One of the remarkable features of Jesus’ teaching is the way in which He drew simple analogies and metaphors from the world around Him in order to instruct His disciples about the most profound truths of the Kingdom of God. Jesus spent much time reading the book of nature. He could point to a simple flower in order to explain to His disciples the mystery of God’s providential care and provision for them (Luke 12:27). Some of Christ’s most impactful illustrations came from the agrarian culture in which He lives and travelled. He expended prolonged periods of mental energy meditating on the birds of the air and the livestock that flooded the Palestinian landscape. At the inauguration of His missionary enterprise, Jesus gather the twelve to Himself and said to them,
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matt. 10:16–20).
In a day when Christians have all but lost the culture war in American–and the prospect of the persecution of true believers is imminent–it is incumbent on us to listen carefully to what the Savior told His disciples upon their first missionary journey. In the ancient wartime manual, The Art of War, Sun Tzu explained, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” In Matthew 10:16–20, Jesus is essentially giving His disciples His manual of spiritual warfare for the mission of God.
The danger of the task that lay before the disciples required a clear illustration from the Savior regarding the way in which they should prepare themselves for the opposition they would encounter. Jesus used four metaphors to prepare their minds for opposition. He said, “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” One of the metaphors relates to the malicious men and women of the unbelieving world. The other three regard some aspect of the lives and ministries of the disciples.
In his commentary on Matthew, John Calvin explained the meaning behind each of Christ’s animal metaphors. Calvin first explained what Jesus meant when He likened His disciples to sheep:
“He does not refer to the sweetness and mildness of their manners, or to the gentleness of their mind, but only means, that they will have no greater strength or fitness for repelling the violence of enemies, than sheep have against the rage of wolves. Christ requires, no doubt, from his disciples that they shall resemble sheep in their dispositions, by their patience in contending against the malice of wicked men, and by the meekness with which they endure injuries: but the simple meaning of this passage is, that many powerful and cruel enemies are arrayed against the apostles, while they, on their part, are furnished with no means of defense.” 1
Regarding Jesus’ allusion to wolves, Calvin wrote,
“The Lord, by calling the enemies of the gospel wolves, expressed their power rather than their desire to do injury; yet, as no man is known to be a wolf but by his rage against the gospel, Christ has joined these two things together, the fierce cruelty which impels them to shed blood, and the power with which they are armed.”2
After explaining the opposition that the disciples should anticipate when going out into the world with the gospel under the figure of sheep and wolves, Jesus employed two further animal metaphors in order to instruct His disciples about their strategy and demeanor when engaged in the mission of God. He said, “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Calvin explained what our Lord was intimating when he wrote,
“Serpents, being aware that they are hated, carefully avoid and shrink from every thing that is hostile to them. In this manner he enjoins believers to take care of their life, so as not to rush heedlessly into danger, or lay themselves open to any kind of injury. Doves, on the other hand, though naturally timid, and liable to innumerable attacks, fly in their simplicity, imagine themselves safe till they are struck, and in most cases place themselves within the reach of the fowler’s snares. To such simplicity Christ exhorts his disciples, that no excess of terror may hinder them from pursuing their course. There are some who carry their ingenious reasonings still farther as to the nature of the serpent and of the dove, but this is the utmost extent of the resemblance.”3
No one knows how intense the opposition to biblical Christianity will get in our country in the days, weeks, months, or years to come. Nevertheless, we should have great confidence that Christ sends His people out in the midst of persecuting wolves to bring the everlasting gospel to bear on a lost and perishing world. Christ does not call us to retreat, to compromise in the name of caution, or to devise other methods and strategies that will counter the preaching of the gospel. He does not call us to worldly sophistication or political maneuvering. Rather, He calls us to learn about our enemies and about ourselves–and to spread the aroma of Christ through the world by the ministry of the word for the salvation of the elect. To this end, He bids us understand that we are like sheep in the midst of wolves, so that we will seek to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.
1 John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 450.
2. Ibid., p. 451.
3. Ibid., p. 452