After His warning about those who reject the disciples’ message, He gives us this essential advice: “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16). These enigmatic words have been discussed many times by biblical experts, and there seems to be agreement that we are to proclaim the gospel in a way that is not foolish, careless, or annoying. This means that we should be careful not to add extra barriers to the natural offense of the gospel. It also means that we need to learn wise ways as we speak about Jesus. If people are going to hate us because we want to be faithful witnesses of Jesus, at least we need to avoid unnecessary provocation of their anger and contempt for the gospel. John Calvin comments on this passage:
The reason is drawn from the necessity of the case: for if they did not wisely exercise caution, they might be immediately devoured by the wolves; and, on the other hand, if they trembled at the rage of the wolves, or were incautious, they would presently waver, and would at length fail to perform their duty.
Jesus’ advice about how to face the dangers of preaching the gospel is first to be wise, but the second element in His words is as important. He says that we are also called to be “innocent” or, in other words, harmless, tame, gentle, humble. It seems that to be effective as messengers of the kingdom, we need to learn how to have a humble disposition that will be congruent with our faith in a humble Savior. Our highest duty before Christ is not only to preach the gospel and to be His faithful followers but also to have our hearts transformed in the process as we identify ourselves as the chosen people of God. The Apostle Peter reminds us of our new gospel identity:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)
To proclaim in an effective way the excellencies of Jesus, we need a new personality that displays this unique powerful combination of being wise and humble, full of grace and truth, being strong and merciful, not afraid of men but at the same time not reckless, indifferent, or dismissive.
This combination of Christian virtues transformed the humble followers of Jesus during the first centuries into effective witnesses of the gospel. They fought and won against the cruelty of the Roman Empire without conventional weapons or social uprisings. It seems that their delight and true faith in the death and the resurrection of Christ and their hope in the promise of everlasting life were enough to set their hearts on fire and at the same time to exhibit a humble and gracious attitude toward their enemies.
As we proclaim the message of the gospel in a secular, relativistic, and self-centered world, Jesus’ words of warning and advice are still crucial: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16).