Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:28).
They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in their flesh (Leviticus 21:5).
The question which accompanied these texts reads: “Recently I was asked if it was OK for believers to have themselves tattooed. I was told by some believers that there is nothing in Scripture about this. What about these texts in Leviticus [above]? Further, the believer’s body is the temple of the Holy Ghost and we as believers are indeed priests: a royal priesthood and a peculiar people (1Peter 2:5-9). Am I right in this matter, or is there a better answer?” In my judgment, the questioner is absolutely right in this matter. The whole subject is so important that it deserves more explanation.
The first point that needs emphasis is that many of the laws given to Israel were to forbid Israel to adopt the customs of the heathen nations who formerly lived in the land of Canaan, and some of whom continued to live in close proximity to God’s chosen people (Judges 2:1-5; 3:1-2). Repeatedly in the law, God warned Israel against adopting practices common among the heathen nations. Most of these practices that Israel was forbidden to adopt were closely associated with and connected to heathen religions. This is evident from the text itself that forbad cuttings in the flesh “for the dead” (Lev. 19:28). But this is also evident from times of apostasy in Israel where these practices were, to Israel’s shame, practised (1Kings 18:28).
The nation of Israel was God’s chosen people, the church of the Old Dispensation, the nation that received God’s revelation of His truth and covenant, and the people from whom Christ was born according to the flesh (Romans 9:4-5). Because they were God’s people, they were commanded to live in spiritual separation from the wicked nations that surrounded them. They were to dwell alone, spiritually isolated from the wicked (Deuteronomy 33:26-29). They were called to serve the living God and not idols. And they were called to serve their God in their whole life and by all they did — in distinction from the heathen whose idolatry touched on every part of their wicked life.
This is called the doctrine of the antithesis, and it is outlined in the New Testament for the New Testament church: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? For ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people … Having, therefore, these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2Corinthians 6:14-16; 7:1).
It could be argued, I suppose, that the OT laws are all fulfilled in Christ, and that, therefore, Leviticus 19:28 is also fulfilled. But is this argument valid? While we would certainly never deny that Christ has fulfilled the law for His church, it remains a fact that the question of the relevancy of an OT law depends on the reason why it was given. It is clear that it was given to distinguish God’s people from the world. This reason remains relevant today, and thus the point that the law makes — to live in spiritual separation from the world — remains relevant. In my judgment, it cannot be argued that tattoos and body piercing can be used to glorify God in our calling to live lives of service to Jesus Christ. Why? The motive for tattoos and body piercing is very clear: to imitate the current fashions and customs of the wicked world in which we live.
There are two movements in western Christian nations today that go hand in hand. On the one hand, efforts are being made to erase all references to Christianity from national life; on the other hand there is a return to paganism. C. S. Lewis even argues that the entire feminist movement and especially the reference to God as “she” are a return to pagan notions of feminine deities. When people tattoo themselves and pierce their bodies they are reverting to pagan practices — even as pagan religions are becoming increasingly popular. “Christian” countries are becoming pagan once again. Tattooing and body piercing are defiant gestures against the true God and are indicative of a return to paganism.
As Christians, our bodies are the temples of the Holy Ghost (1Corinthians 6:19-20). This gives further Biblical support to the Christian opposition to tattooing and body piercing. The argument is this. Because our bodies are the temple of the Holy Ghost, our bodies also belong to Christ. God saves our bodies as well as our souls. In question and answer 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism, the believer confesses that “with body and soul” he belongs to his faithful Savior. Christ died to save our bodies. He will save them fully and perfectly in the resurrection of the body in the day of His coming.
We love our bodies, not as narcissistic body worshipers, but as those redeemed in body and soul. We love our bodies for God’s sake because they are loved by God, redeemed in the cross, and destined to be raised. Because of this, we treat our bodies with respect and are very careful what we do with our bodies. The believer respects the human body as a creation of God, saved in the blood of Christ. He cares for the body; does not unnecessarily endanger it; treats it with respect; and, when death comes, carefully buries the body in the earth in the hope of the resurrection. Body piercing and tattooing is, in reality, a thumbing of the nose at God by doing to our bodies what we want and by refusing to acknowledge that they are God’s.
Prof H. Hanko
Protestant Reformed Church
(Jimmy Hamilton aka The Street Preacher.