Matthew 10:16

ESV “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
NIV I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.
NASB Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be as wary as serpents, and as innocent as doves.
CSB "Look, I'm sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves.
NLT Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves.
KJV Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.

What does Matthew 10:16 mean?

Jesus is sending His twelve hand-picked disciples out to be apostles; this word literally means "sent ones." They have a specific mission: proclaim the coming of the kingdom of heaven from town to town in the region of Galilee (Matthew 10:5–8).

Here, Jesus begins to describe a longer-term mission. Most likely, in this moment, the disciples would not likely have fully understood that. What Christ refers to here will mostly happen after His death, resurrection, and return to heaven. During the Last Supper, Jesus will provide similar warnings and encouragements (John 15:18–20; 16:1–4).

The metaphor Christ uses here is a striking picture. Elsewhere, Jesus spoke of Himself as the "Good Shepherd" who would die to protect His flock (John 10:11), specifically from attacking wolves (John 10:12–14). The radical difference between believers in Christ and the rest of the world is captured in the symbolism of being sheep "sent" into the midst of wolves. At first, this may seem contradictory: a literal shepherd's job is to keep sheep away from danger. Jesus, though, has empowered this group of twelve men to act on His behalf; they will be equipped to face the dangers that come with such actions.

Jewish people would have been used to thinking of themselves as sheep surrounded by Gentile wolves. Jesus, though, is claiming this metaphor for His followers. They will face both Jewish and Gentile wolves as they do the dangerous work of declaring Jesus and His kingdom to the world.

In the culture of this time, snakes were symbolic of shrewdness and cunning. Doves were so innocent as to often seem completely clueless to danger. Jesus tells His followers to exercise whatever wise shrewdness they can to avoid conflict and danger without losing the dove-like innocence that will allow them to continue to proclaim the truth without fear. It will be a hard balance to keep, but it will be necessary for the mission to be successful.

While these words are spoken to a unique group of men, they still have meaning for Christian believers, today. Jesus does not endorse naïve, shallow belief. Nor does He allow believers to be bitter cynics or spiritual brawlers. Other passages of Scripture reemphasize the need for Christians to be both informed and sensible in their spiritual lives (1 Peter 3:15–16; Colossians 2:8).
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