This Week's Focus Passage

Matthew 10:16 - ‘Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.’

This Weeks Focus Passage: Matthew 10:16

‘Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.’

              Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves, Jesus told His disciples: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. Are these mixed metaphors? Or is there being made here comparisons between sheep and doves; between wolves and serpents? If so, what are some of the common denominators? How may wolves be said to be like serpents? How may sheep be said to be like doves? What characteristics do these animals share in common? How is a serpent wise? How is a dove harmless? Is not a serpent predatory? Is a dove predatory at all? Are doves not usually food for predators? We respond even as Christ’s disciples responded to a different matter, as we find recorded by John in 16:18, What is this that he saith?…we know not what he saith.

              We do know that serpents are ‘wise’ in the sense that they are cunning, but we can scarcely imagine that Christ would have His people to be cunning. Cunning, more often than not, is employed in a negative sense. While the word was used, at least historically, to denote ‘skillful; done with skill or ingenuity,’ it has for many years implied ‘crafty, sly, designing; subtle,’ with the corresponding noun meaning, ‘guile, deceit, artful stratagem; craftiness.’ Surely Jesus has not wished for His own to be wise in that sort of way. Subtle is one of the ascriptions of the evil one himself, is it not? The only two—at least in my copy of the Scriptures—instances of ‘subtle’ are found in Genesis and 2 Samuel; both allusions to evil. The famous, or infamous, occasion of its usage as found in Genesis is conspicuously related to the sin of our first parents, Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which Jehovah God had made, and the only other speaks of the friend of David’s son, Amnon, namely Jonadab, who we are told was a very subtle man.—2 Samuel 13:3. This is he that concocted the truly devilish plan by which Amnon would be given an opportunity to seduce his half-sister, Tamar. And this was being ‘wise’ as the devil, not what Christ has in mind for His followers. This negative perspective of wisdom is embellished by Eliphaz in Job 5:12-3, where this Temanite, speaking of God, says,

He frustrateth the devices of the crafty, so that their hands cannot perform their enterprise. He taketh the wise in their own craftiness; and the counsel of the cunning is carried headlong.

Again, it is clear from the context that this craftiness; this wisdom; this cunning, is not of the sort that Jesus is inculcating for His people to make use of. Nonetheless, He has employed the word in be ye therefore wise as serpents. So we return to the question, how are we to be wise as serpents, in such a way as to be harmless as doves? The suggestion of Charles Spurgeon may offer some assistance.

              London’s ‘Prince of preachers’ brought to the attention of his hearers, how that a serpent was non-intrusive; this beast does not normally insinuate itself where it is not wanted. We do not often hear of a snake being aggressive; attacking another creature. Commonly, this serpent-beast is a reactor rather than an actor in any sort of engagement with another creature, even man. The snake is silent and waiting. We think of venomous beasts striking a person with their fangs, injecting them with the   poisonous fluid they possess by nature. Usually, these ‘attacks’ are purely defensive. And Jesus would have us to be non-offensive; engaging persons only when they come to us, perhaps to inquire what we are reading, why we do what we do, etc.

being ready always to give answer to every man that asketh you a reason concerning the hope that is in you, yet with meekness and fear.  

Not being the aggressors, but ready to defend the truth; the gospel of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, remembering full well the words of Christ, as He warned us:

For whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of man also shall be ashamed of him, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.

Rather than being innocuous and grabbing people by the collar or shirtsleeve, let us, like the serpent, be inconspicuous. Yet, let us be watchful and circumspect, waiting and ready by meditation and prayer to answer that great question which was put to Peter and the apostles on the day of Pentecost, Brethren, what shall we do? Prepare ourselves to be wise in our answers with that wisdom that is from above.

And, all the while, we are to be harmless as doves. This requires our giving thoughtful consideration to what others say, rather than caring only for what we have to say. In other words, we need to be good listeners. Think about what others have to say to you; consider, if you are able, their background and reasons for why they believe what they believe, or why they don’t believe what they don’t believe. Yet we must be prudent. James has put it well. He has advised us to be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. Be prudent, James is saying. Well, what is it to be prudent? Prudence is the quality of being discreet, careful, or cautious; wisdom put into practice. Synonyms for prudent are; care, circumspection, caution, while antonyms for prudent are, not surprisingly, just opposite; careless, indiscreet, unmindful, heedless. Further synonyms are such as; practical, frugal; proceeding from, or marked by, careful thought; using sound judgment. If we take the time, rather than being swift to speak, to be discreet, to be careful, and to be cautious, we will by taking that time, be being slow to speak. Be not quick to take offense, nor to give offense. We need to cultivate the hide of a rhinoceros, as well as a soft tongue. Be slow to give offense; even slower to take it.

              Christ offered the reason for this advice when he said that He was sending them out as sheep in the midst of wolves. They were to behave as doves. Doves are much like sheep. They are relatively innocent and inoffensive, needing this warning.

The Shepherd had earlier warned them, Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves. Wolves are cunning. Beware!

Be peaceable and loving, but don’t forget Little Red Riding Hood.


David Farmer, elder

Fellowship Bible Church


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