I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.
– Matthew 10:16
Christ’s disciples are like sheep – meek, humble, harmless, inoffensive, “defenseless” in their personal lives and in their speech and life together. They do not possess the worldly or carnal means of protecting themselves from those who would do them physical harm. In a world that opposes the spirit of Christ, they are determined to remain innocent as doves. That is, they will be pure, simple, irreproachably honest and transparent, singularly motivated. They will be free from all wicked, duplicitous cunning, free of rancor and malice, free of having to seek revenge or secure personal advantage. In short, they will practice the Beatitudes – living such good lives that those who accuse them of wrongdoing will become ashamed for doing so (1 Pet. 2:11-12).
At the same time, as Christ’s disciples they must be wise (prudent) as serpents. The serpent knows how to employ various, and sometimes subtle, means for its own preservation. Christ’s disciples use their heads and thus make full use of the proper avenues available to them to preserve themselves and the gospel. Christ’s followers avoid unnecessary dangers whenever possible; they never intentionally provoke the suspicion or animosity of those who can or may wish to do them harm. For the sake of the Truth, and for the sake of the souls they encounter, they act wisely; they make the most of every opportunity, speaking works of grace that are seasoned with salt in order to adequately answer everyone they meet (Col. 4:2-6).
This way of innocence and prudence has always been the way of God’s people. God used Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon, even placing them in high positions, in order to further his purposes. Neither man, however, compromised his faith. Nehemiah, too, in rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls outwitted his opposition by dividing his workforce, cunningly working both day and night. All the while, he devoted himself to prayer and obedience to God.
Jesus is our supreme example. He shows us how he met his accusers: Either by outsmarting them with his knowledge of the Scriptures or by refusing to answer them when it was obvious they were intent on ignoring the truth (Mk. 12:13-44). The Apostle Paul ably defended his actions before the authorities. For the sake of the gospel he held them accountable by taking advantage of his rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 22:22-29). Still, he persistently and openly lived his faith, never wavering in preaching the gospel – even speaking directly to those who stood guard while living under house arrest in Rome.
For us today, we need to be more determined than ever to practice our faith – all of it. We must focus our attention on the light, not on the encroaching darkness. At the same time, we must be wise and utilize the means and opportunities that have been granted us to combat hostile forces (Eph. 5:8-17). In doing so, we can show how Christ’s way is above reproach and how the fruit of our lives demonstrates this very fact. Like the early Christians, we must outdo the world in the things that really matter and in this way win people to the faith. Our life of faith will invariably provoke animosity – Jesus promised this (Jn. 15:18-21). And yet, God will help us stay true to the gospel, giving us the very words we need to answer our accusers.
To bury our heads in the sand is foolishness. To use means that are contrary to Christ is unfaithfulness. But through prayer and through our love for one another, Christ will help us to remain faithful in this world. Through his Spirit, even in death, we can rise above the spirit of this age, and with hope in our hearts we can dedicate ourselves ever anew to the coming of God’s kingdom. For we know and are certain that the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. He alone will reign forever and ever (Rev. 11:15).