What Does It Mean To Be Wise As Serpents And Innocent As Doves?

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What does it mean to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves? Consider the Biblical narrative.

The serpent tempted Eve by asking “Did God really say?” Cain murdered Abel because God had accepted his sacrifice. Jacob tricked his father to get Esau’s blessing and birthright. Joseph was sold by his own brothers into slavery in Egypt, then thrown in prison on false charges of rape. Jealous King Saul sought David’s life when he started to view him as a threat. Daniel was thrown to the lions because of schemes in the court of Babylon. Haman plotted to destroy all the Jews in Persia because Mordecai would not bow and pay homage to him.

The Bible is filled with stories of plots, schemes, deceptions, and self-promotion. At seemingly every turn, in the Old Testament especially, we find strife, jealousy, and the struggle for power. Even into the New Testament, we find Herod trying to find and murder the promised Messiah, and killing all the baby boys in Bethlehem under two-years-old toward that end.

This should tell us something about the nature of sinful, fallen man. Clearly, man apart from repentance and the work of the Holy Spirit does these sorts of things. Even a cursory glance of history bears that out. Likewise, it should not surprise us if we see people acting this way in the present, perhaps even around us. On the contrary, we should expect to find these things are common.

He Himself Knew What Was In Man

Jesus was no stranger to the nature of man. Early in his ministry, we read the following nugget in the gospel account written by John.

Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.

John 2:23-25 (ESV)

We have the benefit of hindsight. God has the unlimited ability of foresight. Disciples would come and go based on whether they liked the teaching or free stuff Jesus was giving out. Some crowds would pick up stones to murder Jesus while others tried to make him their king. Some waved palm branches while others shouted “Crucify him!”

Jesus knew that people are fickle. They change their minds, go off on whims, get whipped into frenzies, can be irrational and unjust, and are not always reliable or honest. Yet God is never surprised by what people are capable of. He is an expert on human nature, yet without in the least impugning his own character. It naturally follows that God will not hold us in contempt for an objective study of human nature.

How can we be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves?

Indeed, when Jesus sends his twelve disciples out to proclaim the good news in the towns of Israel, he tells them what to expect. And he does not mince words.

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.

When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

Matthew 10:16-22 (ESV)

What does it mean to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves”? Personally, I believe it means we are called here to understand human nature, and to be observant and cautious.

Christ did not send his disciples out ignorant of the threats, challenges, and schemes they would face. He did not ask them to be naive. Rather, he assured them of the truth from the outset. They would suffer and endure the things he said. And they did.

Yet the expectation of suffering is not a reason to stay home. As I have written before, God does not call us to timidity and cowardice, but boldness.

Does Love Keep A Record Of Wrongs?

The Apostle Paul writes to the church in Corinth at one point to tell them what love is and is not, and what it does and does not do.

In the English Standard Version, which I have always heard is a very reliable word for word translation of the original Hebrew and Greek, we read:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Yet I have also read this passage in the New International Version, which blends word-for-word and thought-for-thought philosophies of Biblical interpretation.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Here I will ask a sincere question. Is being irritable or resentful the same as keeping a record of wrongs? Clearly, the two can be closely linked. Keeping a record of wrongs can cause us to be irritable or resentful. Or we may keep a record of wrongs because we are irritable and resentful.

Yet the two are not the same thing. Indeed, we know that in a certain sense the entire Biblical narrative is a record of wrongs. In fact, all human history is a record of wrongs. And that is what you should expect from sinful, fallen creatures apart from Christ.

Do Nothing From Selfish Ambition

So, what should our stance and mindset be? If being “wise as serpents” means recognizing that people can be deceitful and treacherous, what does it mean to be “innocent as doves”?

Consider what the Apostle Paul writes to the church in Philippi:

So, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:1-11 (ESV)

This is a very hard thing. How can we “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit”? How does that let us protect or advance ourselves?

The answer to that question is a redirection of our attention. Jesus is our example, and he has attained the ultimate protection and advancement in this way.

Overcome Evil With Good

Consider also what Paul writes to the church in Rome.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:14-21 (ESV)

Is this, perhaps, what it means to be innocent as doves? Again, consider the example of Christ. The Father sent the Son while we were yet sinners in order to reconcile us. God loved us and meant us well even while we were still his enemies and slaves to sin and death. This then becomes our calling, to love and forgive others as God in Christ Jesus has loved and forgiven us.

Indeed, as we look back at the Biblical narrative, even in the Old Testament, we see more than just the depravity of man. We also see God intervening consistently on behalf of his people. God fights for his people against the forces of darkness. God upholds and preserves them and is stronger than any schemes of Satan or his minions.

So then, we have a very great assurance entrusting ourselves to him.

Follow Garrett Mullet:

Christian, husband to a darling wife, and father to seven children - I enjoy pipe-smoking, playing strategy games on my computer, listening to audio books, and writing. When I'm not asking you questions out loud, I'm endlessly asking myself silent questions in my head. I believe in God's grace, hard work, love, patience, contemplation, and courage.