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Should I Get a Tattoo?

Should you get a tattoo? There are millions of people who already have tattoos. Some people are covered with tattoos. Some people have one small special tattoo in a place that commemorates a special event, or that means something important to them. The millions of people that have tattoos might only be matched by the millions of people who want them and are thinking about them. I want to talk to you today if you’re thinking about getting a tattoo and if you are concerned about what the Bible has to say about it. Of course, by the time you’re a Christian, the most important consideration for you would be what God thinks about getting a tattoo, and you only know what God thinks about getting a tattoo by what God says in his Word, the Bible.

What Does the Bible Say About Tattoos?

There is a place in Scripture; it’s the only place I’m aware of that specifically mentions the issue of tattoos. It is Leviticus 19:27-28, “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.” This is, again, the only passage I’m aware of that talks about getting a tattoo. It says specifically you should not get a tattoo. And that’s simple as far as it goes, but I actually think we have some more work to do to figure out what this passage actually means. It says not to get a tattoo. But before we jump on that and say, well, the Bible says not to get a tattoo, you have to read in the context that there is a command in the passage that we do not follow. There is the command not to get a tattoo. There’s the command not to make any cuts on your body for the dead. But before that, there is a command not to trim the edges of your beard. Right here, together, these passages are listed, and we have to be careful how we treat them. If you are a man, and you shaved this morning, you are in violation of this passage. If you are a man with a beard, and you used any sort of trimming agent on it today, you used any scissors on it today, or if you know someone who does, then you are in violation of this passage. And so that right there teaches us that there’s something else going on here besides simply not getting a tattoo, and what we have to do is determine the meaning of a passage by its redemptive-historical context.

The redemptive-historical context of this passage where we are in salvation history is at a time when the Israelites are going into the land of Israel from Egypt. They are going to displace the Canaanites; they’re going to displace the enemies of God. They’re not going to displace all of them, though. They are going to live sooner or later with and around people who do not worship the same God they worship. Those pagan people have different practices. They shave their beards; they get tattoo marks on their bodies to demonstrate the idols that they worship. They cut their body for the dead as an act of worship, as an act of consecration, as an act of dedication, and as an act of communication for the dead. There are all these practices, and what the command is saying is that you should look different than the pagan people that you live with and that you live around. That means the command not to get a tattoo is very, very historically constrained in the book of Leviticus. It is written to people who are living amongst the people who communicate their idolatrous worship with tattoos.

We live today in a very different context, and so this command does not apply to us in the same way that it applied to the Israelites. Now I want to be really clear; I am not saying that we don’t obey the commands of the Old Testament as New Testament Christians. I’m not saying that we need to find a way to wiggle out of commands that we don’t like; I want to obey every command in the Bible. I want to interpret the Bible the way God wants me to interpret it. And what I’m trying to do in a passage like this is figure out what the command is. The command not to get a tattoo is just as relevant for us today as the command not to trim your beard. And the relevance is found not in specifically obeying the command. I don’t think we were called here to follow this command. I don’t think you’re in sin if you shaved this morning. I don’t think you’re in sin if you trimmed your beard this morning, and I don’t think you’re in sin if you get a tattoo.

Tattoos Communicate Something

The command here is about how we communicate that we are followers of God. And we just do that differently today than they did when this command was written. And so if we’re not, under this command to specifically not get a tattoo, that what that means is, if you are thinking about getting a tattoo, then you have no command of God in your life right now today, that would keep you from doing it. But we need to think a little bit more about this. And since the command here is a command about communication, it’s teaching us about what tattoos do. And what tattoos do is communicate. Every person who gets a tattoo intends to communicate something; they don’t want to just think about the image in their mind. They don’t want to just think about the words or the message in their mind. They want to put it on their body and communicate something to everyone that would see it.

The issue in whether you get a tattoo or not is not whether the Bible specifically says that right now, today, you should not get one. It doesn’t. The issue today is, what do you want to communicate? I’m not going get into messages that you would get tattooed on your body that are obviously unbiblical, that are obviously corrupt, that are obviously ungodly, that communicate something sinful and something terrible. I’m just going to assume that any kind of tattoo like that, for a Christian, they know will be out of bounds. That is the exact act that would put you in violation of this passage. You are not allowed to communicate with your body that you’re anything other than a faithful follower of God.

The issue about communication that I want you to think about today is the issue of permanence. Once you tattoo something on your body, it becomes a permanent message that you are going to communicate that can only be removed with expense and difficulty. And that will not look as good 30, 40, 50, or 60 years from now as it does today. The question you need to ask, and a very important reason why a lot of people I know don’t have tattoos and why I don’t have a tattoo, is that I’m not willing to decide right now that I want to communicate the same thing at my age today as I do 30 or 40 years from now.

When I got up this morning, I put on some clothes, and I got in my car, and I drove to church. When I put my clothes on, I did not spend anything more than just a few seconds thinking about what shirt I was going to wear and what pants I was going to wear. Because I had a few limited options, I threw on something that looked like it matched. It wasn’t a big deal to me because I’m not going to have to wear this every day for the rest of my life. If people don’t like it. If I decide I don’t like it anymore, I’ll get rid of it and replace it with something else. You can’t do that with a tattoo. The question that you need to ask as you use your freedom on this issue is, am I sure that what I want to communicate today is the exact same thing in the exact same way that I want to communicate when I’m 60, when I’m 70 when I am 80. That is the question of wisdom. You are free to get a tattoo. You are not free to communicate with that tattoo, anything that you want. And when you communicate, whatever you communicate with a tattoo, you need to be ready, willing, and able to admit that you’re going to be communicating that for the very rest of your life, and that is what Leviticus 19:27-28 teaches us to think about tattoos.