“Wise as Serpents”

The issues that we face in evangelism are many. We encounter all sorts of false teaching, lies, and antagonism. We meet those from every shade of doctrine, worldview, and world religion. In dealing with these people we need unusual wisdom.

Yet, because “God is love,” and because “the greatest of these is love,” it may be easy to skip over Christ’s command to be “wise as serpents,” and to focus on “being gentle as doves.” But the beauty of the commands of Jesus is the balance they provide:

“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matt 10:16).

Jesus’ illustration of sheep and wolves provides the causal side of the commands—the reason they are given in the first place. His use of shepherding imagery harkens back to the example of King David as a good shepherd, for “he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart” (Psa 78:72).

Further, this exhortation of Jesus is reminiscent of the words of Jeremiah and Ezekiel against the false shepherds of God’s people who scattered the sheep and did not gather them. Jeremiah 23 and Ezekiel 34 were particularly directed against false shepherds who fed themselves and not the flock of God.

Later Paul even warned of savage wolves within the church:

“For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29).

Jesus, however, in his teaching turned a corner by giving two very direct commands based on the reality of being sheep among wolves. The admonitions of Jesus are very pointed. “Therefore,” said Jesus, “be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” Jesus tied the two sentences together with the word “therefore.” In order to address the causal side of the equation, one has to apply the two commands in the second part of the verse.

It goes without saying that if anyone doubts the first part of the verse, then the commands of Jesus are meaningless. If one doubts, denies, or ignores that the follower of Christ is like sheep among wolves, then he will doubt, deny or ignore the latter commands also. By the way, Jesus’ view and analysis of reality has more credibility than does our limited empirical analysis.

The complexity loaded into these two commands is holding them both simultaneously. There are only two entities on earth where one can find a perfect balance of both wisdom and gentleness: Jesus and the Word of God.

Jesus was the revelation of “grace upon grace.” In Him came “grace and truth” (John 1:17). Jesus perfectly balanced grace and truth. So must the follower of Christ.

When we are commanded to be “wise as serpents and gentle as doves,” the order of grace and truth (as found in John 1:17) is reversed. That said, if the two are truly in a state of balance, their order is less important. In fact, Psalm 85:10 reverses the order of these two concepts through the use of Hebraic parallelism:

“Mercy and truth”
“Righteousness and peace”

But when Jesus sent out His disciples, He placed wisdom prior to gentleness. Not only that, but Jesus used as His example the animal through which the person of Satan was originally revealed—Satan being “that serpent of old” (Rev 20:2). That was quite something for the Person who earlier was tempted by Satan, and later would finish His earthly ministry on a cross crushing Satan’s head.

The level of wisdom we need in evangelistic ministry is unparalleled. In reality it is an unattainable level of wisdom: equal to the cunning insight of the Serpent, yet without his sin, deception, error, or uncleanness (1 Thess 2:3).

Truly, as we are engaged in initiative evangelism we encounter a wide variety of people from all shades and stripes of belief systems and worldviews. Some seek to entice us to their point of view. Some even seek to lead us into sin. In the arena of evangelism we need unusual wisdom.

Proverbs 25:26 reads:

Like a trampled spring and a polluted well
Is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked.”

We need to remain gentle, while simultaneously holding our biblical ground. For Jesus also said, “Be harmless [or gentle] as a dove.”

As we wield the “Sword of the Spirit,” we must do so with both gentleness and wisdom. While using that sword, we ought not hack down what should not be cut down. Nor should we avoid issues that must be addressed. This dual command is indeed a great challenge!

“Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves”!

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