What! Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which you have of God, and ye are not your own? (1 Cor. 6:19). The Apostle’s question is as relevant today as ever, perhaps more so. Most of us can remember seeing pictures of the “heathen” in foreign lands painting and piercing their bodies, stretching their skin over some bone or arrow, coloring their hair and dancing around a fire or a carved idol. One not-so-old Bible Encyclopedia comments on the prohibition to cut or disfigure the body (Lev. 19:18) as a “reference to the custom of tattooing common among savage tribes, and in vogue among both men and women of the lower orders in Arabia, Egypt, and many other lands.”1 It seems that today these comments would have to be amended to include not only “civilized” countries but much of the Christian church as well.
What would have been a shocking and offensive practice among believers just a few years ago, now is becoming accepted for laymen and clergy alike. Tattoos may be anywhere and of anything; piercings are displayed inside and outside almost any body part; “body art” of various kinds is more common than billboards along the highways; hair is colored, cubed or meticulously disheveled; and those uncomely parts upon which we used to bestow more abundant honor (1 Cor. 12:23) are now uncovered with lack of shame and even with boldness. The discussion is no longer how to reach those poor souls doing these things because they don’t know the Lord, but how to deal with this within the church and among believers.
Though these things are obviously becoming accepted practices, I believe they are dishonoring to the body which is the temple of the Holy Spirit; are opening harmful doors to our children and young people; and are doing far more harm than good in presenting the gospel to a lost world.
The body as a billboard
In the world, the marking and piercing of the body is seen as art and artistic expression as well as a place for coded messages. On one web site a “body artist” says, “In doing so, we aim to shatter all stigmas associated with the body modification culture by proving that tatted and pierced people are, for the most part, just as ‘normal’ as the Baby Boomers who presume to judge us. But then again, if piercings were totally acceptable by society, we wouldn’t have any more curious twenty-something year old customers taking their first step into the ‘wild’ side.” One young person wrote, “Well, I for one feel that scarification is a wonderful expression of who you are. I have a scarification, it is a wolf on my back. I feel that this expressed my true self, the wolf is my totem, my spiritual guide. I also have tattoos on my back and arm. Each piece that is put on my body represents some part of my spirit, my soul and who I am.” Another online writer says, “There are many reasons in which people obtain piercings and tattoos. Those who modify, manipulate and mutilate their bodies do so for many reasons. Some say it’s simply exciting and pleasurable, or part of the latest fad. Others place it in the context of art, ritual or self-expression, they say it’s an act with cultural and social significance.”2
In a Better Homes & Gardens article titled, “8 Signs the Kids are Fine,” the fifth sign is “She doesn’t have any tattoos.” The paragraph with a quote from Dr. Timothy Roberts the University of Rochester’s Children’s Hospital reads, “Studies of more than 6,000 junior and high school students found that those with tattoos and body piercings (not earrings) were more likely to smoke cigarettes or marijuana, go on drinking binges, have premarital sex, get into fights, join gangs, skip school, and get poor grades. ‘If a child asks for a tattoo, the parent should recognize that as an opportunity to talk.’”3 I recall knowing a teenage boy, the son of a Christian friend, on drug charges, who stood before the judge in a court room with his longish hair, tattoos, chains and black clothes. When the boy said he didn’t know how he got into such trouble, the judge reprimanded him sternly about the way he appeared and said, “You are a walking advertisement for every drug dealer in town.” The body has become the billboard for a person’s coded message, the sermon in picture of his world view. The atheist Friederic Nietzsche has Zarathustra saying, “But the awakened and knowing say: Body am I entirely, and nothing else; and the soul is only a word for something about the body.”4
In contrast, David Warren wrote about how God values the body enough to speak often of how it is clothed:
God speaks about matters that matter; He does not waste our time with peripheral details. You may be interested to know that God refers to clothing more than 530 times in Scripture, using 12 different Hebrew terms in the Old Testament and 6 different Greek terms in the New Testament. He has something to say about our clothing, and anything He talks about should be of immediate interest to us. It is kind of Him to speak to us about something that is such an integral part of life, isn’t it?5
The Old Testament admonitions
One would expect to find God’s attitude toward these things in the Law, the only national constitution God ever wrote. He told Israel, Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD (Lev. 19:28). God commanded Jeremiah not to intermingle in the lives of the heathen people where he had been carried, and when they died he was not to follow their religious ceremonies: Neither shall men lament for them, nor cut themselves, nor make themselves bald for them (Jer. 16:6). The cuttings in the flesh were done by the heathen for the souls of the dead. God’s people were not to copy these cultural mores. God’s attitude toward these things has never changed though He has changed the way He deals with them. We think because God doesn’t strike offenders dead immediately, He doesn’t care as much about it as He used to. The New Testament adds an even greater responsibility to these things because now the believer’s body is the actual abode of the Holy Spirit.
Many cling to an interpretation of Gen. 24:22 which proposes that Abraham’s servant gave Rebekah a nose ring. But to call the jewel a “nose ring” is an opinion and not a translation, nor does it seem consistent with the text or context. Taking the KJV as a starting point, we find that the man took a golden (zahab-“gold”) earring (nezem-“ring”) of a half-shekel weight (Gen. 24:22). The NKJV translates the word nezem “nose ring” but as an interpretation not a translation seeing that the word for “nose” is not in this verse. The NASB translates it “gold ring,” as does the ASV, since both the word “gold” and “ring” are in this verse, while the NIV translates it “a gold nose ring,” combining translation and interpretation. To see the difference we only have to go forward to Gen. 35:4 where we have and all their earrings (nezem-“ring”) which were in their ears (ozen-“ear”). We know that ozen is the ear, not the nose as any dictionary or concordance will show. In that verse, the ring was obviously in the ear. The reason given why the simple word for “ring” (nezem) is sometimes translated “nose ring” by some is because it is believed that many non-Jewish tribes wore rings in their nose. This may or may not be the case but it makes “nose ring” an interpretation, not a translation.
The Hebrew word for “nose” is aph and appears in the context of the “ring” (nezem) in a few related passages. In fact, in the 47th verse of this chapter of Genesis (24) we read and I put the earring (nezem-“ring”) upon her face (aph-“nose”). Now that may seem to mean “in” her nose, but it does not necessarily. It actually says “upon” (‘al) the nose. This is an important distinction and some commentators (and parallel verses) understand this to picture a different thing. John Gill, for example, says, “This was a jewel that hung from the forehead upon a lace of riband between the eyes down upon the nose.”6 The idea would be that the jewell hung on a strand of some kind around the head but hung low over the face to be “upon the nose” (my Bible footnotes Gen. 24:47 with, a jewel for the forehead). This picture may be supported by contrasting two prophetic verses, one positive and one negative. Ezekiel 16:12 is the great chapter where God is describing how He found and rescued Israel in her infancy. In that graphic description He says, and I put a jewel (nezem-“ring”) on (‘al-“upon”) thy forehead (aph-“nose”). The ring is said to be “upon” the nose as we have seen. A negative contrast to this is in Isaiah 3:18-21 where we see God’s wrath poured out in the Day of the Lord. In that day the Lord will take away the bravery of their tinkling ornaments about their feet, and their cauls, and their round tires like the moon, the chains, and the bracelets, and the mufflers, the bonnets, and the ornaments of the legs, and the headbands, and the tablets, and the earrings (lit. “amulets”), the rings (nezem-“ring”), and the nose jewels (“rings of the nose”). Here we have the word “nose” with the word “ring” which both appear in this verse. But what is interesting is that these rings are actually “of the nose” which is closer to meaning “in the nose” whereas in Genesis 24:47 the ring was “upon” the nose or face, perhaps, as we have seen, worn as a head-band.
Now one last note about Rebekah’s gold ring needs to be made. Just because we have a true record of what was given to her and what she wore (even if it were a nose ring), this doesn’t mean it should become a model for us. If the society we live in has given it a coded connotation, it should be discarded. I have to agree with the following rather long statement by John Calvin,
But it may be asked, whether God approves ornaments of this kind, which pertain not so much to the neatness as to pomp? I answer, that the things related to Scripture are not always proper to be imitated. Whatever the Lord commands in general terms is to be accounted as an inflexible rule of conduct; but to rely on particular examples is not only dangerous, but even foolish and absurd. Now we know how highly displeasing to God is not only pomp and ambition in adorning the body, but all kind of luxury. In order to free the heart from inward cupidity, he condemns that immoderate and superfluous splendour, which contains within itself many allurements to vice. Where, indeed, is pure sincerity of heart found under splendid ornaments? Certainly all acknowledge this virtue to be rare. It is not, however, for us expressly to forbid every kind of ornament; yet because whatever exceeds the frugal use of such things is tarnished with some degree of vanity; and more especially, because the cupidity of women is, on this point, insatiable; not only must moderation, but even abstinence, be cultivated as far as possible. . . . The women who desire to shine in gold, seek in Rebekah a pretext for their corruption.7
The New Testament Admonitions
1 Peter 3:3-4. Peter recalls the Old Testament saints who honored God with their outward appearance and admonishes us all (but specifically wives) to follow their example. Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; but let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price. For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands.
1 Timothy 2:9-10. Paul sounds much like Peter in addressing specific excesses in dress and jewelry. In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamedfacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; but (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works. If today we cannot seem to apply these admonitions to avoid worldliness without the “either or” mentality (i.e. either we eliminate every tiny piece or we allow everything that can be dreamed up) then let us err on the side of the godly women of old who received the blessings of God because of their inward beauty not any outward advertisement.
Romans 6:13. Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourslves unto God. . . and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. Paul’s word for “instruments” in this verse means “weapons” (hopla). Our bodies become weapons in the fight for righteousness! The believer’s body can be a weapon on either side depending on how he/she yields it. No wonder we will be judged at the Bema Seat for things done in the body (2 Cor. 5:10).
1 Corinthians 3:16-17. Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are. Here our translators show their love of variety in vocabulary because, in verse 17, “defile” and “destroy” are the exact same Greek word (to “destroy”, “defile” or “corrupt”). When the believer sets about to “destroy” the body in which the Holy Spirit dwells, God sets about to destroy that body. Vine calls it “God’s retributive destruction of the offender who is guilty of this sin.”8 We are seeing this corrupting influence dragging down the lives of many believers in our own churches.
1 Corinthians 6:15. Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of a harlot? God forbid. Our Lord is jealous of the whole person. He intends to save all of us, not just our soul, by raising the body from the dead (vs. 14). If we will not carry unnecessary marks on our bodies with us into heaven, then they are out of place on this earth too. He is possessive enough of our body that He is willing to share it with our earthly spouse but that is all. All else is fornication whether it be physical or spiritual (Jas. 4:4).
Galatians 6:7-8. Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption. “Corruption” is the same word as “defile, destroy” in 1 Cor. 3:17. We cannot sow into our flesh the elements of the world without reaping a corruption directed by God Himself! This is extremely serious when God tells us that such sowing to the flesh is mocking Him! It is thumbing our noses at God’s very warnings about how we treat the body which He gave us to be used as His temple.
Ephesians 2:2-3, 11; 1 Peter 4:3. The phrase that is of interest in these verses (and many others like them) is “in time past.” Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world. . . Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lust of the flesh . . . Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh. Peter says, For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walkeded in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revelings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries. The time when we lived for and by our flesh is history to the believer! We have left the world’s indicators behind, even though (Peter writes in the next verse) unbelievers may speak evil of you, it is only because the old things have passed away and they like the old better than the new.
Romans 8:13; Colossians 3:5. If ye live after the flesh ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth. “Mortification” is one of those doctrines that is lost on our generation. Like a couch potato who tries to get up and run a ten-mile marathon, the worldly Christian tries to mortify the fleshly desires of his body and fails. The church today is much more interested in making theologies to indulge the flesh and pacify immature saints than it is to subject itself to rigorous spiritual training. It is always easier in Rome to do as the Romans do (otherwise they may not like us and that would hurt our precious self-esteem). Paul reminds us that For thy sake we are killed all the day long (Rom. 8:36) and that he was always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus; and that he was always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake (2 Cor. 4:10-11). But we cannot seem to reserve even the skin of our teeth for Him.
The dignity of causality. I have read this phrase in older Christian writers that God has given us two dignified means by which we may change things. One is by doing things, and the other is by prayer. Prayer is the greater and yet the lesser used of the two. We usually pray as though little depended on God and work as though it all depends on us. But doing things with our body is also a dignity God has given us. We have this “space” that we live in to offer to God as a stewardship because it is the means by which we can do things. It is the “space” for which we will be held accountable at the Bema Seat. John says there will be shame before Him some day rather than confidence (1 John 2:28-29) because we have not used our bodies as effective instruments of the Holy Spirit.
Godliness for evangelism. When Paul admonished Timothy to exercise himself to godliness more than to physical exercise (1 Tim. 4:7-8), it was for the express purpose of evangelism: Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear thee. It has pleased God to draw the lost to Christ by His children exercising themselves in godliness and not in physical exercises. We have fallen into the unbiblical notion that we can reach the world better by avoiding godliness because lost people are turned off by it. We certainly have no right to criticize the questionable methodologies of past evangelists when we have no concern of our own for the holy things of God. Where did we hear that we can reach more sinners by offending the Holy Spirit? For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness. He that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God, who hath also given unto us his Holy Spirit (1 Thes. 4:7-8).
Threshold separation. We ought to have learned by now that opening a door and crossing the threshold exposes us to everything that is in that room. When we cross certain thresholds of cultural and worldly practice, we are exposing ourselves and our loved ones to everything related to it. Social drinking will not stop there; lower rated movies will not stop there; another hole in the same ear will not stop there; slightly crude words will not stop there; a little aggressiveness in boys will not stop there; a little cleavage on girls will not stop there; a little tattoo on the arm will not stop there. Paul scolded the Thessalonian church for being busy-bodies because he knew it would not stop there. But ye, brethren, be not weary in well-doing. And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother (2 Thes. 3:13-15). Whether bodily markings and piercings or any other culturally/worldly initiation, when we cross that threshold we seldom go back or even slow down.
Eschatological sensitivity. The decline in preaching and belief about the coming Tribulation and the rise of the Anti-Christ has allowed the church to be less discerning about a one-world global culture. Though this subject has fallen prey to many excesses and fantastic interpretations of the prophetic details, we cannot just stop living in the light of this coming judgment of God. One of the details that we know is coming and that will have devastating global effects is the mark of the Beast. The Bible uses a few different words for things resembling a mark. Jesus is the image (icon) of the invisible God (Col. 1:14). This word means “representation” or “likeness” and is a fitting description of Christ’s incarnation. Paul said, I bear in my body the marks (stigma) of the Lord Jesus (Gal. 6:17). These were, no doubt, the scars from his stoning in Lystra. This is the common word for a “brand” or a burned “mark.” But the word used to describe the mark of the Beast is charagma which is an engraver’s mark, a purposed scarification. Though it can be used in its simple meaning,9 it is almost always used with a negative connotation in the New Testament. In Revelation, the 144,000 are said to have God’s name “written” in their foreheads, but that is NOT this word. Only the Beast and False Prophet use this kind of a mark (charagma) to imitate as closely as possible what God does supernaturally. Paul used this word on Mars Hill to describe the pagan idolatry of the Athenians. We ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven (charagma) by art (technes) and man’s device (Acts 17:29). The Anti-Christ will use this method to inscribe his mark on the heads or hands of the whole world that worships him and Satan. Interestingly, the False Prophet somehow brings a technological reinforcement to this through the image (icon) he makes to the Beast.
In all of our modern and cultural “sophistication” the churches are indulging more and more into these things, and becoming less and less sensitive to their potential use for evil. We think we are so culturally relevant because we can read the face of the sky, but we are not discerning the signs of the times. Being culturally relevant is not simply to know how to get along in the world, it is knowing how to be God’s steward of truth in the time of falsehood, knowing how to be lights in a dark world. How can we doubt that the world is being conditioned to receive the Anti-Christ and his one-world system with its vital key, the mark of the Beast. Is the Church of Jesus Christ helping this conditioning? Are we making it easier for the great enemy of Christ to deceive the rest of the world? Do we not care that Christ will cast into hell those who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name (Rev. 14:11)?
And So . . . .
We ought to make the best use of this body that we have been given by God, and use it in a discerning way in the time which we have. It is the only “space” we have to carry out our stewardship. If we err, let us err on the side of wholesomeness and effectiveness for the truth’s sake and the gospel’s; let us err on the side of the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings that we might know more about the power of His resurrection.
When facing more severe hardships than ours, the eighteenth century writer Jean Baptiste Massillon wrote,
The children of Israel offered animals in sacrifice to the Lord, and Egypt worshipped them. Their situation was typical of ours. We form a people apart, in the midst of the world, because we ought to sacrifice to God those passions of the flesh which the world adores. As soon as we break the barrier which separates us from the world — as soon as we leave this happy land of Goshen and go to mingle among idolaters, their worship becomes ours. Separation from them constitutes all our safety and maintains a diversity of manners; by mixing, we form but one people with them and become like them.10
The believer’s walk in the world has become difficult for our generation to discern. We’re told that any physical separation from the world is unbiblical and is like the ostrich with his head in the sand. We forget that today’s lack of separation is just that—only today’s. It has not been the church’s testimony for these last two thousand years. The great work done for Christ by preachers and missionaries and many other godly saints, was not done in the worldly mode we are trying to use today. The great cloud of witnesses is crying to us to be faithful! They gave their bodies and their lives for the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Surely we can do no less.Notes: 1. Dwight M. Pratt, “Mark, a stigma,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. III (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939) 1986. 2. These are taken from various sites by searching for Tattoo and Piercing. 3. Better Homes & Gardens, July 2005. 4. Friederic Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (New York: Penguin Books, 1978) 34. 5. David Warren, “Clothing Communicates,” The Baptist Bulletin, May 1999. 6. John Gill, Dr. Gill’s Commentary, vol. 1 (London: William Hill Collingridge, 1853) 132. 7. John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. second (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981) 22. 8. W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell, 1966) 242. 9. This is used, for example, in Heb. 1:3, where Christ is said to be the express image of his person which shows the exactness of His divine image. 10. Jean Baptiste Massillon, “On the Spirit of the Ministry,” Orations from Homer to McKinley, vol. IV (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1902) 1713.