Jesus sent out his Twelve Apostles with a mixture of warnings and encouragement, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard…” He goes on to warn them about persecution because of the gospel.
Jesus is speaking in proverbs and comparing people with types of animals: sheep, wolves, snakes and doves. Israel viewed themselves as sheep amongst the Gentiles (wolves). Both Jesus and Paul warned about people who were like wolves in sheep’s clothing!
In Matthew 10, Jesus only sends his twelve apostles to Jewish people saying, “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.” And so, it is likely that the wolf-like people would also be Jews, particularly Jewish religious leaders who wanted to protect the status quo against this new sect of Judaism.
Paul’s ministry was constantly resisted by a group of Jewish Christians who insisted that followers of Jesus were saved by a combination of God’s grace and human effort. They held that a true disciple would obey the Mosaic Law, and men were required to be circumcised.
These men follow Paul around. As soon as he moved on, the Judaizers moved in. Many of Paul’s letters were written to the churches he established to correct the false doctrine spread by these men. To the Philippians, he wrote, Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. He was even blunter to the Galatians wishing these agitators “would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!”
Interestingly, Paul was once one of the wolves but had been radically converted when Jesus appeared to him. Opposition would also come from the Roman Empire, but this opposition would usually be at the behest of the Jewish religious leaders.
Back to Jesus
In his instructions in Matthew 10, Jesus mentions four kinds of animals to guide his disciples’ conduct. Sheep were viewed as timid and unassuming, unlike wolves, which could be assertive, aggressive, and dangerous. Jesus instructed his disciples to adopt a meek posture as they taught and demonstrated the kingdom of heaven.
They would sometimes face persecution for the gospel but were not to become aggressive in return. They were to conduct themselves with humility and grace and not be antagonistic. Let that sink in. Followers of Jesus are to clothe themselves with meekness, humility, and kindness, not antagonism. Watching some Christians behave poorly during the lockdowns grieved me deeply during the recent pandemic. We should be known as people of compassion, not condemnation.
Snakes and Doves
After the contrast between sheep and wolves, Jesus tells the Twelve to be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Unlike the previous proverb, Jesus’ followers are to embrace the qualities of both animals, snakes and doves, and imitate two virtues, namely, wisdom and innocence. What’s Jesus teaching here?
Be as shrewd as snakes. The Greek word (phronimos), translated by the NIV as “shrewd,” comes from the root of the English word “diaphragm.” The diaphragm regulates our breathing from the inside out, often involuntarily. In fact, until now, you have been breathing without thinking about it, except now you are!
And so, Jesus encourages his followers to practice being wise, sensible, intelligent, and practical until it becomes a natural part of who they are without thinking.
Snakes and Wisdom
Wisdom is not something that we usually associate with snakes in our culture or faith. The first snake in Scripture is the talking serpent, later identified as ha-satan (the adversary). Now the serpent was craftier than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. “Crafty” is used here negatively, but the word can be positive. Depending on the context, it can mean wise, sensible, and intelligent. The Hebrew word is translated in all those ways in the scriptures.
The idea of the serpent as symbolising wisdom entered most Eastern nations’ early parables.
Snakes and Healing
You’ve probably noticed the caduceus or The Rod of Asclepius, but maybe you didn’t know what it was called. It’s the Medical symbol with one or two snakes on a staff. The sign is based on a Bible story in the Book of Numbers. On the way to the Red Sea, the Israelites grew impatient and started complaining against God and Moses, “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” As punishment, the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people, and many Israelites died. This brought the people to their senses, and they begged Moses to ask God to remove the snakes. Here was God’s remedy:
The Lord told Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So, Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.
Be Like Snakes!
Snakes in the wild demonstrate wisdom in quickly assessing and escaping danger. Jesus taught his followers to evaluate trouble or persecution and move away from it if possible. Christians should not seek persecution as if it were a badge of honour.
Jesus tells the Twelve to be as shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves. The word innocent can mean simple, unsophisticated, sincere, blameless, or have pure motives.
Using this proverb, Jesus instructs his followers to be inherently wise, humble, and uncomplicated in character. I encourage you to consider the character qualities Jesus teaches his people to embody. Christians are to be meek, modest, wise, kind and straightforward. Clothe yourself with these things, and you will be like Jesus.