In Matthew chapter 10, we find Matthew’s account of Christ’s commissioning of His chosen twelve. It’s a marvelous chapter to study in terms of basic ministry, bold evangelism, and preaching for a decision. With that said, I’d like to draw your attention to a single verse from the chapter. It’s verse 16. Jesus says:
“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”
Notice that Jesus begins by describing Christians as sheep. That’s good. But then He says that we are sent out into a world filled with wolves. That’s bad. Because of this, we can’t be regular sheep. Like all sheep, we are to be as harmless as doves. But unlike sheep, we are also to be as wise as serpents.
Can you picture sheep in the midst of a ravenous pack of wolves? That doesn’t conjure up a pretty outcome, does it? Oh, but wait, these aren’t regular sheep. These sheep are as wise as serpents. Going all the way back to the garden of Eden, the serpent is described as being more cunning than any of the other creatures. A sheep as wise as a serpent wouldn’t be such easy pickings for the wolves. And that’s exactly the point that Jesus is making.
A Christian who is as wise as a serpent will exhibit good sense, prudence, and tact when it comes to evangelism. He will not go out into the world wide-eyed, ignorant, and hopelessly naive. He will not be of the world, but he will be in the world, and he will understand what all comes with that. Charles Spurgeon described the situation as follows:
He sends them, not to fight with wolves, nor to drive them out of their haunts, but to transform them. The disciples were sent to fierce men to convince them, and therefore they must be wise…The Christian missionary will need to be wary, to avoid receiving harm; but he must be of a guileless mind, that he do no harm…we are to be simple-hearted, but we are not to be simpletons.
Is it a tough balancing act to stay as wise as a serpent and as harmless as a dove? You’d better believe it. Let’s admit that the typical way of thinking is to equate wisdom with power and, by implication, the ability to inflict harm. But that’s just not how Jesus expects His followers to wield their wisdom.
Do you remember the story where James and John learned this lesson? It’s found in Luke 9:51-56. When Jesus and the twelve came to a certain village in Samaria, the citizens of the village wouldn’t let them enter the village. James and John, being as wise as serpents in the racial hatred that existed between the Jews and the Samaritans, understand the roadblock for the insult that it was. They responded by wanting to strike like King Cobras and exact revenge on those Samaritans. They said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” But Jesus rebuked them and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” He might as well have said, “Calm down boys, I need doves not King Cobras.”
And so, Christian, I’ll ask you how you are doing on your balancing act. Are you a sheep that has either too much dove or too much serpent about you? Neither imbalance is good. If you are too gullible in worldly matters, you need to develop more of an edge. On the other hand, if you are too quick to strike, you need to develop more of a calm and peaceable nature. Think of it this way: Too much dove will make you easy pickings for the wolves, but too much serpent will keep you from converting any of the wolves into sheep. And, at the end of the day, turning wolves into sheep is why we’re to go out in the first place, right?