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. I’m referring to verse 16, where Jesus says:
“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” (N.K.J.V.)
Notice that Jesus begins by describing Christians as sheep. That’s the good part. But then He says that we are sent out into a world filled with wolves. That’s the bad part. It’s because of that bad part that we can’t be just regular sheep. We must simultaneously be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.
Picture a flock of sheep in the midst of a ravenous pack of wolves. That mental image doesn’t foretell a pretty outcome, does it? Oh, but wait, these aren’t regular sheep. These sheep are as wise as serpents. And how wise is a serpent? Well, going all the way back to the garden of Eden, the serpent is described as being more cunning than any of the other creatures (Genesis 3:1). Based upon that description, a sheep as wise as a serpent wouldn’t be easy pickings for the wolves. That’s exactly the point 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 wild-eyed, ignorant, and hopelessly naive. He will not be of the world, but he will be in the world, and he will understand how the world works. 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 wise but harmless? Yes, it is. Whereas wisdom is typically associated with power, and power is often associated with the ability to inflict harm, 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 chosen twelve came to a certain village in Samaria, the citizens 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, understood the roadblock for the insult that it was. Accordingly, they responded by wanting to strike like cobras and exact revenge. Their question to Jesus was, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” But Jesus rebuked them by saying, “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 cobras.”
And so, Christian, I’ll ask you to assess how you are doing with 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 because you have too much dove about you. Conversely, if you are too quick to strike, you need to develop more of a calm, peaceable nature because you have too much serpent about you. 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 called to go out in the first place, right?