Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 10:16c “. . .be ye therefore wise as serpents,. . .”
When you see in the Bible a “therefore,” take time to see what it’s there for. In our text, wisdom is needed due to the quandary believers find themselves in when they try to tell what they believe to unbelievers. Any effort on our part to share with prechristians the good news of salvation in Jesus puts us in the unenviable position of being “sheep in the midst of wolves” (10:16b). We need extraordinary wisdom because, as sheep, we have no inherent way to repel our predators.
It was obviously never the Shepherd’s intent for the sheep to wage war in His behalf. A fighting sheep is a contradiction. Each time Christians forget this, and take up swords for the faith, our cause loses more than the other side does.
“To resist is to be beaten” (Maclaren). Scripture allows governments to use weapons in just wars, and permits individuals to fight to defend their own property and lives, but in spiritual matters, whether it be the whole Church or individual Christians, no outward weapons are allowed in defending and advancing our faith.
We seem to have been left helplessly and hopelessly exposed before the enemy, yet herein we find our victory. As Christians, our strength is not in our fists. Our power is in a bended knee, a holy heart, a witnessing tongue, and a loving life.
Francis Xavier, one of Christianity’s most successful missionaries, was one day preaching to a cynical crowd in Japan. A man approached, pretending he had something urgent he needed to tell the preacher in private. When Xavier leaned down to hear the message, the man spit in his face to publicly humiliate him. I’m sure his first impulse was to give a knee-jerk reaction, similar to what we want to do when someone rebuffs us for our faith. Xavier, though, chose a better reaction.
Without speaking a word or showing any sign of annoyance, he took out his handkerchief, wiped his face, and went on preaching as if nothing had happened to interrupt him. This heroic control of his passions turned what had been a scornful crowd into an admiring assembly. After the message, a city leader received Jesus, saying a law which taught people such virtue, inspired them with this much courage, and gave them such complete mastery over themselves, had to be from God.
As John David Edie recently preached at Second, in suffering we are invincible. “By being weaponless we wield the sharpest two-edged sword” (Maclaren).
It’s not easy for sheep to make right responses to wolves, “therefore” we believers must be “wise as serpents.” Our first reaction to this admonition is, snakes strike back. True, but this snake-trait is disqualified for us by Jesus’ next phrase, “harmless as doves.” In spiritual matters, Christians are to imitate serpents, except for their propensity to strike back. This forces us to take a closer look at snakes.
I recently turned my thoughts a bit more toward snakes. About three years ago, I was a founder of our interdenominational Springfield for Christ network. As a token of appreciation for my efforts, at our recent pastors prayer summit the charismatic brethren made me an honorary Pentecostal, no small accomplishment for a man who has never spoken in tongues. They said I would someday be able to handle big, live snakes, but since I was just starting, they gave me two small, plastic snakes to practice on. They obviously think I have a bright future with snakes.
If we can get past fang-phobia, we will see traits in a serpent worth imitating. Some ancients understood this. Egyptian hieroglyphics used the snake as the symbol of wisdom. A snake has to be wise, for it is a creature hated everywhere. If we see a snake, our first impulse is to run and then find a way to kill it. Thus, to continue to exist, snakes must be prudent. In this, and in this only, we copy them.
First, snakes teach us danger is an ever present reality. Snakes know by nature that everyone deems them an enemy. Let’s learn from a reptile. Never forget we are always exposed to evil, hostile forces. Peter warned us, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 P 5:8). Don’t be pollyannaish. The one time David failed to keep his ear to the ground, he was caught off guard by his son Absalom.
To engage the Great Commission is to incite the great competitor, Lucifer. Satan hates all who love to extend Christ’s kingdom. Becoming part of the missions and ministry revival at Second is not child’s play. The adventure looks charming up front and seems exciting at our Global Impact Celebration. Hearing of the enterprise stirs the blood, but deeper reflection is needed. We would not stifle anyone’s enthusiasm, but we do want everyone to count the cost. Enlist, but also inform. Growling mouths are salivating, sharp white teeth are gleaming, Hell’s hounds howl in the night. The devil wants to destroy our holiness, our marriages, and our children. The danger is real. Snakes know that. We should, too.
Second, snakes teach us not to rush recklessly into harm’s way. They strike only as a last resort. Serpents are cautious to avoid danger. They quickly perceive it and rapidly seek a means of escape. Let’s learn from a viper. Avoid unnecessary exposure to jeopardy. Don’t court martyrdom. Christianity does not encourage us to go looking for trouble. We don’t have to go out of our way to find it. Living a holy life and telling the story of Jesus will bring problems aplenty our way.
Anyone who thinks there is little difference between the world’s religions doesn’t have the sense God gave a goose. We are currently at war with a world religion that fosters even in its children a fanatical thirst for martyrdom. The Bible presents a vastly different approach. Christians acquiesce to martyrdom, but only if there is no honorable way to avoid it. Human life is precious, to be preserved by all legitimate means. Sometimes our wisest response to persecution is to flee.
When Jesus was thrown out of Nazareth, His home town, and about to be thrown off a cliff, He passed through the mob, escaping to minister in a different city (LK 4:29-31). When enemies tried to trap Him with hard questions, Jesus’ answers were subtle, sly, shrewd. He kept His detractors off balance, buying time to teach again. He avoided conflict until there was no way to conscientiously do so.
Paul used his wits. When he first became a believer, and was turning Damascus upside down for Jesus, his enemies waited at the city gate to kill him, but Paul escaped to witness another day by being lowered over the city wall in a basket (AC 9:25). He was the original Spiderman. When he was being bound with thongs, and about to be scourged, he mentioned his Roman citizenship, thereby scaring a Roman centurion to death and confounding his persecutors (AC 22:25).
On trial before the Sanhedrin, Paul knew he was in serious trouble. To deflect attention from himself, he claimed he was on trial for believing in the resurrection of the dead (AC 23:6). Pharisees, who believed in resurrection, and Sadducees, who didn’t, erupted into an argument over the issue and forgot about Paul.
He later used his trump card of Roman citizenship in court. To escape being taken back to stand trial in Jerusalem, where he faced certain death, Paul appealed to Caesar (AC 25:11), and was sent to Rome, thereby foiling his antagonists again.
Sheep among wolves need sanctified common sense, unflinching zeal coupled with calm discretion. Pray, show caution and skill. Discern, be practical and shrewd. Avoid needless irritation and persecution when we can do so honorably.
Third, snakes teach us to expect little sympathy for our efforts. We rarely say, “Oh, poor snake, I feel so sorry for you.” Let’s learn from a serpent. Our effort for Jesus won’t be received hospitably or cordially, with open arms, by everyone. God’s people should have learned by now to expect opposition at every turn.
Unbelievers, resenting Father’s cause and Christ’s kingdom, have ever tried to impede the advance of faith. Abel was challenged by Cain, Isaac by Ishmael, Jacob by Esau. Moses was bucked by Pharaoh, David by Saul, Jesus by Judas.
Our every foray into the kingdom of darkness will be resisted. However pure we are, the enemy will slander us. No matter how kind we act, opponents will decry our motives. However honest we are, unbelievers will deem us suspect.
Every move we make to win a soul to Jesus will be opposed by Satan and his accomplices. Christians are not the only ones hunting for souls. We invite people to church, others invite them to taverns. We speak truth, someone else is spreading skepticism. We point to true happiness, but the night is filled with decoys. We believers may not be in dead earnest, but the devil is. “He never sleeps; he lost his eyelids long ago” (Spurgeon). The battle for the souls of humanity is engaged. The stakes are huge. Hell is hot, Heaven is sweet, and both last forever.