In Matthew 10:16 we read:
I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. (NIV)
What does "be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves" mean?
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Jesus is making several points here. We will be helped in understanding these points by unpacking them one by one.
Imagery: Wolves prey on sheep. They are fierce, and from a human perspective, pitiless. In observing a wolf attack a sheep, we quite naturally feel sorry for the innocent prey being devoured by the predator. Wolves "gang up" on their prey; even a much larger animal can be brought down when attacked by a pack of wolves.
Application: There is antipathy between preachers and their audiences. The preachers are innocent sheep; audiences are fierce wolves. Later in Matthew 10, Jesus describes ways in which audiences to the disciples' message would react fiercely to it:
Imagery: Snakes, too, are predators. They are known for their subtlety and shrewdness. They, unlike wolves, lie in wait silently for their prey, sometimes blending in with their surroundings until their prey unwittingly comes within striking distance. Doves, on the other hand, are harmless, feeding on seeds, insects, and berries, and they are sociable creatures which mind their own business.
Application: Jesus' disciples were to use sound judgment in their modus operandi. Open and honest communication is good, but there are also times when too much or inapt communication is not good. Silence, at times, is golden.
A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver (Proverbs 25:11, my emphasis).
As Christians we are to
Let [our] conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that [we] may know how to answer everyone (Colossians 4:6 NIV).
In other words, Jesus' disciples must use discernment and wisdom, which at times involves an element of shrewdness. By the same token, however, our lives must also be exemplary and blameless in the midst of a wicked and perverse generation (Matthew 16:4). Our good deeds are to bear witness to our heavenly calling, and they are to glorify our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16).
If in being obedient to our commission to make disciples (or in context here in Matthew to preach "The kingdom of heaven is at hand," v.7) we suffer for righteousness sake, then so be it. It is far better to suffer as our teacher has--since students are not above their teachers in this regard (vv.24,25), than to be well thought of and well spoken of by everyone we meet.
Jesus calls us to be both discerning and wise, as well as innocent and blameless. Even when we are called before kings and governors, God will give us the right words to use, if we prayerfully and humbly allow Him to anoint our testimony for Him (vv.19,20).
shrewdness is not without the elements of preparedness, study, audience analysis, and keen listening skills. Peter encourages us to
. . . sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who ask you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence (1 Peter 3:15).
To make a defense and to give an answer presumes, first, we are being asked questions, and second, we know how to respond to those questions, even if that means we become familiar with the arguments our opponents may use against us. To learn in advance how to answer those arguments is at the very heart of apologetics (Peter's Greek word for defense).
Interestingly, prior to sending out the "12" to preach to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel," Jesus warned them that not everybody would accept their message (viz., "The kingdom of heaven is at hand"). His words to them:
As you enter the house, give it your greeting. If the house is worthy, give it your blessing of peace. But if it is not worthy, take back your blessing of peace. Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feet (Matthew 10:12-14 NASB).
With his words, Jesus was in effect telling his disciples to recognize when their audience was unreceptive. The disciples were not to keep on preaching to a hostile audience; rather, they were to leave a hostile house or city and allow God to judge the people in his own way and time. Jesus said,
Truly I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city (Matthew 10:15 NASB).
In conclusion, I ask myself the question, "Am I truly listening to people's questions about the hope within me and responding accordingly, as Peter encourages me to do, or am I simply delivering a 'one size fits all' message with no attempt to listen first, and then speak?" As James tells us,
But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger (1:19).
I suspect that becoming angry with a hostile audience and venting one's anger on them will never accomplish the righteous purposes of God. Moreover, it might in fact do more harm than good (see James 1:20)!
KJV version is rendered as:
16 Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.
The original Greek word would be better translated as "guileless" (i.e. without deceit, or not lying to people).
In other words speak truth but be careful of what you say because they will not like what you see (see v.18, 21, 22).
In v. 20 he is saying to speak by the power of the spirit (i.e. speak in a humble, kind way, but speak the truth).
In some instances when Jesus first appeared or did miracles he charged those who witnessed the miracles NOT to tell it (because they would try to prevent His ministry) or kill him. Sometimes it's wiser NOT to speak, as Christ did before the rulers before His crucifixion.
What does “therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” mean?
Matthew 10:16 Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.
This instruction is being given to disciples that are going on a mission. While most people focus on the words "serpent" and "dove", the words "wise" and "harmless" also bear consideration.
"Wise" speaks to capability. "Harmless" speaks to actions.
Since Jesus had just used the metaphor of sheep among wolves, and anyone who has worked with sheep know how stupid they are, the admonition to be wise is a sort of modifier to the illustration of sheep.
It is sort of like saying, "Since you will be as vulnerable as sheep among wolves, you should be wise as serpents, yet remain blameless.
The imagery of the serpent mitigates the stupidity of the sheep, while the imagery of the dove mitigates the danger of the serpent.