Open Matthew 10:16.
Jesus the shepherd, appointed twelve Jewish males to symbolize the restoration of Israel under his reign. This is dangerous work: others claim to be in control. If history teaches us anything, those in power will do anything to keep it. God’s people are his sheep, but the world is run by wolves:
Matthew 10:16 (ESV)
Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
The wolves were Israel’s current leaders: Jewish Sanhedrin and synagogue leaders (10:17) and gentile governors and kings (10:18). These leaders do not recognize Jesus’ kingship. Jesus knows they see his kingdom claims as a threat to their power, so he knows they will mistreat his ambassadors as well. Sending the sheep out among the wolves is a scary prospect for any shepherd. To survive they’ll need the wisdom of serpents matched with the innocence of doves.
Serpents seem subversive. The serpent undermined Eve’s allegiance by questioning the character of her sovereign. She began to believe God was keeping wisdom from her. Ever since, the descendants of the woman have been at enmity with the serpent. To survive, they must understand the serpent’s moves.
Pharaoh had the “wisdom” to see the Hebrews as a threat to his power (Exodus 1:10). “The rulers of this age” exercise a “wisdom of this age” to keep their power. That’s why they “crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:6-8). And if they don’t hesitate to crucify the king, his servants are also in mortal danger.
John the Baptist openly criticized Herod; it cost him his life. Jesus understood the wisdom of the serpents, and avoided unnecessary confrontation. He stayed away from “that old fox” (Luke 13:32), never even visiting the centres of Herod’s rule (Sepphoris and Tiberias). For this mission, he instructed the twelve to do likewise: “Go nowhere among the gentiles” (10:5).
Serpents are twisted, but Jesus’ followers cannot be devious. They must understand the wisdom of serpents, but they must maintain the pure innocence of doves. In a world of dirty politics, they must be Teflon clean, as straight as a die, as innocent as doves, so no accusation against them sticks. Even then, they are still in danger: the pure innocence of doves made them suitable for sacrifice (e.g. 21:12; Luke 2:24). Jesus was as innocent as a dove, yet the wolves devised a scheme to nail him.
So how do we represent the kingdom of God in a world ruled by wolves? If you live in a communist country, do not try to replace communism with democracy. You are not as innocent as doves if you’re trying to bring your government down. Democracy is not the answer. You cannot give your government the allegiance it desires above all else, for your primary allegiance is to Jesus as Lord. You’ll need the wisdom of serpents to understand what your government demands of you and why, but there cannot be any suggestion you’re working against your government: you must remain completely innocent.
If you’re living in a Western democracy, don’t waste your energy lobbying the existing government. Recognize they’re as twisted as a nest of snakes and avoid their venom. Remain as innocent as doves: you’re working to implement the reign of Jesus, not trying to support or bring down the present flawed regime.
Daniel lived at the worst time of Israel’s history, when Nebuchadnezzar wiped out God’s representative kingdom. With the wisdom of serpents, Daniel worked with Nebuchadnezzar, helping him understand his authority was God-given. When the Persian satraps tried to dig up dirt on Daniel, “They could find no ground for complaint or any fault, because he was faithful, and no error or fault was found in him” (Daniel 6:4). The wisdom of serpents and the innocence of doves were embodied in Daniel’s being. Even then, the wolves still threw him to the lions.
There’s no way to sugar-coat this. We’re representatives of another kingdom, in the midst of the rulers of this world. Like our Saviour, we are sheep among wolves. What happened to him happened to the twelve as well. To serve him well, make sure you are genuinely as wise as serpents, and genuinely as innocent as doves.
What others are saying
Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, Volume 1: The Christbook, Matthew 1–12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 381:
If we are to be sheep among wolves — and this is Jesus’ intention — then we should at least be smart sheep, sheep who use our heads, sheep who don’t overestimate the benevolence of wolves.
John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition, vol. 6 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 163:
“Be ye therefore wise as serpents,” while ye are “harmless as doves.” This wisdom will instruct you how to suit your words, and whole behaviour, to the persons with whom you have to do; to the time, place, and all other circumstances. It will teach you to cut off occasion of offence, even from those who seek occasion, and to do things of the most offensive nature in the least offensive manner that is possible.
Craig Blomberg, Matthew, New American Commentary (Nashville: B & H, 1992), 174:
Shrewdness and integrity form a crucial combination not often found in the Christian church.
Apostle Paul, Romans 16:19–20 (ESV)
I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.
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