Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves. Matthew 10:16 NLT
In this verse, the first thing Jesus points out is the condition of the world in which He is sending His disciples, in a word, it is perilous. The disciples will be like sheep among wolves, and must prepare accordingly. Another way of looking at this is that the world is stormy and unpredictably harsh, and the only way to weatherproof your life is to take Jesus’ words to heart, to do as He says, and conduct yourself accordingly. And in light of the perilous and uncertain times we are living in, He says to be shrewd, or wise, and harmless.
Years ago we would take building supplies to Mexico to help build houses and churches in very poor areas. It was much easier, then, to cross the border, but it was not without risk. We would hide the materials as best we could among our other things, as the sentiment from the Mexican officials there was that they didn’t want you bringing things in that you could have purchased there, and thus support their economy. And, face it, part of that was an excuse for bribery as well, because the border police held the power to turn you around and ruin your trip.
So we would always have to decide if we were going to be forthcoming with our plans and cargo, or shrewd, knowing the end result would be a blessing for the impoverished people we would be serving. I recall the most tense, yet easiest times, crossing the border, were when our local contact would hop out of the lead truck and have a conversation with the head border guard. He would come back to our vehicle after a few minutes of “negotiation” and quietly let us know that we could cross if we would pay a cash “fee” for bringing materials into their country. We would pony-up the cash, usually $60 or $75, which he would slip to the official, and we would be cautiously on our way.
Many of us felt the bribery-styled process was faithless and wrong, like we were enabling sinful behavior. It didn’t sit right. We wanted to drive right up and declare what we were doing, and ask that we be allowed to drive right through, and conduct God’s work. Some groups had done this with success. Some tried the bold approach and were turned away. One group I know of were so adamant about their “Mission for God” that they wound up spending the night in a border jail, before arranging bail, only to have their building materials confiscated before being allowed to continue their journey. That was an expensive weekend…
Which way was right? I’m not sure, honestly. But when I think about this passage I realize that Jesus is commanding us, not just suggesting, that we conduct ourselves shrewdly, and with wisdom in the world, because the mission of the Gospel will always face resistance. The sheep among wolves analogy is pretty clear—if given the opportunity, wolves will eat sheep, there are no two ways about it. Satan is not your friend. He will lure you in by any means necessary and try and stop your mission, ruin you personally, and derail the work of the Lord.
We need wisdom, and we need for that wisdom to teach our mouths how to speak among wolves.
The heart of the wise teaches his mouth, And adds learning to his lips. Proverbs 16:23 NKJV
A soft answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger. Proverbs 15:1 KNJV
Being shrewd and harmless does not mean weak and ineffective. Just the opposite. To walk in wisdom and peace is God’s way. This is how the Messiah was portrayed by Isaiah over 700 years before His birth. Isaiah wrote:
Out of the stump of David’s family will grow a shoot—yes, a new Branch bearing fruit from the old root.
And the Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
He will delight in obeying the Lord.
He will not judge by appearance nor make a decision based on hearsay.
He will give justice to the poor and make fair decisions for the exploited.
The earth will shake at the force of his word, and one breath from his mouth will destroy the wicked.
He will wear righteousness like a belt and truth like an undergarment. Isaiah 11:1-5 NLT
The power of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, is the holiness of God Almighty, Creator and Sustainer of the world and all life. He is Lord of Lords and King of Kings. He loves people and cares for the poor, and it is in His Mighty Name that we are sent forth. We go forward in simplicity, wisdom, and peace, but we carry with us the most radical, life-altering message the world has ever known—the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Isaiah goes on to talk about what the world will look like when the Goodness of Jesus is known by everyone. He starts at the same place Jesus does in our passage from Matthew 10, with sheep and wolves. Only, in God’s redeemed and restored economy, there is no more ill-will or peril. Isaiah writes:
In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together;
the leopard will lie down with the baby goat.
The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion,
and a little child will lead them all.
The cow will graze near the bear.
The cub and the calf will lie down together.
The lion will eat hay like a cow.
The baby will play safely near the hole of a cobra.
Yes, a little child will put its hand in a nest of deadly snakes without harm.
Nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,
for as the waters fill the sea,
so the earth will be filled with people who know the Lord. Isaiah 11:6-9 NLT
Amen! Come Lord Jesus! For now, dear one, let us obey the command of Christ, and, through wisdom, shrewdness, harmlessness, and peace, stand like beacons in the night, proclaiming, with grace and mercy, the Good News of Jesus Christ, until He comes again.