Matthew 10:16

‘“Behold, I send you out as sheep among wolves.
Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”’
(Matthew 10:16)

Sheep that can be sent out amongst wolves, wise as serpents, yet harmless (or innocent/pure/gentle etc.) like doves! These are no ordinary sheep! It’s a remarkable picture, but it’s what we’re called to as Christians. So how can we become such amazing sheep?

The key starting point of course is our Shepherd, that ‘great shepherd of the sheep… our Lord Jesus’(Hebrews 13:20).  He’s doing the speaking and sending here, ‘the Word… God’(John 1:1), with ultimate power and authority over ‘all things’(Hebrews 1:3; Colossians 1:17), including our lives, and whose words are ‘“like fire… like a hammer”’(Jeremiah 23:29), and will always ‘“accomplish that which”’(Isaiah 55:11) they were sent to achieve. So this ‘“Behold, I send you…”’ comes with powerful backing.

The first half of this chapter in Matthew’s gospel is about Jesus giving such instructions to the ‘twelve disciples’(Matthew 10:1), with this ‘authority’(Matthew 10:1), as part of an early mission trip. However, Matthew’s account seems to hinge on verse 16, from which point the outlook of the passage broadens, apparently with a much wider application in mind, for all of Jesus’ sheep, sent out by His ‘“authority”’(Matthew 28:18ff.), as mentioned later. So this declaration applies to us ‘all’(2 Timothy 3:12), who might face hostility from ‘“governors… parents… foes”’(Matthew 10:17-36ff.) etc., any such adversaries duped ultimately by the ‘wiles of the devil… and… spiritual forces of wickedness’(Ephesians 6:11-12), even such ‘“wolves”’(Matthew 7:15; Acts 20:29) within our own midst.

However, Jesus is not simply our authoritative/powerful shepherd in this. Unlike with normal sheep, following the shepherd Jesus includes following His example too, being ‘transformed’(2 Corinthians 3:18) into His likeness, ‘“A disciple… like his teacher… like his lord”’(Matthew 10:24-25) not just in what we experience, but in how we deal with things as well.

Therefore we’re to be harmless/innocent/pure/gentle, like doves – even lambs! Jesus is our perfect example in this. Aside from being the innocent ‘atoning sacrifice’(Romans 3:25) for our sins, the ‘lamb without blemish or spot’(1 Peter 1:19), He ‘suffered for us, leaving… an example’(1 Peter 2:21ff.). So we’re to become ‘like-minded… blameless… harmless… in the middle of a crooked and perverse generation’(Philippians 2:2-15), displaying ‘the humility and gentleness of Christ’(2 Corinthians 10:1), in all our dealings with ‘“men”’(Matthew 10:17ff.).

However, we mustn’t be naïve in this, rather shrewd like serpents, more than a match for that ‘old serpent… the deceiver’(Revelation 12:9, cf. Genesis 3:1), ‘not ignorant of his schemes’(2 Corinthians 2:11). Again we’re to learn from our shepherd’s ways, ‘Christ, in whom all the treasures of wisdom’(Colossians 2:2-3) are found, greater even than ‘“the wisdom of Solomon”’(Matthew 12:42), as the prophets had foretold, full of ‘wisdom and understanding… counsel and might’(Isaiah 11:2). We can watch and learn from Him in Matthew’s account, as Jesus models wisdom for us in His numerous encounters with ‘the chief priests and the elders’(Matthew 21:23ff.), ‘the pharisees’(Matthew 22:15ff.) and even ‘the devil’(Matthew 4:1ff.) himself.

This is not something we’re to simply observe and copy though, it’s more dynamic than that. God the Father, Son and Holy ‘“Spirit”’(Matthew 10:20; Mark 13:11; cf. Luke 21:15) ‘“give”’(Luke 21:15) us this ‘wisdom that is from above’(James 3:17), as Peter and John found later, who despite being ‘unlearned’(Acts 4:13) by the standards of this world, were ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’(Acts 4:8) and wisdom regarding how to respond to hostile authorities. It was noted that they’d ‘been with Jesus’(Acts 4:13), whose ‘“wisdom”’(Matthew 13:54ff.) had been similar. So when in need of wisdom we should ‘ask of God… and it will be given’(James 1:5).

Nevertheless, Jesus said that ‘“the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things, and will remind you of all that I said”’(John 14:26). This presupposes that we’ve listened ‘“to His voice”’(John 10:3ff.) – for us today essentially ‘“the scriptures”’(Matthew 22:29). That was the case for Jesus even, who was inspired to recall what had been ‘“written”’(Matthew 4:4,7&10). It’s why ‘scripture’(2 Timothy 3:16) itself teaches that reverence for, and seeking to know and understand God, through His word, is where ‘wisdom’(Proverbs 9:10) begins, eventually leading to our becoming ‘thoroughly equipped’(2 Timothy 3:17). So first we must arm ourselves with ‘the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’(Ephesians 6:17), so it can be unsheathed by the Spirit when required in battle, whether as a direct quotation or guiding principle. Importantly, the Spirit will help us to respond with this appropriate ‘gentleness’(Galatians 5:23) too, ‘as a dove’(Matthew 3:16), whether it be ‘in wisdom… with grace’(Colossians 4:5-6) we ‘“speak”’(Acts 5:20ff.), keep ‘silent’(Matthew 26:63), ‘“proclaim”’(Matthew 10:27) boldly, or ‘“flee”’(Matthew 10:23).

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