“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16, NIV).
Now, remember, it is I who sends you out, even though you feel vulnerable as lambs going into a pack of wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes yet as harmless as doves” (TPT)
Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves (KJV)
For the last couple of years, I have deliberately slowed down and become more focused and intentional in my daily devotional reading. As a result, I find I am no longer satisfied to read a verse like this one, so rich in imagery and depth, without digging deeper for meanings. Especially when it’s something Jesus said! So, if you like, dig deeper with me.
Jesus sent his 12 disciples on a short-term mission trip to some towns in the Galilee region. They were to take nothing with them–no money, no change of clothes, no itinerary. They were to enter each town and knock on some doors. They were to accept hospitality from the first person who offered it and bless that home by letting their peace rest there. When they encountered hostility, Jesus instructed them, “Leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet” (10:14).
This assignment is rather amazing from a modern, Western perspective. Do you know any missionaries or church leaders who would set out on a trip with no luggage, no money (or credit cards), no schedule, no clear strategy, and no host organization or family to greet them at their destination? That’s a crazy way to do missions, right? Sorry, but in this case it was Jesus’ way to do missions. He sent his closest friends out, “as vulnerable as lambs going into a pack of wolves.” Without even a change of underwear.
Let’s talk about sheep. Sheep are prey animals. They are defenseless. They can’t fight, so they can only flee or huddle together when threatened. According to an online veterinary manual, “Separation from the flock can cause stress and panic. Isolation from other sheep can cause severe stress and should be avoided.” (1) Jesus’ little flock was to leave the safety of Jesus’ pastoral care and venture out in the wide world on their own. At least there were twelve of them.
They were going to run into some wolves. Wolves are predators who are known for attacking domestic animals like sheep. They do this because it is instinctual—it is in their nature. They also live in groups called packs. When given the opportunity, a pack of wolves will attack a sheep, especially if the sheep is separated from its flock. (This is why Jesus says a good shepherd leaves the flock unguarded to find the one sheep that wanders away—that sheep wouldn’t stand a chance in the wilderness alone.
Although Jesus compared his disciples to sheep, he expected them to be as shrewd, prudent, smart, clever, cunning (depending on what translation you prefer) as a snake when they encountered the wolves. I’m trying to wrap my mind around how a sheep can adapt to thinking like a snake.
In Genesis 3:1 we read that the serpent was more subtle (crafty, intelligent, clever, cunning) than all other creatures. I don’t know how smart snakes really are, but I do know that that they slither on the ground and they are agile, which makes them good at escaping danger quickly. Most don’t attack unless provoked, but some produce lethal venom that defends them against predators if they do confront one.
We’ve established that sheep are not agile, intelligent, or able to care for themselves apart from their flock and their shepherd. Could Jesus be saying that we are to continue to identify as his sheep, but to become wise in how to stay safe and whole when facing threats from people who are hostile to the gospel? We are not to call attention to ourselves but are to be a bit stealthy in our approach. As the chaplain at the prison where I minister says,” Don’t ever get too comfortable here.” We must have our eyes open and be ready to respond safely and appropriately in unfamiliar and potentially dangerous environments. And we must also discern when it’s time to get out.
In the wisdom we apply to our outreach, we are to remain as harmless, inoffensive, and innocent as doves. What do we know about doves? A website called “SpiritualRay” explains how doves came to be associated with peace and innocence:
“Doves are considered birds who mate for life and are extremely loyal. They raise their young ones with great care and dedication. They build their nests in areas near human settlements. In a way, this may have given people the opportunity to witness the immense love, care, and loyalty displayed by white doves. They are harmless birds and feed on fruits, plants, and seeds. People quickly associated doves with peace, love, and dedication.”
We are sheep who are to be shrewd as serpents AND harmless as doves. I interpret this to mean; a) that we stay connected to Jesus and his flock; b) that we become agile and wise in our handling of the gospel amongst those who do not yet believe, because we are bound to encounter opposition; and c) we are never to harm anyone. We don’t bite people and inject venom. We are to be gentle, loving, and loyal, as much as we are able. When people reject us and our message, Jesus gives us permission to depart with no regrets. We bring no reproach to the name or cause of Jesus Christ.
This is the kind of sheep I want to be, and I want to surround myself with other sheep that fit this description. Are you with me?