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What Is A Sheep To Do?

If you have watched National Geographic, you know nature can be a cruel place. You’ve seen the lion chase down the young zebra, the crocodile eat the unsuspecting gazelle, and the killer whale almost beach itself nabbing a seal snack. What I find interesting are the unlikely pairings that Jesus uses to teach us about the mission that He has set out before us as disciples.

Jesus says to His twelve, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16). In the context of this passage, Jesus, “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). He tells His disciples to pray to the Lord of harvest to send for reapers because the laborers are few (Matt. 9:37-38). He then calls them together and empowers them to do great things in His name (Matt. 10:1-4). Before sending them off on what is called the limited commission, as they were to only go to the “lost sheep of the tribe of Israel,” He gives them some instruction as to the details of how they were to operate while they are out teaching that the kingdom was coming (Matt. 10:5-42). In the context of teaching, preaching and evangelism, we have two pair of animals: sheep and wolves, and serpents and doves.

What can we learn from this pair of pairs? With the sheep and wolves, it is rather clear who Jesus is talking about. He tells the disciples, “I send you out as sheep.” He had previously considered the “un-pastorized” masses as sheep. The sheep are those that will be called to enter in (Matt. 25:32-34). Sheep are those that are obedient or at least true followers of Christ, the good shepherd (John 10:11, 14). Not everyone is a sheep. There are wolves. In the immediate context, the wolves are shown to be those in contrary to the message— not in word and insult only but also in violent action against the disciples. The wolves are not just those unnamed “bad people,” they are family members, brothers, sisters, parents and children who will turn against one another (10:21). What is a sheep to do?

The sheep must be as wise or shrewd as a serpent and as harmless as a dove. That is typically not what we would like to hear. Retaliation seems so much more rewarding in the moment. Jesus consoles them by saying, “Do not fear, whatever they do will be made known” (10:26); God knows you and cares for you (10:28-31); Don’t deny Me, for when you have lost your life for Me, you will have found it (10:32-39). We learn from this pairing that we are sheep, and we should expect the wolves to come. When they do, be wise and harmless with our actions and words. If we live, we live for Christ. If we die, we will be with Christ. “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).