Here is a short prayer derived from Matthew 10:16 that warrants repetition and meditation:
Lord, let me be wise as a serpent, but harmless as a dove.
Christ needs his people to be gentle, but not naive. We need to be vulnerable, but not brittle; cunning yet compassionate.
As a younger man in Christ, I had the “harmless” thing down pat. Although God had given me wisdom, my wisdom was not always world-wise, which is what I think Jesus is getting at by invoking the snake. Let’s look closer at the context and the words themselves.
“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.”
In Matthew 10, Jesus is sending out the Twelve to “proclaim . . . the kingdom” to the Jews throughout the region. He bestows on them the power to heal, and instructs them to rely on the hospitality of others to meet their daily needs. Jesus then tells them he is sending them out “as sheep in the midst of wolves.” The Twelve need to be both cunning as snakes and gentle as pigeons because they need to beware of the people who reject their message and instead subject the Twelve to undeserved prosecution.
The adjective translated “wise,” “sensible,” “prudent,” or “shrewd” is phronimos. This is a different word from sophia, the more well-known Greek term for wisdom. The word denotes practical wisdom, as opposed to wisdom that involves more philosophical insights into abstractions. See Matt. 7:24 (the phronimos man builds his house on the rock); 24:45 & Luke 12:42 (the master puts the faithful and phronimos servant in charge of his household). The adjective translated “innocent” or “harmless” is akeraios, which means “not mixed,” in the sense here of being purehearted. See also Romans 16:19 — “I want to you be wise (sophous, from sophia) about what is good, but innocent (from akeraios) about what is evil” — and Philippians 2:15 (“become blameless and pure.”).
Some of us believers have dove qualities, but not enough snake qualities. People walk all over us and take advantage of us. We can be too meek and sheepish, and when this happens we are not adequately glorifying the God of Wisdom, who wants us to be wise in the ways of the world just as much as he invites us to be supernaturally humble and meek (see the parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16:1-15).
The shocking thing about Christ’s aphorism here is that he instructs his disciples to be like snakes, and snakes are typically portrayed negatively in the Bible. This got me thinking about what qualities of snakes might be useful to a person of God.
One aspect of the snake’s cunning is its heightened sensitivity to its surroundings. A snake is constantly sniffing the air with its forked tongue. Through its belly, it feels the ground-vibrations of approaching animals. It is finely attuned to smells, sights, and sounds.
Applying this, we can be more snake-like by being more attuned to our surroundings. How well do we know the people in our lives? Do we know what goes on behind-the-scenes in our worship communities? In our places of business? Are we aware of what’s happening in our culture, and around the world? Although we all need introspection, our inward focus can collapse into solipsism, and we lose our awareness of the world and people around us. Following the snake’s example, we will be more useful to God when we become aware of things in our environment — the needs of others, the activity of the powers of darkness in the world, doors of opportunity that are opening and closing.
Another aspect of the snake’s cunning is its patient strategy. Most snakes I’ve run across have put themselves in a place where prey is likely to cross their path. Once it’s in an advantageous location, the snake waits. And waits. Until the perfect moment to strike. This hunting strategy requires the snake to develop patience, self control, and the wisdom to know the perfect moment to spring into action.
My application of this observation is that we Disciples need to position ourselves in a place where we can effectively do God’s will. We need to be patient as we wait for God to send opportunities in our direction, and not force things before the Lord is ready. This requires self-control, discipline, and discernment. We must prayerfully consider what times are the best times to speak up and to take action. When the time comes, and the Lord gives us a mission or an opportunity, we need to be ready and willing to act, and to act with precision. In this way we can wisely mimic the serpent that captures the delicious mouse as it passes by the snake’s hidden perch.
So, in general and in the abstract, these are the positive qualities of snakes that believers need to develop. In the specific context of Matthew 10, the cunning of snakes is what will enable the Twelve to continue to survive and teach when there are people in the world who will “hate” them and want to imprison and kill them.
Pray this prayer so you won’t be a victim. May you be both cunning and gentle, as Christ was. Love people, but beware of them too.
Bren Hughes (M.A., M.Div., J.D.), is a lawyer and former minister who blogs at BrenHughes.com and recently authored Heaven’s Muscle: Unleashing the Power of the Spirit Within You. If this post was meaningful, share it!