The answer seems quite simple according to the verse I hear quoted most often.
“‘Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.'” – Leviticus 19:28
Additionally there is 1 Corinthians 6:19, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;“?
In reality, if I am answering the question of “inked” Christians by using these verses, I may as well be quoting Luke 9:11 (“So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you…“) to land a shiny new Ferrari in the driveway of a mansion on the hill.
The truth is, the Biblical narrative is both beautiful and dangerous. It is a beautiful story of God’s love for mankind; drawing us to love Him and to love others in return. Yet, without context it becomes a book of leverage for agendas and lifestyles. It supports what we want it to support and denies what we want it to deny.
The Bible must be read contextually; looking at the historical context, the context of the writer, and the context of the overall narrative and theme of the Bible.
That is another post for another day.
What is fascinating to me about the great tattoo debate is that most men who support Leviticus 19:28 as a solid forbiddance of tattoos completely disregard the prior verse.
“‘Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.'” Leviticus 19:27
While that does show our nature to pick and choose what applies to us, that does not ‘discredit’ the the statement made in verse 28 about tattoos. It just reveals that we tend to rest on some Biblical laws from the Old Testament and not others. So the question remains…should we refrain from tattoos as well as cutting the hair on our temple and shaving our beards; or are we free to do all of the above.
Initially, when you look at the list of other laws mentioned in Leviticus 19 such as honoring our neighbors, the elderly and workers it feels as if the entire list is applicable; and maybe there is some weight to Leviticus 19:28 being a forbiddance of tattoos. After all, the overall contextual theme of Leviticus is that faithfully following the law makes God’s presence available.
Yet, there are two other contexts we must look at; historical and overall.
From a historical context there were many practices in play that people did to honor pagan deities. Of them, the shaping of facial hair in honor of a deity or the tattooing of oneself in honor of a deity were prevalent. So as the original listener heard not to trim or to tattoo they would have immediately recognized this as not a physical issue rather a spiritual issue. It was a ‘no other gods’ issue.
Again if the overall context of scripture is God’s love for us drawing us to love Him and others in reciprocation then as we stumble across Leviticus 19:26-28 we can recognize in light of historical and Levitical context that this was a heart issue. It was embracing pagan deities rather than God Himself.
When viewed through this lens, there is no conflict as to why we understand the application of honesty and integrity found in Leviticus 19 yet we are okay with getting a tattoo or trimming our beards.
The Levitical laws ultimately came full circle to loving God and loving others. When we can see that, we can see that the act of trimming and tattooing was not about they physicality of either, rather the representation of paganism; having gods before our one true God.
Today, rather than tattooing, it could be our employment, our finances, our entertainment, or even our family that is coming before God. It is a heart issue.
There is still the conflict some see with 1 Corinthians 6:19. Again, when read in context it does not hit on the ‘no tattoo’ argument. Lets look at it in its full context:
12 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything. 13 You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.
This passage is very clearly addressing sexual immorality. While it does still offer the truth that our body IS the temple of the Holy Spirit, it very much displays that it is through sin that we dishonor our bodies, not by our exterior presentation of it.
Let me bring this conversation in for a landing…
Too often we look at the Bible as our ‘rule book’ as to how to be saved.
When we do that, we lose context and just create rules whether they should be on us or not. Jesus freed us of that. To understand fully what it meant to be saved, we have this great conversation recorded in the book of Luke where an expert in the law attempted to take Jesus to task. He stood up and he called out Jesus, asking him “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?“
Knowing that the lawyer would know the answer as it was written, Jesus responded with His own question, “What is written in the law?“
I love Jesus’ response as it forces the scholar into a verbal confession of the law as he understands it. It really brings him to a place of having to personally face the reality of the law he became so intimate with through his studies.
The response is one that we’ve all come to embrace, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’“
In essence, our salvation is wrapped up in two simple things…Love God with your everything and love your neighbor as you love yourself.
Everything literally revolves around these two commands. Our love puts us in relationship; drawing us to obedience, service and mission. They all hinge on love. Without love they are empty works. Yet if we do not find ourselves at a place of obedience, service and mission we may not truly be in love. It is one big circle.
Jesus illuminated that the law revolved around relationship…with God and with others.
Unfortunately easy things were made to be over-complicated.
One thing that I ask, is that you don’t take my words at face value. Go explore the Bible for your self and see what beauty and truth you can uncover!
I’d truly love to hear your comments.