When deciding whether getting a tattoo is a sin or not, the first bible verse people who are against it usually point to is in the Old Testament. Specifically, Leviticus 19:28, a verse that does not actually use the word tattoo in most translations but rather states that you should, “not print any marks on you.” The Hebrew word used in this verse implies the same thing we understand today to be a tattoo. This command was given to the Hebrews after their exodus from Egypt, along with admonitions against “rounding the corners of your head,” “marring the corners of your beard,” making cuts in the skin and many other practices. While the verse does not use the word sin, it is implied that doing this would not please God. It is interesting to note that after each command in this passage, the phrase “I am the Lord” appears.
A closer look at the history of the people the commandments were given to will help in gaining an understanding of this command. It is important to note that the things the commandments forbid were practiced by the people the Israelites were separated from when they were mourning the dead. The act of cutting the skin or making a tattoo in these other cultures was a way of making a public declaration of grief over the death of a loved one or friend. It was also a way of signifying their devotion and loyalty to their gods. They were very demonstrative and highly emotional, especially when mourning, often because they had a great fear of death and whatever followed.
Having lived among these people for many years, the Hebrews had grown up thinking that this was the way to do things, along with many other traditions. Now that they were taken out of that cultural setting and were beginning to live in a new way, anything that would lead them away from God and back to their old ways would be categorized as sin in order to keep them focused on their new direction. They were given these new commandments to revitalize their thinking, change their culture, cause them to develop their own traditions and in the end to reinforce their faithfulness to the Lord.
Another reference to this kind of outward sign of an inward decision is not cast in such a negative light. As the people of Zion indicate to God that he has forgotten them in Isaiah 49, he responds in verse 16 that he has engraved them on the palms of his hands. This type of marking was common among soldiers who would swear their allegiance to their captains by using ink and pricking the skin to make a permanent mark. As with the cutting and “printing” mentioned in Leviticus, this tattoo was a way for a person to publicly display their devotion to a cause.
In more modern times, according to the New Testament, the standard believers are to live by is not the letter of the law but the higher ideal of love, as it is explained in Romans 13:10 that love is the fulfillment of the law. Earlier in the book of Romans, chapter 10 to be specific, the new commandment that is given is to have faith in Christ. In Galatians 3:24, the purpose of the law is explained. It was necessary to lead people to faith in Christ. These verses, among others, show that the mere joyless adherence to any set of laws is not the goal of Christianity.
There are more important questions for the faithful to consider when making any decision or choosing a course of action, whether that is getting a tattoo, deciding which foods to eat, selecting friends or deciding on an outfit. One such important question is whether or not the behavior will bring glory to God, as the believer is admonished to do in 1 Corinthians 10:31. Another question is whether or not the action is in keeping with the standard of love. In John 13:35, the bible clearly teaches that a believer is known by their love for others and in Romans 14:13 it is “commanded” that believers should not do anything that might be a stumbling block to someone else or in other words, cause someone else to loose faith. This is obviously not something that would be done out of love.
While the Bible may not specifically say that getting a tattoo is a sin in this day and age, the person who wishes to do so may want to carefully weigh their motives, the significance of the tattoo and the possible effect their decision might have on others.
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