What Does it Mean to Be ‘Wise as Serpents and Innocent as Doves’?

Jesus told his disciples to be both innocent as doves and wise as serpents at the same time. We associate innocence with a childlike openness to the wonder of Christ. In the same breath, Christ exhorts his followers to be wise, a quality that one develops with maturity in Christ.

Contributing Writer
Jan 19, 2022
What Does it Mean to Be ‘Wise as Serpents and Innocent as Doves’?

Two animals could hardly be more opposite: the predatory serpent, a symbol for Satan; and the gentle dove, representing the Holy Spirit. And yet, Christ adjures his disciples to be like both of them. What did Christ mean when he told his disciples to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves?”

What Is the Context?

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves,” Christ announced to his disciples. The risk of death was extremely high. The disciples were going into a world of predatory unbelievers; people who did not know the gospel, who saw the 12 as vulnerable prey, and who were happy to take advantage of their weakness.

This weakness was, in fact, a gentleness which (when witnessed by people who were not hostile to Christ and his followers) was actually a strength. This weakness was a manifestation of great faith and submission to the Lord.

The disciples decreased so that others could recognize Christ as their Messiah and teacher. They were given “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction” (Matthew 10:2), not to be warriors and bullies.

Formidable power indeed, but the Pharisees and others responded to their power with hostility. They didn’t recognize that power because they expected their Messiah and his followers to be more like a general and his soldiers.

What Is the Wisdom of Serpents?

John Piper says, “Snakes are quick to get out of the way. They go under [a] rock” when faced with potential danger. Snakes aren’t usually aggressive, not as a first resort. They wisely remove themselves from situations in which they would be threatened if they were found out in the open. While we think of snakes as frightening predators, God made serpents, and he made them wise.

As Piper points out, Christians also go into a world of potential dangers. Many of them face real physical danger because of their beliefs, but even those who live in countries, which tout religious freedom will be subject to rejection and abuse.

But they can avoid danger by wisely choosing when to stay and when to leave a situation. Christ advised his disciples “whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart” (v.11).

Go where you are welcome. There is no use standing in front of the deaf and blind, sharing the gospel, and expecting groups of angry and stubborn detractors to suddenly change their minds.

They are too busy listening to their own arguments against Jesus, and some will be angry that you want to tell them they are sinners even though you bring the good news of their Savior.

Christ’s command is that we witness to all people, including the wolves. Still, “when they lunge at you, step aside,” Piper explains. “When they open their mouths, don’t jump in” (Ibid.).

Innocent as Doves

Piper also explains that being innocent as doves means one does not “give [unbelievers] any legitimate reason to accuse you of injustice or immorality. Keep your reputation as clean as you can” (Ibid.).

Although Christians are still sinners, the meaning and purpose of their lives have changed. No longer do they seek their own will and pleasure, but the will and pleasure of God. “Delight in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).

That is, if one loves the Lord, he or she invites a heart change, which the Holy Spirit undertakes day by day. Sanctification empowers Christians to love the unlovable neighbor, knowing that he or she was unlovable without Christ.

Out of a changed and continually changing heart, this person desires to give Christ a good reputation. A Christian does not want to provide people any excuse to abuse his name. This is, in part, also important to the safety of the sheep — Christ’s followers who are not, in fact, mindless followers. A gentle witness is also less likely to provoke violence.

Moreover, gentleness promotes a redemptive perspective, which seeks the best for others instead of oneself and which also sees the value in all people.

This makes it far easier to determine when it is wise to keep talking, keep pushing, and also easier to do so in a way that the other person regards as loving.

The innocence of a dove sees through exterior gruffness or dirtiness to the image of God in each person in a childlike way — without prejudice.

How Can Christians Be Both Wise and Innocent?

Jesus told his disciples to be both innocent and wise at the same time. We associate innocence with a childlike openness to the wonder of Christ. In the same breath, Christ exhorts his followers to be wise, a quality which one develops with maturity in Christ.

Approaching unbelievers with news they need but do not want to hear (that they are sinners in need of a Savior who has come) requires a kind of childish fearlessness, the belief that all people must love Jesus.

Yet, one must be ready for a dangerous reaction too. Jesus appears to be telling his followers not to get jaded, but do not let gentleness blind them to the real dangers around them.

Choosing Gentleness Wisely

How do Christians know when to stand and when to evade abuse? Even Christ fled from the church at Nazareth when the congregation threatened to kill him (Luke 4). Later, of course, he went willingly to the cross, aware that his time had come.

Kevin DeYoung wrote that “we ought to pursue the course of action we think will best serve the cause of the gospel.”

A close examination of the circumstances under which Paul and Barnabas chose to flee their enemies reveals that “when an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, they learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country, and there they continued to preach the gospel” (Acts 14:5-7).

DeYoung imagines what might have been going on in Paul’s and Barnabas’ minds: “to die by a secret plot here in Iconium doesn’t seem best for the mission God has given us” (Ibid.).

They didn’t care about being hated, but they wanted to spread the gospel further, so they escaped in order to do that in other cities. Dying then and there would have served no purpose.

Both Paul’s and Christ’s executions were public events. For each one, publicity went some way towards spreading the Lord’s fame. There were many witnesses, including Roman officials and scribes who recorded history.

Whereas Jesus was One with God, and he knew when he had to die, Paul was a human: he had to be wise as a snake in order to know he was finished trying to evade his executioners. Yet, he never lost his innocent and gentle stance.

Paul declared to Agrippa, “I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am — except for these chains” (Acts 26:29).

In spite of being imprisoned, put on public trial, and accused of being out of his mind, Paul was not hostile. He regarded and treated his accusers with love and shared the mercy of Christ with them.

Stealthy, Not Sneaky

Jesus’ ministry was out in the open. He attracted considerable notice everywhere he went. Paul said of Agrippa regarding his own missional activities, “I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner” (Acts 26:26).

While their opponents plot and scheme, Christians do not employ deceitful tactics. While we must be out in the open about who we are, it is possible to choose our audience wisely, according to the Lord’s direction, sought in both personal and corporate prayer with fellow believers.

For further reading:

What Is the Spiritual Gift of Wisdom?

Why Does God Let the Innocent Suffer?

Why Is the Dove Often a Symbol for the Holy Spirit?

What Are Modern Examples of a ‘Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing’?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Melissandra

Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.

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