Sheep, Wolves, Serpents, and Doves: How to Be Shrewd and Innocent in a Hostile World

“Look, I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as serpents and as harmless as doves. Because people will hand you over to sanhedrins and flog you in their synagogues, beware of them. (Matthew 10:16-17)

Countless saints and missionaries and martyrs can testify to this truth: the gospel is risky.

The grace of God is free, but discipleship is costly. And going out on Jesus’s kingdom mission, preaching the message of his grace, can be downright dangerous.

For as many as can say a hearty “amen” to this truth, however, none can complain that Jesus wasn’t clear from the start about the risks. As a leader, Jesus never tried to hide the truth — to sugarcoat it so that more people would get on board with his message, even if some would jump ship once they found out what things were really like.

As he commissioned his first twelve “sent ones” to take the gospel of the kingdom and its accompanying power to the towns and villages of their home country, Jesus told them exactly what kind of peril was ahead — and how they should conduct themselves in response to it.

A Metaphorical Menagerie

For people personally familiar with sheep, wolves, serpents, and doves, I think Jesus’s parabolic statements made a lot of immediate sense.

For most of us, rather farther removed from the animal kingdom, it might help to move away from metaphor and get a little more concrete.

What exactly was Jesus saying about the world his apostles were going out to reach? How were they to conduct themselves in the midst of a persecuting and hostile people?

And how does all this speak to us, now, as we try to follow Jesus and carry his message in a much-changed milieu?

First, Sheep

First, Jesus declared to his disciples that he was sending them out as sheep.

This makes an important point. As we’ve already noted on this blog, although they carried great spiritual power to deliver, heal, and testify to the truth of the gospel, the apostles were deliberately sent out without worldly power. They didn’t take money, goods, or weapons with them. They were sent out as sheep — not as lions, bears, or sheepdogs.

This mattered. It mattered immensely.

The power of the gospel is a subversive power. It is the power of love and the offer of freedom. It is nonviolent. The power of the gospel comes from reconciliation and forgiveness, and the apostles were not to imagine themselves as zealots come to whip up revolution amongst the people, nor as judges empowered to call down fire and brimstone.

(Their gospel message would in fact cause the judgment of some, as we saw last week. But it did so by offering the presence of God, and exposing the hearts of those who would not receive him. The judgment would come later.)

In Jewish culture, sheep were among the few animals frequently offered as sacrifices to Yahweh in the temple. They were sacred — and also helpless and needy. The apostles went out as sheep.

Then, Wolves

Jesus first told his disciples how they were to be. Then he warned them of how others would be. They were not going out as lions among wolves, but neither were they going out as sheep among daisies.

Hostility toward the gospel was and is real. Not everyone would welcome them. Not everyone would love them. Some would desire to eat them alive.

Jesus did nothing to soften this truth. It was important for his apostles to know it.

After all, they were caught up in the wonder and power of the newly arrived gospel. They were being increasingly touched by God, increasingly filled with his love. They had seen lepers cleansed and lame men dancing.

When you have something so wonderful, it’s only natural to feel that everyone else will want it too — that if others can just see what’s on offer, of course they’ll welcome it (and you) with open arms.

But the two-sided mission of the gospel would expose hearts hungry for light and hearts given to darkness. “This, then, is the judgment,” Jesus said on another occasion: “The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).

The apostles would go to many people with the gospel message. Some would be lost sheep, desperate to be found. Some would be eager children, ready to run home at the Father’s call. But others would be wolves.

Therefore, Be Serpents

In response, Jesus told his apostles, “be as shrewd as serpents.” A moment later he stated the same idea in more concrete language: “because people will hand you over, beware of them.”

Serpents are known for being crafty. They are aware of their surroundings. They know when to be still and when to strike. They are masters of hiding and blending in when necessary.

The Strong’s definition for the Greek word underlying “shrewd” is “practically wise, sensible.” It carries the sense of prudence and street smarts.

In other words, Jesus says, as you go out with the gospel message, don’t be naïve. Don’t imagine that everyone loves you.

Remember that there are real enemies in the world, who will do you real harm if they can. Keep your wits about you. Keep your eyes and ears open, and act wisely when action is called for.

But Innocent as Doves

If Jesus had ended his instructions there, we might have seen a generation of apostles who were so shrewd and crafty as to slip into deception and two-facedness, or just into that uncomfortable arena of those who have a hidden agenda.

But Jesus didn’t stop there. Just as important as the injunction to be “shrewd as a serpent” is its companion: “and as harmless [or innocent] as doves.”

The Greek here is enlightening. We tend to associate harmlessness with being a pushover, or innocence with naïvete — which we’ve already heard Jesus warn us against.

Rather, the Greek word is akeraios, and it means unmixed — sincere, authentic, entirely real.

We are to be pure. We are to be just who we say we are. We are to represent Jesus, and the gospel, without mixture, deception, or hidden agendas.*

Bringing This into Today

Obviously, for the apostles all of this talk of wolves and sheep, serpents and doves had immediate application. They were literally going to travel to towns and villages where some people would seek to have them arrested, hauled before judges, even stoned or crucified.

But what about us? At least in the Western world, few of us face such stakes. Yet I think Jesus’s words still have a lot to say to us.

For one thing, they remind us that the gospel has — and is supposed to have — a real cost. Satan, the wolf of wolves, is still at large. We are at war, facing a deadly spiritual enemy.

That being the case, sometimes I think we make the gospel seem too easy. We invite people to make their commitments to Christ by slipping up a hand while “every eye is closed and every head bowed,” where no one can see and there is no risk of real discomfort, much less an actual cost.

I’m not sure we’re doing new disciples any favors by operating this way. In any case we’re certainly not following Jesus’s example. Better to be up front as he was: the gospel will cost you everything, and be worth it.

For another thing, Jesus’s words are bracing when we do face persecution of any kind or degree.

They remind us that opposition doesn’t automatically mean we’re doing something wrong (quite the opposite). They remind us to remain sheep, needy and helpless, relying on the Shepherd, not grasping worldly power in our attempts to spread the gospel.

And they remind us to live in the tension between prudence and sincerity — that we must not be foolish, but at the same time, no matter what, we must not let go of who we truly are, nor of what the gospel truly is.

As we carry the gospel in our own lives, our own milieu, we still represent a Lamb who was slain. We still carry a power that is spiritual in nature and that is meant to bring reconciliation.

We still expose hearts through the presence of the Word of God — some that desire the light and some that embrace the darkness.

And we still face real hostility and opposition that will try to push us in one of two directions — toward a devastating naivete or an equally devastating insincerity and mixture, one that will pollute our hearts and the gospel with them.

Jesus’s words to his first apostles call us to the same standard. Go forth. Go meekly and humbly. Go wisely. And go with purity of heart and as much sincerity as you can muster, even in the face of wolves.

*I’m aware that in many places in the world, the church has been forced underground by persecution, and it is not safe for Christians to be open about their faith or their efforts to spread the gospel. By “hidden agendas,” I’m not talking about the measures they take to protect themselves and others — those, I think, fall into the category of being shrewd as serpents. Rather, I’m talking about those who use the message of God in a dishonest way to get something for themselves, whether it’s control, money, or a following.


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This is Part 144 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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