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Would you please explain Christ’s saying in Matthew 10:16?

The passage in question reads as follows in the New King James Bible: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”

Let us review Christ’s different statements one at a time.

First, He speaks of His disciples as sheep in the midst of wolves.

Barnes Notes on the Bible states: “I send you, inoffensive and harmless, into a cold, unfriendly, and cruel world.” The Benson Commentary adds: “I now send you forth weak and defenceless among a wicked, cruel, and persecuting people.” Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary elaborates: “Our Lord warned his disciples to prepare for persecution. They were to avoid all things which gave advantage to their enemies, all meddling with worldly or political concerns, all appearance of evil or selfishness, and all underhand measures.”

In Acts 20:29 and in Luke 10:3, wolves are used as symbols of persecutors and predators. Christ sends us into the world, in the midst of wolves, to overcome them. He wants us to withstand them, and with His help, we will.

In our Q&A, we stated the following about the symbolism of wolves, as referring to world-ruling empires:

“Habakkuk 1:6-8… describes the final rise of the modern Chaldeans—a bitter, hasty, terrible and dreadful nation. In verse 8, God says that they are ‘more fierce than evening wolves’… modern Israel and Judah are described as devouring wolves (compare Zephaniah 3:3 and Ezekiel 22:27, referring to Jerusalem’s judges as wolves, leaving not a bone till morning, and also to Israel’s princes as wolves, tearing the prey, shedding blood, and destroying people)…

“Savage wolves are also used as metaphors for people who are opposed to God and His Church. Christ speaks about false prophets, coming to God’s people, as ‘ravenous wolves’ (Matthew 7:15), and Paul warns the church at Ephesus that after his departure, savage wolves would come in among them, not sparing the flock (Acts 20:29). Christ said that those wolves would catch the unprotected and forsaken sheep and scatter them (John 10:12), because they trusted in uncaring hirelings and not in God’s true shepherds. Christ told His disciples that He would send them as sheep in the midst of wolves (Matthew 10:16). Especially in the end time, when the beast (the final revival of the Roman Empire as well as the final leader) will be manifested on earth, it will behave as a ravenous savage wolf against God’s people. While the world will admire, adore and even worship the beast, it will blaspheme God and persecute the saints (Revelation 13:6-8).”

In our Q&A, we added the following warning against wolves coming to the church:

“On the website whatchristianswanttoknow, we read an excellent description headed ‘The sneaky wolf. They hide until the time is right.’ Continuing: ‘Wolves are sneaky. They watch the prey and plan the attack. The sneaky wolf [that is, a] false prophet is in the church watching and waiting. He is the one who calls secret meetings. He gains the trust of folks and then rises up to attack, taking innocent victims with him. The Bible is clear about how God will deal with these sneaky wolves.”

On the other hand, in Matthew 10:16 (and also in Luke 10:3), Christ is primarily speaking about His disciples being sent, as sheep or lambs, to or among wolves, not the other way around. How then can sheep or lambs be surviving and successful in such a hostile environment of ravenous wolves?

Christ gives the answer in His statements about serpents and doves. It may be helpful to look at some alternate translations of Matthew 10:16.

The New American Standard Bible says: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be as wary as serpents, and as innocent as doves.”

The Good News Translation reads: “Listen! I am sending you out just like sheep to a pack of wolves. You must be as cautious as snakes and as gentle as doves.”

Smith’s Literal Translation reads: “Behold I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves; be ye therefore discerning as serpents, and pure as doves.”

The Mace New Testament says: “By your mission you will be exposed like sheep in the midst of wolves: be then as circumspect as serpents, and as inoffensive as doves.”

Regarding doves in particular, Moffat speaks of being “guileless as doves.”

The Luther Bibles, as well as Schlachter, Menge and Zürcher translate consistently, “be without falsity as doves” (“ohne falsch wie die Tauben”), and Die Gute Nachricht and Hoffnung fuer alle say, “without deceit” (“ohne Hinterlist”).

We might readily accept the concept of the pure, gentle, guileless and inoffensive innocence of a harmless dove without falsity, which we must incorporate, but we may have an initial problem with viewing serpents as “wise” which we have to imitate. Of course, Christ did not refer to Satan, the serpent (Revelation 12:9; 2 Corinthians 11:3), demons which we will tread upon (Luke 10:19) or the Pharisees whom He calls “serpents” (Matthew 23:33). Rather, Christ had something different in mind.

Gotquestions states the following:

“Jesus was using similes (figures of speech that compare two unlike things) to instruct His disciples in how to behave in their ministry. Just before He tells them to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, He warns them that they were being sent out ‘like sheep among wolves.’

“The world, then as now, was hostile to believers—not incidentally hostile, but purposefully hostile. Wolves are intentional about the harm they inflict upon sheep… Jesus taught His followers that, to be Christlike in a godless world, they must combine the wisdom of the serpent with the harmlessness of the dove… As we take the gospel to a hostile world, we must be wise (avoiding the snares set for us), and we must be innocent (serving the Lord blamelessly)… Wisdom does not equal dishonesty, and innocence does not equal gullibility…

“Jesus showed that He was as wise as a serpent in the way He taught. He knew enough to discern the differences in His audiences (a critical skill)… He refused to be caught in the many traps that His enemies laid for Him… Jesus showed that He was as harmless as a dove in every circumstance. He lived a pure and holy life… He acted in compassion… and He challenged anyone to find fault in Him… Three times, Pilate judged Jesus to be an innocent man…”

Calvarynexus.org adds:

“Jesus sends His disciples out as sheep in the midst of wolves [Matt. 10:16]. They were being sent as His ambassadors to a world that opposed His reign. His disciples are like seemingly vulnerable sheep among seemingly hostile wolves. But the key to being effective is not to be sheepish… they needed to be both wise as serpents and harmless as doves.

 “To be wise as a serpent relates to being prudent, careful, and intelligent. It has the connotation of [being] able to deal with the likely challenges or dangers of life in a potentially threatening place. To be harmless as doves has an association of gentleness and peace; but the Greek term also relates to purity, innocence, and simplicity.”

The word for  “wise“ (phronimos) means, according to Strong’s #5429, “thoughtful, i.e. sagacious or discreet (implying a cautious character).” Young defines it as: “mindful, prudent, provident.”  It is used, for example, in an approving sense in  Matthew 7:24; 24:45; 25:2; describing the wise man building his house on the rock; the faithful and wise servant; and the five wise virgins.

The Pulpit Commentary describes the “wise serpents” in this way: “Wise. Prudent… The prudence of the serpent is specially apparent in the quickness of its perception of danger and the rapidity with which it escapes from it.”

Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges adds: “wise=prudent, full of precaution.”

Vincent’s Word Studies states: “Denoting prudence with regard to their own safety.”

Barnes Notes on the Bible writes: “Probably the thing in which Christ directed his followers to imitate the serpent was in its caution in avoiding danger. No animal equals them in the rapidity and skill which they evince in escaping danger. So said Christ to his disciples, You need caution and wisdom in the midst of a world that will seek your lives.”

Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible commentary states: “… the wisdom of the serpent would save them from unnecessary exposure to danger.”

Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible writes: “The serpent… is… to be imitated by the followers of Christ, as to make use of all proper methods to preserve themselves from the insults and rage of men, and not expose themselves to unnecessary dangers: and, as much as in them lies, they should be careful to give no just occasion of offence, or irritate, and provoke them to use them ill, and to avoid all snares and traps that are laid for them.”

But Christ also says that we must be harmless as doves.

The word for “harmless”, (akeraios) means, according to Strong’s #185, “unmixed, i.e. fig. innocent, — harmless, simple (Phil. 2:15).” Others state that the word could also mean “sincere.” A related word (akakos) can be found in Hebrews 7:26.

The Pulpit Commentary describes the harmless doves as “literally ‘unmixed, unadulterated’ and emphasizes the idea of simplicity of character.”

Vincent’s Word Studies points out: “Lit. unmixed… Used of wine without water… Hence guiltless. So Luther, without falsity (Compare Romans 16:19, Philippians 2:15).”

“Barnes Notes on the Bible states: “He directs them, also, to be harmless, not to provoke danger, not to do injury, and thus make their fellow-men justly enraged against them. Doves are, and always have been, a striking emblem of innocence.”

Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible writes: “… maintain the innocence and harmlessness of the dove, being free from all wicked cunning and craftiness, without rancour, malice, and wrath; not meditating and seeking revenge, but meek and humble in their deportment, leading inoffensive lives, and proceeding in the course of their calling, though liable to many insults, and much oppression.”

The Life Application Bible summarizes Christ’s statement regarding the serpents and the doves, quite appropriately, in this way: “We are not to be gullible pawns but neither are we to be deceitful connivers.”

To conclude, Christ sent us into the world to fulfill God’s commission and plan for us (John 17:18), but we are not to be of the world (John 17:16). We are to be aware of the fact that the world is hostile towards God and His Way of Life, full of ravenous wolves which are ready to tear us apart. But following Christ’s admonition and with His help, we can be victorious, if we behave wise as serpents and harmless as doves.

Lead Writer: Norbert Link