Shrewd as Serpents?

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“Look, I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as serpents and as harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16).

As I’ve ministered to people in different situations over the years, I’ve thought about Jesus saying we should be shrewd as serpents and harmless as doves. I’ve understood the gist of what He meant, but I’ll admit I’ve puzzled over the “shrewd as serpents” part.

Genesis 3:1 says, “Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made.” The narrative goes on to say that the serpent persuaded Eve to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which God had commanded they not eat from. Eve then persuaded Adam to eat, and humanity fell into sin and separation from God.

When Jesus says to be shrewd as serpents, my mind immediately goes to the serpent in Genesis, and I think Jesus wants us to make that connection. But why would Jesus tell us to be as shrewd as a creature that tricked Adam and Eve into breaking God’s command?

At the other end of the Bible, Revelation 12:9 calls satan “the ancient serpent.” So the serpent in Genesis is the devil himself. From cover to cover, the Bible identifies serpents with satan and evil. At the risk of repeating myself, why would Jesus tell us to be as shrewd as the devil?

Today, something occurred to me (courtesy the Holy Spirit, I’m sure). As we go into the world, we have to be aware (to one degree or another) that satan and evil are realities and have to be dealt with. We have to have some knowledge of how satan thinks and of the tactics he employs. As Paul says, “For we are not ignorant of his schemes” (2 Cor. 2:11). In a word, we have to be as shrewd as the serpent.

But understanding our enemy doesn’t mean we function like him. We are to be harmless as doves, the form the Holy Spirit took at Jesus’s baptism (John 1:32). We need to go into the world with our eyes open. We can’t be naive about the damage satan can do or that he can play puppet master with billions of fallen people. But we use our awareness of satan’s schemes to heal and help people. Beyond being harmless, Jesus would have us bring the service and care of the Holy Spirit as we go into the world.

This means that even as we minister to people, some might want to harm or take advantage of us. Some have no qualms about lying or manipulating us for their own ends. Understanding this, we still go out, we still aim to be harmless even when others would deceive or harm us. That doesn’t mean we need to be stupid, fall for every con, or let people treat us like doormats. We are Christians, not Pollyannans, after all.

All of that said, the Lord might call us to be taken advantage of or even harmed (1 Cor. 6:7; 1 Peter 2:21). Sometimes darkness has its hour (Luke 22:53). But if that happens, it is on the Lord’s terms, under His control. The devil might have more leash at times, but he’s never off of it. Everything satan does ultimately works for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28-29).

I’m sure this is obvious to many of you. But I’m slow sometimes 😉 At any rate, Christians can’t live life wearing rose-colored glasses. We need to be familiar with the gritty side of life, to whatever degree the Lord wills, and to whatever degree is needed for us to help those God brings into our lives.

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