January 21, 2024

Being a Snake-like Christian (Matthew 10:16)

Preacher: Bryce Morgan Series: Our Bible Reading Plan (2023-2024) Topic: One Truth: Walk in Truth Scripture: Matthew 10:16

message video button copy

Children's Class (click here)

I. A Positive Label?

Over the years I've heard a number of confessed Christians described by others as “snakes”. Maybe you have as well. To be sure, this isn't a positive label. Just after the dictionary definition of “a long limbless reptile” you will find a second definition: “a treacherous or deceitful person”. Along these lines, as we saw last time, John the Baptist himself described the self-righteous, often-condemning Jewish religious leaders as “a brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7). In 12:34 and 23:33 Jesus will repeat this indictment: “You serpents, you brood of vipers...”

More examples of snakes being presented in a negative light could be provided from Scripture itself, but all this is precisely why Matthew 10:16 is so stunning. Turn to Matthew chapter 10 from Our Bible Reading Plan last week and let's look at that verse together.

II. The Passage: “So Be Wise as Serpents” (10:16)

As the opening verses of this chapter make clear, Jesus has called and appointed twelve men as “apostles” (which simply means 'those sent out as official representatives; as authorized delegates'). Not only have these men been given authority to preach and perform miracles, but they've also been sent and given instructions for a short-term mission to their fellow Jews throughout (v. 23) “all the towns of Israel”. But notice how in verse 16 we shift to a darker, more sobering perspective. Jesus tells them...

Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

What's fascinating about this verse is that Jesus uses four animals to describe both the disciples' recognition of and response to difficult, dangerous times. As you can see in our verse, those animals are 1) sheep, 2) wolves, 3) serpents, and 4) doves. So let's simply go through each of those in order to really hear and then apply the teaching of our King. So think about...

1. Sheep. Now, people being described as sheep is probably the most familiar animal simile in the Bible (“...all we like sheep have gone astray” (Isaiah 53:6), “we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture” (Psalm 100:3)). In fact, this imagery is used three times right here in the immediate context. Matthew 9:36 describes how Jesus saw that the people were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”. This is why he goes on to refer to them as “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” in verse 6 of chapter 10. But here in verse 16, it is these newly-appointed apostles who will be like sheep; specifically like sheep in all their weakness and susceptibility. This is because they will go “out as sheep in the midst of...”

2. Wolves. Back in 7:15, Jesus issued this warning to his followers, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” Is that who Jesus is warning them about here? Not exactly. Those labeled “wolves” here in chp. 10 are subsequently described in verses 17–25. Look at verse 17, “Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, [18] and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.” But even a person's “brother” and/or “father” and/or “children” can, according to v. 21, act like a wolf. How?

By calling for disciples to be (v. 21) “put to death” as those “hated”. As verse 23 reveals, not “if” but, “When they persecute you...”. For as Jesus explains in verse 25, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.”

Of course, we know from the rest of the New Testament (NT) that such persecution was not limited to the short-term mission described in Matthew 10. The book of Acts describes in many places how these apostles suffered. Even Paul, one who later become an apostle of Jesus, even he warned the churches about wolves in their midst in Acts 20:29. That reality simply confirms the importance of the command Jesus gives in verse 16 when he points us to...

3. Serpents. Though snakes were often used in the ancient world to represent what we might call 'poisonous' people, they were also thought of as crafty, clever, or shrewd. That's the point Jesus is making here. Though snakes are not clever like a person might be clever or calculating, they are hard to pin down or catch, they often operate 'under the radar', and even though they are small, they know how to use their God-given defenses in a disproportionate way. In the same way, Jesus wants his disciples to be shrewd in a dangerous, sin-serving world like this one. This is why in Luke 16, through the parable he tells there, Jesus, in essence, “commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” (16:8) But that shouldn't be so argues Jesus by implication. His 'sheep' should be snake-like in this very way.

You see, when we think about words like “crafty” or “calculating” or “shrewd”, these terms are usually associated with shady people and morally questionable choices, right? But the concept Jesus is describing is far more neutral than that. He's talking about a kind of practical wisdom, a kind of “street smarts”, that should ultimately be judged by one's motives, one's means, and one's ends. It's the very thing his disciples need in a world where they are like “sheep in the midst of wolves”. On one hand, I believe Jesus is simply telling his disciples not to be naive, not to be gullible, not to be simple-minded. On the other hand, I believe he's also encouraging them in this verse to make calculated decisions in light of the knowledge and wisdom they've received.

What might this look like in real life? Examples of this are right here in the context: (v. 17) they should be shrewd (not naive) in their dealings with “men”, “governors”, “kings”, even their own family members. When persecuted (v. 23), they should be wise about 'living to fight another day' by “flee[ing] to the next” town. Verse 26: instead of fearing their persecutors, they should shrewdly discern the real and eternal danger of (v. 28) choosing to serve men rather than God. As those who sought (v. 25) “to be like [their] teacher”, these men could also look to Jesus for an example of this kind of snake-like shrewdness. A good example of this is Matthew 22:17–21,

Tell us [said the Pharisees], then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” [18] But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? [19] Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. [20] And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” [21] They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Not only did Jesus shrewdly discern their motives, but he also shrewdly avoided their trap. He would not get entangled in their political priorities or enable their malicious agenda. Like a snake, he cleverly slipped out of their snare, while at the same time, providing them with an important principle about honoring God's different spheres of authority. The apostles learned from His example. In how they planned, in what they valued, in the words they used, in the face of opposition, with a clear understanding of human nature (including their own), and with an eye to eternity, these men were called to be as “shrewd” as serpents, to the glory of God.

But knowing human nature, Jesus didn't stop there. He went on in 10:16 to also talk about...

4. Doves. Jesus knew full well that a call to be “shrewd” or “clever” or “wise” like a serpent would need to balanced out; that it would need a built-in corrective. Why? Because sometimes, in our desire to be clever to the glory of God, sin tempts us to instead be pridefully crafty for our own glory. When we see or feel the teeth of those “wolves”, as sheep, we can be tempted to compromise in the name of snake-like cleverness. We can bare our fangs. So we adopt worldly methods to accomplish godly ends. Or we link arms with and justify unrighteous people in the name of a righteous cause. Or we water down the truth in the name of relevance and 'cultural cleverness'. This is precisely why Jesus makes the two parts of his instruction inseparable: “...so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” As these new apostles went out, they needed to guard themselves against compromise by tempering snake-like shrewdness with an absolute commitment to dove-like innocence. As one of these men, Peter, would later write, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2:12)

III. Spiritual 'Street Smarts'

Brothers and sisters, in a spiritually dangerous world like this one, which of us doesn't need to hear our Master's instruction in Matthew 10:16? Too often, I know I am willfully naive when it comes to my own weaknesses, to the emptiness of worldly solutions, to the subtle seduction of daily compromise, and to all the snares of our spiritual Enemy. Unlike the dishonest manager of Jesus' parable in Luke 16:1-9, too often I am not shrewd with everything with which I have been entrusted by my Master; and by shrewd, I mean that too often I use what I've been given to secure today's pleasures, not in light of my eternal welfare. And I become easy prey for “wolves”.

Think about it. In a dangerous neighborhood, someone who has 'street smarts' understands who can and who cannot be trusted. They know the agendas. They're acquainted with the schemes. They're familiar with the lies. They speak the language. They know how to get things done in a way that understands 'the game' without playing 'the game'. Or as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:31, “[let] those who deal with the world [deal] as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”

Brothers and sisters, we desperately need to have spiritual 'street smarts'. Spiritually, do you know who you can and cannot trust out there? Are you well versed in their agendas, and schemes, and lies? For example, what does it look like to be spiritually, biblically shrewd when it comes to material possessions, when it comes to cultural priorities and pressures, when it comes to social media, when it comes to political engagement, when it comes to technological innovation, when it comes to consumeristic conformity? Do you know how to be spiritually shrewd with your phone? With what you watch or read or listen to? In your relationships? Remember, even those closest to you can, according to v. 21, act like a wolf.

But let's be careful. We know our shrewdness is Spirit-given (as 10:20 seems to affirm). We need to cultivate this kind of wisdom, but never take pride in our cleverness. Our confidence must remain in the shrewdness of the cross; that Jesus, knowing his Enemy's tactics, turned his suffering and murder into very things that defeated and will one day destroy the devil. Shrewdly, He used death to defeat death. Two interconnected truths make sense of this shrewdness: 1) our eternal security in the gospel, and 2) our commitment to mission (that's the context here). Who does Jesus call to serpent-like shrewdness? Those hiding out in order to remain unstained from the world? Or those going out on mission in the midst of wolves? Brother and sisters, may God be greatly glorified as we follow our Master's example in all of these ways. Amen? Amen!