Last night we took some time to pray for those of us who are heading back to school soon, and then to look at a particular teaching of Jesus that provides help we need in these times. Here are the notes:
In Matthew 10:1-4, Jesus gathers his inner circle of 12 followers, gives them special power, and sends them out to go preach his message all over the country side. And so here we get the speech he gave to them when he sent them out. (See verse 5). In verses 5 through 15 he gives them some basic instructions for their temporary journey away from him they’re about to take. And then in verse 16 he says this:
“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”
And this verse seems to take us beyond their immediate small mission, out into the future time when Jesus isn’t physically with them anymore, and they face longer, bigger battles. It had to do with the rest of their lives. And then we read the rest of the New Testament we can see that it kept applying to the people who believed the message and become preachers of the message themselves. I say all that just to say that when we realized that Jesus spoke this way, we should quickly also realize that he’s saying these words to us too. [Here we read Matthew 10:17-38] Now, we readily admit that right now some followers of Jesus around the world are facing some of these things. We’re not saying that believers who live in America are, but we are followers of Jesus, so we know that anything Jesus teaches may apply to us, and more and more, we are starting to face this kind of energy, even if it hasn’t reached its full intensity yet.
Tonight we’re going to just think about verse 16 and how it applies to our situation right now. So here’s his basic teaching: When you live your life for Jesus, it’s like being a sheep who’s sent out into the middle of a pack of wolves.
He’s painting a contrast, between his followers and everyone else. His followers are those who spend their lives learning from him (which is the meaning of the another name for Jesus’ followers –“disciple”), and being sent by him to spread his message so that other people will believe the message. If you’re not familiar with what their message was, it’s just that Jesus is the King who is returning to rule everything, and that everyone needs to obey God’s command to turn away from sin and trust Jesus as the only one who can forgive their sin and save them from the wrath of God that’s coming when Jesus comes back to conquer.
Everyone else, all the people who populate the world the followers of Jesus are sent out into, Jesus calls them, “wolves.” And just, right off the bat, if you’re not a follower of Jesus, you might already be thinking, “wait, is he saying I’m a wolf?” In one sense I guess we could say no—maybe Jesus is specifically talking about people in power who will actively oppose the spreading of his message. But in another sense, unless you’re a person who is promoting Jesus’ message, then…we have to say say, yeah. But before you get offended (understandably), you need to know that, from the rest of the bible, we know that “wolves” are people he loves by dying for them. If we’re going to be consistent with the imagery, we have to say that everybody who’s a follower of Christ today was once someone in the category of “wolf.” In this sense, we’re all either wolves… or former wolves. It’s wolves who Jesus is offering salvation to—in other words, wolves can submit to Jesus Christ and become sheep. So if you find yourself tonight on that side of things, realize that Jesus is like a doctor—he diagnoses and offers a cure. If you’re willing to accept his diagnosis, you can get his cure. And it’s something all his sheep had to go through—in fact, it’s how you become a sheep.
But it’s also significant that Jesus didn’t talk this way to general crowds of people. Everywhere he went he wasn’t saying, “Hey everyone—you guys are wolves.” And we wouldn’t talk that way to mixed crowds either. Jesus didn’t say this to people directly, he said it to a closed group of his closest followers, indirectly, about the wider world. He’s just said—let’s not be naïve, there’s wolves out there. So that’s kind of what this bible study is, with the important difference that we hope there’s non-followers of Jesus here every week, and we just invite you to listen in and consider the message of Jesus. So, to consider the verse…
We should know this was how Jesus talked about the world. So we shouldn’t be surprised when the world feels this way. At our jobs. At school. Maybe in our homes. Definitely in the wider culture and online, etc.
When men and women push God and the message of Jesus further and further from our thoughts, we become less and less like God—less patient, less loving, more selfish, more dominated by our physical drives, our pride, and our insecurities, more concerned with self-preservation and our own pleasure, than anything else. So the world just gets more and more dangerous in general, because people are looking out for each other less and less, and more and more just seeing what they can get from other people.
In thinking through this study, I had originally written a list of all the dangerous things in our society—from babies getting killed to all the cultural tensions to how women feel in the world, and I realized, we can just admit it—and I think everyone here knows what I’m talking about—it’s a dangerous place out there. It’s getting more and more dangerous generally, and specifically, like Jesus says, people who follow him are starting to feel more pressure. Because the more people ignore God and reject what he says, the more the message of Jesus in particular becomes offensive and intolerable. I think most of you know this—On college campuses for instance, where a bunch of you are headed for another semester, the ideologies that are being promoted almost everywhere are radically hostile to the Christian message—they call our message, the message that Jesus has the authority to define and forgive sin, harmful and hateful.
And, maybe it’s going to keep getting more dangerous in our neck of the woods. In some places of the world, people are like wolves to followers of Jesus because, right now, they’re doing v.17 and 21 to them. For us it’s not like that today, but we’re definitely feeling a lot more this than we used to: “Blessed are you when men hate you, And when they exclude you, And revile you, and cast out your name as evil, For the Son of Man’s sake.” (That’s Luke 6:22.) And some believers, through lawsuits, are even facing the “plundering of their goods” like the Christians described in Hebrews 10:34. We know of people who’ve faced financial consequences, like the destroying of their businesses, and one woman already who spent a few days in jail because of her insistence on taking a stand on a question of morality in her capacity as a public servant. That’s in America. So, even though, as you go off to school or start another fall at work, I don’t expect to hear about any of you being martyrs, we all know full well you’re going into a world that’s hostile to authentic, living, vocal Christianity. You can be a Christian and people will be cool with you, you just can’t be an “out” Christian. So be it. Jesus told us it would be this way.
That’s why it’s so important for us to really hear the direction he gave us. He says that, if we’ve been sent out by him, we’re like sheep—but not regular sheep. We’re to be like sheep that are also wise as snakes, and innocent as doves. This is important, because mostly when people say someone’s a “sheep” they mean they’re just a dumb, blind follower. But that’s not what Jesus means. He used the term “sheep” in this teaching just to draw a contrast between his followers and the people he calls Wolves—and that’s where we see the issue is not about how intelligent you are, but how lethal you are. His point is not that wolves are smart and sheep are dumb, but that wolves are dangerous, and sheep aren’t.
In biblical imagery, what wolves do is hunt and devour, and they especially like to devour sheep. Which means that what Jesus is saying to his followers by telling them they’ll be like sheep is, “I’m not going to send you out with the ability to protect yourself like a wolf, or fight back the way a wolf does. I’m not going to arm you with the weapons wolves are armed with.” We don’t get to be lions among wolves, or even wolves on par with the other wolves, instead, we’ll be spread throughout society in a position that feels as vulnerable as a sheep in a wolf pack. I think you know exactly what I’m talking about.
And I think if this was all Jesus said, it would get our minds going…If we’re not going to bring wolf weapons to the war…if we can’t expect to win by fighting back, tooth for tooth, is Jesus saying we just should give up and expect to get eaten? The answer is no…and that’s what makes the two other animals Jesus uses to describe his followers so helpful.
First, he says, we should be “wise as serpents.” The Greek word that gets translated “wise” here is not the usual word which gets translated wise (sophia), it’s another word which shades over into the idea of being clever or skillful or experienced. The idea seems to be, when you go out, and it’s like there’s wolves all around—be heads up and aware. Be “street smart” about the world we live in. I read a great comment on this that said the snake was sort of a proverb for being able to get out of the way of trouble, and for being a master of self-preservation. “Disciples under threat are not to be helpless and gullible, but to maintain the initiative…” Our intelligence isn’t to be aimed at hurting people, like wolves, but to survival and the promotion of the gospel. “[Disciples] need the cunning of snakes without the venom.”
So when we follow Jesus, we don’t become dumb followers of just anyone, but wise followers of Jesus, and following Jesus means we operate like he operated. Just read the histories of his life…watch how he carried himself, and how he was a genius at avoiding danger, and then, when it was his time, how he walked straight into the teeth of the attack so he could die for our sins. That’s our model. There’s nothing naïve about it.
But that image of being snakes with no venom is a good way to sum up what Jesus seems to mean by being “harmless” as doves. It’s interesting that this word gets translated “harmless” here, because it usually seems to mean something more like innocent or sincere. This is a person who doesn’t have ulterior motives or hidden plans. They’re not maneuvering for power or personal advancement. They’re not trying to use people for their own purposes. They just are who they are. When you meet them, you really meet them, all the way. You can trust them. So when they seem like they want to help you, or want the best for you—they really do. In that sense, they really are harmless, but not because they’re just weak or clueless—no, it’s because they’re just…straight-up, good people.
When you read the letters of the Apostle Paul, there’s a couple points where he seems he has this teaching of Jesus right in his mind, and he even uses this same word. For instance in a passage that begins in Romans 16:17, he says, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.”
That word “innocent” is another translation of the same word that gets translated “harmless” in Matthew. And notice the exact same ideas as what Jesus was saying—be a wise person, but be a safe person. Be wise about what is good and how to do it, but be innocent of all the evil.
And in Philippians 2:14-15 Paul writes: “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world…”
The word “innocent” is our same word again. And I think it’s pretty important for us to notice the two other things Paul adds to help us have hope in all this. When we live like this—when we let the teachings of Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit, so shape our lives that we become people who exhibit a pretty amazing combination of qualities—harmless, intelligent, and sincerely good—we can be assured of two rock-solid truths. First, here in Philippians 2:15 says that we’ll impact our world that’s so full of wolves—the way a shining light impacts darkness. It doesn’t matter if we face cultural marginalization, or if we feel small and unimportant and unpowerful—Jesus says, don’t worry, you’re the light, and you’re shining. This semester at school, this fall at work, this year with your family and with your neighbors—don’t underestimate the power of an authentic Christian life lived out simply and sincerely in front of people. No matter what they say, a lot of people are going to see how much better the way of Jesus is than the ways they’re being told to live.
And also, back in Romans 16 in verse 20, maybe you didn’t catch it, but right after he tells us to be wise and innocent, he says: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” I was reading this the other day and it was like one of those moments where the sentence just lights up on the page for you, you know? It’s so clear once you see it—aren’t these things exactly what we need to hear? When we’re being pushed to the sidelines of everything, excluded and shouted down, don’t we need to hear that our light is shining? And when it feels like we’re losing our power to influence the culture for the good, and we might get tempted to think that if Christians are hated, evil will win…don’t we need to hear this—“Don’t worry, God’s going to crush Satan under your feet, and he’s going to do it soon.” Evil won’t win. But it’s going to be overcome God’s way. So we just need to keep learning more and more how to do what Christians have always done—we need to follow Jesus, and keep his commands, and love the world, and spread the good news.
So whether it’s a boss or co-worker breathing down your neck because of how you live your life, or a new policy at work that seems like it’s going to exclude you because of your faith, or a professor who targets you in class, or a mob of students on campus who are violently anti-Christian, or a family member who scoffs at the bible, or whatever might come our way—we have what we need right here. Jesus knew it all ahead of time. And if we walk with him, he’ll prepare us and equip us to be the lights he was talking about in our days.