Matthew 10:16 ERV: "Listen! I am sending you, and you will be like sheep among wolves. So be smart like snakes. But also be like doves and don’t hurt anyone."
Up until this point in their walk with Jesus the disciples had stayed close to Him. In Matthew 10:5, however, we learn that Jesus thought they were ready to be sent out from him on a kind of test-run for what they were going to do after His departure. He gave them the power to cast out demons and to heal the sick (Matthew 10:1) and their assignment was to preach the gospel and put these gifts into practice. Our verse for today is part of the specific instruction Jesus gave them before they left.
First of all, we learn that the disciples were sent out by Jesus. In other words, they were not going out on their own and on their own initiative. They were disciples under authority with a specific mission assigned to them by Jesus himself. They were not false prophets.
Second, they would be like sheep among wolves. Jesus was sending them as innocent and harmless messengers of grace into a savage world full of violent persecutors who would oppose the message. The disciples would have to learn that in a world full of trouble, Jesus, the true shepherd of the sheep, had overcome the world (John 16:33).
Third, given their position as sheep among wolves, they needed to be smart like snakes. The wisdom of the snake is its ability to avoid detection. The disciples should not unnecessarily provoke the wolves into an active opposition to the gospel. They should be prudent and cautious in everything they do in order to guarantee the success of their mission.
Finally, the disciples should be harmless like doves. Although they needed to be wise like serpents in order to avoid detection, they were not to use this wisdom in order to sneak up on people and hurt them. Rather, the guile of the serpent should be used to heal and deliver people from the real serpent--Satan himself.
Jesus’ instruction to His disciples on their test-run still applies to His disciples today. We should not go out unless we are sent; since we are sheep among wolves, we must use wisdom and prudence in the way we present the gospel; and we should help people and not hurt them.