“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16 ESV).
I once came across a recipe for Chocolate Sauerkraut Cake and said to myself, “That can’t be right!” The recipe claimed it was an “adventurous” cake — moist, containing the texture of coconut but without the flavor of sauerkraut. “How is that possible?” I thought.
That’s how I felt when I first read about Jesus sending His disciples out with the counsel to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” How is that possible? Can snakes and doves get along? Can wisdom and innocence reside in the same person at the same time? If wisdom is primarily obtained through life’s hard-knock experiences, then one would think innocence would be lost in the process. If a parent wanted to maintain a child’s innocence throughout his or her life, that parent would need to shelter the child from any harsh experiences but thereby, inadvertently, inhibit any growth in wisdom. Yet, Jesus was clear in his admonition, “Go. Be wise. And be innocent at the same time.” I was intrigued and wanted to seek this matter out.
I started my research by looking into the definitions of wise and innocent. “Wise” in this Scripture is the Greek word φρόνιμοι (phronimoi) which means prudent, sensible, or practically wise in relationships with others. It’s how we size things up. In place of “wise,” other translations use the words shrewd, cunning, prudent, sagacious, or wary. That is why He compared this kind of wisdom to being snakelike. “Be shrewd. Be discerning,” Jesus warned. After all, He was sending His disciples out as “sheep among wolves.”
How are serpents wise? They are pros at escaping. Their most common form of self-protection isn’t biting but avoidance. A snake’s first line of defense is to escape to safety among rocks or vegetation. Most snakes are not aggressive; they bite humans only in self-defense. They would rather not confront us. Snakes detect and avoid danger, while giving no provocation or offense.
Therefore, it seems to me that Jesus was saying we can be wise as serpents by perceiving and avoiding danger and escaping from it. That doesn’t sound very bold, does it? But it is wise. Proverbs 27:12 says, “The prudent (shrewd, sensible) see danger and take refuge, but the simple (naive, foolish) keep going and suffer for it.” How often have we sensed God’s voice saying, “Don’t go any further,” but we keep going and suffer for it? Especially, in our interactions with others in these volatile times, we must be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.” (James 1:19b)
Now let’s add the doves into our recipe for wisdom and innocence. What does it mean to be as innocent as doves? The Greek word for innocent is ἀκέραιοι (akeraioi). It literally means unmixed. It’s interpreted as simple, unsophisticated, sincere, and blameless. Used of wine without water and of metal without alloy, it means without any mixture of deceit. Other translations use the words pure, simple, and harmless. To be harmless is to lack the capacity to injure or hurt.
But how are doves innocent? The innocence of the dove is seen in two ways.
Doves have no gallbladder. As the dove is without a gallbladder, so we are to be without any place to store gall, which represents bitterness. That said, the dove’s liver still produces bile or gall, but it is diverted into sinuses, and then passed directly into the gut, skipping the storage step for which we use our gallbladders. Isn’t it interesting that humans store their bile (gall) while doves quickly process it and do not store it? How often do we “store up” our bile of bitterness and our gall of deceit, fraud, and desire to hurt?
Doves are harmless. In contrast with powerful birds of prey, doves have a meek and gentle quality. They are beautiful, swift-flying birds that are entirely nonthreatening.
Romans 16:19 ISV instructs us to “be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.”
Philippines 2:15 NASB says, “so that you may prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world.”
“Being wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove means that you know how the enemy is operating, and you are choosing not to operate in that way.” ~ Lance Wallnau
Summary: As Jesus sends us out to be messengers to this generation, He does not want our wisdom to be malicious nor our simplicity to be taken advantage of. Rather, He would have us be an exquisite, lovely union of the shrewdness of a snake with the purity of a dove as demonstrated in Christ. The end result will be like the Chocolate Sauerkraut Cake – an adventurous mixture where one ingredient doesn’t contradict the other but enhances and elevates it. We can be both savvy and simple, insightful and innocent!