As wise as serpents, as innocent as doves

As wise as serpents, as innocent as doves

Christians should expect that serving Jesus in this world will mean people will be unhappy with us. Jesus warned his disciples as much in Matthew 10. When giving them instructions about their mission to the world, he said:

16 “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. (Matt. 10:16 ESV)

All of this animal imagery gets across some critical information about living as a disciple of Jesus in a world opposed to God.

The disciples are described as sheep in the midst of wolves. That doesn’t sound so great for the sheep! Sheep cannot defend themselves against wolves. They have no armour or claws, no poison or sharp teeth. If they are not protected, you would expect the wolves to win. Matthew 10 is full of encouragements that God will help the disciples, so it’s not all bad news. But Jesus is stressing that we need to understand the danger the world will pose to Christians.

The world will often hate Christians. This is seen most clearly in ISIS-dominated regions or countries like Vietnam or North Korea, but it is increasingly seen in the West too. Christians are called bigots for not joining in the celebration of sexual diversity all around us. Mentioning that you are a Christian is a good way to stop a conversation; people assume you are anti-scientific and uneducated.

The advice that Jesus gives is that disciples should be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. What can this mean?

Serpents were seen as crafty and clever. If we are to be wise, or perhaps shrewd is a better word, it means that we are to be thoughtful about how we go about our mission to the world. It is unwise to seek out persecution. The disciples were told to leave cities that rejected the message and move to other cities. That’s being wise. That’s knowing when the message has been rejected and moving to try something or somewhere else. The world needs to hear the gospel, and we need to think carefully, knowing our culture and ourselves, how best to connect people with the message of life.

Jesus also calls on his disciples to be as innocent as doves. I have doves who try to nest under my pergola; they are very stupid birds. You shoo them away and they come back. They build their nests in exposed places. They are easily caught by predatory birds; crows often catch them. It is no more flattering to be called a dove than it is to be called a sheep! The point Jesus is making is not that we should be stupid, however; we are to be as innocent as doves. They go about their business despite the risks involved. They do what they do regardless. Christians are to maintain their identity, their distinctiveness from the culture around us, despite the risk.

How do we balance wisdom and innocence when it comes to our mission to the world? Here are some ideas:

  • Wisdom must mean knowing the culture we are in. Christians need to think about the best ways to connect people to the message. If we have a culture that says everyone’s experience is valid, instead of criticising other people’s experiences, try hard to find opportunities to explain your own. Sharing your testimony and explaining what Jesus means to you is culturally acceptable and means people will hear the gospel in a way they won’t immediately reject. Although that might not be their experience, they will listen to yours.
  • Innocence must mean not knowing the depth of sin and depravity that our culture is involved in. We don’t need to engage in the same behaviour as the world around us. When it comes to sin, it great to be naïve! Don’t be so culturally relevant that you don’t stand out and have nothing to offer.

The world needs to hear the message of Jesus. An option not open to us is to remain silent and never seek to spread the gospel; that is unwise and means we avoid the wolves altogether.

Yes, there is danger for Christians in our world. Don’t let that stop you telling people about Jesus. Just be thoughtful and distinctively innocent as you do it.