Jesus gathered his disciples to prepare them for their first outreach mission to the towns of their region. He begins his instructions with some interesting similes from the animal world:
“I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves“ (Matthew 10:16).
He asks them to use these four species as examples to guide them as they try to spread his truth: sheep, wolves, serpents and doves. Fascinating! A whole menagerie!
Sheep are prey animals; wolves are predators. He wants to forewarn his followers that they’re not going to be welcomed with open arms and will have to face rejection; even persecution and martyrdom. The only chance a sheep has against a wolf is to stay in the flock with other sheep and keep close to the shepherd. Here, Jesus is sending them away from the shepherd and most of the flock, so they will be particularly vulnerable.
At this point, Jesus turns from the sheep/wolf analogy and talks about two other animals: serpents and doves. He says his followers should face the challenges ahead of them with the wisdom of serpents and the innocence of doves. This is strange in a number of ways. Serpents, with their sharp, beady eyes, appear to be clever in popular thinking. Yet their brain capacity is actually quite limited. They succeed as predators by following some basic instincts, not by being “wise” or clever. A traditional “snake charmer” in old India controlled his venomous cobra by playing on its lack of ability to think reasonably — in other words, its stupidity.
Birds in the dove family have larger brains than most of their feathered cousins. We can see this in the amazing abilities of carrier pigeons and of homing pigeons. Even the common pigeon in a major U.S. city shows considerable intelligence in its ability to cope with changing circumstances and coexist with humans in the challenges of urban living.
But Jesus uses the oversimplification in common beliefs about these animals to combine two very contrasting qualities: wisdom and innocence. His disciples will be able to follow his calling if they embody in their lives the cleverness we attribute to serpents and the harmlessness we attribute to doves.
It’s very revealing that Jesus wanted his followers to know that the journey ahead of them would be hard. Some commentators have pointed to a parallel in the words of Winston Churchill in his first speech to Parliament when he became Prime Minister on May 17, 1940, during the height of World War II:
“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
Jesus was just as realistic in telling his disciples what they should expect as they went out preaching his Gospel.
“Macho Christianity” is a popular theme in modern churches. Christians are encouraged to be Soldiers of the Cross, after the example of Crusaders of the 12th century. It’s true that Paul encourages us to “put on the whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11-13), but that’s just so we can “withstand in the evil days.” We’re not asked to go on the attack; just to defend ourselves, our faith family and the truth.
Here’s what Jesus encourages his followers to do, after they take on the posture of the four animals:
Be Wise – (verse 16)
Be Humble – (verse 16)
Be Ware – (verse 17)
Be Confident – (verses 19-20)
One commentator entitles this teaching of Jesus
“How to meet persecution: By compassionate shrewdness.” *
By being a cross between a serpent and a dove. Then you’ll be ready to be a sheep among wolves.
– – Pastor George Van Alstine
* George A Buttrick, Interpreters Bible (1951), Vol 7, p. 367.