As Jesus sent out his disciples, he wanted them to know that they would face opposition (Matthew 10:16). They would be sheep in the midst of wolves. Those who opposed the gospel would be vicious in their attacks. So Jesus urged them to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” This was not a license to lie or steal. They were to walk in obedience. But they were to act shrewdly.
I think we see a good example of this in the life of the Apostle Paul (Acts 23:6-11). Paul had returned to Jerusalem after his final missionary journey. And he had walked into a hornet’s nest. The Jews were upset with Paul because he had been proclaiming Jesus as the Promised Deliverer. Paul had even brought some of his Gentile converts back to Jerusalem with him and this infuriated the Jews. The Jews leveled false charges against Paul and had him arrested. He was eventually brought before the Jewish ruling council. The Jews were circling for blood.
But Paul acted in a very shrewd way. He recognized that the ruling council was split between two religious groups—the Sadducees and Pharisees. The main difference between these two groups was their beliefs about the future. The Pharisees believed that there would be a resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees denied the resurrection of the dead. So Paul intentionally drew attention to his own background as a Pharisee and asserted his confidence in the resurrection of the dead. Immediately, the Jewish leaders stopped attacking Paul and started arguing with each other. The inquisition was over.
Jesus’ words to his disciples are a good reminder that there will always be opposition to the gospel. We should not be disillusioned when people reject the message or attack us as the messengers. But Jesus’ words also challenge us to respond to opposition in the right way. We generally know what to say. But we need to give thought to how we say it. We ought to speak the truth. But we should strive to speak the truth effectively. There is a time to speak but there is also a time to be silent. We should not give way to anger or engage in polarizing rhetoric. Rather we should become students of culture—able to speak clearly and articulately. Snakes unnerve us precisely because they don’t announce their arrival! May God help us to be as subtle and shrewd as a snake.
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