I recently spoke at a New Year’s Eve event where several other pastors and I were asked to share what we felt God was saying to the Church for 2016. As I prepared my sermon I asked God, “What do You want to say to Your Church?” I then felt the Lord lead me to read Matthew 10, and I came across this familiar passage:
Matthew 10:16 – Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
My immediate thought was: “Here goes Jesus again, saying some crazy stuff to challenge His disciples.” As you read the gospels, you see that He did this quite often. But as I read Matthew 10:16, I strongly felt this is what God wanted me to talk about at the event. After some prayer and study on the text, I began to see what I believe Jesus was saying to these first disciples and how it correlates to what I feel God is saying to His Church throughout all of time.
Jesus uses animals as symbolism in this passage to teach a point. This type of symbolism was very common in many ancient Eastern texts. Many consider it a form of the literary device, anthropomorphism. The four animals Jesus uses are sheep, wolves, serpents, and doves. So what point is Jesus making with this comparison?
Sheep tend to convey characteristics of dependency, vulnerability, and a need to be shepherded. In contrast, wolves are generally viewed as animals that devour or prey on the weak. I believe the big idea that Jesus is teaching with these first two examples is that as followers of Christ, we live in a world that is hostile to the ways of the Kingdom of Heaven; the Kingdom of Heaven is actually counter-cultural to the kingdom of the earth and therefore there is a resistance or hostility towards it. However, this is not the time for the church to try to prove how tough she is with a fight back mentality. Instead, we must remain as sheep – as those who are dependent upon Jesus, ‘The Good Shepherd,’ to lead us in this world of hostility.
In John 16:33 Jesus said: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” The question for the Christian has never been one of, if you face adversity, but rather, when you face adversity, take heart, because Jesus is still in control and has triumphed over all things. A great mentor of mine used to say, “Jesus never said it would be easy, He simply promised that it would be worth it.”
The next two animal symbols that Jesus uses in Matthew 10:16 are snakes and doves, and He connects the adjective “wise” with snakes and “innocent” with doves. What point could Jesus be making?
The word wise means the ability to discern what is right and what needs to be addressed. In 2016, I believe Jesus is calling His beloved Church to be wise – to discern in the midst of hostility what needs to be addressed, how to address it, and then, what things should be avoided. If you follow social media for any amount of time, you will see the vast array of culture wars going on between Christians and non-Christians and even among believers. This not only causes so much division within the Body of Christ, but it also presents many Christians as being antagonistic, always looking for a fight, or ready to prove a point. I believe this portrays the Church as an undesirable community for many looking in from the outside.
The challenge for the church throughout history has always been: when do we avoid evil, and when do we stand in the face of evil? It is imperative that we ask ourselves in a spirit of wisdom, what mountain we want to die on. Not every cultural war is worth going to battle over. This doesn’t mean that we cower from our conviction or that we change our conviction on certain topics. It simply means that we remind ourselves of the mandate given to us by Jesus to proclaim the simplicity of the gospel, which is “Good News”. Sometimes I think we complicate that mandate and misunderstand fighting culture wars as contending for the gospel. For instance, standing up for what is known as a religious liberty in America, but often is not a religious liberty in many other nations, or throughout Church history for that matter, is not the same as contending for the gospel. Don’t get me wrong, religious liberties are nice and convenient. However, even if they are taken away, it in no way changes the mandate on every believer’s life to proclaim the gospel news of the Kingdom of Heaven. To “Make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19).
In Matthew 10:16 Jesus calls us to be wise and to be innocent. The word innocent means having no ulterior motives; to be untainted, blameless, of good reputation. I believe it is imperative that the Church allow the Holy Spirit to purge us of all selfish motivation and help us to become the pure, spotless bride that Paul spoke about in Ephesians 5. Let us continually remind ourselves that righteousness first starts in the House of God. I believe there needs to be a time of healing and reconciliation within the Church so that she may be restored back to a reputable place and position of trust and loyalty. Every year, there seem to be more and more exposures of greed, fraud, adultery, pedophilia, etc. of those who proclaim to be followers of Christ. Ironically, many times those whose sins come to light were often the loudest voices spewing out venom and hate in their attempt to “stand for righteousness”. Every believer needs to check their motives individually so the Church can be found blameless once again. Not perfect, but blameless.
Finally, as I’ve studied Church history, I see that the Church has rarely struggled in the face of persecution and many times has actually flourished. I had the privilege of working with the underground Church in China back in 2002 and saw firsthand how powerful and healthy the Church in China has grown under decades of government oppression. On the other hand, much of the church in the West has often not done well during seasons of what many would call prosperity and blessing. I believe it is in the face of adversity and hostility that many of the motives of those within the Church will be exposed.
So let us head to the words of Jesus in this New Year and, “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Let us choose wisely what we need to contend for and have hearts that are not contaminated by selfish motives in doing so.