On giving what is holy to dogs

Please explain what Jesus meant in Matthew 7:6, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you.”

The background for understanding this is to be found in what God had said in Exodus: “You shall not eat any flesh that is torn by beasts in the field [you shall not use as food any animal that has been killed by another animal. What then is to be done with it?]; you shall throw it to the dogs” (Ex. 22:31).

References to dogs in Scripture are almost always derogatory in nature. They were like portable garbage disposals roaming about the city streets scavenging whatever they could find to eat. And they were known to eat the most putrid and disgusting things, which contributed to their being regarded with contempt.

Now it’s one thing to throw meat from an animal that had been torn by a beast in the field to the dogs, but it was quite another to do this with meat that came from an animal that had been sacrificed to God. That meat, by the very circumstance of being offered to God, was regarded as holy. It would be a horrible sacrilege to throw it to the dogs. It was unlawful even for an unclean person, let alone an unclean animal like a dog to eat of the holy sacrifice. This is what Jesus is alluding to—taking the meat consecrated to God by sacrifice, and throwing to the dogs.

But he’s not speaking literally of dogs and consecrated meat. He is speaking metaphorically. He is speaking of evil men, who in Scripture are frequently called “dogs” (Deut. 23:18; Ps. 59:14-15; Phil. 3:2; Rev. 22:15). And he is saying, do not give them what is holy.

He reinforces the idea by saying, “Do not throw your pearls before pigs.” The Jews often used the figure of a pearl to represent the sayings of the wise. In essence, Jesus was saying, “Do not give them the precious truths of the gospel when all they’re going to do is defile them.” If dogs were bad, pigs were worse. They were considered the very embodiment of uncleanness. They wallowed in the mire and were offered in sacrifice by pagans to their idols. And so they became the emblem of men who are filthy and corrupt.

Dogs and swine are both used by Peter to represent the very depths of depravity when he says, “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire” (2 Pet. 2:22).

Now how should we apply Jesus’ instruction?

Well, of course, he doesn’t mean that we are never to present the gospel to anyone who is wicked and profane. Christ himself preached to tax-gatherers and sinners, and Paul spoke in First Corinthians about those who had formerly been idolaters, adulterers, and homosexuals. What he means is that we are to use discernment. There are times and places and circumstances where, if we were to share the gospel, it would be just as sacrilegious as giving the holy meat of a sacrificial animal to a dog, or just as foolish as throwing pearls before swine. It exposes the holy name of God to blasphemy and ourselves to persecution. This is what he means when he says, “They will trample the pearls under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”

Jesus instructed his disciples that if the ungodly would not receive them they should “shake off the dust of their feet” and go elsewhere (Luke 10:10-11). If, after they had preached, the people proved to be obstinate and blasphemed, they were to leave them alone and go to those who would hear (cf. Acts 13:50-51; 18:5-6).

Jesus himself, when he stood before Herod Antipas, and was questioned “at some length,” answered him not a word (Lk. 23:9). Herod had shown himself unworthy. He had been previously warned by John the Baptist about his wicked life; and he showed his vicious character by having John beheaded.

Jesus dealt similarly with Pilate and the chief priests who accused him (Matt. 27:12-14).

Several years ago I knew a couple of Christian men who went into a topless bar in order to witness and hand out gospel tracts. I submit to you that they were wrong to do so on two accounts. First, they exposed themselves to unnecessary temptation (which their wives were none too happy about either, I might add!) And second they exposed the gospel to ridicule. We should not expect those who are carousing in a topless bar to do anything but make a mock of the things of God. It would be very much like throwing precious pearls before swine.

Witnessing to those same men in a different venue, however, is another story. Say they all were gathered together at funeral for one of their friends. The environment and the occasion are altogether different. Or say you invite them one at a time to your home or out to eat for dinner and conversation. Most people will feel some sense of indebtedness to your kindness and hospitality that will make them more receptive. At least not so hostile. Occasion and atmosphere are important.

There are no hard and fast rules about these things and so we really need to ask God for wisdom and discernment.


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