LEVITICUS 19:28. These large black letters and numbers are inked into my left forearm. It’s the only tattoo I’ve been inspired to get. (Besides a completely failed attempt to have my wedding ring tattooed on my finger—it faded away within months. Bad omen? Let’s move on.)
I wanted a Bible verse that summed up the good news message of Jesus in a tattoo, and Leviticus 19:28 seemed like the obvious choice.
So what does Leviticus 19:28 say? Thanks for asking. That’s the Bible verse that says, “Thou shall not get a tattoo.”
I know. Now I have some explaining to do.
SHAVE AND A HAIRCUT
When I was a kid, I had a Sunday school teacher who was, well, less than joyful: Mrs. Grumpy Pants, as we liked to call her. I remember the time a man with tattoos on his arm came to church. “I hope he gets saved,” I heard Mrs. G. mutter, and I wondered what she meant by that. “You can tell this man doesn’t love God because he has a bunch of tattoos,” Mrs. G. explained to me, “and the Bible clearly says it’s an abomination to get a tattoo.” (Abomination always sounds like a serious sin upgrade from just a regular trespass or transgression.)
This was very disappointing news, since I wanted to get a tattoo when I grew up. I asked Mrs. G., “What if I got a tattoo of Jesus? Or maybe a Bible verse?” Her look of disapproval did not soften.
Later in life I learned that the one Bible verse that discourages tattoos appears in Leviticus 19. This is the same chapter that teaches other important things: Men must never cut their hair or trim their beards. (Three cheers for hippies!) Farmers must never plant two kinds of crops in the same fields or harvest their fields right to the edges. (Not a farmer? Me neither. So we’re good here.) And everyone must avoid wearing clothing that is woven with two different kinds of material. (Pure wool? Check. Pure cotton? Check. Polyester blend? We’ll stone you.)
Obviously, Christians don’t feel the need to obey every verse of the Bible. But this chapter also includes rich teaching such as respect your parents, don’t curse people who are deaf or put stumbling blocks in front of people who are blind (how practical), and even one of Jesus’ favourites—love your neighbour as yourself. So how do we get to pick and choose what to follow and what to forget, what to obey and what to ignore?
The urgency for Bible-believing people to figure out how to actually apply the teaching from their own Bibles only increases the more you read. Should we go to war against nations who don’t embrace our God? Should we burn witches and stone to death our rebellious children? And what about the list of personal defects that disqualify priests from serving God in Leviticus 21? Bad skin, bad posture, bad eyesight, a broken bone, or just too short to ride the ride: it’s easy to be disqualified from approaching the altar of God.
Trying to figure out how to be a good Christian while obeying the Bible’s rules is exhausting, even soul crushing. I can understand why the writings of the New Testament contrast the old way of the letter of the law with the new way of the Spirit by saying, “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).
THE END OF THE OLD
If you open any Christian Bible, you’ll notice it is divided into two sections: the Old Testament and the New Testament. Testament is another word for covenant, which in this case refers to a way of living in relationship with God. So the Bible is divided into the old way of living and the new way of living. And although there is continuity, the two ways are radically different.
The old way of living, the Old Testament, is pre-Jesus. It describes God’s covenant of promise and trust with humankind (as with Adam and Abraham) that then became a covenant of law-keeping and sacrifice-making (through Moses). Because people grew hardhearted and hurtful toward others and themselves, God intervened with laws to keep them in line, rituals to help them focus on what is important, and sacrifices to help them see the gravity of their sin and turn to God for forgiveness.
Then, when Jesus came, God inaugurated the new covenant— which is to say, he changed everything.
A first-century Christ-follower wrote about the contrast between the old way of religion and the new way of Jesus. “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear” (Hebrews 8:13). Obsolete? Outdated? On its way out? Now them’s fightin’ words. (I’m considering getting HEBREWS 8:13 on my other arm.)
Here we have a verse from the New Testament saying that the Old Testament is over. This is astounding: one part of the Bible calling another part of the Bible “obsolete.”
This isn’t a contradiction; the old covenant contains prophecies about the coming of a new covenant that would supersede the old (e.g., Jeremiah 31:31-34). This is an intentional change, a planned and purposed development in human spiritual history. If you believe that God is behind all of this, it’s a cosmic shift in how our world works.
In English, we can use the word old in two different ways: (1) aged, or (2) former. If your friend tells you, “I really like my old boss,” she might mean she is enjoying working for her current boss, who happens to be older. But she probably means she misses working for her former boss.
The Greek word for “obsolete” in Hebrews 8:13 is the word for “old,” as in something that is former, over, worn out, in the past. It’s like an old boyfriend or girlfriend: we’ve moved on.
At the same time, although Jesus taught that he had come to bring about the end of the way of law and sacrifice, he also claimed that the teaching of the Scriptures would somehow endure (see Matthew 5:17-19 and Luke 16:16-17). So we don’t throw out the first half of our Bibles, but we read the Old Testament as “the story of what doesn’t work.” The Old Testament endures as God’s way of reminding us that we don’t need more rules and rituals; in fact, rules and rituals can often get in the way of what we really need, which is God himself.
When we pursue the rules instead of the Ruler, the laws instead of Spirit, the sacrifices instead of the One who became the last sacrifice, we’re not getting closer to God; we’re reaching for an obsolete system that God has long since abandoned. Jesus came to clear the way for a more direct intimacy with the Almighty.
So why did I get LEVITICUS 19:28 tattooed on my arm? As a reminder that Jesus claimed to fulfill the system and make the old obsolete (Matthew 5:17). This clears the way for something better.
It’s the good news in a tattoo: Jesus came to save us not only from our sin, but also from our religion.