“Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
As Jesus sends His disciples out to proclaim the message of the Kingdom among the villages of Israel He warns them about many of the challenges and difficulties they will experience. In so doing He tells them to be as “wise as serpents” and yet “harmless as doves.”
This statement sounds rather strange to the ear. We rarely consider serpents and doves in the same breath– they are two radically different types of animals. And that is precisely Jesus’ point.
It is not as if serpents are really “wise” or that doves are “innocent.” These are human characteristics that are imposed upon the animals because of their behavior and lifestyles.
Snakes have from the beginning had the reputation of shrewdness and craftiness (Genesis 3:1). They hunt by stealth, slithering quietly to attack their prey unawares. They strive to remain hidden and oftentimes blend in with their surroundings. To this day many people experience a slight shock when coming upon a snake, a type of shock that does not take place when people come upon birds or deer or other similar animals. Therefore, it is understandable that the snake is associated with Satan the Devil and his schemes (cf. Revelation 12:9).
Doves also have represented innocence and peace for a long time. A dove let Noah know that the flood waters had receded (Genesis 8:11). Many doves are white, and white has throughout time been associated with purity, cleanliness, and holiness (cf. Isaiah 1:18). Doves are also very gentle birds– they do not harm other animals and they certainly do not harm humans. Therefore it is appropriate that when the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus, He does so as a dove (Matthew 3:16, Luke 3:22).
We can most certainly understand the reference to doves and the expectation that Jesus’ disciples would not harm people and represent purity and holiness. But how can it be that disciples should be as wise as serpents, considering how the serpent is a representation of the Evil One?
This whole contrast is framed by Jesus sending out His disciples into the world, described as sheep in the midst of wolves. Sheep are loyal followers but otherwise rather dumb. They go where they are directed and they have almost no natural defenses. Wolves, on the other hand, are highly intelligent and ruthless creatures, and they love nothing more than an easy meal. Jesus is sending His followers out into a world where whatever defenses they may have against persecution, temptations, and sin would be easily overcome on their own, and the world has plenty of such temptations.
Since disciples are sent out into a fallen world, therefore, there must be a balance between the dove and the serpent. There is great value in purity, holiness, and innocence, but we recognize that innocence can easily lead to naive thinking and actions and therefore disaster. The innocent are easily exploited and manipulated into falling. Likewise, we understand that there is no virtue in being crooked and full of schemes like the Evil One, but nevertheless there is value in being wise in the ways of the world– not necessarily based on experience, but understanding the means by which exploitation and temptation occur so as to avoid them.
If we desire to be disciples of Christ we must recognize that we, too, are sent out into the world like sheep in the midst of wolves. It is critically important that we do all that we can to avoid sin and to practice righteousness, but we must also be aware of the naivete that can accompany innocence. Therefore, we must have a handle on the way the world works while striving to be righteous servants of God, or, as Jesus would say, to be wise as serpents while remaining as innocent as doves. Let us seek to do so and reflect Christ to the world!
Ethan R. Longhenry