Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Audio Transcript

Pastor John, almost daily we get email questions from listeners about tattoos. What, if anything, does the Bible say about tattoos?

There is one explicit reference to tattooing in the Bible: Leviticus 19:28. It says: “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves. I am the Lord.” Now that should at least give us a few minutes of pause. But, of course, there are two reasons at least why that does not settle the matter.

Law and Culture

One is that we are no longer under the Mosaic law. Right? “You have died to the law through the body of Christ so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God” (Romans 7:4). So we are not under the law as a list of rules that makes us right with God. We are now brought into relationship with Christ and our behavior flows like fruit in the service of God.

“Am I doing this as a natural outgrowth of my new joyful allegiance to God, through Jesus Christ my Savior, who bought me with his blood?”

“Now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6). So the first reason why Leviticus 19 doesn't settle the matter is because we Christians are not under the law. Here is the second reason: In that situation, probably cutting yourself for the dead and prohibiting tattoos was not because touching the skin in this way is intrinsically evil, like the skin is sacrosanct and we can’t mark it with lipstick or with tattoos. Rather, it was probably because these markings were a sign of compromise with the surrounding cultures that did not worship the true God. In other words, the moral concern was not the skin and its inviolability, but that tattooing may signal something in the heart that doesn’t fit with a radical commitment to Yahweh in that culture.

So those are the two reasons why I would say you can’t just quote Leviticus 19:28 and say, “There you have it. It says don’t tattoo yourself.” It is not that simple. So, from those two biblical observations, here is what I would draw out about principles. Number one, tattooing in itself — that is, the permanent marking of the skin — is not intrinsically evil. It is not the marking of skin that is written down in God’s mind as, That is inviolable. Don’t ever do that. Number two, Romans 7 says the way to decide whether to do something is to ask, Is it bearing fruit for God? That is the alternative to being under the law: are we bearing fruit for God? So the alternative to law-keeping and asking, “Is there a rule somewhere? Is there a list somewhere?” is to ask, “Am I doing this as a natural outgrowth of my new joyful allegiance to God, through Jesus Christ my Savior, who bought me with his blood that I might display his glory in the world?”

Bearing Fruit for God

Ask that question when you go to get a tattoo: Is it bearing fruit for God? That is the kind of question to ask. Or here is a third question. Is there a counterpart in our experience today to the compromise with the nations around Israel? Is our choice to get a tattoo influenced by the desire to be like the nations who do not love God? A person should seriously ask: Why am I doing this? Do I want to look like the nations who don’t love God? Or am I in some way governed and controlled by an alien spirit rather than by the spirit of the gospel? Then the next thing I would do is look to the New Testament teaching on adornment. What is at play in these teachings that Paul gives is that being a follower of Christ makes a difference in how you dress and how you do makeup and how you do hair. It is really plain. In fact, it is plain in the Old Testament, too.

“Ask that question when you go to get a tattoo: Is it bearing fruit for God?”

You have got, for example, God adorning Israel. This is very positive in Ezekiel 16: I adorned you with ornaments and put bracelets on your wrists and a chain on your neck.… Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was fine linen and silk and embroidered cloth (Ezekiel 16:11, 13). This is God rejoicing over how much care and beautification he took of his bride Israel. And then, just the opposite in Hosea 2 where it is negative, because pride and unbelief have taken over the motive for clothing and God says: “And I will punish her for the feast days of the Baals when she burned offerings to them and adorned herself with her ring and jewelry and went after her lovers and forgot me” (Hosea 2:13).

The very same jewelry that was positive in one text becomes a sign of wickedness and pride in another. So already in the Old Testament you have got a warning: to follow God is going to make a difference in what you do with your clothing and your hair and jewelry. So here in 1 Timothy you get this: “Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness — with good works” (1 Timothy 2:9). Or 1 Peter 3: “Do not let your adorning be external — the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry or the clothing you wear — but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:3–4).

The question, then, for women and I think, by implication, for men as well — men would come under all these same things with regard to the things that they wear and the jewelry they use and stuff they put in their hair and all kinds of stuff. This is all for men and women, because the principles are the same — Is this tattoo an expression of those good works? Is it a heartfelt expression of godliness? Is it part of a gentle and tranquil spirit that is resting in God and is content with God’s goodness to her or him?

So that is the kind of thinking, Tony, that I think a responsible Christian should walk through as they think of getting a tattoo. Having said all that, my bottom line is that if somebody comes to me and asks me my advice about whether they should get a tattoo, I am going to try to persuade them not to. I have six reasons why. And I know we have already used up our time for today, so maybe we will do that tomorrow.


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