Introduction: In this post I am going to attempt to tackle a difficult saying of our Lord Jesus, one that has often been misunderstood but which contains a crucial teaching that we must all learn to heed. This teaching comes in the form of a principle stated by means of metaphor, a principle which offers us wisdom about when and when not to communicate the truth of God. By way of introducing the subject of our passage, I would like to share with you a letter written by Dorothy Sayers, who was once asked by an agnostic scientist to write in response to his scientific organization. He requested that she give her reasons for believing in the Christian faith, and her response might surprise you:
Why do you want a letter from me? Why don’t you take the trouble to find out for yourselves what Christianity is? You take time to learn technical terms about electricity. Why don’t you do as much for theology? Why do you never read the great writings on the subject, but take your information from the secular ‘experts’ who have picked it up as inaccurately as you? Why don’t you learn the facts in this field as honestly as your own field? Why do you accept mildewed old heresies as the language of the church, when any handbook on church history will tell you where they came from?
Why do you balk at the doctrine of the Trinity – God the Three in One – yet meekly acquiesce when Einstein tells you E=mc2? What makes you suppose that the expression “God ordains” is narrow and bigoted, while your own expression, “Science demands” is taken as an objective statement of fact?
You would be ashamed to know as much about internal combustion as you know about Christian beliefs.
I admit, you can practice Christianity without knowing much theology, just as you can drive a car without knowing much about internal combustion. But when something breaks down in the car, you go humbly to the man who understands the works; whereas if something goes wrong with religion, you merely throw the works away and tell the theologian he is a liar.
Why do you want a letter from me telling you about God? You will never bother to check on it or find out whether I’m giving you personal opinions or Christian doctrines. Don’t bother. Go away and do some work and let me get on with mine. (https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/7006-why-do-you-want-a-letter-from-me-why-don-t)
Wow! That is a pretty strong letter! And at first it may seem to be very unloving. After all, if we love others – even our enemies – won’t we want to share the Gospel with them at any opportunity we can find? Did Dorothy Sayers do the wrong thing here? Well, perhaps Dorothy did do the wrong thing, but, before we are too quick to judge her, we must first consider the principle Jesus teaches in the passage before us, when He solemnly says:
NKJ Matthew 7:6 Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.
Here our Lord teaches a principle about when not to share the truth. In order to grasp what He is saying, we will explore 1) the meaning of the metaphors Jesus uses to state the principle, 2) the application of the principle to professing believers, and 3) the application of the principle to unbelievers. After all, both professing believers and unbelievers are in view in the context.
I. The Meaning of the Metaphors Jesus Uses to State the Principle
This saying seems a rather abrupt change in the subject matter at first glance. After all, Jesus has shifted from speaking about helping a “brother” who has a speck in his eye (vss. 3-5) to speaking about those He describes as “dog” and “pigs.” These seem rather strong terms to use about a brother, don’t they? Can this really be what Jesus means? Well, in order to begin to understand what He means, it is important first to remember that both wild dogs and pigs were considered unclean by first century Jews in Palestine. As the ESV Study Bible notes accurately state:
In the ancient world, dogs lived in squalor and scavenged the streets for food (Ps. 59:14-15). Jews considered them unclean and used the term to describe those apart from, or enemies of, Israel’s covenant community (cf. 1 Sam. 17:43; Ps. 22:16; Prov. 26:11). Pigs were rejected by Jews, probably because they too were scavenging animals, and they were unclean according to OT law. (BibleWorks)
Jesus also describes theses dogs and pigs as having a vicious reaction to those who seek to share with them what is holy, which He also metaphorically pictures as extremely valuable pearls. Before we seek to understand the meaning of this metaphorical language, however, we must grasp the chiastic structure of this verse. A chiasm may be defined as “an arrangement of the parallel members of a verse or literary unit to form an a-b-b-a- arrangement (the first line corresponds to the fourth, the second to the third)” (A Student’s Dictionary for Biblical and Theological Studies, p. 42). The chiasm in this verse may be pictured in this way:
[a] Do not give what is holy to the dogs;
[b] nor cast your pearls before swine,
[b] lest they trample them under their feet,
[a] and turn and tear you in pieces.
Thus, 1) dogs may turn and tear you in pieces, and 2) swine may trample your pearls under their feet. With the chiastic structure of the saying in mind, we will move on to our consideration of the meaning of these two metaphorical expressions.
The First Metaphorical Expression: “Do not give what is holy to the dogs [lest they] turn and tear you in pieces.”
As already noted, Jesus has in mind the wild dogs that were present in Palestine in the first century, but He does not specify what He means by referring to “what is holy.” However, given the immediately preceding context, we must conclude that our Lord is illustrating a possible reaction we may receive when we share the truth of God’s holy Word when confronting sin in another – whether it is the truth shared with a professing brother in Christ or the truth of the Gospel shared with an unbeliever.
Application: Jesus is warning us that there are some people who will be like dogs and who will viciously attack us when we seek to share the truth with them. It is pointless, then, to try to continue to share the truth with such people.
The Second Metaphorical Expression: “Do not cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet.”
Pearls were one of the most valuable things a person could possess in the ancient world, and they are still valuable today. Can you imagine someone taking some valuable pearls and thinking that swine might appreciate their beauty!? The very thought is ludicrous!
Application: Jesus is thus saying that some people may have absolutely no appreciation of the truth we share with them. In fact, they may simply treat it with the same appreciation that a pig shows a pearl. Again, it is pointless to try to continue to share the truth with such people.
So, we have gotten an idea as to what Jesus means by the metaphors of dogs and swine. But how did Jesus go from talking about humbly confronting a sin in a brother to talking about such hardened types of people as are represented by these dogs and pigs?
I will try to answer this question as we proceed to the application of this principle based on the overall context, and I hope to help us grasp Jesus’ train of thought in the process. As we may see in the preceding context, Jesus is speaking first of all about confronting sin in a brother:
NKJ Matthew 7:3-5 And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me remove the speck from your eye”; and look, a plank is in your own eye? 5 Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Italics mine.)
But what if everyone who professes to be a brother isn’t truly a brother? And what if their response demonstrates this? What if they respond by reacting like the metaphorical dogs and swine Jesus immediately goes on to describe? This is clearly the type of scenario Jesus has in mind here. After all, he has repeatedly addressed those He refers to as hypocrites in the larger context of this passage, so He obviously does not think that everyone to whom He speaks the truth is necessarily who or what he claims to be. I think this is presupposed here, and this will become even more clear as we consider our next main point.
II. The Application of the Principle to Professing Believers
As we have seen, Jesus seems to anticipate in verse 6 that confronting sin a brother will not always go well, even if done in the right way. There may be times that they will respond quite negatively to our attempts to offer correction based upon God’s Word. And it is important to recognize that this may sometimes reveal that one who has professed to be a brother is in reality not a brother. In fact, Jesus will refer to such false professors of faith later in the same context:
NKJ Matthew 7:15 Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.
NKJ Matthew 7:21-23 Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. 22 Many will say to Me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?” 23 And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!”
Jesus calls these false professors of faith “ravenous wolves,” but we could also figuratively call them “dogs” or “pigs.” They may call themselves our brothers – and even appear to be so for a time – but they are not truly our brothers in Christ. However, when approaching a professing brother caught in sin, we must be careful not to be too quick to conclude that he is not a true believer. Remember in this regard what Jesus later teaches:
NKJ Matthew 18:15-17 Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that “by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” 17 And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.
In other words, through a person’s lack of repentance, he or she acts as though they are not a true believer, and we are therefore told to be treat them accordingly. There are thus some people who have demonstrated through their actions that they refuse to listen to the truth – to “what is holy” – and there comes a point at which we cease to cast our pearls before swine. All they will do is react badly and perhaps even lash out against us. In this regard Matthew 7:6 is very close to the teaching of Proverbs 9:8: “Do not correct a scoffer, lest he hate you; rebuke a wise man, and he will love you” (NKJ).
Application: Notice that one of the best tests as to whether or not we are genuine believers is how we respond to correction. Those who do not respond with humility and repentance, when given ample opportunity, are to be treated as unbelievers.
What about us? How well do we respond to correction from God’s Word? How quick are we to repent when so confronted? Let us trust the Lord to continually give us truly repentant hearts, so that we will not be like those who become hardened to the truth, even if they have previously professed faith in Christ. The Apostle Peter later ran into just such people in his ministry. Listen to his description of some of them:
NKJ 2 Peter 2:20-22 For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. 21 For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them. 22 But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: “A dog returns to his own vomit,” and, “a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire.”
So, we will find that not all who profess to be brothers in the Lord will receive correction and that this may be the clearest indication of their true nature.
But then there are those who are unbelievers and make no profession of faith at all. What we have to share with them that is so holy and valuable is the truth of the Gospel. We know that there will be those among them who will refuse to hear the truth of the Gospel as well, and they may even persecute us for it, as Jesus has already warned us earlier in the Sermon on the Mount:
NKJ Matthew 5:10-11 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.
With this in mind, we are ready to turn to our third, and final, point.
III. The Application of the Principle to Unbelievers
Overt unbelievers would also fit the description of the dogs or pigs to which Jesus refers, as Paul’s later description of the Judaizers, who taught works salvation, demonstrates:
NKJ Philippians 3:2 Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation!
So then, Jesus is giving us a principle that applies when sharing the Gospel and encountering an obstinate and sometimes very hostile response. He is saying not to continue sharing with such people only to have them treat what is holy with such disrespect. As a matter of fact, Jesus would later emphasize or demonstrate this application of the same principle on other occasions:
NKJ Matthew 10:14-15 And whoever will not receive you nor hear your words, when you depart from that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet. 15 Assuredly, 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!
NKJ Matthew 15:7-14 “Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: 8 ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. 9 And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” 10 When He had called the multitude to Himself, He said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” 12 Then His disciples came and said to Him, “Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” 13 But He answered and said, “Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14 Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch.”
The Apostles would also follow this principle in their ministry. Paul is a good example of this, such as when he ministered with Barnabas in Antioch of Pisidia:
NKJ Acts 13:49-51 And the word of the Lord was being spread throughout all the region. 50 But the Jews stirred up the devout and prominent women and the chief men of the city, raised up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region. 51 But they shook off the dust from their feet against them, and came to Iconium.
Consider also Paul’s ministry at Corinth:
NKJ Acts 18:5-6 When Silas and Timothy had come from Macedonia, Paul was compelled by the Spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus is the Christ. 6 But when they opposed him and blasphemed, he shook his garments and said to them, “Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.”
In every case the reality is that such people are blinded to the truth. Paul had such people in mind when he wrote to the Corinthians that, “even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them” (2 Cor. 4:3-4).
Notice a common thread in each of the examples we have examined of the Matthew 7:6 principle in action. Jesus and His followers never concluded that people fit the dogs or swine category until they had first attempted to share the Word with them!
As Phillip Way has helpfully observed:
Now today, we must admit that we do not cross the line very often as far as offering holy things to dogs. Actually, we are so timid and so infrequent at sharing the truth, that I believe we are in no danger of violating this verse. We must be sharing and witnessing if we are to know when enough is enough. We can’t even for a moment think that we should share a “God bless you” once and think that we have been a witness and that to press things any further would violate this principle. NO! In order to understand this principle we must be doing what He says. We must be obedient to witness before we can judge when to stop. (https://pastorway.blogspot.com/2005/09/pearls-before-swine.html)
I agree that we must never, then, attempt to use this verse as an excuse not to share the Gospel, since this verse only applies to situations in which we have already sincerely attempted to share the Gospel in the first place.
Conclusion: So, getting back to the example of Dorothy Sayers, was she right to react the way she did? The answer is, Only if she had previously attempted to share the truth and had encountered “dogs” and “pigs.” Or, Only if she could be certain that others had previously attempted to share the truth and had encountered “dogs” and “pigs,” which she clearly thought to be the case.
As for us, we must recognize that we are all called as Christians to care enough about our brothers and sisters in Christ to humbly confront them with the truth when they are caught in a sin. And we are all called to love those around us who do not know Christ enough to share the Gospel with them. Sometimes we will encounter repentance and faith through the Spirit’s work in their hearts, and sometimes we will encounter opposition and hostility … even at times from those who profess faith in Christ. May God give us all wisdom and courage to be faithful to our calling to communicate the truth. Such faithfulness can only come through a close walk with God that is continually dependent upon Him through prayer. And, as we prayerfully seek to faithfully proclaim the Word of God, we can be sure that He will grant us the wisdom to know both when and when not to share.