We were blessed to have Dr. Alex Tseng recently contribute a thoughtful piece on Tobacco, Tattoos, and the Chinese Church which handled the concepts quite well. In this follow-up piece, I am hoping to proclaim a resounding yes and Amen to everything that Dr. Tseng said in that piece while also attempting to focus in on the redemptive-historical epoch in which the condemnation of tattoos in Leviticus 19 is situated.
Dr. Tseng was correct to state that the tattooing Leviticus 19:28 has in mind is not exactly analogous to the modern art of tattooing. The tattooing in mind in verse 28 of Leviticus 19 is paired with the practice of cutting oneself for the dead. That is to say that it has a certain ritualistic pagan character to it. It served a distinct purpose in pagan worship practices that modern tattooing simply does not. The distinction between modern tattooing and the tattooing in Leviticus 19 is the difference between a practice that is deeply religious and spiritual on the one hand and one that is merely aesthetic on the other. With that in mind, the Leviticus 19 passage has little to say about the modern art of tattooing.
For those who may not be convinced by such an argument, I would like to take the argument a step further. You might say that the verse plainly states “do not tattoo yourselves” and therefore the intentions behind the act are irrelevant. But what must be taken into account is the redemptive historical context in which this commandment is given. The section of Leviticus in which 19:28 is found is called the ceremonial law. The purpose of the ceremonial law was to ensure the ceremonial cleanliness of the people of God in general and of the priesthood in specific (this must be distinguished from the moral law which mirrors the character of God which remains binding to all people everywhere throughout time). What this means is that those who perceive that the prohibition of tattoos found in Leviticus 19 to be binding to Christians today are in effect arguing for a continuation of the levitical ceremonial law.
This would include the prohibition against trimming your beard found one verse prior to the prohibition of tattoos in Leviticus 19:27 as well as the prohibition against wearing clothing made of mixed fabrics. The simple fact is that if the law against tattoos is still binding, then so is every other ceremonial law. We simply do not have the hermeneutical freedom to cherry pick which Old Testament laws we think are still binding and which we do not. If you use this line of reasoning from Leviticus 19:28 to deny tattoos then you must also obey all of the Old Covenant dietary restrictions as well.
So what then merits the cessation of the ceremonial law? Nothing other than the atoning work of Christ. This is because the ceremonial law existed in order to point forward to Christ, the coming Messiah. The ceremonial law was unto ceremonial cleanliness, but it was imperfect in that those who were subject to the ceremonial law failed to keep the law and thus defiled themselves. In the redemptive work of Christ, and it’s once-for-all character, we see the fulfillment of the ceremonial law such that his people are made perfectly and infallibly clean, just as he was ceremonially clean as perfect priest and spotless sacrifice. There ceremonial law is no longer binding for Christian believers, not because it was arbitrarily abolished, but because that to which it strived has been fully and finally realized in Christ.