Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 16. Four Creatures
Mt 10:16 I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.
Four analogies packed into one short verse! The thing about Jesus’ teaching, whether by parable or simple analogy, was that he used illustrations that his listeners would understand; here with four well-known creatures. But before we focus on each creature, we need to check out the context which is particularly important here and will add depth of meaning to the above verse.
The chapter starts out, “He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” (10:1) Yes, Jesus is sending out his ‘disciples’ and making them ‘apostles’. He is turning learners into ‘sent and anointed ones’. But there is something more here: he is pushing them out of their comfort zone. So far they had been mostly observers, but now it was their turn to do the stuff. They were being sent out to convey the love of God in very practical power ministry – driving out demons and healing the sick. This is very real ‘faith stuff’ because it utterly relies upon God. No God, no deliverance. No God, no healing. Perhaps the corollary in respect of many modern churches bears thinking about?
So this is the context: they are being sent out to do what Jesus does and in this they will be confronting the enemy and the ‘world’ with the truths and power of the kingdom. But there is a problem: not everyone will gladly welcome them. There were so many schisms in the Jewish society of that day, so many political or religious groupings, that almost certainly they would encounter opposition and hostility from some of those groups, apart from general people who simply might not want to know.
Thus, Jesus first sums up the situation they face: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.” The truth is that when the early church went out they faced a number of oppositions, and although initially some of these may have been minor in this first foray into the world, they would become greater and greater as the Gospel spread around the world, as is testified in Acts and in secular history. Jesus’ teaching as recorded by Matthew in following verses, clearly shows that he is talking about the big picture of history and not just about the coming few days.
First, there was misunderstanding. For example, with communion they were accused of cannibalism. Second, there were accusations of creating family divisions – Jesus himself warned about this reality. Third, there was defensive opposition from rulers – the Caesars often demanded divinity and when Christians failed to give them that, they persecuted them. Fourth, the ethical demands of Christianity would make unscrupulous employers or business men hostile to the demands of Christianity. Fifth, there would be other specific religious groups who would be hostile to the competitive challenges coming from Christianity. Sixth, and far more generally, Satan would no doubt stir up rejection, hostility and resentment against the Christians who brought the demands of Christianity to challenge ‘self’ in the individual.
Such people in opposition, who bring hostility that ranges from outright persecution to simple rejection, are the ‘wolves’ Jesus refers to here. Wolves, we have commented before, are ravenous creatures who desire to bring down other creatures and destroy them. Modern crusading atheists are, I believe, just like this. They want to destroy Christian faith and undermine Christian beliefs and relationships. Now all this sounds pretty negative, especially when Jesus calls his disciples – who he is sending out to confront wolves – a bunch of sheep. Again, we have noted previously that sheep are pretty inoffensive and harmless, i.e. they rarely attack and are often prey to predators. Humanly speaking, they haven’t got a chance! However, two thousand years later, those ‘sheep’ can be found in every continent of the world and even in countries that are blatantly hostile to the Gospel.
So how do these sheep cope against this sort of opposition? First because we have been given authority (and power) from on high (10:1) and the Lord is with us. Moreover, when difficult circumstances arise, He will be there and His Holy Spirit will enable us (see 10:19,20) i.e. the Lord’s presence and provision will always be there for us.
But there is also a human responsibility involved: “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Satan, coming in the form of a snake in the Garden of Eden was known for his cunning. But Jesus is specific here and says be ‘shrewd’. Shrewd means be insightful, astute, wise, smart, i.e. be alert to your surroundings, understand what is going on and operate with the wisdom God gives you as you seek Him for it (Jas 1:5). When confronted by impregnable fortresses of unrighteousness in the middle of our societies (like Jericho – see Josh 6), seek the Lord for His strategy to bring it down. Read the accounts of David and his dealings with enemies and learn his key strategy – to inquire of the Lord (e.g. 2 Sam 5:22-25). Get revelation!
The reference to being “innocent as doves” conveys the picture of simple humility and absence of guile. Guile is human cleverness as distinct from the godly wisdom we have been considering. Human wisdom gets hostile and defensive but that is unrighteous and that has no place in our dealings with the world. We often quote it but Peter’s advice is applicable here: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Pet 3:15) Note first the word ‘prepared’. This suggests we would be wise to understand the basics of our faith and also be able to give a simple testimony of our experience of the Lord. But note also the way we are to reply to people who question us: “with gentleness and respect”. That’s the ‘dove’ part! Not hostile. Not belligerent. Not arrogant. Gently and respectfully. When we operate like this with the grace of God, He will always back us up and be there for us.
If you think the picture of sheep being confronted by wolves is not good news, read again the story of David versus Goliath (1 Sam 17). This giant scared the life out of Saul and all his army, but a young man arrived on the scene who knew his God and knew what the Lord had done for him and knew that this giant was abusing God and was therefore in major trouble – and he just made himself available to God for Him to use him to bring down this scary character. Key things to remember: 1. God is with you. 2. You are His servant. 3. His intent is to deal with the enemy. 4. He will give you all you need to deal with this enemy. 5. Don’t do it in your own strength or wisdom but with His grace, His revelation and His power. Done!