In a related article, we learned about the Jewish customs of phylacteries and prayer shawls, that those practices are extra-biblical and therefore are not a requirement for Christians today. Another custom that makes an appearance occasionally today is that of wearing tassels. In this article, we will learn about the Old Testament instruction to wear tassels and discuss whether or not New Covenant Christians are still required to observe it today.
Tassels are small, knotted cords of strings, usually about six to 10 inches in length, worn about waist high. Often they are attached to a shawl or waistband, but can adorn any article of clothing.
There are two places in the Books of Moses that give instruction on tassels to the Israelites. The first is Numbers 15:38-40: “Speak to the children of Israel: Tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a blue thread in the tassels of the corners. And you shall have the tassel, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and that you may not follow the harlotry to which your own heart and your own eyes are inclined, and that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy for your God.”
Almighty God knew that the Israelites would forget His laws. So did Moses. After giving them the Ten Commandments and knowing that their heart was not right, God said, “Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!” (Deuteronomy 5:29).
Before Moses died God told him that He knew that Israel would forget His laws and Covenant in Deuteronomy 31:16. Moses also knew and warned them (Deuteronomy 31:29). So is it any wonder that God gave them some physical ways to remind themselves of His laws?
New Covenant Fulfillment
Paul called these reminders a schoolmaster—or in some translations a tutor. “Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith”(Galatians 3:24). The tutor has now brought us to Christ. We understand that we are to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4), and have “put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him” (Colossians 3:10).
Galatians also teaches us that the ceremonial laws, given 430 years after the covenant with Abraham (which was based on his obedience to God’s commandments, laws, statutes, and charge—Genesis 26:5) did not change the covenant, but were added because of the record of disobedience of Israel, and would be binding on them until the coming of the Messiah.
In Hebrews we are given a kind of short list to determine just what laws we are talking about: “It was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience—and concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances [physical rites] imposed until the time of reformation. But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation” (Hebrews 9:9-11).
In agreeing to the covenant with God in Exodus 19-23, the Israelites twice solemnly swore to obey God and abide by His laws. However, they very quickly disobeyed and demanded a golden calf to worship. This began a long series of sins breaking their promise. This proved to God that Israel did not understand the gravity and their commitment or fear God in the proper way. The purpose of the physical rites and sacrifices was to teach the people of Israel the importance of obeying God’s laws and the seriousness of transgressing them.
“What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator” (Galatians 3:19).
As a result of Jesus Christ being seated at the right hand of the Father and sending the Holy Spirit to be our helper, we now are to have the laws and commandments of God in our heart and mind. This is the most consequential change made possible by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on our behalf, and was prophesied by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:31-33), then reaffirmed by the author of Hebrews (Hebrews 8:8-10).
The second chapter that gives instruction on tassels reveals that it is an application principle. This chapter is Deuteronomy 22 and contains judgments. Judgments are not commandments or statutes. They’re instructions on how to apply those laws to given situations. We make judgments every day of our lives as we let God’s laws lead and guide our decisions. Read the first 12 verses, and you will see that these instructions illustrate ways to apply the second great commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
In this chapter the Israelites are instructed to return lost animals and garments, to give assistance to others when needed (Galatians 6:10), not to cross-dress, not to sow mixed seed, not to plow with unequal animals, or mix specific types of fibers. They are instructed to have mercy on mother birds and to always build a parapet on their house so as to prevent falling off.
While these are all instructions from God and have a spiritual basis, not all apply in a physical way today. Most of us do not live in a house with a parapet (a vertical wall extending past the roofline), however we keep this in principle by making our houses as safe as possible for residents and guests.
The original scriptural intent behind the fringed garment was to remind the Israelites of God’s commandments to them. They were slaves of sin because, lacking the Spirit of God, their human nature and Satan’s influence caused them to resist doing what was right. God intended they be a model nation for the world to take note of, but they weren’t able to do so for very long—they gave in to the base human instincts we are all very familiar with. But that charge to overcome our nature has now been made possible with the giving of the Holy Spirit. We can now obey from the heart. Paul wrote: “But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:17-18).
The instruction to make tassels to remind Israelites not to forget God’s law is now applied by worshipping God not just outwardly, but in spirit and truth. Jesus Christ told the woman at the well, “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
Spiritual Reminders Supercede Physical Ones
Since the coming of the Holy Spirit, which enables us to kill or mortify sin (Romans 8:13), we are to be constantly reminded by spiritual means of our covenant with our God and our need to live righteous lives. God’s written Word is the first and foremost way of doing this.
Peter wrote that his epistles would be one reminder (2 Peter 1:15, 3:1-2). We also are to be reminded regularly by our ministers at Sabbath services, at Bible studies, and in fellowship and conversation with God’s people. Paul instructed Timothy to be careful to do this (2 Timothy 2:12-14).
Paul understood that believers were to admonish each other, and he was to remind them constantly of their calling, future, and need to obey God. He wrote, “Now I myself am confident concerning you, my brethren, that you also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another” (Romans 15:14).
One of the functions of the Spirit of God is to help us remember the teachings of Jesus Christ. Before He was crucified, Jesus promised His disciples: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14:26).
Jesus’ Teaching on Pharisees, Phylacteries and Tassels
Many people believe that Jesus wore a garment with tassels, and the biblical record seems to affirm that He did during His human life. Matthew 14:36 and parallel verses give accounts that people in need of healing “begged Him that they might only touch the hem of His garment. And as many as touched it were made perfectly well.” The Greek word translated “hem”—kraspedon—can mean border, hem or fringe.
That same word is also used in a very strong sermon Jesus gave denouncing the scribes and Pharisees. “But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders [kraspedon] of their garments” (Matthew 23:5). The thing that’s very clear is His condemnation of doing religious-looking things in order to be seen by others. Over and over again, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their approach to their religion—stating that it was hypocritical (Luke 12:1), that their father was Satan the devil and they were doing Satan’s bidding (John 8:44), and that they had made the law of God of no effect in their lives due to their traditions (Mark 7:7-8). Their worship was vanity because their motive was wrong.
Jesus powerfully made the point in His sermon on the mount:
“Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men, to be seen of them: else ye have no reward with your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1, American Standard Version).
Those who wear tassels usually do so out of a sincere desire to obey God. But all too often there have been examples of individuals who have made their observance of this issue (or any other countless number of issues) a cause for division in the Body of Christ. Jesus condemned the scribes and Pharisees for obeying the physical commands to the smallest degree while neglecting the weightier matters of the law (Matthew 23:23-24).
Likewise we should not make any physical command of which we are personally convinced into an issue that causes division. Paul tackled similar issues in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, where he instructed that, if there is a disagreement between people on a matter regarding a physical observance, let each be fully convinced in his own mind (Romans 14:5), and that each should give preference to the other in order not to cause them to stumble before God (1 Corinthians 8:9). Instead, he wrote, let us pursue things which make for peace and which edify one another (Romans 14:19).
We are now called to seek those things that are above, where the Messiah reigns from on high (Colossians 2:20-3:1). We now have a “better covenant based on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6). Let us not pursue the vain religion of the Pharisees that seeks recognition from other people. Instead, let us pursue those things which edify the Body, joining and knitting it together by what every member supplies (Ephesians 4:16).