Wise as serpents


What exactly does the Bible mean when it says that we should be as wise as serpents?


The phrase “wise as serpents” occurs only in Matthew 10:16, which means that is the context in which we must find the answer. Let’s start with some basic questions:

  • Who was speaking? Who was he talking to?
  • What was happening at that time?
  • When did this happen?
  • Where were they?

By reading all of Matthew 10, we learn that Jesus was speaking to his twelve apostles and only those twelve (verses 1-5 and 11:1). This was before Israel had rejected Jesus and his message, so he was still offering Israel his promised kingdom. He had not yet died and resurrected, and the church had not yet begun (meaning there were no Christians yet). Jesus had appointed these twelve men to expand his ministry by preaching his message and doing some of his miracles (verses 1, 7, and 8). They were restricted from going anywhere except to the Jewish people (verses 5-6).

With just that information, we can see this is much different than what Christians are instructed to do. We are far more than just the apostles. We preach the gospel of the cross, not the gospel of the kingdom. We do not do miracles. And we are to go into all the world, not just to the Jewish people. We should already be asking whether this chapter has a direct application and instructions for Christians.

As we continue to read the chapter, we discover that Jesus told the apostles to be “wise as serpents” (or “careful, wary,” based on Genesis 3:1) because of the persecution they would face as they carried out their mission. When we compare this chapter with the description of the Tribulation in Matthew 24 and the book of the Revelation, we discover a lot of similarities. The reason is that if Israel had accepted Jesus as Messiah and welcomed his kingdom, the Tribulation would have begun almost immediately, and the apostles needed to know how to live and minister during the next seven years before Jesus set up his kingdom.

Of course, Israel rejected Jesus, so the Tribulation and the kingdom are still future. The instructions in Matthew 10 are not for Christians. We have our instructions to share the gospel (1 Peter 3:15; Colossians 4:6), make disciples (2 Timothy 2:2), and grow in the grace and knowledge of the Savior (2 Peter 3:18). However, there is a general principle that we can see here. Several times in the church epistles, we are told to live in wisdom (Ephesians 5:15; Colossians 3:16; 4:5), so the general principle of wisdom does apply to us even though the specific instructions from Matthew 10 do not.

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