Wise as serpents, harmless as doves
Matthew 10:16 is a veritable menagerie of biblical imagery:
“Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”
Not since the ark have so many animals been crammed into so short a Scriptural space. Yet Jesus thinks we will be well prepared for the mission field if we consider these four creatures: There is the weakness of sheep, the ferocity of wolves, the wisdom of serpents and the innocence of doves. Since we have already thought of sheep amidst wolves, let’s consider the serpents and doves.
Nowhere but here are serpents held up as positive role models! The serpent is the devil himself (Genesis 3; Revelation 12). Therefore the serpent’s pairing with a dove is very surprising. Just a few chapters previously we saw the Spirit descending “like a dove” upon Jesus (Matthew 3:16).
How do serpents and doves relate?
Well serpents do have one positive attribute: “subtilty” / “wisdom” / “guile” (Genesis 3:1; 2 Corinthians 11:3). The serpent is famous for its powers of persuasion, though in the devil’s case this is wrought through deception.
And so the Christian is to be shrewd like the most evil spirit and as pure as the most Holy Spirit. How do we line up those traits?
Well it’s interesting that the dove-like Holy Spirit is also known for wisdom (see for instance the book of Proverbs). This is the point of similarity between them – there is a guile-full wisdom in the serpent; a guile-less wisdom in the dove. Jesus is therefore double-underlining the need for shrewd dealings. Sheep wandering among wolves will need incredible wisdom – but not the cunning of the serpent. Purified wisdom.
Jesus goes on in Matthew 10 to tell His disciples how this purified wisdom will look under fire:
19 But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. 20 For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you.
Just as Christ is equipped by the Spirit of His Father, so are Christians. Jesus’ disciples share not only His mission, not only His sufferings, but also His Spirit. As we suffer for His name’s sake, our fellowship with Christ will be profound. Under persecution we will experience even more dramatically our adoption by the Father and our anointing with the Spirit. We are little christs, holding out the Christ.
And as we think in these categories it becomes clear that the ultimate picture of a serpentine dove is Christ Himself as He encounters the wolves. Remember how He repeatedly avoided capture and unnecessary controversy until the time was right. Remember how He answered His opponents with Scripture after Scripture. Remember as He was tried the total lack of self-justification. Remember how He entrusted Himself to “to Him that judgeth righteously” (1 Pet 2:23). And remember the end-point – martyrdom.
To be wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove is not a way of avoiding suffering. For sheep among wolves there’s no way of avoiding suffering. In a wicked world, harmless doves cannot expect to live long and prosper. But since we can only be crucified once, serpentine wisdom will help us to pick the right battles and to make them count.