The Bible frequently uses animals as illustrations to help us understand key points about life. In Proverbs, ants are held up as examples of being industrious (6:6), and a lion is used to describe a king’s wrath (19:12; 20:2). David warns us not to be like a horse or a mule in the way we relate to God, and Isaiah assures us that those who wait on the Lord will soar with “wings like eagles” (40:31).
Jesus occasionally uses animals to make a point in His teaching. If our heavenly Father takes care of the birds of the air (Matt. 6:26) and does not let one of them fall to the ground apart from His will (10:29), then we can be sure that He will take care of His own children.
Before the Lord sent the twelve apostles out to preach the Gospel, He warned them of the opposition and persecution they would face as they ventured out into the world as His ambassadors. To make His point, Jesus again drew analogies from the animal kingdom.
In fact, in one sentence, He mentions four different animals. “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (10:16). Our Lord teaches His followers some profound lessons by His choice of animal analogies.
First, we are like sheep. In John 10, Jesus describes Himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His people, whom He calls His sheep. Sheep are gentle and submissive animals. They are defenseless, which is why they need the protection and provision of a shepherd.
The lesson is readily apparent to anyone who understands the Gospel of God’s grace. As sinners, we are helpless before God. Our only hope is a savior, and God has provided Him for us in the person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ. Without strength and without recourse, Christians are dependent on Christ as the great Shepherd of the sheep (Heb. 13:20).
The next lesson is not so obvious. Not only are Christians like sheep, the world is also like a wolf pack. Wolves are predators. They are ravenous and dangerous. They run in packs and work together to gang up on their prey. When a wolf and sheep meet up in the wilderness, put your money on the wolf every time!
According to the “law of the jungle,” wolves will always have an advantage over sheep. They are stronger, faster, and more fierce.
So it is with Christians in the world. In one sense, believers will always be at a disadvantage because we don’t play by the same rules. The virtues that our King calls us to cultivate are meekness, gentleness, self-control, kindness, and other sheep-like qualities that no self-respecting wolf would ever desire.
Given the disparity that exists between sheep and wolves, why would people who are compared to the former ever associate with those compared to the latter? Jesus told His disciples that He intentionally sent them to be involved in the lives of unconverted people. He sends His sheep on a mission to wolves. Specifically, we are sent to call wolves to become sheep.
Though on the surface this seems like an utterly foolish mission, in reality, it is God’s way to accomplish His saving work in the world and to display His wisdom and power in the process. When sheep conquer wolves it is obvious that something supernatural has happened.
Our Lord wants His followers to see themselves as inherently helpless as He sends them into the world of unbelievers to preach the Gospel of His kingdom. Such self-awareness will cause us to trust not in our own resources but in Christ.
Furthermore, this imagery will motivate us to heed our Lord’s encouragement to be both wise and innocent as we engage people with the Gospel. He calls us to be like serpents and doves.
In Egyptian hieroglyphics serpents symbolize wisdom. This is fitting since snakes tend to operate with an admirable sort of shrewdness in avoiding danger. By itself, being compared to a snake is no compliment, but Jesus tempers the baser elements of serpentine prudence by invoking a fourth animal. Christian shrewdness must always be governed by a dove-like innocence. We are never free to sin in our efforts to be wise. This kind of guileless prudence is what we see displayed by Paul as he divided the Pharisees against the Sadducees when he stood before the Sanhedrin in Acts 23. We also see it manifested in his evangelistic strategy carried out at the Areopagus in Acts 17.
Our Lord calls His followers to take the Gospel into the world with thoughtful simplicity. We are to go with a keen awareness of our vulnerability, depending on our Shepherd to guide and defend us. As sheep among wolves, with the prudence of a serpent and the integrity and innocence of a dove, we are sent to proclaim the kingdom of