I am doing my daily reading in Matthew and I came across the following verse where Jesus tells His disciples to "Be shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves."
I get the innocent as doves part. That sounds like what Jesus would say. The part that is intriguing is the shrewd as snakes. Those are two words - shrewd and snakes - are not normally words you associate with Jesus.
In the Bible, the serpent is always portrayed in a negative light. It was the serpent who approached Eve in the garden to tempt her. In fact the word used here by Jesus is the same word to describe the devil in Genesis 3:1 – shrewd – the serpent was shrewd.
What does Jesus have in mind by telling His disciples that they are to be wise or shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves?
What Jesus is talking about is strategy. The disciples are to be wise, shrewd, insightful, and cunning, and the disciples are to be innocent, guiltless, and above suspicion.
We like things to be either/or, black and white. But the Bible is often times both/and.
• God is love or God is just – God is perfect love and perfectly just.
• God is merciful or God is jealous – God is perfectly merciful and perfectly jealous.
• God is gracious or God is holy and righteous – God is gracious and righteous and holy.
We often find it easy to be either shrewd or innocent, but seldom both. But what is required for disciples is to be both shrewd and innocent.
• Without innocence, shrewdness becomes manipulative and controlling.
• Without shrewdness, innocence becomes naivety, inexperienced, and unrealistic.
The disciples are to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves when it comes to the strategy of growing new Christians and growing Christians into faithful disciples.
Just a few verses before our passage, Jesus sent the disciples out in their first missionary journey with these words. “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6).
Did you notice who Jesus is talking about? Every one of us! Jesus says, “Don’t go there. Don’t go to James. Don’t go to Texas. Don't go to the Gentiles. Only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
That ain’t right! And if you’re thinking that, you’re absolutely right.
It is absolutely essential that we do not take God’s word out of context. If Matthew 10 was the only passage we ever read, then none of us would be saved. But in the context of the entire narrative of Matthew, this not only makes good sense, but this is wise and smart. This is strategic.
You see, up to this point, the disciples had only been watching and seeing Jesus at work. They’ve been seeing Jesus teach, Jesus preach, Jesus heal, Jesus casting out the demons. And this is the first time that they are being sent out. And with those who have never shared the good news before, you don’t send them out to the four corners of the earth.
For the first missionary journey, you send them out to people and cultures they are familiar with. With time, the disciples would mature and grow. And as they grow in their walk with Jesus, then they are sent out to all the world.
And that is exactly what we find at the end of Matthew in 28:19. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
We are to be strategic about how we share the good news. We are to use all the tools available to us to effectively share the message of the Kingdom. In other words, do everything you can to make the message of the Kingdom relevant and practical as possible.