(All Bible quotations, unless otherwise stated, are from the English Standard Version).
Tattooing —the marking of the body with cuts, letters, words, signs or symbols—is a widespread practice among people of all ages and cultures. Whether it’s an indelible or removable type, it’s common, nowadays, to see people branding themselves with names or images of their loved ones and heroes, or symbols of things they believe in or admire. Some Christians are troubled by this fashion trend and would want to know the Biblical view on tattooing of the body. In this article, we shall examine the Bible to understand the Scriptural view on tattoos, in order to offer sound counselling to Christians who have tattooed themselves, are planning to, or just want to be better informed about the practice.
Marking the body with tattoos is a practice that was known even in Biblical times. The old testament warned against cutting the body, or making marks on it, for the dead (including cutting the corners of the beard for the same purpose), a widespread practice among pagans of the time who used to venerate the dead by making inscriptions of dead people on their bodies. God was against this heathen practice that was essentially a form of idolatry, for making images of anything (on the body or anywhere else) for the purpose of veneration is simply idolatrous!
Leviticus 19:28 You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD.
And the LORD said to Moses, Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: No one shall make himself unclean for the dead among his people, except for his closest relatives, his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother, or his virgin sister (who is near to him because she has had no husband; for her he may make himself unclean). He shall not make himself unclean as a husband among his people and so profane himself. They shall not make bald patches on their heads, nor shave off the edges of their beards, nor make any cuts on their body.
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
But we also see where tattooing was divinely allowed in the old testament. God enjoined his people to write parts of the Scripture and fix them on their bodies so that they would be read always and thus would never be forgotten. These portions of Scripture were not to be directly engraved on the body, but were to be written and attached on the body, like a removable tattoo. We also see instances in Scripture where God authorized for his people to be marked with his seal (using ink) on their foreheads, as evidence of their outcry against the evil practiced in the land, as well as a means of protecting them from divine judgment. God himself branded Cain on his body, to protect him from being killed. Surely, making a mark with ink or such dyes that are supposed to remain in place for a while is a form of tattooing? Thus, tattooing in itself may not be a sinful practice, but the purpose for which it is done—whether or not it glorifies God or serves a godly purpose—determines its sinfulness or otherwise.
Deuteronomy 11:18 You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Cain said to the LORD, My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me. Then the LORD said to him, Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him.
Then he cried in my ears with a loud voice, saying, Bring near the executioners of the city, each with his destroying weapon in his hand. And behold, six men came from the direction of the upper gate, which faces north, each with his weapon for slaughter in his hand, and with them was a man clothed in linen, with a writing case at his waist. And they went in and stood beside the bronze altar. Now the glory of the God of Israel had gone up from the cherub on which it rested to the threshold of the house. And he called to the man clothed in linen, who had the writing case at his waist. And the LORD said to him, Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it. And to the others he said in my hearing, Pass through the city after him, and strike. Your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity. Kill old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one on whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary. So they began with the elders who were before the house. Then he said to them, Defile the house, and fill the courts with the slain. Go out. So they went out and struck in the city.
Similarly, the apostle Paul talked about bearing on his body the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ. Now, what exactly the marks of Christ that Paul bore on his body were, we do not know. They could have been the scars of the several beatings he received in the course of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, bearing marks on his body that symbolized the cross of Christ could also be implied. Whatever the marks Paul proudly bore on his body, they were ones that glorified Christ and his gospel. Paul also considered circumcision a marking of the body, which was an identification sign and God’s seal for a male Jew under the Law, although it’s no longer required under the dispensation of grace. Like Paul advised, whatever Christians do in word or deed, we should always have the glory of God as our goal.
Galatians 6:17 From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.
1 Corinthians 7:18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision.
Colossians 3:17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
1 Corinthians 6:19-20
Or 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.
In the book of Revelation, we again see the redeemed of the Lord marked on their foreheads with the seal of God, for identification and protection, even as the deceived and lost are equally marked by the beast (antichrist) on their foreheads and/or their right hands, with his name/number. While the group tattooed by God with his seal on their foreheads are protected unto salvation, those tattooed with the mark of the beast are rendered irredeemable by that! We also see the Lord Jesus Christ described in John’s vision in Revelation as wearing a tattoo of his name on his thigh—his descriptive titles of King of kings and Lord of lords.
Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying, Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.
He opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft. Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.
Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.
And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.
Another factor to consider in such matters that are not expressly forbidden in the new testament is the issue of conscience. Though a practice may not be expressly forbidden in Scripture, one’s conscience must accept it as harmless if its practice will end up being considered sinless. Once someone’s conscience condemns a practice, it becomes sinful to indulge in it, even if there’s no clear-cut Scripture forbidding it, for anything that does not proceed from faith is sin. Also, it must be remembered that though something may be permissible, yet not all such things edify a Christian or others around him. Most importantly, even for practices that are permissible, we must be careful not to become enslaved by them.
Romans 14:23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
1 Corinthians 10:23 All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up.
1 Corinthians 6:12 All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything.
A note of caution for those who desire to tattoo their bodies, for whatever reason: the permanency of some tattoos makes it such that if one changes his mind or views, or falls out of love with the object tattooed on one’s body, the person would be forced to live with a visible daily reminder of such mistakes for the rest of his/her life. Having one’s regrets or mistakes scream at one daily, from one’s skin, doesn’t sound like a very cheerful proposition, or does it? Therefore, think twice before branding yourself with that tattoo, for the sake of your mental health! God readily forgives us for putting up the wrong tattoos on our bodies, if we repent and ask for his forgiveness. However, such permanent tattoos will be a perpetual scar and a lifelong reminder of our past sins and errors.
In conclusion, tattooing of the body is an ancient practice that was well-known in biblical times. While pagans used markings on the body to venerate the dead (a practice forbidden by God), God’s people were enjoined to place inscriptions of Scripture on their bodies, as a perpetual reminder of the need to observe and keep God’s laws. Also, angelic beings have tattooed God’s seal on God’s people, to stand them out from divine judgment. Similarly, the beast (antichrist) will inscribe his marks on those who serve him during the great tribulation, to their eternal doom, even as God seals his people on their foreheads at this period too, for their own protection against his judgment. Even Jesus Christ is described in John’s vision as bearing a tattoo of his name on his thigh. Thus, tattooing in itself is not bad or sinful; rather, the purpose of a tattoo, and who it glorifies (God or Satan), will determine if the practice is sinful or not. Obviously, writing ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’ on one’s body isn’t to be condemned, but tattooing ‘Lucifer is lord’ obviously doesn’t glorify God, as it idolizes Satan. Christians are to glorify God in their bodies always, because we’ve been bought with a price—the blood of Jesus Christ, and we now wholly belong to the Lord. God readily forgives sinful tattoos done in ignorance, if we repent and ask for mercy, but we won’t be able to forget the permanent ones that are not easy to remove. Therefore, we need to really think beyond the excitement of the moment when we’re considering putting up tattoos on our bodies, especially the types that are difficult to remove, for today’s love may easily become tomorrow’s regret.
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