Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16)

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What does Jesus mean when He commanded His disciples to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” in Matthew 10:16? Over time I have heard many misuses of these passages, especially by applying them to your business life and various other situations. To truly understand Jesus’s meaning, we must always begin with the context.

In Matthew 10:16-23, after selecting His disciples and sending them out, Jesus explains to the disciples that persecutions will come from preaching the gospel. These persecutions would come from the Jewish population, the higher Roman courts, and the Gentiles. They will be hated because of the gospel and even bring divisions within families, but they are encouraged not to be anxious but to flee when they can and continue this work wherever they go. Amen!

So, as Jesus begins this teaching, He says in Matthew 10:16, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Four animals are mentioned: sheep, wolves, serpents, and doves. An important point to note is that the disciples are the sheep. They are NOT serpents or doves, but they are sheep who are to be “as wise as serpents” and “innocent as doves”. The wolves are the persecutors who hate the gospel message. In other words, you need wisdom and harmlessness because you are sheep among wolves. 

Sheep are without defence. This does not mean that this only refers to the mildness of their manners or the gentleness of their minds, but like sheep, we cannot drive back the violence of the enemies of the gospel as they come against the ministers of Christ with wolfish rage. As sheep, the apostles would be defenceless against them in their strength because, as sheep, the believer’s disposition is towards patience and humility against their persecutors.

Therefore, Christ goes on to say, “so be wise”. This wisdom is compared to that of a serpent. The meaning here is that they are to flee to another place when great persecution arises. It means to be cautious. Because there is such hatred towards the disciples when preaching the gospel, they are to be careful in hostile situations and to shrink back from such areas taking care of their life so as to run into danger without consideration or with a lack of wisdom. That is knowing of the situation and hostile circumstances around you, putting yourself in a place of trouble when you have a way out of that situation on account of the gospel, which will be foolish. 

The second part of this saying seems to contradict the first, which is to be “as innocent as doves.” Doves are timid and can be easily attacked. They are simple and think themselves to be safe until they are attacked. So the phrase teaches us to look at the nature of the dove rather than lack of wisdom in such situations. Be innocent, looking for peace.

Now if we put this all together, the teaching Jesus is giving here is to be as “wise” as serpents but not take on the nature of a serpent. A serpent or snake is often used symbolically for a deceptive, deadly and subtle malicious enemy. Use its wisdom as to its cautiousness, ensuring its life is not harmed. Then in nature, be as innocent as doves. That is to say, doves neither hurt anyone nor bear a grudge against anyone. It is symbolic of advocating peace, conciliation, and negotiation rather than confrontation or conflict. Since you are sheep among wolves, you will face danger and, due to that, “be wise in decisions and innocent in nature.” Amen!

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