the position of permission. There were some who had a sensitive conscience about the idolatrous associations and others who did not. In those chapters (as in Rom 14), Paul essentially says, “The stronger position is to recognize that all food is acceptable, but a person should never abuse that position around someone with a sensitive conscience.” At first glance, this sounds like a parallel issue to that of tattoos, but there are some important differences.
The issue of foods was one of daily practical living. For a Christian in the Greco-Roman society, it was always possible that the food in the market had been sacrificed to an idol. Because of this situation, it was a matter of practicality to eat whatever was offered “without raising any question on the ground of conscience” (1 Cor 10:25). The issue was this: Should Christians be paranoid about every place they shop for food and every place they eat, or should they just eat with thanksgiving? Should they ask about everything they buy or else give up meat altogether?
However, the issue with tattoos has nothing to do with giving up a practical necessity such as meat. It is rather a matter of choosing to participate in something that has no daily practical necessity whatsoever. Consider that many of the ten questions that I ask in this piece do not apply to the question of food. The reason is that the issue of permanently marking the skin has many differences from issues of daily nourishment. The food question is an issue of situational discretion, but the tattoo question is one of life-long permanence.
Further, the tattoo question concerns an affront to the image of God in a way that dietary questions do not. (See question 10 above.) Of course, dietary sins such as gluttony do affront the image of God, but Paul is, of course, not arguing in defense of gluttony. He is simply arguing for the basic freedom to eat various foods, none of which inherently deface the image of God.
Perhaps an example would help to highlight that these issues are not the same. In Corinth, it was very possible that a Christian would be invited to an unbeliever’s house for dinner and be offered meat sacrificed to idols. In such a case, a refusal to eat, or even the act of questioning, would possibly offend the host and ruin the witnessing opportunity. This situation is hardly parallel to the tattoo question. Of course, there may be peer pressure to get a tattoo, but such pressure is not the same as being graciously offered food from a host. How likely is it that it will be a hindrance to your witness to refuse the pressure to get a tattoo? How much more likely is it that the refusal could actually be an opportunity for a powerful witness of your sanctification? Based on what we know of Paul, do you think he would have said, “If you have a friend and he is pushing you to get a tattoo, give in for the sake of not offending him”? Or would he have said, “Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Cor 7:1)?
My point is this: The external and permanent nature of tattoos makes it a matter of long-term purity and not just situational, practical discretion. So in the case of tattoos, perhaps the strong, mature position, the position more informed by the gospel and more likely to prevent stumbling, is the position of staying away.
Note 3: A person might reason from 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 that tattoos are a way to become “all things to all people by all means” in order to “save some.” The key concept is that of using any means necessary to reach others.
First, it must be observed that Paul clearly does not intend to advocate any and all means whatsoever. He certainly would not advocate becoming a prostitute to reach prostitutes or becoming a glutton to reach gluttons. So what he means by “all means” must be something like: “I will use any morally neutral means, means that do not defile my body and mar the image of God, for the sake of reaching others.” In the case of prostitutes and gluttons, Paul would use creative means to reach them, but he would not compromise the image of God in the process. His greater hope would be that the shining example of purity and self-control on the part of Christians would be a powerful enticement to the ways of Christ.
Second, the interesting thing about this justification is that it only applies to sub-cultures that most prominently manifest the idolatrous associations of tattoos. If there is anything to the observation in Leviticus 19 that God was concerned about the idolatrous associations of tattoos in that day, then Leviticus 19:28 most prominently applies to the sub-cultures that most prominently tattoo. In other words, if God did not want Israel tattooed especially because of the wild nature of Egyptian and Canaanite cultures, does he not have the same heightened concern for Christian witness among the wild sub-cultures of today?
Note 4: It is common with issues that concern outward appearance that a person will appeal to the “Don’t judge a book by its cover” principle in an effort to justify one’s own freedom to look however he pleases. A common verse for this justification is 1 Samuel 16:7: “For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” I certainly rejoice in the truth of this verse, but using it as a justification for looking however one pleases has two basic flaws.
First, there is a difference in judging aspects of appearance of which a person has no choice and questioning motives behind aspects of appearance that do come from choice. The Lord told Samuel not to judge David because of his height and natural appearance. The reason is that God had made David just how he wanted to make him and he was going to use him for his glory on account of the heart of faith that was in David. Surely, this concern is different from questioning the motives behind choices that people make. If there was no room for questioning motives, we could never question each other about any of our choices. Do we get that notion from the Bible?
Second, using this verse as justification for tattoos comes from a simple failure to recognize the perspective in view. Not judging a book by its cover is an outside-in principle. In other words, I should not look at someone else, no matter how tatted up, and condemn them in my spirit or pre-judge their motives. It may very well be that such a person is an amazing witness for Christ. I should not automatically assume upon the current state of a person’s heart simply on the basis of their looks. Now, upon getting to know a person, I might surmise that the person is not headed in the right direction and driven by many incorrect motives, but such assessing isn’t the same as condemning. It is just having spiritual awareness.
The question of getting a tattoo is not an outside-in question. It is an inside-out question. The question is not, “How should I view other people?” It is rather, “How should I portray myself to other people?” This is an entirely different question altogether. No, I should not pre-judge others’ appearance choices, but I certainly should judge my own. It is simply foolish to live life as though the choices that I make regarding my appearance do not matter. Is it wise to go to a job interview in ragged, disheveled clothes? Why would a person risk the loss of an opportunity for something as simple as a poor choice of appearance?
In the same way, do you want to risk offending God, defiling yourself, and hurting your witness for something as unnecessary and permanent as a tattoo?