What did Jesus mean when he said, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces” (Matthew 7:6)?
How should we apply this?
Jesus used a metaphor to forbid wasting something valuable on an undeserving object. Yet it’s not immediately clear what shouldn’t be wasted and on whom.
Two questions are necessary
- Who are the dogs and pigs?
- What are the sacred things and pearls?
Jesus pictured a man holding a bag of costly pearls confronting a pack of wild pigs. The man takes out his pearls and begins throwing them to the animals as if he were throwing feed to them.
The animals instinctively pounce on the pearls as if they were food. Upon realizing that the pearls are too hard to chew and not something to satisfy their hunger, the animals spit out the pearls, and turn on the man who throws them — tearing him to pieces.
Two despised animals
- The dogs were not cute little domesticated house pets. They were half-wild hounds that roamed the streets—often in savage packs—in search of food.
- The pigs were not only an abomination to the Jews, they were likely descendants from the wild boar and potentially violent. Able, as Jesus said, “to turn and tear you to pieces.”
Jesus chose two animals (both despised, both ceremonially unclean) and he demanded what seems incredulously obvious: don’t give what is sacred/holy (perhaps sacred meat) to the dogs and don’t cast your pearls (costly jewels) as feed to pigs.
Clearly Jesus did not intend for this to be taken literally with regard to dogs and pigs. It would be ridiculous. So we must ask who Jesus identified as dogs and pigs and what should be withheld from them. In principle, we’re told to withhold something of value from an unworthy object, from dogs and pigs. But how this should apply is not immediately evident.
Context is key
Jesus had been dealing with the matter of relating to other people. In verses 1-5, He taught His disciples not to judge others in a hypocritical way but to offer constructive help proceeded by careful self-judgment.
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:1-5, NASB).
Directed to His disciples
The fact that Jesus invited them to call on God in prayer in verses 7-11 would imply that this teaching is for His disciples, for those who have a right relationship with God.
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11, NASB).
“The context provides a healthy balance. If we are not to ‘judge’ others, finding fault with them in a censorious, condemning or hypocritical way, we are not to ignore their faults either and pretend that everybody is the same. Both extremes are to be avoided. The saints are not judges, but ‘saints are not simpletons’ either. If we first remove the log from our eye and thus see clearly to take a speck from our brother’s eye, he (if he is a true brother in the Lord) will appreciate our concern. But not everyone is grateful for criticism and correction.” (John R. W. Stott, Sermon on the Mount, Emphasis mine)
Truth too precious to offer?
Although it might challenge misguided notions of Christian compassion, according to Jesus, there are some people, who like dogs and pigs, are unworthy of the holy and valuable things of God. In verse 6, our Lord appears to be warning that the truth is far too precious to indiscriminately offer to everyone without exception or that our critical help should not be indiscriminately dispensed.
But we need to clarify the identity of the dogs and pigs—and exactly how the Lord intends for us to apply this prohibition. A variety of suggestions have been made concerning the intended application of Jesus’ words:
- The early fathers applied Matthew 7:6 to unbelieving, unbaptized people who were barred from communion. An early second century document reads: “Let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, but they who have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, ‘Give not that which is holy to the dogs’” (chapt. IX Didache). Is this what Jesus meant in Matthew 7? The decision to withhold communion from unbelievers is appropriate but it is highly unlikely that Jesus had this specific application in mind when He spoke these words.
- Others appeal to Jesus’ parable on “the pearl of great price” and conclude that God’s salvation offered in the gospel is what should be withheld from dogs and pigs. If this pearl is a reference to the gospel, Jesus isn’t saying that the gospel should be withheld from unbelievers (or, at least, from all unbelievers). This would contradict the commission of Matthew 28:19-20 to go to every nation and make disciples. Is it possible, however, that dogs and pigs should have a more restricted focus on certain types of unbelievers?
- Some have suggested that the immediate application was to the gentiles because the Jewish people used the designations dogs and pigs for gentiles. Even Jesus used the designation “dogs” this way when the gentile woman approached Him asking help for her daughter. Jesus answered her cry for help by saying, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She responded, ‘Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.’ Then Jesus answered and said to her, ‘O woman, your faith is great; be it done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed at once.” (Matthew 15:21-28; cf. Philippians 3:2; Revelation 22:15) (NASB).
There appears to be a legitimate connection here but it would be a mistake to use Matthew 7:6 as an instruction to generally withhold the gospel from the gentiles. The book of Matthew itself reveals the gospel progressively going to the gentiles and closes with a command to make disciples of all nations.
During the extension of the church, we see the apostles turning from the Jews to the gentiles because the Jews hardened their hearts against Jesus. But, maybe in this, we have a closer connection with an intended point of Jesus’ words. Illustrating this turning to the gentiles, consider Acts 13:44-51 (Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey):
“And the next Sabbath nearly the whole city assembled to hear the word of God. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy, and began contradicting the things spoken by Paul, and were blaspheming. And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; since you repudiate it, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. For thus the Lord has commanded us, ‘I have placed you as a light for the Gentiles, that you should bring salvation to the end of the earth.’” And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was being spread through the whole region. But the Jews aroused the devout women of prominence and the leading men of the city, and instigated a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. But they shook off the dust of their feet in protest and went to Iconium.” (NASB)
The second missionary journey:
In Macedonia, “Paul began devoting himself completely to the word, solemnly testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ. And when they resisted and blasphemed, he shook out his garments and said to them, ‘Your blood be upon your own heads! I am clean. From now on I shall go to the Gentiles’” (Acts 18:5-6;cf. Acts 28:17-28) (NASB)
When Jesus sent the twelve:
“And whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake off the dust of your feet. Truly I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city.” (Matthew 10:14-15, NASB)
When Jesus sent the seventy:
“But whatever city you enter and they do not receive you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your city which clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you; yet be sure of this, that the kingdom of God has come near” (Luke 10:10-11, NASB)).
Jesus pronounced judgment against cities that refused to repent after receiving exposure to His ministry: At the end of His pronouncements, Jesus lifted up His voice in prayer saying, “I praise Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that Thou didst hide these things from the wise and intelligent and didst reveal them to babes. Yes, Father, for thus it was well pleasing in Thy sight” (Matthew 11:25-26, NASB).
Application of Matthew 7:6
After Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, “the disciples came and said to Him, ‘Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this statement?’” (Matthew 15:12, NASB). How did Jesus respond? Did he say, “Oh, I’ll go explain that I didn’t mean to offend them”? No! He said, “Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind.”
A cultural obstacle:
In our effort to understand this teaching, we face a strong cultural attitude that could hinder us. In a pluralistic society, we have been nurtured on the idea that all people should be treated equally, that all should have equal opportunities whether they deserve it or not! The thought of purposefully refusing to continue to reach out to someone is hard for contemporary Christians to accept. The quality of discrimination was considered a praiseworthy quality many years ago. Now it is used only in the pejorative sense, leaving the impression that any act of discrimination is evil. But Christians are in great danger when they refuse to be discerning; when they are unwilling to make proper judgments.
D. A. Carson:
“It is easy to see how new danger arises. The disciple of Jesus has been told to love his neighbor as himself, and to love his enemies. He is to mirror God’s graciousness, the God who even-handedly sends his rain upon both the just and the unjust. He has been told never to adopt a judgmental mentality. As a result, he is in chronic danger of becoming wishy-washy, of refusing legitimate distinctions between truth and error, good and evil. He may even try to treat all men in exactly the same way, succumbing to a remarkable lack of discrimination” (Sermon on the Mount, p. 105).
Some should not receive ministry?
In Matthew 7:6, Jesus seemed to teach that there are some people who should not receive our investment of ministry. The proverbs taught something similar by warning us not to “reprove a scoffer,” but to “reprove a wise man” (Proverbs 9:7-9). Consider the instruction to, “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him (reject or dismiss, remove from the fellowship of the Christian community). You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:10-11).
“If our Lord had finished His teaching with those first five verses, it would undoubtedly have led to a false position. Men and women would be so careful to avoid the terrible danger of judging in that wrong sense that they would exercise no discrimination, no judgment whatsoever. There would be no such thing as discipline in the church, and the whole of the Christian life would be chaotic. There would be no such thing as exposing heresy and pronouncing judgment with regard to it. Because everybody would be so afraid of judging the heretic, they would turn a blind eye to the heresy; and error would come into the church more than it has done…so many people show a lack of discrimination and are ready to praise and recommend anything that is put before them which vaguely claims the name Christian” (Sermon on the Mount, pp. 183-184).
“Dogs and swine are names given, “to those who, by clear evidences, have manifested a hardened contempt of God, so that their disease appears to be incurable.”
…identified the ‘dogs’ as people ‘living in incurable ungodliness.’”
D. A. Carson:
“Jesus is commanding His disciples, not to share the richest parts of spiritual truth with persons who are persistently vicious, irresponsible, and unappreciative. Their cynical mockery, their intellectual arrogance, their love of moral decay, and their vaunted self-sufficiency make them utterly impervious to the person and words of Christ.”
“Over the years I have gradually come to the place where I refuse to attempt to explain Christianity and introduce Christ to the person who just wants to mock and argue and ridicule. It accomplishes nothing good, and there are so many other opportunities where time and energy can be invested more profitably” (Sermon on the Mount, p. 105).
Misguided understanding of Christian compassion can lead us to wrongly invest our energies and ministries. It’s important that we practice Jesus’ principle of proper discrimination in our evangelism and discipleship.
Did he deal with everyone exactly the same way? No. Jesus was wisely discriminate in His ministry to people. He compassionately ministered to many, but He also said to leave the Pharisees alone (Matthew 150. Although we cannot read the hearts of people, generally, it is wise to conclude that self-righteous, proud, arrogant, and cynical people fit into our Lord’s category of dogs and pigs. This should not surprise us because God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5-6). Through Isaiah the prophet, God said,“But to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at my Word.”
John R. W. Stott
“If people have had plenty of opportunity to hear the truth but do not respond to it, if they stubbornly turn their backs on Christ, if (in other words) they cast themselves in the role of ‘dogs’ and ‘pigs,’ we are not to go on and on with them, for then we cheapen God’s gospel by letting them trample it under foot” (Sermon on the mount).
We must pray for wisdom in this matter. We need to: “ask,” “seek’” and “knock.” Many have come to Christ — who at one time mocked His name. We must be prayerfully discerning in our application of Matthew 7:6! The disciples, of course, practiced this principle in their evangelism—so it clearly has a place—and should be applied in our evangelism and ministry to others. But pray through the implications first.
It should be sobering to realize that a person can reach a point where the gospel would be withdrawn from him. But this has happened in the past (see: Romans 1:18-26) and could happen in our times.
Perhaps this is why scripture says, “Today is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2) and “harden not your hearts” is a repeated theme of scripture.
Don’t take lightly the kindness of God (Romans 2). Turn to God’s mercy before it’s too late! Repent of your hardheartedness toward God and His grace; confess Jesus as Lord.