Sheep, Serpents, and Doves
The children beg and beg for a hamster, and finally get one. They name the hamster Danny and they fervently promise mom they will feed him and water him and clean out his cage. Two months later, Mom finds herself the only one caring for Danny. She finally decides Danny has to go. She locates a prospective new home for it and inform the kids. The children take the news with sadness, but acceptance. “He's been around here a long time,” the oldest says sadly, “we'll sure miss him.” Another child says, “Well, maybe if he wouldn't eat so much and wouldn't be so messy, we could keep him.” But Mom is firm. “It's time to take him to his new home now,” she insists. “Go and get Danny’s cage.” The children look at her in horror and cry out “Danny? We thought you said Daddy!”
In spite of what some seem to believe, there is a big difference between a monkey and a man, between a baboon and a baby, between a dog and a daughter. But at the same time, there are qualities in animals that mirror the attitudes of human beings.
We say a hardheaded person is as stubborn as a (mule). The guy with the bulging muscles is as strong as an (ox). The sneaky character nobody trusts is sly as a (fox). The little man who is so timid we call as meek as a (mouse).
Our Lord often compares people to animals. Yesterday I was in, of all places, the UPS store in Florence where there is a large painting of Jesus surrounded by a flock of sheep at a watering hole. He calls us Himself the Good Shepherd and all of us His sheep. In one of His most frightening parables Christ divides humanity into two groups—the sheep whom He welcomes into heaven, and the goats who are told I never knew you and are sent to hell.
Tonight we’re going to take a closer look at some animal metaphors Jesus uses to describe His disciples which teach us something about who we ought to be. Our text is Matt. 10:16.
Matt. 10:16 was first spoken by Christ to His 12 apostles as they go out on their first preaching tour. V. 1 tells us He gives them power over demons and diseases, and sends them first to the Jews. But a careful reading of the speech tells us He’s not just speaking to them, but many others who’ll go out in His Name. I believe you can extend these words to speak to all of us who follow Him. This verse uses helps us understand how to navigate our way through this jungle the Bible calls the world. The first thing He says is that we are to be
1. As harmless as lambs.
Animals come in handy when it comes to naming our sports teams. The Atlanta Falcons.
The Indianapolis Colts. The Jacksonville Jaguars. The Chicago Bears. The Los Angeles Lambs—I mean Rams.
We don’t name our teams after lambs, because lambs are not aggressive. The only thing threatened by a lamb is a pasture full of grass.
Which is why this first comparison doesn’t sound very comforting: Behold, I send you out as
sheep in the midst of wolves…Lord, is that really a good strategy? I mean some of us might get hurt! Actually, the danger level is much greater.
Romans 8:36 As it is written: “For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”
Jesus says as much in vs. 21-22. How does this apply to us? How are we to be like sheep?
Well first, He warns us we must understand the danger. When you follow Jesus you can expect to be attacked and harassed by the wolves of the world. Vs. 17-18 warn Christ’s disciples the wolves will arrest them, beat them, and hand them over for trial and punishment. Vs. 21 says even their own family members will betray them. Vs. 22 says His sheep will be hated more than anybody else on earth.
But notice what our Lord says in vs. 23: When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. He tells us you must respond the right way to persecution. Don’t muster up any armies, don’t mount any protests, or don’t plan any counterattacks. Escape if you can, and if you cannot, bear whatever happens humbly and gracefully, without anger or hatred or revenge.
That doesn’t appeal to us much, does it? We’d rather fight it out with the wolves, scratch, kick or bite our way free from persecution. But that’s not what sheep do. That’s not what our Shepherd did.
Isaiah 53:7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, And as a sheep before its shearers is silent, So He opened not His mouth.
He doesn’t ask us to do anything He Himself doesn’t do. He’s the Lamb of God Who walked among wolves, and the wolves not only persecute Him—they slaughter Him.
If you’re going to follow Jesus, He wants to be sure you understand the danger.
1 Peter 4:12–13 12Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; 13but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.
Being His sheep in this world is no Sunday School picnic. The wolves harass you and persecute you and will tear you to pieces if they get the chance. All over the world, from Iran to Communist China, believers testify to the reality of living like sheep in the midst of wolves.
Here in America, things haven’t gotten that bad yet. But you and I experience it to a much lesser degree. A new Christian often loses a lot of their friends. Family problems often crop up, especially between a new believer and their husband/wife/parents. People make fun of you for believing the Bible, for telling them Jesus is the only Way to Heaven, for going to church or for forgiving your enemies. If you are a well-known figure, they’ll criticize you for standing up for the Lord, or kneeling down on a football field.
To the wolves you are weak, helpless, vulnerable, sheepish. In reality, you are just following your Shepherd. If we follow Him as His sheep, partaking of His sufferings, we can expect to one day be with Him.
Jesus calls us to be sheep in the midst of wolves—aware of the danger, ready to humbly suffer and even die for the One Who died for us. But He goes on to tell us to be
2. As shrewd as serpents.
A young salesman walks into a manager’s office and says "I don't suppose you want to buy any life insurance, do you?" "No," replies the manager. "I didn't think so," says the salesman dejectedly, gets up to leave. "Wait a minute," said the manager. "Sit down. I want to talk to you." The salesman sits down. "I supervise salesmen," says the manager, "and you're the worst I've ever seen. You'll never sell anything without more confidence. Now, to help you out, I’ll sign up for a $10,000 policy." After the manager signs on the dotted line, he says, "Young man, you need to work on your sales presentation.” The salesman smiles, and says, “Oh I don’t know about that. You’re the 5th manager this week who’s bought a $10,000 policy from me!”
Would you say that salesman was sneaky, or shrewd? What’s the difference?
Being shrewd like a serpent does not mean being sneaky or devious. Satan is the father of lies and deception is his tool, not the Lord’s.
Being harmless as a sheep does not mean being naïve or ignorant. Jesus says we’re not
only to be as harmless as sheep among wolves, but also wise as serpents.
The word wise= shrewd, thoughtful, prudent. Christ tells His disciples they need to use all the common sense they have and get hold of all the wisdom they can get. He calls them to use their heads, not just their hearts, to think things through instead of recklessly acting or speaking without thinking, to be careful, not careless. The Proverbs have another name for being shrewd as a snake: prudence.
Proverbs 14:15 The simple believes every word, but the prudent considers well his steps.
A shrewd disciple doesn’t believe everything they hear: they test words before they trust them. Whether they hear the expert on TV or the preacher in the pulpit, they weigh the words against the one infallible standard of truth: the word of God.
The prudent don’t just take the first advice they’re offered: they sift through what they hear, carefully separating what’s true and right from what’s false and wrong.
Proverbs 22:3 A prudent man foresees evil and hides himself, But the simple pass on and are punished.
A shrewd disciple doesn’t go looking for trouble. Before she takes a step toward danger, she counts the cost, willing to suffer if necessary, wise enough to step back if necessary. Prudence gives you the wisdom to know the difference between suffering for Christ and suffering for our own foolish choices.
A good example is all the talk about the end of the world. Last year Harold Camping claimed not once, but twice to know what day Christ would return. Thousands of people were gullible enough to believe him, and ended up being not just disappointed, but ridiculed. This year it’s an ancient Mayan calendar that claims the world will end in 2012. And there are people who seriously wonder if maybe those folks who lived centuries ago may have somehow known the when the world will end.
Why would any thinking person give one second’s thought to either of these claims? If you read the Bible, Jesus Himself tells you nobody knows when He’s coming back—including Harold Camping. Mayans were a culture that worshipped idols. Exactly how did they become experts in predicting the future?
Jesus commands His disciples to be shrewd as serpents, not gullible as a geese. God gives you a mind and He expects you to use both for His glory.
A wife was sitting near her husband reading a woman’s magazine. She read out loud a survey question: If given the chance, would you give up 10 I.Q. points if it meant you could look like Marilyn Monroe?
The wife said out loud I wouldn’t give up one single point for it. To which the foolish husband replied, "If given the chance, would you please at least consider it?"[i]
Be harmless as sheep, shrewd as snakes, and finally be
3. As innocent as doves.
The word translated innocent= literally pure…character marked by integrity, sincere…[ii] It includes the idea of honesty as opposed to hypocrisy. To be innocent as doves means more than just not being guilty—it means practicing the righteousness you claim to possess. Jesus commands His disciples to be people who practice what He preaches.
You can see why this is so important: they represent Jesus to other people. Nobody will believe what they say, or what Jesus says, if they don’t live out His Words. Nobody expects them to be perfect, but they expect their lives to be different because they follow Christ.
People have a right to expect that from me and you as well. It doesn’t do much good to tell other people what a difference Jesus can make in their lives if He doesn’t make much difference in our lives. Nobody will listen to us tell how Jesus died to save them from their sins if we’re living in open, flagrant sin ourselves!
So the real question to answer is what kind of difference does Jesus make in us?
Are you living like somebody whom Jesus has forgiven? Or are you still walking under the cloud of condemnation? Is it obvious you really want to live to please the Lord—or would most people say you live like you want to please other people, or please yourself?
Are you living like somebody who trusts Jesus? Or are you still consumed with worry about all kinds of other things? It would be hard to believe you when you tell me to trust Jesus in everything and you are always fretting about the future.
Are you living like you look forward to the return of the Lord? Do you live as if that blessed hope is a reality you are sure of? Or are you just as perplexed by all the things going on in the world as people who don’t know the Lord?
You see there is sometimes a battle going on inside of us between what we say we believe and what we really believe. We want to believe the promises of God, we want to trust the Lord, but doubt can chip away at our faith.
When that happens, we need to resist the temptation to pretend. It’s much easier to ignore our hardness of heart, our compromising spirit, our cynical attitude, to imagine that nobody notices. And they might not—but God knows, and we know that something needs to change.
That’s when we need to get alone with God in prayer, when we need to saturate ourselves in His Word, when we need to seek the Lord, to ask for help from our brothers and sisters-whatever it takes to help us come back to the Cross, to receive the life from the Resurrection, to have the peace of the Dove of the Holy Spirit inside of us.
Maybe you’re here tonight and you’re tired of going through the motions. You look fine, happy, even spiritual, but inside you feel like you’re dying. The Lord calls you to drop the mask and become innocent as a dove—to be full of the Holy Spirit and the peace and love of Jesus.
Dr. Eric Frykenberg, veteran missionary to India. Someone asked him, “Dr. Frykenberg, what is the most difficult problem you ever faced?” Without hesitation, he answered, “It was when my heart would grow cold before God. When that happened, I knew I was too busy. I also knew it was time to get away. So I would take my Bible and go off to the hills alone. I’d open my Bible to Matthew 27, the story of the Crucifixion, and I would wrap my arms around the cross. And then,” Frykenberg said, “I’d be ready to go back to work.”[iii]
Matthew 10:16 Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.
[i] Linda Riley, Torrance, California. Christian Reader, "Lite Fare."
[ii] Friberg, T., Friberg, B., & Miller, N. F. (2000). Vol. 4: Analytical lexicon of the Greek New Testament. Baker's
[iii] Morgan, R. J. (2000). Nelson's complete book of stories, illustrations, and quotes (electronic ed.) (169–170).