Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; (10:16a)
In saying, Behold, Jesus indicated His desire for the twelve to pay special attention to what He was about to say. He had spoken of the unbelieving multitudes as being like “sheep without a shepherd” (9:36), and He had delegated miraculous powers to the twelve (10:8). Based on such input it could have seemed to the apostles that they were destined to be powerful wolves who would go out with invincibility to conquer the defenseless, unbelieving sheep of the world. But the Lord here made it clear that the world’s “sheep” are not really defenseless and that the apostles’ powers—divinely endowed and marvelous as they were—would not prevent them from suffering from the hands of men. They, and the rest of His followers until He returns again, would be the real sheep. In that paradoxical truth Jesus graphically pointed up the tensions between our vulnerability and our invincibility—between our weakness in ourselves and our strength in Him, between the power of hateful persecution and the power of loving submission, and between the worldly power of the flesh and the supernatural power of the Spirit.
Sheep are perhaps the most dependent, helpless, and stupid of all domesticated animals. They are as often panicked by harmless things as by those that are dangerous. And when real danger does come, they have no natural defense except running, and they are not very good at that.
In A Shepherd Looks at the Twenty-third Psalm, Philip Keller gives many insights from his long experience as a shepherd in Canada. He points out that because sheep are so indiscriminate in their choice of vegetation to eat, it is necessary to carefully protect them from eating poisonous weeds. Because they are highly vulnerable to weather extremes and to infections and disease, they must be regularly and individually checked for dangerous symptoms, for cuts and abrasions, and for insects and parasites that can harm them. Flies buzzing around their eyes and ears have been known to so irritate and frighten sheep that they beat their heads against trees or rocks until they are dead. Sometimes flies will lay eggs in a sheep’s eyes and ultimately cause blindness. In trying to escape real or imagined danger, sheep will sometimes panic into a blind stampede, and pregnant ewes will lose their lambs from the running and sometimes even their own lives from utter exhaustion.
But the sheep’s greatest enemy is predators, the worst of which in Palestine and in many other parts of the world has always been wolves. People in Palestine understood the nature of sheep and the danger of wolves. They knew how difficult the task of the shepherd was simply to keep his sheep alive, much less healthy and contented.
Most shepherds did not themselves own the flocks but tended them on behalf of the owners. When a sheep was killed, the shepherd was required to bring back a piece of its torn flesh or some other part of its body to prove it had indeed been killed by a wild animal rather than stolen by a thief or perhaps sold by a dishonest shepherd.
Jesus clearly identifies the sheep as you, that is, His disciples—the twelve and, by extension, all of His disciples yet to come.
The normal danger for sheep is that wolves come in among them. But here Jesus told the twelve, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. He called them to go into the wolves’ own territory, to walk into the very maw of their enemies. Jesus is the perfect Good Shepherd, who loves His sheep with a divine love, who intimately knows them and is known by them, and who lays down His life for them (John 10:11–15). But in the figure of the sheep and wolves, Jesus gave a graphic illustration of the rejection and persecution by a God-hating world they would face because of Him. So before the twelve went out into their first brief and relatively undemanding service for the Lord, He set before them the cost of discipleship. Just as He did not escape opposition and persecution, neither would they (cf. John 15:18–27; 16:33).
The world will continue to make raids on the church just as wolves make raids on flocks of sheep. “I know that after my departure,” Paul said, “savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29). In his Romans letter he spoke of believers being looked on by the world as “sheep to be slaughtered” (8:36). Jesus had already warned His followers of “the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt. 7:15).
It is consistent with their predatory nature for wolves to come into a flock in the field and even into the sheepfold to attack, mutilate, and devour the sheep. But it is not natural or consistent with their nature for sheep to voluntarily walk into the wolves’ own den. And it is unnatural for a shepherd to send his sheep into such certain peril. Yet that is where Jesus, the Good Shepherd, sends His disciples—into the hostile world of ungodly souls, because that is where they can serve Him best and be most effective in winning others to Him. The apostles, and to various extents every believer after them, would be sent out defenseless in themselves among evil, rapacious, vicious, God-hating mankind.
We do not hear much preaching today of sinners needing to count the cost of salvation and repenting of sin in confessing the lordship of Christ, or of coming to Him humbly, devoid of pride and self-trust, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and entering the narrow gate and walking the narrow road of righteousness. Rarely are Christians called to take up their crosses and follow Christ in moving out into the world as sheep led to slaughter. The popular appeal is to ease, comfort, riches, advancement, and ambition—and the church often uses that kind of enticement to motivate unbelievers to trust in Christ and to motivate believers to follow Him. But Jesus makes no such offer. To the disciple He promises hardship, suffering, and death.
To present the gospel dishonestly and misleadingly is to be unfaithful to the Lord and to those to whom we present it. Because of false promises, many unredeemed people remain on the broad road that leads to destruction while being under the delusion they are on the road to life. Many believers are confirmed in spiritual mediocrity and unfruitfulness, thinking their health, wealth, and material success is the certain mark of divine approval. Still other believers are disillusioned and embittered because their lives of obedience, faithfulness, and sacrifice for Christ have not been materially rewarded.
After the siege of Rome in 1849, Garibaldi said to his soldiers, “Men, all our efforts against superior forces have been unavailing. I have nothing to offer you but hunger and thirst, hardship and death. But I call on all who love their country to join with me.” After the Allies were forced to evacuate Dunkirk in 1940, Churchill said to his fellow Englishmen, “All I can offer you is blood, sweat, and tears.”
If those human leaders refused to send out their fellow countrymen to war under false pretenses, how much less would the divine Son of God! Jesus does not send out His followers without warning about the demands and dangers of discipleship. Nor did His apostles mislead the early church about what belonging to Christ would cost. As he wrote to encourage and strengthen Timothy, his son in the faith, Paul also assured him that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). Godly lives are not marked by continual suffering and hardship inflicted on them by the unbelieving world. Neither the life of Jesus nor the lives of the apostles were characterized by uninterrupted hardship and persecution. But faithfulness to God guarantees that at some times and to some degree Satan and his world system will exact a price for it.
therefore be shrewd as serpents, and innocent as doves. (10:16b)
In Egyptian hieroglyphics, as well as in much ancient lore, serpents symbolize wisdom. They were considered to be shrewd, smart, cunning, cautious. In that characteristic, at least, Christians are to emulate serpents.
Paul advises believers, “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity” (Col. 4:5). Servants of the Lord are to be shrewd and cunning in dealing with the unbelieving world around them.
The basic idea is that of saying the right thing at the right time and place, of having a sense of propriety and appropriateness, and of trying to discover the best means to achieve the highest goal. It is neither wise nor loving to be needlessly accusatory or inflammatory. When the Pharisees attempted to trap Jesus into either defending or condemning the Roman government by asking Him about paying taxes to Caesar, He did not take the occasion to vilify Caesar or the Roman government—vile, debauched, unjust, and ungodly as they were. Nor did He condone their wickedness. He replied simply, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). It is neither brave nor wise, and neither spiritual nor loving, to needlessly incite anger or court trouble.
As the most harmless and gentle of birds, doves represent being pure, or innocent, another characteristic of the faithful disciple of Christ. Being true to God’s Word and uncompromising in proclaiming the gospel does not require, and should never include, being abrasive, course, inconsiderate, belligerent, blatant, or blunt.
Wisdom and innocence, cunning and gentleness, are handmaids of discretion. No apostle was more uncompromising of the gospel than Paul; yet he declared,
I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. (1 Cor. 9:19–22)
Innocence involves more than simply avoiding negative attitudes and approaches. It also involves the positive attribute of purity. Godly wisdom has no part in anything that is impure, deceitful, or defiling. It is always the ally of truth and righteousness. Nothing untruthful or unethical can enhance the gospel or make its witness more effective. Paul assured the Thessalonian believers that his preaching and teaching of the gospel did “not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit” (1 Thess. 2:3). Integrity and honesty are practical manifestations of truthfulness, without which an otherwise orthodox presentation of the gospel is distorted and weakened.
We are to be like our Lord Himself, our great “high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled” (Heb. 7:26). We are to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us (Luke 6:27). Jesus is again our model, because He “committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet. 2:23). In following our Lord’s example, “when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we try to conciliate” (1 Cor. 4:12–13).
When Paul was brought before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, the high priest Ananias ordered him to be struck in the mouth. In a moment of unguarded anger the apostle replied, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! And do you sit to try me according to the Law, and in violation of the Law order me to be struck?” (Acts 23:3). When he was rebuked by some bystanders for reviling the high priest, Paul immediately apologized, saying, “I was not aware, brethren, that he was high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people’ ” (v. 5). What Paul had said to the high priest was perfectly true, and certainly understandable from a human point of view. But it was not appropriate, not only because it was said to the high priest but because it was said in self-defensive anger. It was not the wise and righteous thing to say.
16 The first part of v. 16 has a close parallel in Luke 10:3, part of the commission to the seventy-two. Because it is short and aphoristic, it is impossible to be certain how many times Jesus said it. Here it links the preceding pericope with the following warnings about persecution. The verse goes as well with what succeeds as what precedes.
Jesus pictured his disciples, defenseless in themselves, located in a dangerous environment. This is where he himself was sending them. The shepherd in this metaphor sends his sheep into the wolf pack (cf. 7:15; Jn 10:12; Ac 20:29). Therefore they must be phronimoi (“shrewd,” GK 5861) as serpents, which in several ancient Near Eastern cultures were proverbial for prudence. But prudence can easily degenerate into cheap cunning unless it goes with simplicity. The disciples must prove not only “shrewd” but akeraioi (“innocent”; used elsewhere only in Ro 16:19; Php 2:15). Yet innocence becomes ignorance, even naïveté, unless combined with prudence.
The dove was not an established symbol. In Hosea 7:11, a dove is pictured as “easily deceived and senseless.” In a late midrash the serpent-dove contrast appears (“God saith to the Israelites: ‘Towards me they are sincere as doves, but toward the Gentiles they are cunning as serpents’ ” [Cant. Rab. 2:14]). Yet not only is this midrash late; the contrast is not at all what Jesus had in mind. His followers were to be not prudent toward outsiders and innocent toward God, but both prudent and innocent in their mission to outsiders. In this light the dove image becomes clear. Doves are retiring but not astute; they are easily ensnared by the fowler. So Jesus’ disciples, in their mission as sheep among wolves, must be “shrewd,” avoiding conflicts and attacks where possible, but they must also be “innocent,” i.e., not so cautious, suspicious, and cunning that circumspection degenerates into fear or elusiveness. The balance is difficult, but not a little of Jesus’ teaching combines such poles of meaning (see comments at 7:1–6).
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Vol. 2, pp. 198–202). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, pp. 286–287). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.