“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.” -Matthew 10:16
It should come as no surprise to us when we step into culture and discover antagonism toward our faith and our God. Jesus painted a picture of His people stepping out into the midst of wolves. In fact, He said He was sending us into their midst. He never intended us to stay in our comfort zone. But He did tell us how we can respond by comparing characteristics to two animals: serpents and doves. These creatures seem at odds with one another, but when we dig into the characteristics He wants us to embody, they actually complement one another. Next week, we will take a look at what it means to be innocent as doves in a culture of wolves. But for now, what does it mean for the believer in Christ to be shrewd as a serpent?
1. See shrewdness as an asset, not a curse.
When we see the imagery of a snake in Scripture, we are often quick to associate the snake with the moral evil of Satan in the garden (Genesis 3:1) or the description of him as a serpent. Snakes are not typically animals that instill positive feelings. However, in Matthew 10:16, Jesus isn’t asking us to attach morality to the snake. Before the deceiver ever inhabited the snake, God made this creature and said it was “good.” To understand what Jesus is asking in this verse, we must separate our view of evil and the snake. The dictionary defines shrewdness as intelligence, practicing discernment, or quick. All of these are positive attributes and gifts of the Lord. These are what we need to embody as we practice being shrewd as serpents.
2. Practice discernment.
Discernment is our ability to test what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21, Romans 12:2). It allows us to identify truth or a lack thereof in a wicked and perverse generation (Matthew 17:17). We live in a culture that likes to take truth and slightly twist or bend it, just like the devil in the garden who causes Eve to question what God actually said by bending truth regarding what God had asked Adam and Eve to do for their protection. We must be believers who are shrewd, able to rightly discern the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:5). We are to be people of intelligence, skill, and excellence, not abdicating our role in the arts, business, or science, but entering into those spheres in order to redeem them and lead them. Paul practiced shrewdness in Acts 16:37 and Acts 22:25. He knew the laws of the day. He knew his rights. He didn’t back down from being bold as a lion in his culture (read more). Instead, he preached the gospel and held the government accountable to their laws. He acted with knowledge. He didn’t manipulate. He remained informed.
3. Get wisdom
Another way we can embody shrewdness is by being people of wisdom. The author of Proverbs urges his readers to attain wisdom and understanding (Proverbs 4:7). Wisdom allowed the apostles to enter any audience and logically and intelligently share the gospel with them in a way they would understand. The gospel never changed, but how they shared it changed to meet people where they were. When before the religious leaders, they began their argument by discussing history and the law before pointing to Jesus (Acts 4). When with the Gentiles they shared differently than when sharing with the Jews (Acts 17:22-23, Acts 23:6-8).
Jesus clearly stated that shrewdness is a characteristic He desires His children to embody. But shrewdness by itself can often be harsh, sometimes manipulative, and unloving, which is why Jesus said that innocence was to be paired with this trait as we confront our culture. As sinful people, we can often take a good trait to an unhealthy and unhelpful extreme. By balancing the serpent and dove, shrewdness and innocence, Jesus was creating a winning formula to set us up for success as we step into a culture of wolves and shine a light.