“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
When Jesus sends us to bear witness to him in the world, he does not send us out as dominant and strong, but as weak and seemingly defenseless in ourselves. The only reason I say “seemingly” defenseless is that it is possible that, since “all authority” belongs to Jesus, he might intervene and shut the mouths of the wolves, like he did the mouths of the lions that surrounded Daniel.
But that does not appear to be his intention. The text goes on to say that the “wolves” will deliver the “sheep” to courts, and flog them, and drag them before governors, and have parents and children put to death, and hate them, and persecute them from town to town, and malign them, and kill them (Matthew 10:17-31). So it is clear that when Jesus says he is sending us as sheep in the midst of wolves, he means that we will be treated the way wolves treat sheep.
But, even though sheep are proverbially stupid—which, on the face of it, is what it looks like when they walk toward wolves and not away from them—Jesus counters that notion by saying “be wise as serpents.” So vulnerability, not stupidity, is the point of calling us sheep. Be like snakes, not sheep, when it comes to being smart. I take that to mean that snakes are quick to get out of the way. They go under rock.
So, yes, go among wolves and be vulnerable as you preach the gospel, but when they lunge at you, step aside. When they open their mouths, don’t jump in. And not only that, be as innocent as doves. That is, don’t give them any legitimate reason to accuse you of injustice or immorality. Keep your reputation as clean as you can.
So both the snake-intelligence and the dove-innocence are both designed to keep the sheep out of trouble. Jesus does not mean for us to get ourselves into as much difficulty as possible. He means: Risk your lives as vulnerable, non-combative, sheep-like, courageous witnesses, but try to find ways to give your witness in a way that does not bring down unnecessary persecution.
This brings us to the dilemma that has faced many faithful witnesses: When do you flee from danger? And when do you embrace it and witness through it? In 1684, John Bunyan published a book called Seasonable Counsels, or Advice to Sufferers. In it, he addressed this question: When does a sufferer fly (from danger) and when does he stand (and suffer the danger)? Bunyan knew how to answer for himself. He had four children, one of them blind, and he chose to remain in prison for twelve years rather than promise not to preach the gospel. How does he answer the question for others? May we try to escape?
Thou mayest do in this as it is in thy heart. If it is in thy heart to fly, fly; if it be in thy heart to stand, stand. Anything but a denial of the truth. He that flies, has warrant to do so; he that stands, has warrant to do so. Yea, the same man may both fly and stand, as the call and working of God with his heart may be. Moses fled, Ex. 2:15; Moses stood, Heb. 11:27. David fled, 1 Sam. 19:12; David stood, 1 Sam. 24:8. Jeremiah fled, Jer. 37:11-12; Jeremiah stood, Jer. 38:17. Christ withdrew himself, Luke 19:10; Christ stood, John 18:1-8. Paul fled, 2 Cor. 11:33; Paul stood, Act 20:22-23. . . .
There are few rules in this case. The man himself is best able to judge concerning his present strength, and what weight this or that argument has upon his heart to stand or fly. . . . Do not fly out of a slavish fear, but rather because flying is an ordinance of God, opening a door for the escape of some, which door is opened by God’s providence, and the escape countenanced by God’s Word, Matt. 10:23. . . .
If, therefore, when thou hast fled, thou art taken, be not offended at God or man: not at God, for thou art his servant, thy life and thy all are his; not at man, for he is but God’s rod, and is ordained, in this, to do thee good. Hast thou escaped? Laugh. Art thou taken? Laugh. I mean, be pleased which [how]soever things shall go, for that the scales are still in God’s hand. (p. 726)
Let us be slow to judge the missionary who chooses death rather than escape. And let us be slow to judge the missionary who chooses life. Rather, let us give ourselves daily to the disciplines of word-saturation and obedience which transform us by the renewing of our minds that we may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect in the moment of absolute urgency (Romans 12:2).
Seeking to walk closely with the Master with you,