Back a couple weeks, I was hanging out at a skate park in Patterson CA, trying to get to know the kids who were throwing down some pretty aggressive tricks. I was on a secret mission.
We were there to develop relationships with teens who didn’t have the support of a church family—to get their ideas on church and God and see how we might invite them to hang out with us. I had brought a cooler full of sodas and opened it up. When one of the guys would hop off the concrete, I’d offer him a drink. (PS. The only drink they wanted was Dr. Pepper, so forget about the Fanta, folks.) While they were drinking, I’d introduce myself and ask some questions. Inevitably, there would be a time where I’d sense that we could get deeper, more spiritual with the dialogue.
I asked one guy, Edward, about his upbringing in church, since he mentioned he was a Christian.
“Man”, he huffed. “I went to the most judgmental church. I felt like no one ever got to know me. They just looked at my tattoos and piercings and never gave me a chance. The funny thing is”, he continued, “is that some translations of Revelation 19:16 say that Jesus has tattoos on his thighs when he comes back for his people.”
A few things came rushing to my mind all at once. First, even though Edward was talking about another denomination, the same situation could have just as easily happened in an Adventist Church…humans are prone to judgment, and if someone doesn’t look like they fit in, sometimes we don’t welcome them into our fellowship. This is a grave error on our part. Second, I was pretty sure that even if Jesus did have an actual tattoo, it wouldn’t be a good reason to go spend hundreds of dollars putting Sailor Jerry type ladies on my body. I question both the heart’s intent and the content of lots of tattoos. And finally, the holy spirit told me that this wasn’t a time for a Bible study or a time to be critical, it was a time to affirm the deeper desires of this kid’s heart—to love him for the unique ways he had been made and to find common ground.
Here’s a secret about me: I actually LOVE tattoos. I don’t find it hard to appreciate good art, even if it is drawn on someone’s body. Tattooing is an art form in its own right. Have you ever watched an episode of LA Ink? Side note: I met Oliver Peck and Kat Von D at a Christmas party in Dallas. Those guys can put a perfect likeness of a loved one on a shoulder blade. They are skilled!
Some of you (including my mom) are probably freaking out as you read this, thinking that I’m a pretty sorry role model for young people, but don’t worry, I’m not ever going to get a tattoo. I really want my beliefs engraved on my heart and character, not on my skin.
But I do love them! Keep tracking with me for a minute, and it’ll make sense.
In the verse in Revelation that Edward was referring to, the word some translations render “tattoo” or “engraved” is actually the same word for “written”. It’s pretty obvious that Jesus isn’t going to his local rusty needle for fresh ink. That said, Jesus does get something significant written on his thighs—maybe it’s more like getting henna art or a temporary tattoo, but its there!
Here’s why I love this concept and this verse: we can use it to connect people like Edward to the character of God, regardless of the specific word interpretation. See, this part of the Bible is about our radical, warrior Jesus, suiting up to wreak havoc on sin. Coming back in accordance with the covenant, the super-est of super heroes. Destroying the destroyer. Pure motives and pure power. It’s phenomenally inspiring. And by the way, It puts all other body art to shame!
People get tattoos for so many reasons—to project an image, to express a cherished phrase or concept, to honor someone who has passed away, to make something feel permanent in a world with no guarantees. If we can understand this, and understand how God responds to those desires, we’ll be less concerned with judgment and more concerned with filling peoples’ needs.
That’s why I love tattoos. Because they allow me to have conversations about things that are important to people, and when the time is right, to introduce them to the character of God.
If you meet an Edward in your church, don’t let him get away without asking him about his body art. You might find you have a lot more to talk about than you thought!