Pearls before swine

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.”

When I came across this verse yesterday morning, I had thought I might write about it, but it troubled me and I needed more time to meditate and pray upon it. I think it is a verse that has been too easily misinterpreted, and far too often taken out of context. It seems to be tucked into the Sermon on the Mount as an afterthought, and so we treat it by itself. But the Word of God is never meant to be read without reference to the rest of the Word, and we must never take things for granted. When we treat discrete verses as self-sufficient, we not only risk distorting their meaning, we also risk misinterpreting those verses for application in our own lives. So I spent an extra day reading and re-reading this passage, and spending time in other parts of the Bible, trying to understand just this one verse.

As I said, this verse gets lifted out of context and misinterpreted. Some people read this and believe that “what is holy” and “your pearls” are the gospel, and that we shouldn’t waste our time putting them before those who won’t appreciate them. With that belief, it is easy to justify selective evangelism and, worse yet, systemic discrimination. Some people say things like “Those people over there won’t appreciate the gospel, so I just won’t waste my time sharing it with them.” Or, “Those men are so lost, it’s not worth the effort to evangelize them.” We end up judging people on behalf of God, determining who is worthy of receiving the gospel. And yet the commission from our Lord Jesus was to preach the gospel to EVERY creature! (Mark 16:15) Worse than that, we have this admonition from just BEFORE today’s verse:

Matthew 7:1-5
1 “Judge not, that you be not judged.
2 “For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.
3 “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.”

If we start calling other people “dogs” and “swine” who are not worthy of the gospel, then we show our own unworthiness. We cannot judge what “every creature” truly means, only follow Jesus’ commission literally and speak to everyone we meet.

So, who ARE the “dogs” and what is “holy”?

Matthew 15:22-28
22 And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.”
23 But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.”
24 But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
25 Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”
26 But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”
27 And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”
28 Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

Here, Jesus tested a Canaanite woman’s faith by telling her He ought not to take the salvation of Israel and give it to “little dogs” who have no sense of the bounty they are receiving. But as we see, she told Him that she would rather have even a crumb of His grace than nothing at all. That is the kind of mustard-seed faith–tiny and yet complete–that Jesus wanted to see, and so He healed her daughter right at that moment. Nevertheless, Jesus did say, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” (v.26) Let us treasure that in our hearts while we look at a passage about a pearl:

Matthew 13:45-46
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls,
46 “who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Pigs are remarkably smart creatures, supposedly smarter than dogs. According to modern scientists, pigs and humans share a lot of the same DNA, so much so that pigs and humans catch a lot of the same diseases and can thus be treated with the same medicines. But as smart and as “human” as pigs are, they still have no idea of the beauty and value of a rose, a work of art, or a pearl of great price. Put such things before a pig, and he will just trample them to get over to the next food he smells. Or, if he can find no food, he will still trample them and quite possibly then turn on you. You really don’t want to face a wild pig who thinks he has been deprived of food! No, it is better to give the pig the food and hold onto the pearl. Now, here is what Jesus said immediately AFTER telling us not to cast our pearls before swine:

Matthew 7:7-12
7 “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.
8 “For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.
9 “Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?
10 “Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent?
11 “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!
12 “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

Remember the Canaanite woman? What did she do that prompted Jesus to heal her daughter? She ASKED. The bread of the gospel, the healing of the Lord, the salvation of Christ wasn’t just tossed before her. Instead, having heard of the power of Jesus to heal and save, she sought Him out and ASKED for what she needed. She received a taste of the bread of life because she desired it, and she desired it because she had heard some portion of the gospel of Christ.

Let’s look at today’s verse again:

Matthew 7:6 (English Standard Version)
“Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.”

Considering the story of the Canaanite woman, we see that Jesus is reminding us not to just toss the bread of life willy-nilly here and there to every critter in the street, but we are to share the gospel and then bring people to Him, who is the true source of life. We are not to judge who is to receive the gospel, but we are meant to carefully guard what is holy–the Word of God and the sacraments of Christ–and share them with those who believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

Mark 16:15-16
15 And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.
16 “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.”

It is that belief after hearing the gospel that will determine who are “dogs” and who are believers, and only Christ has the right to judge men after they have heard the gospel. When a person believes and is baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, he or she is a new creation, no longer a dog nor a swine but a new man or woman in Christ. Before that transformation, we have no idea of the value of the kingdom of God, but after the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, we understand and can appreciate the gracious gift of salvation. Therefore, we are to share the gospel with all creatures, but we are not meant to simply toss the kingdom of God before them and expect that they will see its value. It is the gospel itself whereby men are saved and come into the kingdom of God.

Romans 10:14
How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?

We cannot expect people to appreciate the value of the Word of God nor the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist without first having faith. We cannot simply throw down the kingdom of God in front of nonbelievers and expect that they will understand how wonderful and how valuable is the merciful salvation of God. We must first begin by preaching the gospel–the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:3-5)–to every creature, even those we consider the “dogs” and “swine” of our world. Those who do not believe may never see the value of Christ and will continue in their wasteful ways, and they may even turn against us. But those who DO believe, once they are sealed by the Holy Spirit, then they will see the real worth of the kingdom of God and they will be ready to join us in sharing the sacraments of Christ and the precious Word of God.

Our Father in heaven, we thank You for Your holy Word, for the wisdom and understanding we find there. We especially thank You for the gospel of Christ whereby we are saved. Thank You for bringing men and women into our lives who shared the gospel and led us to Your Son. Not that we have the bread of life and understand just how valuable is this pearl of the kingdom of God, strengthen us to go forth and preach the gospel to all creatures. Guide our words and our hearts to build Your kingdom, O Lord, and to bring many to repentance and faith, that they, too, might see and know Your amazing grace. Amen.


About Glenn Pettit

I am a deacon at The Well of Iowa, and a father and grandfather. Called to teach and to preach, I write fresh messages about the Bible every now and then.
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2 Responses to Pearls before swine

  1. Jeff Reiman says:

    Here’s a different perspective on the “pearls and pigs”. For years, my excuse for avoiding direct, intentional, initiative evangelism was that deep down I felt that I was somehow misrepresenting the gospel to people. Something was missing. I would make my way past crowds of people in the course of daily life, knowing they all need Jesus but feeling completely helpless and unable to tell them why. The truth is, I was right. Something WAS missing. But I don’t feel that way anymore. I now have something to say, something that, after most conversations, people actually thank me for telling them. …

    [Visit Jeff’s blog, The Everyday Club for a continuation of this post on evangelism.]

    • Jeff, thanks for your lengthy reply. I hope you don’t mind, but rather than just post your longer treatment on evangelism, I have redirected folks to your blog, where they can find the full article and other great ideas and accounts of everyday evangelism. Thanks for the ideas!


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