“Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves.
So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves.”
–Matthew 10:16 [NLT]
Sheep, wolves, snakes, and doves. Can you use these four very different animals in the same sentence and have it make any sense? Jesus did it and He did it purposefully to teach us a very important lesson. He alerts us and then advices us, so we can win against the enemy.
First of all, think about the character of each one of these animals. Sheep are gullible and foolishly stubborn. Wolves are extremely intelligent and highly adaptable. When hunting for prey, they can be cruel, greedy, and rapacious. The wolf's traits overpower the sheep's, making the sheep extremely vulnerable. Jesus tells us that as Christians, we are like sheep among wolves. This is a heavy statement. It means that if we are dumb and thick headed like sheep, we are in grave danger of being devoured by an astute and predatory culture. How can stupid survive with smart? How can obstinacy cohabit with savage versatility? If sheep won't make it alive in a room full of wolves, Christians won't make it alive in a hostile world either, unless they soberly consider the second part of Jesus' admonition: So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves. These two qualities are not natural to sheep, but are common to snakes and doves. Jesus is saying to us that if we are to advance victoriously through this life, if we are to finish strong and not barely make it like a lamb being snatched from a wolf's mouth, we must upgrade our sheepishly personality with shrewdness and gentleness.
This is a peculiar combination. What kind of an animal is this? A hissing dove? A benevolent snake? How shall we–as sheep in God's fold–incorporate both aspects of a snake's and dove's behavior without having a personality crisis? Let's look at the definition of each word to better understand what God is saying. The word shrewd means intelligent, prudent, wise, and mindful of one's interests. This is the same word used to describe the wisdom of the 5 virgins who refused to give oil to the other five who were unprepared for the bridegroom's return (Matthew 25:9). God does not call this unloving behavior. He calls it prudent behavior. The same word is used to describe the man who is watchful and eagerly waiting for the return of the Lord (Luke 12:32). God says this is not wasteful behavior but wise behavior. Both the virgins and the watchful man were unwilling to give in to pressure, manipulation, or the fear of men, in order to press on with what was right. This is wise in God's eyes.
The word harmless means innocent, free from guile, unmixed, pure as in wines or metals. This is the purity and innocence found in a dove which would never hurt a fellow bird, like an eagle or a vulture would. Even the Holy Spirit is likened to a dove, to highlight a very safe and gentle side of God's nature. How then can we be both shrewd and innocent at the same time in order to outsmart this fallen world? Isn't there a contradiction between these two? How can Jesus put a snake and a dove together to describe the type of people we must be in order to prevail against the wolves in this world? The Bible resolves the tension for us in Romans 16:19-20:
"I want you to be wise about what is good and
innocent about what is evil. And the God of peace
will soon crush Satan under your feet."
The key is what we are shrewd and innocent about. God does not want us to be smart in doing what is evil or mild in doing what is good, but exactly the opposite. He wants us to be aggressively sharp in doing what is good and completely naive when it comes to evil. So we can be both at the same time because we direct both traits at opposites forces. With the invisible hostility of our environment and the unreliability of human nature, both within the fellowship of the church and in the world, obeying the Lord's command to be shrewd is a requirement to a blessed life. Likely, with the crookedness and perversion flooding our world, living clean and innocent lives, shining like bright lights in darkness, and holding firmly to the word of truth, is a must (Phil. 2:15-16).
For your own sake and for the blessing of those around you, you must be bold, crafty, and enthusiastic in pursuing great works for the Lord, without ever compromising the purity and integrity of your heart. Sustain this tension as you walk through life, as you build your marriage, as you raise your children, as you serve the Lord. And this is the promise from God to you: He will soon crush Satan under your feet.
– Look back and determine times in your life when you were a dove but you needed to be a serpent. You needed to be tough and shrewd, but you were soft and naive. You needed to take a stand but you gave in, abandoning the fight for what was right. What would you do different today? How does the wisdom of Matthew 10:16 apply to this experience?
– Think of times when you should have been a dove but you were a snake. You needed to chill and take it easy, be gentle and tender, but you came in like a flood. You destroyed when you needed to build. You bit when you needed to comfort. How would you act differently today? How does the wisdom of Matthew 10:16 apply to this experience?