Wise as Serpents, Harmless as Doves

In sending His disciples into the places where they were to preach the gospel, Jesus told them to “Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). He prefaced this with the warning: “Behold, I send you out as sheep [‘lambs,’ Luke 10:3] in the midst of wolves” (Verse 15).

By learning about the nature of serpents and doves, we can understand better how we are to conduct ourselves as Christ’s servants in our community, especially a hostile one. As the apostle Paul said, “His [God’s] invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Romans 1:20).

First, then, how did God make or create the serpent? The outstanding characteristic of the serpent is its eyes, which never shut; it has no eyelids. The Greek word for serpent or snake is ophis. The root oph occurs in the word ophthalmology (the science treating disorders of the eyes).

Christ told His disciples to “Watch and pray” (Matthew 26:41).  To “watch” is to be awake.   In a dangerous situation one cannot be careless but watchful, awake and alert.  Like a serpent that doesn’t blink its eyes!

This does not mean that we should not sleep at all! As physical creatures, we all need a fair amount of sleep. But whenever we are awake, we are to be watchful and “circumspect” – looking around. As Paul admonished: “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise” (Ephesians 5:15).

Speaking in the spiritual sense, Paul tells us: “Therefore let us not sleep, as others do.  But let us be watchful and sober” (1 Thessalonians 5:6). He said this in the context of watching the signs of the times before the “day of the Lord [Christ’s return], which comes as a thief in the night” (Verse 2) – unexpectedly. He particularly warned about a time when men would proclaim “Peace and safety,” but sudden destruction would come upon them instead |(Verse 3).  Paul admonished:  “But let us who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation” (Verse 8).  Notice how similar this is to Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 6:14-18.  As Christian “soldiers,” we cannot let our guard down as we battle the forces of evil in this present world, which Christ likened to a pack of ravenous wolves!

As for being harmless as doves, the dove is a well-known symbol of peace, in contrast to the preying hawk. The Christian’s dove-like spirit of gentleness and meekness makes for peace; whereas violence and pride make for war. Hardly anyone feels threatened by a dove. The American humorist James Thurber wondered how anyone could feel excited with doves.

So gentle and harmless are doves (and their close relatives, the pigeons) that they get along well. The now-extinct passenger pigeon multiplied so much that when a flock of them flew together, the sky darkened, according to ancient lore!

Like harmless doves, Christians can become –and in the past were – the target of persecution and violence, as witnesses The Book of Martyrs.  Many more (like God’s “two witnesses” of Revelation 11:3-13) will become martyrs for the faith of Christ.  But Jesus assures them of ample reward in God’s soon-coming kingdom (Matthew 5:10-12).  God be praised!


Pedro R. Meléndez, Jr.