I’ve been reading the Bible, listening to and reading teachers of the Bible, and teaching the Bible for many years. I’ve been familiar with Jesus’ instruction to his disciples in Matthew 10:16, but I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never really studied or thought much about what Jesus said.

Jesus’ instruction is crisp and to the point; but a lot of us aren’t totally sure what Jesus means. He tells them, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Note the two parts of his instruction. First, he tells them he’s sending them out. And then, based on part one, he tells them how to conduct themselves.

Calling God’s people and followers of Jesus sheep is a common designation in both the Old and New Testaments. A couple well known passages in the Old Testament are Psalm 23 and Psalm 100:3, “Acknowledge that the Lord is God! He made us, and we are his. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture” (NLT). In the New Testament there are multiple usages of the image, but the best know is Jesus’ teaching in John 10:1-10.

Jesus’ words that he is sending out his followers like sheep among wolves suggests and warns of danger because sheep have very little defense against wolves. As Jesus fulfilled his ministry both before his death, burial, and resurrection, and after his resurrection, his followers and those who would become followers had to be aware and on guard against wolves who would ridicule them, persecute them, reject them, and more.

Christians being like sheep among wolves challenges them to be shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. In that culture “snakes were symbolic of shrewdness and cunning.” Doves, on the other hand “were thought to be innocent and harmless.” One observer reminds us, “To this very day, doves are used as symbols of peace, and snakes are thought of as sneaky.”

It is true that snakes are associated with shrewdness, but one commentator suggests in his instruction Jesus was pointing to the positive aspect of wisdom (wise shrewdness) and how we should be insightful.

When Jesus told the twelve to be as wise as serpents and harmless as doves, he laid down a general principle about how his followers should carry out their calling to share the good news. I like one author’s help, “We should strive to be gentle without being pushovers, and we must be sacrificial without being taken advantage of.”

As a Christian I want to be a good example to both believers and unbelievers. When I am a sheep among wolves I don’t want to vigorously argue or belittle the wolves who believe differently than I do. What I want is to be wise, faithful, gracious, and honest. And in answering questions I am willing to say “I don’t know” when I don’t know.

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