Sheep, Wolves, Serpents & Doves…Oh My!

Posted: January 6, 2013 in Uncategorized

Matthew 10:16-25

Let us read from God’s Word:

 

Persecution Will Come

16 (X)“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be (Y)wise as serpents and (Z)innocent as doves. 17 Beware of men, for (AA)they will deliver you over to courts and flog you (AB)in their synagogues, 18 (AC)and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, (AD)to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. 19 (AE)When (AF)they deliver you over, (AG)do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for (AH)what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. 20 (AI)For it is not you who speak, but (AJ)the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21 (AK)Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, 22 (AL)and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. (AM)But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23 When they (AN)persecute you in one town, (AO)flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel (AP)before the Son of Man comes.

24 (AQ)“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant[e] above his master. 25 It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. (AR)If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign[f] those of his household.

 

At first this passage reminds me of that scene from “The Wizard of Oz” where the group begins to fear what may be out there awaiting them…Lions, Tigers, and Bears! Oh my!

 

In this passage, it’s “Sheep, wolves, serpents and doves, oh my!” These particular animal images are quite often used in the Bible. In the commonly used words of the Bible, doves and lambs have positive images in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The snake is often seen as both wise and evil. Wolves well their imagery in the Bible is fully negative. These animal images and their contextual usage in the Bible are important in this passage. Jesus’ disciple could easily identify what these images stood for because each of them was familiar with the Old Testament – the Jewish Bible. By opening with these images that are well known to his audience, he grabs their attention. Once he has it, we see that Jesus is driving home several points in this passage that are linked together. First, the imagery tells a story of its own that we can explore. Next, we will examine the hardships of being a Christ follower who is out there trying to make a difference in the world around him. Finally, we will examine the faith we must have when we are truly an off-the-couch Christian. Once we are done, one can see that being bold for Christ is never going to be easy regardless of whether it was in first century Palestine or in 21st century South Carolina.

 

In this first installment, we will look at these animal images. Jesus says that I am sending you out like sheep among the wolves and advised them to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. Sheep are referenced numerous times throughout the Bible both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. They are frequently used as animal sacrifices in the Old Testament, but they are more interesting as symbols of wealth. Sheep provide milk, meat, wool and leather, all staples of a comfortable life in ancient times. Sheep are also docile, quiet, patient, and easily led when trained. They are practically defenseless against predators and require a shepherd to remain safe. The New Testament frequently refers to the followers of Jesus as a flock of sheep for these reasons. Jesus is the shepherd leading to salvation, but these sheep are also vulnerable to predators in the form of sin and temptation. They would be lost and ultimately destroyed without their shepherd.

 

Although there are several references to literal wolves in the Old Testament, nearly every mention of them in the New Testament is symbolic. A single wolf can be dangerous in the way it quietly sneaks up on its prey and attacks, but they are far more dangerous in packs. The wolves that are mentioned in the New Testament are those who would destroy Jesus’ flock through temptation and sin, threats that can come in force from the sinful world. Jesus himself also warned of false prophets who would appear as wolves in sheep’s clothing, once again using wolves as symbols of corruption and evil.

 

The serpent is found in the Garden of Eden near the tree of life as the tempter, an evil figure who motivates the fall of Adam and Eve, inciting them to transgress the laws of God. The serpent also represents faith, and redemption in the wilderness where a serpent is raised on a pole for the people to look upon and be saved from the bites of the poisonous snakes around them.

 

In Exodus, the prophet Moses appears before Pharaoh, changing his rod into a serpent, as one of many miracles he is able to perform. The Pharaoh’s magicians are able to do the same with their own rods. The serpent/rod wielded by Aaron, the brother of Moses, was then able to swallow up the serpents of the magicians, showing the greater power of Moses and his God.

 

In Numbers 21, the Israelites who have flown from captivity in Egypt into the wilderness are besieged by venomous snakes after cursing God and Moses for their trying situation of wandering in the wilderness for thirty-eight years. Moses is directed by God to make a bronze snake and place it on a pole so that anyone who looked upon it could be saved from the bites of the snakes. Those who looked were saved.

Much later, in II Kings 18, the Israelites turned this bronze serpent formed by Moses into an idol, lighting incense for it. Snake cults of the Canaanites have been found by archaeologists to have existed in the land at the time and it appears that the Israelites had adopted some of the rites and beliefs of their neighbors. The serpent created by Moses was then destroyed by Hezekiah, along with other examples of idolatry.

 

The serpent seen in the Garden may have not been threatening or frightening to the first couple as it has become to followers of the Bible today. He was serpent-like in his magical, enchanting ways when he whispered his reasoning in Eve’s ear. Eve was deceived, as II Corinthians 11:14 points out, because Satan appeared as an “angel of light.” According to the New Testament scriptures, this bronze serpent lifted up in the wilderness represented Jesus Christ, who was to be lifted up in the same manner, so that those who look on him and believe would be saved. It was related to the biblical purpose for the law of sacrifice (see John 3:14-15).The serpent in the Bible thus represented both punishment and death and healing and life at the same time.
The dove is an emblem of peace (Genesis 8:7-12). After God’s wrath for sin had been executed upon the earth, the dove was thrice sent forth; at the first sending she found no rest for the sole of her foot until she put herself in Noah’s (or “comforter”) hand, and was drawn into the ark; on the second trip, she brought back the olive leaf, the earnest of the restored earth; on the third trip, she was able to roam at large, no longer needing the ark’s shelter. As the raven messenger “going forth to and fro,” alighting on but never entering into the ark, symbolizes the unbelieving that have “no peace,” “like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest” (Isaiah 57:20-21): so the dove, in its threefold embassy, represents respectively the first return of the soul to its rest, the loving hand of Jesus; its subsequent reception of the dovelike spirit, the earnest of the final inheritance (Ephesians 1:13-14); and its actual entrance finally on the new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21).

 

By sending his believers out amongst the wolves, Jesus is saying several things, I think. First, Jesus “is sending” us. We are not to simply remain among like-minded believers. Of course, being among like minded believers is one of the keys of the faith. It is in the flock of believers, the church, that we are built up, protected and nurtured by the shepherd. However, Jesus wants us to venture out of the flock and meet the world which of course if full of wolves. He is sending us out into the world to encounter it, to meet it, to change it. The wolves represent the godless world of sin, temptation, and evil’s disdain for Christ’s true followers. We, as sheep are defenseless against the onslaught of sin, temptation and evil on our own. We are just as human as any non-believer and susceptible to fall into the snare of sin, temptation and evil just as much as anyone. It is only through Christ that we can be strong enough to withstand this world. Wolves are a sneaky lot. The hide and observe their prey and wait for the right moment to pounce and destroy. Wolves also prefer to hunt in packs as well because it makes their individual jobs much easier. Together, they can easily trap, subdue and kill their prey. Often we the sheep find ourselves attacked or enticed by packs of wolves. The sheer number of the pack can be overwhelming to us as they entice to become wolves or as they tear us apart for our flawed character so as to prevent the spread of Christ’s name. However, it is this battle that must be won. Jesus sends us out into the world, not to barricade ourselves behind our church walls or behind our walled off inner sanctums called our homes. We are to be out in the world to subdue the wolves with God’s Word through Jesus’ power. The best way for a sheep to talk to a wolf is to tell the wolf how we, the sheep, were once bloodthirsty, “looking out for ourselves” wolves too. Without relationships with the wolves, they never have the opportunity to become sheep. We cannot defeat the wolf in our fellow man without first meeting him where he is at. We must be sent out among the wolves. Not a single person is saved by anything but the power of Christ. We are his messengers. A messenger is sent out. A messenger does not receive a message and then sit in his office and not share it. A messenger delivers the message to its intended recipients. As sheep, we are to be docile and subservient to our Master. Our master, the Shepherd, is sending us out in His power to break down the power of the wolfpack and to deliver his message.

 

In this passage, after telling us that He is sending us out, Christ admonishes us to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. These images are contrasting for sure. The snake or serpent is contrasting image in and of itself. The snake has both positive and negative images in the Bible. As we have seen, the devil appeared as a serpent to Eve and began the series of actions that brought sin as an ever-present problem in the world. Later, in Exodus, those who had the faith to listen to God’s instruction to keep their eye on the raised bronze snake instead of looking down at the live snakes all around them were saved by their faith. However, the general feel that the Bible gives us is that serpents are wily, crafty, worldly creatures. That is why many people see the raised bronze snake as a symbol of Christ in the OT. He was in human form just like you and me (we are like snakes – crafty, worldly) but in being raised up on the cross He became a sacrifice for us if we only have the faith to look upon Him as God tell us in the light that He was the Son of God, the final sacrifice for our sin.

 

In this context though, I think Christ is referring to the worldly, crafty, very human aspects of the snake. Christ is telling his disciples and us, the descendants of the disciples, to as wise about God, his Word, and the message of Christ as the world is wise about ungodly things. Further, we must be able to combat the untruths and half-truths of the evil one with the pure truth of God. Often, people with hearts that are not humbly submitted to God misuse God’s Word to suit their own agendas. We must be wise enough in God’s Word to combat these destructive works of the devil as well. However, we are to be innocent as doves. Doves are peaceful, cooperative animals. Thus, in rebuking the words of the devil, the temptations of the world, the sins of the world as wrong and offensive to God, we must be peaceful in doing so. In rebuking the world, we are not be like a street corner preacher telling you in fierce tones that you are going to hell when you refuse his pamphlet. Condemning street corner preachers have not shamed anyone into accepting Christ. We should lovingly share the rightly interpreted Word of God in ways that draw people unto the Lord. According to Strauss, “the person who is filled with God’s wisdom is not easily provoked into arguing. He isn’t quarrelsome or contentious, but consistently seeks a peaceful solution to the problem. He believes that strong, loving relationships are more important than winning arguments. He takes the exhortation of Paul seriously: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18). He weighs his words carefully, and endeavors to phrase them in such a way as to avoid arousing antagonism in others. If others attack him with angry, exaggerated accusations, he refrains from responding in kind, but calmly seeks to understand their needs and what he can do to help them. He is a peacemaker, whom Jesus called a true son of God (Matthew 5:9). He knows how to avoid arguments and solve conflicts.”[1]We are to be like doves. We are to be of peace. We are to reconcile the world to Christ.

 

Sheep, Wolves, Serpents and Doves…oh my! Sheep and Doves…what Christ wants us to be. Sheep and Dove that interact with the world not staying in our pens or our comfortable nest. We are to be willing to be the sacrificial sheep and doves in service to Christ just as the actual sheep and dove were sacrifices in the OT sacrificial system. We to be totally sold out to the point of sacrifice yet so innocently faithful in Christ and the eternal future that He promises us that we are willing to sacrifice. We are willing to sacrifice our comfort zone, our worldly things, our worldly rewards, and sometimes our very lives. Jesus is sending us out.

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