Pearls for Seekers, or Pearls for Swine?

In our recent series through Matthew’s gospel, our Grace Community Group has been interested in an apparent tension between the references to “pearls” in Matthew 7:6 and Matthew 13:45-46. This post is an attempt to reconcile those two references.


A collection of Cowper’s poems

It’s believed that the modern though clichéd idiom “pearls of wisdom” dates back to a poem by hymn-writer William Cowper in 1781, in which he writes:

“But wisdom is a pearl with most success
Sought in still water, and beneath clear skies.”

This poem itself (called The Task) had a major influence on other writers of the time, including Coleridge, Jane Austen (who quotes sections extensively in her novels), Charles Lamb and William Wordsworth. As result, the phrase entered popular vocabulary around this time.

Cowper himself was a man who lived in a tension between black and hopeless depression, and a deep and passionate faith in God through Jesus Christ, so it’s hard not to imagine the Bible’s influence, particularly Jesus’ parable about the Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:45-46), in Cowper’s writing.

There, the pearl is used by Jesus to indicate something of immense value. In the case of Matthew 13:45-46, the Kingdom of Heaven is of incomparable value, worth giving up all else to gain (see also Philippians 3:7-8). When someone who is seeking it truly finds it, they are satisfied beyond their wildest dreams.

But what then about the pearls of Matthew 7:6? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches:

“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.”

(Matthew 7:6 ESV)

To confuse matters still further, this follows a section of Jesus’ teaching where he discourages interpersonal judgement in favour of serious self-reflection!

What do we do with these kingdom-pearls then? Are they something everyone needs, or should we hold them back from those who don’t deserve them? And who are we to judge, anyway?

jewelry-420018_640Whenever we read Matthew’s gospel, we must be careful not ignore the Jewish angle of Matthew’s writing. He’s a Jewish guy, writing about the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. Jewish context matters to Matthew.

When we come to the Sermon on the Mount, we must try to understand it first as a rebooting of the Sinai Covenant. Back in Exodus 19 and onwards, God established his relationship with his liberated people from the top of a mountain, and gave them an ethical and spiritual framework for his people, living under him, in the place he would take them to. Jesus is actually doing the same in Matthew 5-7. And he is speaking primarily to the same people – the nation of Israel. Jews.

photo-1456163051493-2be739ef9f55So when he talks of people being like dogs or pigs, these words are calculated to be a cultural insult to Jews. As you may know, Jews stay away from pork, and in the Bible they would often refer to non-Jews as “dogs” (Matthew 15:26-27). The Jews themselves were the people whom God had revealed himself to over millennia, revealing his plans, his purposes and promises, and through whom he would bring those about. People who, in theory, should have known better.

If we look over examples of “withholding the gospel” through the rest of the New Testament, of which they are only a few, they all reference Jews who are hostile to the gospel, and they always result in the gospel being proclaimed elsewhere, among the nations (or the Gentiles, see Acts 13:44-51, 18:5-6, 28:17-28).

So, Jesus isn’t forbidding the sharing of the gospel with unbelievers (as some hyper-Calvinists believe). What he is forbidding is persistence in sharing the gospel beyond the point where the hearer has understood but rejected that message either by word or deed.

John Calvin put it like this:

“It ought to be understood that dogs and swine are names given not to every kind of debauched men, or to those who are destitute of the fear of God and of true godliness, but to those who, by clear evidences, have manifested a hardened contempt of God, so that their disease appears to be incurable.”

Sometimes, very rarely, it may be best to give up sharing the gospel for three reasons.

  1. First, it should be to prevent the Kingdom-pearls being trampled by those who reject their true value; to avoid having the gospel itself dragged through the mud.
  2. Second, our resources are limited (unlike God), therefore we shouldn’t waste our time and breath on those who have had ample opportunity but continue to consciously reject the gospel. There are always others who need to hear, and sometimes people need to be handed over prayerfully to God, the one who is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:26).
  3. Third, sometimes people need to be left in their sins in order to truly understand their need of the gospel. Tragically, we live in an age where the gospel message is cheap. Say a quick prayer and you’re done. We rarely help people to see the depths of their depravity so that they may appreciate the heights of grace.

But let’s be clear. The gospel is to be proclaimed to everyone indiscriminately so that, when Jesus returns, his kingdom may comprise “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”” (Revelation 7:9–10).

bible-879086_640Jesus commanded his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18–20 ESV)

Withholding the gospel is for exceptional circumstances only, and usually concludes a pattern of rejection of gospel-offers. The late Bible-teacher John Stott wrote:

“…to give people up is a very serious step to take. I can think of only one or two occasions in my experience when I have felt it was right. This teaching of Jesus is for exceptional situations only; our normal Christian duty is to be patient and persevere with others, as God has patiently persevered with us.”

Todd Friel, of Wretched Radio, explores this issue in a real-life scenario in this video.