Jesus told us to “Go…”. Go two miles (Matt 5:41). Go pray (Matt 6:6). Go proclaim (Matt 10:7). Go and tell what you see and hear (Matt 11:4). Go and search for the one who went astray (Matt 18:2). Go and sell your possessions (Matt 19:21). Go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). We must go—but the world will not be a welcoming place. So, in Matthew 10:16 , Jesus prepares His disciples to go and He warns them saying, “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Four animals. One sentence. Huge meaning.
First, we are supposed to be the sheep and the world is full of wolves. People willing to devour another in order to get what they want. We see it played out on the world stage in wars and conflicts. It is obvious in the corporate world. It plays out in Hollywood—both on the screen and off. And it happens in our own lives when we cut ahead, cut corners and take those teeny liberties that “don’t hurt anyone”. And we sit back and wonder where our kids learned to hit, lie, manipulate and push the limits.
So, Jesus tells us to be like both a serpent and a dove. Usually, people are okay with the picture the Christian are to be innocent and gentle as a dove. These are obviously Christian qualities. Many of us, however, may not like or appreciate snakes—much less be compared to them. But, we have to stop and remember the first time we are introduced to a serpent in Scripture. In Genesis 3:1 a serpent is described as “crafty”. In Hebrew, the word for “crafty” comes from a root word meaning to be bare or perhaps smooth, and has a connotation meaning to be cunning, beware, be prudent, be subtle. Jesus is not telling us to be deceptive, rather He is suggesting we use a little wisdom (Jesus calls serpents wise?) in how we go.
Preacher, Charles Simeon provides a wonderful comment on the serpent and dove imagery: “Now the wisdom of the one and the harmlessness of the other are very desirable to be combined in the Christian character; because it is by such an union only that the Christian will be enabled to cope successfully with his more powerful enemies”.