“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves." Matthew 10:16
Jesus speaks these words to his twelve apostles, and indeed they do have a hard road ahead of them. In Luke 10:3, Jesus uses the word "lambs," which is even more docile than "sheep." What Jesus is telling his twelve, and telling us today as we try to be living disciples of Christ, is that the world is a very dangerous place for people who follow him. How true this is, as we can see from gleaning the news each day. The world is like a horde of ravenous wolves, ready to devour the weak, and when the foes these wolves face are mere lambs, there is no sneaky pretense of kindness. The wolves will attack and attack hard.
So, Jesus gives us instructions on how to behave in such a world: "be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves." How do these instructions help us today? Well, the first thing we must do is figure out what he means, and to do that, we must have scripture illuminate scripture.
Shrewd as Serpents
Now, the first place we can think of to examine the behavior of a serpent is Genesis 3. Is Jesus telling us to behave like the devil himself? Of course not, but we can learn much from the way the serpent interacts with Eve in the garden. The primary tool Satan uses against mankind is to ask questions and make brief statements (not long-winded speeches) in order to place doubt in the first woman's head. His technique works, and he is able to change Eve's whole worldview, as well as her husband's. Being lambs in a world of ravenous wolves and being shrewd as serpents at the same time, is going to involve asking specific questions and asserting specific statements in order to change a wolf's worldview into that of a lamb's.
Second, being shrewd as a serpent is knowing your enemy. The "wolves" of the world are divided into two parts, according to scripture. In not being shrewd, we may fall into the trap of thinking there is one body of wolves: the unbelieving world. However, there is a second front against God's church on Earth, a second grouping of wolves: the false church. If we think that we are only standing up to unbelievers, we lay unprotected from a formidable foe. In Matthew 24, Jesus warns us against those who are "in" the church but not "of" the church:
Then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or ‘There He is,’ do not believe him. For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. Behold, I have told you in advance. So if they say to you, ‘Behold, He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out, or, ‘Behold, He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe them. For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather. (Matthew 24:23-28)
Being shrewd as serpents involves knowing the true church from the false one, and to know that, we must be well-versed in scripture. The Holy Bible is the only source of God's truth available to us, and we must study it well to learn the differences between the truth and a lie, especially when the lie is compelling and seemingly rational.
The third and last point about being shrewd as serpents is also the first point about being innocent as doves. Look at Romans 16:
Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting. For the report of your obedience has reached to all; therefore I am rejoicing over you, but I want you to be wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. (Romans 16:17-20)
Paul here, like Christ before him, warns the true church of the false church. After Paul rejoices over the Roman church's obedience, he exhorts them to be "wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil." This is a clearer way of looking at being "shrewd as serpents" and "innocent as doves." Being shrewd as a serpent is being wise in what is good. What does that mean? It means that, as saved Christians, we are interacting with the unbelieving world and the false church--not being OF them but being IN them--and injecting, whenever possible, good wisdom. When interacting with the wolves, we do not play their game and pretend to be wolves ourselves but let our words and actions be filled with Christ's righteousness. Ask questions, make statements, know the two-fronted enemy...and wisely insert God's truth into every possible moment of your discourse.
Innocent as Doves
As Paul writes in Romans 16, innocent as doves means being innocent in what is evil. We are all sinners, yes, but Christians are penitent sinners. We repent of sin, and our desire is to not know sin anymore. That means we are not to act worldly around the worldly, but we are to plead ignorance of the world's ways, even if we know such ways personally. This is not lying, not pretending to be something we are not, but to show our denial of our past selves, to be above the practice of sin that we used to be involved in, to placard our new lives in Christ on our faces and display Christ's righteousness within us.
In Hosea 7, the prophet preaches against Ephraim, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, part of the church:
Ephraim mixes himself with the nations;
Ephraim has become a cake not turned.
Strangers devour his strength,
Yet he does not know it;
Gray hairs also are sprinkled on him,
Yet he does not know it.
Though the pride of Israel testifies against him,
Yet they have not returned to the Lord their God,
Nor have they sought Him, for all this.
So Ephraim has become like a silly dove, without sense;
They call to Egypt, they go to Assyria. (Hosea 7:8-11)
We are to be in the world but not of the world. Now, we are not to isolate ourselves from the world. We see what has happened in this regard in history. When the church separates completely from the world, it becomes corrupt. Why? Because, as I wrote above, the true church has forgotten to take in to account the false church, which is among them, no matter how much we separate, and a tiny part of leaven will leaven the whole lump of dough. The leaven of the Pharisees and the antinomians will destroy the whole church. We need to be in the world and interacting with it, even as we are not OF it. Now, Ephraim, according to the prophet Hosea, has done the opposite: it has mixed with the world and become worldly, like a cake cooking on the grill that has not been flipped, and so the downward side blackens. The wolves begin to devour him, because he has abandoned the true church for the lie. The wisdom of the world becomes his wisdom. The Biblical wisdom begins to leave his discourse and the worldly wisdom begins to infiltrate it. He uses worldly expressions in his everyday life. He turns his back on his Lord and forgets to seek him ever. Their world is in Egypt, in Assyria, in Babylon. Ephraim is a silly dove, without sense. This innocence actually destroys the true church, because it is not innocent of evil but innocent of good and truth. Christ and Paul encourage us to be innocent of evil, and that means not being of the world, but we are to be shrewd as serpents, which means being in the world and injecting truth and goodness into all our interactions. So, we must be BOTH shrewd as serpents AND innocent as doves. We cannot be one without the other.
Christ the True Lamb
So, being shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves is a complex and tall order, and it may seem impossible to us weak souls. But the key to success in this lesson is not in ourselves but in Christ himself. In Luke 10, the disciples return with the happy results of their excursion into the world. They were even able to fight the demons, but only in Jesus' name. Christ is the true lamb. Christ is the shrewd serpent--always injecting righteousness into his interactions with the wolves. He is also the innocent dove who knows no sin. He is wisdom of God, who asks questions of the world and makes statements of truth to the unbelieving ear. He turned high-ranking Pharisees to his cause: men like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. He spoke against the false church in all of his discourses, and he even made a point of making sure we bewared the false church over the unchurched. Indeed, when we look at Jeremiah 29 next week, we will see that we have more to fear from the falsely converted than the unconverted.
Christ tells his disciples not to rejoice that the spirits are subject to them (a prominent aspect of the false church) but that their names are recorded in heaven. Indeed, this is the foundational motivator of the true church. We don't have the power of Christ in order to wield it and wage war with the world. We have the power of Christ, because we believe, and that power comes to us through faith. We have a supreme gratitude for our names being written in heaven, and this gratitude enables us to be lambs in the midst of wolves without fear. It enables us to be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves, all in Christ's name. Christ is the lamb, and we have the lambs power only through faith.
Where do you see yourself? Are you Ephraim? Mixed with the world? An unflipped cake burning on the grill? Are you commanding Christ to serve you, so you can use his power for your whims (even if those whims are honorable)? Or are so so thankful that your name is written in heaven that you gladly preach Christ until he returns, no matter what the cost?