Why Did Jesus Tell His Disciples to Be “As Shrewd As Serpents?” #185
Happy Tuesday, friends! Today we are reading Joshua 2, Psalms 123, 124 and 125, Isaiah 62, and Matthew 10. Our Big Bible question is a strange one, to be sure. In Matthew 10, Jesus sends out His disciples all across Israel to heal the sick, raise the dead, cast demons out and proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God. Surprisingly, as part of their instructions, Jesus orders the disciples to be as ‘shrewd as serpents.’ This is surprising for a couple of reasons. #1, because shrewdness or craftiness doesn’t seem to be something that Jesus would particularly esteem. #2, Genesis 3 tells us that the serpent in the Garden of Eden – i.e., the Devil, was the craftiest of all of the creatures in the garden, and this doesn’t seem to be a good trait to emulate, nor a good example to follow.
When I get to a verse like this one that I struggle to understand what is being communicated, the first thing I do is read the surrounding passage and look for clues as to the meaning in the context of all of the verses around it. Let’s go read the chapter and then discuss our second step.
The context of the passage is that Jesus is sending His disciples out into a dangerous situation, and He is giving them a warning of sorts. This is helpful information, but it doesn’t quite answer our question yet, so we keep going. Step #2, at least for me, is to go to the original language and look up what it says in the Greek (for the N.T.) You don’t have to be a big Greek scholar to do this either – a website like Biblehub.com or BlueletterBible.org will help. There are two main words here that will help us understand the command of Jesus. The second important word is ὄφις óphis, which means serpent/snake, just exactly as you’d you think it would. The most important word is ‘φρόνιμος phrónimos‘ and it has a pretty wide range of meanings: intelligent, wise, prudent, cautious. The same exact word appears several other times in Matthew:
Matthew 7:24, “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”
Matthew 24:45, “Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give them food at the proper time?”
Matthew 25:1, “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the groom.2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise.“
The other times the word is used, we should note, the CSB translators chose to use ‘wise,’ rather than ‘shrewd,’ and I think that is a good choice, but I think we can look at Luke 16 to see why the translators went with ‘shrewd’ here:
Now he said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who received an accusation that his manager was squandering his possessions.2 So he called the manager in and asked, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you can no longer be my manager.’3 “Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do since my master is taking the management away from me? I’m not strong enough to dig; I’m ashamed to beg.4 I know what I’ll do so that when I’m removed from management, people will welcome me into their homes.’5 “So he summoned each one of his master’s debtors. ‘How much do you owe my master?’ he asked the first one.6 “‘A hundred measures of olive oil,’ he said.“‘Take your invoice,’ he told him, ‘sit down quickly, and write fifty.’7 “Next he asked another, ‘How much do you owe?’“‘A hundred measures of wheat,’ he said.“‘Take your invoice,’ he told him, ‘and write eighty.’8 “The master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the children of this age are more shrewd than the children of light in dealing with their own people.9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of worldly wealth so that when it fails, they may welcome you into eternal dwellings.
A most interesting parable, to be sure, and that brings us to a somewhat disturbing question: Is Jesus telling His disciples to be dishonestly crafty? Deceptive? Clever like a cat burglar? The answer could actually be yes, except that Jesus doesn’t just command His disciples to be as shrewd as snakes…He also commands them to be as innocent as doves – a paradoxical statement to His first. And herein, we find the essence of what Jesus is saying: Be clever, but not deceptively clever. Be shrewd, but not dishonestly shrewd. Be wise, but not selfishly wise. Be smart, but not in a sinful way. It is a very practical command that is also holy – Christians aren’t called to be foolish, or dumb, or dimwitted, or to invite trouble by their foolhardiness. They are called to be innocently clever, crafty with integrity, cunning, but not in a harmful or self-serving way. I believe that pastor Tim Keller rightly captures the essence of this command well:
No matter how compassionate you are, no matter what you do, since you are telling people the truth, you are calling them to repentance, there’s going to be pushback, and there can even be persecution. Now a couple of shoes have to drop. Notice a place like verse 23: “When you are persecuted one place, go to another.” Practical. Or verse 16: “I am sending you like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” That would be a good sermon right there. Isn’t that amazing? What he’s saying is, “Of course I want you to be innocent. I don’t want you to lie.” See? Innocent as doves. “But be shrewd. Do not be unnecessarily offensive.”
Think about what you’re saying. Be careful. There’s going to be pushback. There’s going to be hostility. Don’t make it worse. Don’t seek it. Don’t invite it. Of course, the main point, though, is verse 22: “All men will hate you because of me.” By the way, what that means is make sure they hate you because of Jesus, not because you’re not shrewd, not because you’re stupid, not because you actually don’t leave when you’re being …
Verse 23 says if they’re angry with you, don’t sit there and say, “Oh, I feel so noble when I’m being persecuted. I’m going to stay right here. I’m going to be so valiant for truth that I’m going to despise all of the other Christians who aren’t as persecuted as me.” None of that. This passage doesn’t breathe anything like that martyr complex.
But here is the point. Verse 22: “All men will hate you because of me.” Jesus is not saying that every single human being hates Jesus and will hate Christians. Why would there be any Christians? Obviously, people can be attracted too. What he’s saying is, “My offensiveness is pervasive and strong across the face of the human race, and if you identify with me, you’re going to get a lot of heat.”
Now why is Jesus so offensive? Isn’t that an amazing statement? Here are a couple of reasons why he is offensive. One is he’s offensive because of the enormous nature of his claims. Jesus is always saying things like, “Before Abraham was, I am,” taking the divine name, or when he says, “I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning,” just casually mentioning that, “Yeah, I’ve been around from all eternity.”
Or remember last week, if you were here? He says, “On the last day, on judgment day, people will come to me and say, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we do this?’ ” In other words, everybody on judgment day is going to come to him. That’s his claim. He’s the Judge of all the earth. He created the world. He’s the God of the world. He’s the Judge of all the world.
Now when you have claims like that, what does that do? The reason it’s offensive is it pushes us … Nobody wants this, but his claims push you to extremes. The only way to be consistent is to be extreme. You either have to say, “I have to live completely for him. He has to be the highest priority of my life. He has to be the reason I get up in the morning. Every single decision I make, everything I do, should be done to please and honor him …” I either do that, or I need to run away from this man screaming. Screaming because I’m angry at him being such a liar, or just screaming.
In Flannery O’Connor’s great short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the central character is the Misfit. He’s a criminal, and he’s killing people. At one point, he explains why he’s so mean. He says, “Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead, and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him.”
That is a more consistent response to the claims of Jesus Christ than to come to church and say, “I believe in him,” but you don’t center your whole life on him. He’s offensive because he forces us to extremes. What the Misfit said. If he did what he said, there’s nothing for you to do but throw everything away and follow him. Radical. That’s offensive.
Timothy J. Keller, The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive, 2012-2013 (New York: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2013).