Jesus spoke these words to “his twelve disciples” when he sent them forth to preach and to heal (Matt 10:1,16). He knew their preaching would arouse vigorous opposition. It was important for them to be forewarned and forearmed: they must know how to react and respond. This matter had greatly exercised his mind. He had been instructed to “resist not evil” and he knew that ultimately he would be “led as a lamb to the slaughter” (Isa 53:7). He was their example, their pattern, as he is ours. So he distils in a few telling words his command, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”

But why would he commend to them the wisdom of serpents, when the serpent’s subtlety brought sin into the world? The Hebrew word for serpent comes from a verb meaning “to observe”, and this animal was so named by Adam who had noticed its characteristics (Gen 2:20; 3:1). The serpent was able to beguile Eve who was unsuspecting, innocent and naïve; he was amoral and in no way disciplined by the fear of God or conscience. In this respect he differed from man who was made in “the image and likeness of God”. It is interesting to note that John the Baptist and Jesus both describe their detractors, the Pharisees, as a “generation of vipers” (Matt 3:7; 23:33). They were aptly so described because, while they displayed an outward show of piety, they were in reality governed by the flesh, or as Jesus put it, “are within full of dead men’s bones and of all uncleanness” (Matt 23:27). Jesus stripped off the façade and revealed their real motivation and wickedness. It is small wonder that they resolved to kill him.

How was it that Jesus was able to read so accurately the hearts of men? It was because he had been instructed by his heavenly Father: “he knew all men, and needed not that any should testify of man” (John 2:24,25). The Spirit bestowed upon him without measure made him of quick understanding in the fear of God. His judgment was not based on the hearing of the ears or the sight of the eyes (Isa 11:1–4). He could not have been sinless without a comprehensive understanding of “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life”. He was not beguiled by them as all other men have been. He was as wise, or rather wiser than a serpent, while at the same time as harmless as a dove. It was not the “wisdom” of the serpent in the garden of Eden that was evil but the serpent’s use of it to deceive and to bring about the fall of Eve. Jesus had greater wisdom but he chose to always do the things that pleased his Father because he loved Him above all else. Because he did this he has restored the way to the tree of life for men.

What relevance has this to his followers today?

We are capable both of deceiving and also of being deceived. Some of us are more credulous whilst others can be more calculating and could deceive if so motivated. We have to beware of “deceitful lusts” that war against the soul. We are susceptible to the influence of these evil desires within us that could destroy us. We have to learn about ourselves, our weaknesses, so we are not deceived and are able to combat them. But we will not be able to do this in our own strength or by our own intuition. It is the influence of the Word of God upon our minds that enlightens us and enables us to overcome. Jesus warned that “false prophets [would] show great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they [would] deceive the very elect” (Matt 24:24); and in the Apocalypse he elaborates the warning, telling his followers that the Roman Harlot system would deceive, by her sorceries, all nations (Rev 18:23).

What the deceiver does not realise is that God knows everything that runs through his head. As the Psalmist says: “Thou understandest my thought afar off” (139:2); or, as the apostle says, “all things are naked and open unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do,” the inward reasonings and motives are transparent to Him (Heb 4:12–13). The Pharisees effectively did not believe this and so Jesus pointed out what should have been an obvious truth to them when he said, “Ye fools, did not he that made that which is without make that which is within also?” (Luke 11:40). In other words, God knows exactly what is transpiring in our minds! Now this might seem scary to us. Every one of our thoughts are known to God! We cannot hide any of them. So while it might terrify us to realise this, it provides us with great incentive to purge the dross from our hearts and to foster that which is good and wholesome. That is why the fear of God is the beginning or principal part of wisdom.

Looking back over our cogitations we can see how true a couple of other comments in Scripture are. The first one is from the pen of the apostle Paul. He says, “But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived” (2 Tim 3:13). So whilst “deceivers” might be able to seduce fellow mortals, their machinations are known to God. They are themselves deceived because they do not know this. In the long term their ways will be exposed and there will be judgment accordingly. The other reference is from Job. When enumerating the powers of the Almighty he says, “With him is strength and wisdom: the deceived and the deceiver are his” (12:16). Job had no doubt observed the innocent being deceived, but he knew, too, that God was a witness, and nothing could happen which He was unaware of. In this there was comfort.

So there is in these thoughts a warning for us to always be true and sincere, open and honest, to keep our lips from speaking guile, any words that might cause others to stumble. And we can do this by limiting the world’s influence upon us whilst at the same time maximising the influence of Christ in our lives.

“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there by any virtue, and if there by any praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8).