"Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; therefore, be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matt. 10:16).
This is a brief Bible study. (Just so you'll know. Smiley-face here.)
For Christian workers, one of the most significant Scripture passages is the commission the Lord gave His disciples just before sending them out on a short-term assignment. This is found in Matthew 10 and Luke 10. In Luke's account, the commissioning takes 16 verses, but in Matthew's, it's a full 42 verses—so therefore, my favorite, since it's far more helpful.
At that point, the 12 apostles were something like seminary students, preachers in training with diverse backgrounds and limited experience. (Some of us used to stand on the street corners in the French Quarter preaching. And, we roamed up and down the sidewalks with handfuls of tracts talking to strangers. We were in boot camp, learning how to talk to people about Jesus.) That's what was happening with these disciples.
Matthew's account of the commissioning divides into two sections:
I. Matt. 10:1-15 gives temporary one-time only instructions. How do we know these were temporary, for that time only? By the context.
- The Lord directs the disciples (the 12 plus another 70, according to Luke 10:1) not to go to Gentiles, for instance, a condition reversed later in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20).
- They were to heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons, etc., instructions not part of the Great Commission as stated in Matt. 28:18-20, Mark 16:15, Luke 24:47-48, and John 20:21, as well as Acts 1:8 (the spurious ending of Mark's Gospel notwithstanding).
- And in particular, Matt. 10:9-10 tells disciples to do this completely by faith, living "off the land" as we say. But in Luke 22:35-36, Jesus reverses this, telling them to take money, if you have a sword bring it along, if you don't have one, go get one, and so forth.
- "The one who has endured to the end shall be saved." I don't know. I know a lot of interpretations, but none are very satisfactory.
- "You will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes." Again, I'm not sure. On the surface, it appears to belong to the earlier portion, verses 1-15. But there is no way to know for sure.
- Expect to be treated the way they treated Jesus (10:24-25). The servant is no better than his master, the pupil no better than his teacher. You see how they treated Jesus, so get ready because you're next. (The implication is we should not complain. He told us from the first. I love the example of Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail in Acts 16:25. Some of us would have been accusing the Lord of betraying us. "O Lord, where are you? Why have you left us? Why have you allowed these people to treat us this way when all we were doing was trying to help?" Instead, Paul and Silas honor the Lord in the middle of their suffering, and God uses it. Like Caesar and his officials, the jailer and prisoners were listening in and hearing the gospel.
- Expect to be bold and confident, unafraid. Do not fear these people for these reasons:
- Expect to confess Jesus publicly and not to be His undercover agent or secret disciple (10:32-33). "Whoever confesses me here, I will confess before the Father; whoever denies me here, I will also deny before the Father."
- Expect the immediate results of your ministry to be division, not peace. (10:34-39). But, what about the angels' prediction about "peace on earth" in Luke 2:14? Answer: Before the peace of Christ rules in mens' hearts, it will divide them, as they oppose the Truth and resist Him. But to those who submit to Christ, "the peace of God which passes understanding" will be their reality (Phil. 4:6).
Therefore, we conclude that Matt. 10:1-15 is in a category by itself, intended for that single missionary endeavor.
Those who study their Bible seriously and do not take it as a book of magic know the importance of studying a text in context, meaning in its full surroundings. That's how we know that Matt. 10:1-15 are not instructions for us today.
II. Matt. 10:16-42 gives instructions for the Lord's disciples for all time.
The information, promises, cautions and instructions found here have never been rescinded and are repeated in one form or other throughout the New Testament. As a minister on the front lines for Jesus, I have found myself returning to this section of the Word again and again.
"I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; therefore, be shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves." How's that for one sentence with four animal metaphors! Sheep are victims and wolves are carnivores; serpents are subtle (see Gen. 3:1) or "crafty." The KJV says, "be wise as serpents." The point is to use your head, and not to be stupid or naive, not gullible or sitting ducks for the enemy. But, on the other hand, we are to be innocent ("harmless," KJV) as doves and not pugilistic.
Say, Lord? Excuse me. Do you know what wolves do to sheep?
He does indeed. Jesus was fully aware of the meaning of this metaphor. His people are not sent out as warriors to kill and maim, to aggressively wage warfare against people, but as sheep or doves, and thus defenseless and vulnerable. We are sent forth armed with "left-handed power," meaning the power of love and humility, service and kindness.
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