Wise as Serpents, Harmless as Doves

Written By
William O. Einwechter

Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves (Matt. 10:16).

The current climate for the participation of faithful Christians in politics is anything but congenial. It seems as though all overt attempts to express or implement biblical standards in the civil sphere, whether by citizens or by elected officials, are met with scorn, hostility, and outlandish charges of fomenting intolerance and hate. This has not always been the case here in America where a strong Christian heritage and influence made Christianity and the Bible central, respected aspects of the political sphere. But as the nation has slid increasingly into the abyss of secularism and humanism, those who confess Christ and seek to promote Christian principles of civil government are considered a public nuisance, fit only for ridicule and extirpation.

Where in the Bible can Christians find guidance for effective political participation in such an atmosphere as this? One place is found in Jesus’ counsel to his disciples in Matthew 10:16.

The backdrop of Matthew 10:16 is the choosing and sending forth of Jesus’ twelve disciples into the towns and villages of Israel to preach the gospel of the kingdom. In commissioning his disciples, Jesus both warns and counsels them in regard to the persecutions that they will face then and in the future.

Interpretation of Matthew 10:16

Sheep in the Midst of Wolves

As he sends his disciples out, Jesus tells them that they will be “as sheep in the midst of wolves.” The wolf is a terrible beast of prey, known for its appetite, cunning, and fierceness. Sheep, on the other hand, are weak, witless, and docile; surely no match for the strength and craftiness of the wolf. In the presence of wolves, sheep are in great peril because they have, in themselves, no effective means of defense.

The point of the analogy is the danger that the disciples will be in and their relative defenselessness against their powerful and vicious foes. Jesus is not saying that his disciples are individually stupid, weak, or cowardly. Jesus is stating that in the mission of preaching the gospel of the kingdom, they will be opposed by the hostile powers that be in Israel and, at a later time, in the Roman Empire, and that they will not have the means for adequate defense against these powers.

Wise as Serpents

In view of these things, the disciples of Christ must act in a particular manner. It would be suicidal for Jesus’ followers to conduct themselves during their mission without regard to the strong and vicious enemies who seek to devour them. Therefore, Jesus counsels them to be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” The circumstance of confessing Christ and his Word in a hostile setting requires wisdom and integrity.

The Greek word that is here translated “wise” refers to practical wisdom, prudence, cleverness, and discernment. One who is “wise,” in the sense of this term, is a person who shows presence of mind and has the understanding and sound judgment necessary to act prudently (cf. the usage of this particular Greek word in Matt. 7:24; 24:45; 25:2, 4, 8, 9; Lk. 16:8; 1 Cor. 10:15).

The “serpent” was typical of wisdom and cunning in the ancient world. The wisdom of the serpent is that of keen perception and cleverness both in avoiding its  enemies and catching its prey.

Therefore, to be “wise as serpents” refers to the ability of the disciples to avoid unnecessary contact or conflict with the “wolves,” and if such conflict or contact occurs, to know how to handle the situation in a way that minimizes the ability of the “wolves” to succeed in an attack. Jesus’ disciples should not invite or provoke attacks from their enemies, but rather behave in such a fashion that frustrates the designs of the wicked against them.

As usual, Jesus himself sets the example. Throughout his ministry Jesus was wise as a serpent in regard to the “wolves” that were bent on his destruction. He did not seek to provoke conflicts with them. If opposition to his ministry became too intense, he would leave the area for a time. He knew how to answer their attacks and at the same time expose their folly. A classic example of how Christ dealt with the cunning, crafty leaders of the Jews is found in Matthew 21:23-22:46. Furthermore, Jesus understood that the “wolves” that sought his downfall were the religious leaders and not the common people (Mk. 12:37). By ministering to the needs of the people, he won their trust, and on various occasions, the support of the people protected Jesus from the leaders who were intent on destroying him (cf. Mk. 12:12; Lk. 19:47-48).

Harmless as Doves

But it is not enough to be “wise as serpents.” The mission of serving Christ in the world also requires disciples to be “harmless as doves.” The Greek word translated “harmless” means, literally, “unmixed,” and was used to refer to such things as pure gold or unmixed wine. In the New Testament, it is employed figuratively of moral purity and integrity (Rom. 16:19; Phil. 2:15).

In the ancient Near East, the dove was symbolic of purity, faithfulness, and guilelessness. The dove was, also, the only bird that could be offered as a sacrifice in the Old Testament.

To be “harmless as doves” expresses the need of Jesus’ disciples to be above reproach in both conduct and speech. They must be clever and shrewd in dealing with their cunning wolf-like adversaries, but they must never stoop to the ethics of their enemies. They must be free from guile and evil. Sin in the life and speech of the disciple gives his foes an easy opening to discredit and neutralize his witness.

Jesus was pure as a dove. He could challenge his enemies, “Which of you convinceth me of sin?” (Jn. 8:46), and they were speechless. Those who hated him could never find anything in his life to discredit him. So, the only area left to attack was his teaching, or to make absurd charges that he broke the law by doing good, or that he performed miracles by the power of Satan. By making his enemies focus on his teaching, Jesus made his doctrine the focus of debate; this is exactly what he wanted.

Application of Matthew 10:16

Jesus’ counsel in Matthew 10:16 instructs his followers on how to conduct themselves when faced with hostility towards their message. As such, the general principles taught in this text can be applied in any time, place, or sphere of life where Christians are persecuted for seeking to teach or live according to the Word of Christ. This would include the political sphere, and the current anti-Christian sentiment displayed therein. The following gives some suggestions on how Matthew 10:16 could be applied by Christians active in politics today.

1. The “wolves” with which Christians must contend in the political sphere are not the people but a secular elite.

This should be kept firmly in mind, lest potential allies are mistaken for enemies. Gundry, commenting on Matthew 10:16, states: “The figure of sheep, which has recently represented the lost and shep-herdless people of Israel (9:36; 10:6), now represents Jesus’ missionaries, who are threatened by the wolf-like leaders of the people. Thus a certain solidarity exists between the persecuted missionaries and the harried people; both suffer from the same source.”[1] How true this is today as well! The same secular elite that acts in a wolf-like fashion against the followers of Christ are also troubling the people by their ungodly, foolish policies.

The secular elite, as represented in the media, academia, public policy and political action groups, and many public officials, are the enemies — the wolves — opposing Christian political principles. The common people have, in many ways, been duped by these adversaries of Christ. But if Christians can demonstrate a better way, one of liberty and justice, they might just find widespread support from the people.

2. Christians in politics should avoid inviting or provoking unnecessary conflict with their enemies.

The meaning of “wise as serpents,” as explained above, needs to be directly applied to the political sphere. Conflict of one degree or another will be inevitable as Christians seek to apply the biblical principles of civil government to their society. But the point is that they should act discreetly, and sometimes work quietly, to keep from triggering unnecessary hostility and conflict. However, the fear of conflict must not be allowed to paralyze the Christian into inactivity and compromise. It is a travesty when a professed disciple of Jesus Christ uses Matthew 10:16 as a cloak for his own cowardice, or to hide his disobedience to Christ’s command to bring all areas of life under the authority of the Word of God.

3. Christians in politics should be free from guile and above reproach.

The sense of “harmless as doves,” as discussed earlier, needs to be carefully related to the political sphere. Christian politicians and activists must be known as men of impeccable integrity. They must be separate from all the guile, evil deception, corruption, meanness, and scandal that so marks contemporary politics.

4. If Christians are to be effective in politics, they must have practical wisdom as to how politics works.

They should know the “ins and outs” and “nuts and bolts” of all aspects of the political process—from how to run a campaign, to the process of enacting proposed legislation into law. Christians should know how political parties operate, how to lobby legislators, the conventions of political protocol, etc. If Christians do not have fundamental knowledge on how things operate in politics, they cannot hope to be effective, and the wolves will devour them.

5. If Christians are to be effective in politics, they must have the practical knowledge to deal with the issues and problems of politics.

People are looking for solutions to the problems that plague their communities, cities, and states. Problems of education, taxation, crime, welfare, the economy, etc. Christians need to be willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work serving the needs of the people in the socio-political sphere. But they need more than a willingness to work, they need knowledge, practical knowledge, and skill to understand and solve real-life problems to enhance the life and liberty of the people. Each political office requires a solid understanding of the duties of the office and the particular issues, and problems that need to be addressed.

As Christians serve their fellow citizens by actually making their lives better, the people will care less and less about how the “wolves” are painting Christians as public enemies and nuisances, but rather will be thankful to have Christian men governing them. A good biblical example of this is the case of Joseph. Egypt was faced with a grave national crisis. The need of the hour was for a wise and resourceful man who could provide the solutions to the problem and see the solutions carried out. The man that was chosen was Joseph because he had a practical plan to meet the crisis. So Pharaoh appointed him to be governor over all the land, even though he was a Hebrew and a slave! Why was he chosen? Because as Pharaoh said, “there is none so discreet and wise as thou art” (Gen. 41:39).

6. If Christians are to be effective in politics, they need practical wisdom on how to conduct themselves in public.

Public office puts many strains on a man. He is constantly in situations where he must deal with others and respond to unexpected questions, circumstances, and attacks. If he does not know how to handle himself, he will discredit himself quickly, and the “wolves” will make fair game of him. Prudence, grace, and discernment in interacting with others and in managing stressful situations are essentials for the job.

A prime source for this kind of wisdom is the book of Proverbs. Proverbs is a gold mine of counsel on how to conduct oneself in public office and how to deal with people in any kind of situation. Anyone who aspires to political office ought to master the contents of Proverbs, paying particular attention to those texts that would specifically apply to the conduct of public office.

In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), Proverbs employs in numerous texts the same word for “wise” that is used in Matthew 10:16.  For example, the wise are those who know when to hold their peace (Prov. 11:12; 17:28); the wise seek out knowledge (Prov. 14:16, 18; 18:15); the wise hear reproof (Prov. 17:10; 19:25); the wise know how to turn away wrath with their answers (Prov. 15:1); the wise know how to draw counsel out of others (Prov. 20:5)

7. If Christians are to be wise and effective in politics, they need a comprehensive knowledge of God’s law.

God’s law will equip the Christian for the good work of civil governance. The law of God will make him wiser than his wolf-like enemies (Ps. 119:98).

1. ^ Robert H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982), p. 191.

This article was originally published in The Christian Statesman, vol. 144, no. 3, May - June 2001.