Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves. [Matthew 10:16 (NLT)]
Matthew tells of Jesus calling the disciples together, giving them the authority to cast our evil spirits and heal all kinds of illness, and then sending them out to announce that the Kingdom of God was near. Preparing them for persecution, Jesus said they would be as sheep to the wolves. Helpless against predators like wolves, sheep also were used in religious sacrifice. Jesus made sure the disciples understood they would encounter opposition, danger, trials and floggings by likening them to these vulnerable sacrificial animals.
Nevertheless, not wanting them so naïve that they became perpetual victims or so timid they couldn’t accomplish their mission, Jesus then told the disciples to be as shrewd as snakes. We rarely think of these reptiles as canny or perceptive but, when we consider the snake Eve met in Genesis, the simile makes more sense. That cunning serpent certainly had a way with words as he convinced Eve to sin. Imagine what he could have accomplished if, instead of deception, he’d used his skill with words for good rather than evil! Jesus wasn’t telling the disciples to deceive but it would appear that He was telling them to use their wits.
There are other parallels between snakes and the disciples’ instructions. Snakes, being cold-blooded, adjust their body temperature by moving out in and out of the sun and shade to find a safe and comfortable resting place. While Jesus wasn’t suggesting hiding under a rock, He did tell the disciples to find a hospitable place to stay and, if a place wasn’t welcoming, to go elsewhere (as a snake does when the temperatures gets inhospitable). Unless attacked, most snakes are not aggressive; they prefer slithering away to a confrontation. Just as snakes know how to evade trouble, the disciples were told to do the same. Nevertheless, like a snake, they were to stand their ground and defend themselves when threatened. Rather than using venom, however, they were to defend themselves with the words of the Spirit.
Immediately after telling the disciples to be like snakes, Jesus told them to be as harmless as doves. Like sheep, doves were vulnerable and sacrificial animals but, even in 1st century Palestine, they were a symbol of peace and love. The story of the dove returning to Noah’s ark caused the Jews to associate the dove with peace. Because of Greek and Roman mythology, it also symbolized love and devotion and, because the Spirit of God descended like a dove at Jesus’s baptism, it also signified the Holy Spirit to His early followers. As Jesus’s representatives, the disciples were to find a balance between prudence and self-preservation on the one hand and compassion, peace and love on the other.
In the free world today, we don’t face floggings; the wolves are far more subtle. I think of a friend who would never demean the ethnicity, culture or sexual preferences of her co-workers yet she frequently finds herself the object of their ridicule for her Christian beliefs. She has to be both a snake and a dove in her response to them as do the few conservative Jewish and Christian students in my grands’ California high school. Their free-thinking anything-goes classmates have disparaged their belief in God, purity, right and wrong, sin, and the Bible’s truth. While we don’t risk imprisonment, as Christians, we may still find ourselves targets with our beliefs mocked, challenged, or threatened in subtle ways. Jesus did not send us out as sheep to the slaughter but as ministers of His word. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can avoid confrontation while fearlessly and skillfully standing our ground with love and peace.