Scripture: “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. 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 all for my name’s sake will hate you.” Matthew 10:16-18, 21-22a ESV
Observation: Having identified the need for kingdom growth (laborers to harvest the many lost souls), the goal (reach fellow Israelites), and conduct (travel light and rely on the hospitality of those receptive to the Gospel), Jesus now warns his disciples to be ready for resistance in the form of persecution (above verses). Indeed, Jesus intends to send the Twelve into enemy territory where governing Roman and synagogue rulers will seek to squelch their message by silencing them through persecution. And even family members will betray them for fear of being guilty by association. So Jesus warns them to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
Of note, the Greek word translated as “wise” in verse 16 (phronimoi) also means “shrewd,” which in several ancient Near Eastern cultures carries the proverbial sense of “prudence.” But, as theologian D.A. Carson contends, “prudence can easily degenerate into cheap cunning unless it goes with simplicity” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, p.246). Yet, as Carson adds, “innocence becomes ignorance, even naivete, unless combined with prudence” (p.247). Thus, as Jesus conjoins these attributes of wisdom and innocence, they will eventually safeguard his disciples with an essential check and balance to persevere suffering to complete their mission.
Takeaway: While corrupt kings and governors were commonplace during the past century of foreign occupation, given the guardians of their faith and blood relatives would betray them reveals the extent of Christ’s Gospel’s divisiveness. Thus, Jesus would repeat this distressful reality for the remainder of his time with the Twelve, culminating with a more direct and detailed warning of looming persecution and suffering in his final discourse before his arrest (see John 14-16). And still, they would abandon him in fear for their well-being.
Thankfully, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, the Eleven plus Matthias would quickly learn how to act with godly wisdom and innocence to fulfill their Master’s Great Commission—and so would Paul. Indeed, Paul expands on Jesus’ exhortation using the same Greek word for “wise” (phronimoi) in Romans 16:19 and Philippians 2:15). To the Romans, as Paul concludes his letter, he writes, “but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil” (ESV). Here, Paul emphasizes discernment between good and evil—not always an easy task but doable when led by the Holy Spirit.
And to the Philippians, 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” (ESV). Here, the focus is on working for God’s good pleasure (preceding verse) with a godly attitude (no grumbling or disputing) while holding fast to Scripture as our guide (subsequent verse). And consistent with his ongoing emphasis on grace, Paul adds that God works in us the desire to labor for his kingdom.
So how do we integrate godly wisdom and innocence into our daily walk with Christ? It begins with God inculcating both attributes into us through the refining work of the Holy Spirit. And suffering expedites the process. So what’s our part? To trust the process while resisting grumbling and disputing. Instead, let’s:
- humbly turn to God in prayer to vent our frustrations and voice our fears;
- entrench ourselves in Scripture for encouragement and inspiration; and
- seek the support and accountability of our community of believers.
When we do, like the apostles, we will rise above our past failures and fears and discover a deeper understanding of Christ’s grace that inspires us to grow his kingdom for his glory.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son, who, in perfect obedience to you, exhibited wisdom and innocence in fulfilling his mission. And we thank you for your Holy Spirit, who, with your Son, intercedes for us. So would you please help us to submit to your Holy Spirit as he instills wisdom and innocence in us through our trials and suffering that will enable us to stay focused on our mission? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling