By Josiah Espinoza| November 21st, 2018
Matthew 10:16- Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
I have been contemplating this verse for about a year now. What are the implications of Jesus’ words? Why a snake and a dove? What is Christ warning us about and how does the snake and the dove play into his message? After doing a quick google search I came across this picture (above) and it stopped me dead in my tracks. All I could do for several minutes was stare the snake in the eyes and think about how deadly this creature is. This snake will kill anything that crosses its path. It’s facial structure gives him the appearance of someone who is serious, judgmental and fierce. The snake gave me the sense that it is perfectly aware of it’s own deadliness and that it would strike if I got too close. Then I looked down at the dove. I had forgotten about the dove! The dove is the sign of purity and innocence. It is fragile and easily frightened. At any sign of distress or danger it just flies away. However, the artist depicts the dove as nestled in the bosom of the snake. The dove is secured within the snake. There is immense metaphorical significance in Christ’s words and in this artist’s depiction. When applied to the human experience it can be said that the monster found within everyone can be pacified by innocence and purity. Strength and beauty, wisdom and purity, violence and innocence are the characteristics of meekness and these two creatures are the archetypal representations of meekness. Jesus Christ not only teaches us through his words how these two symbols ought to be understood in the life of a Christian but Christ himself is the perfect embodiment of these symbols, the perfect example of meekness.
It is no coincidence that Christ uses the snake as part of the symbol of how a Christian should live in the world. From the beginning of the Scriptures the snake is portrayed as a crafty and cunning creature (Gen. 3:1) and the image of the snake symbolically represents wisdom. But the snake on its own is capable of death and destruction. The snake in the garden brought about the destruction of purity and innocence by tempting Eve (another symbol of purity and beauty). That’s what snakes do. They are wickedly wise and cunningly evil, they are devilish. The monstrous acts of the snake in the garden led to global sin and cosmic chaos known as “The Fall”. Now everyone on earth has a depraved monster living inside of them. In a sense, Adam and Eve (federal representatives of humanity) allowed the snake to bite them and infect them with death and destruction which has spread to every human being on the face of this earth. Everyone has a depraved monster inside of them that looks at the world as nothing other than a place where they can kill, steal and destroy. There is no innocence in that monster, it is riddled with depravity and sin. (Rm. 3:10-18) But in that snake there is a perverse sense of wisdom because the snake does not allow itself to become a victim. The snake recognizes and senses the monsters that reside in everyone else. The snake knows when someone is a threat and when someone is not. When the snake sees the monster before him it takes the posture of defense and prepares to be absolutely deadly if need be. So in that perverse sense the snake is wise and crafty. Thankfully Jesus does not just say to be as wise as serpents, he also wants the Christian to be as innocent as doves.
The dove throughout the Scripture is portrayed as a symbol of purity and innocence. It is even portrayed as the physical embodiment of the Spirit, of the divine. (Mt. 3:16) Before the Fall, Adam and Eve were pure of heart and innocent of mind. They reflected the divine image (Imago Dei) in their state of innocence. They lived freely and purely. They had not intentions of evil toward one another. But when the snake came, it devoured the dove and left the world full of snakes. When Christ came the dove rested on him at his baptism, that is, the Spirit taking the form of a dove. In a sense, the divine came down and claimed that Christ was and is the perfectly pure and innocent man. Indeed he is! He is the exact imprint of his Father, he is the perfect representation of the divine. However, that is not all Christ is, he is also human. He is human and therefore he has elements of humanity in him. We know that humanity is utterly lost in its monstrous, snake like state and Christ knows this as well because he can feel the weight of temptation a person experiences (Hb. 2:18). He knows the evil that lurks in the inner snake of humanity because he knows their thoughts. (Mt. 9:4) But he is not just a man, he is God in the flesh, he is the divine innocent and transcendent dove and therefore the elements of the snake that would make any other man a monster are pacified. These two natures within Christ are what make him the God-Man and it is these two realities within Christ that make him the perfect example of meekness.
Meekness Rightly Defined
We think that meekness is portrayed by someone who has a reserved and quite demeanor. Someone who is not outgoing, charismatic, outspoken or disagreeable. That is not what meekness is. The biblical example of meekness can be defined as the ability to not act upon your violent impulses. For example, during the time of Christ it was quite common for people to carry swords and there were those who were a lot more skilled with the sword. The more competent you were with the sword, the more deadly you were. In this example, meekness can be understood as the one who is perfectly capable of using the sword to create destruction before them but chooses not to, even if it were a situation where it would be considered perfectly reasonable to use it. Meekness sheaths the sword. The biblical example is Peter in the garden of Gethsemane. When the snakes (the authorities) try to take the dove away (Christ), Peter unleashes his inner monster and cuts the ear off one of the servants. That is not meekness! Christ tells Peter to sheath his sword and then shockingly says, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen this way?” Christ, in his meekness sheaths his own “sword” and does not call for the destruction of his enemies because he has his eyes set on a higher calling, the cross. Death is his higher calling! The willingness to lay down his own violence so that violence would be done to him for the sake of those he loves. But he does not do this naively, he knows what will happen to him and yet he picks up his cross and bears it for our sake.
Wise as Serpent, Innocent as Doves
Therefore, be like Christ. Recognize the monster that resides in you. Do not think you cannot be the monster lest the monster overtake you in your wide eyed naive way of looking at life. Understand that you are perfectly capable of atrocities that can destroy your world and the world of your children and family. Do not be naive to the reality that the same monster that resides in you also resides in every person you come in contact with. The remnants of the snake are everywhere, but just like a snake, be wise and know your enemy. Glare at it with seriousness, judge it with a hard face, look at it and judge it wisely. Take up a posture that lets the other monster know that you know what he is but also be as innocent as doves and show that monster love and mercy. Let the image of Christ shine from inside you. Sheath your sword and lay your life down. In doing so you will be like Christ, laying your life down for the sake of Jesus. That does not make you naive, that makes you meek! Meekness is not weakness, it is strength at its very foundation because it pacifies the monster and maintains innocence in times of great pain and tragedy.
Lead your loved ones with meekness. Love, lead and train your children innocently and purely, but not naively. Wisely be ready for the pains of life that will face your family and loved ones. Be ready for the monstrous realities of this world that will seek to destroy you. Face it seriously and judgmentally, glare at it with a hard face, all the while reflecting the divine nature of Christ within you. Life is full of unbearable suffering and you will be tempted by the snake within you to react violently and wickedly in times of pain and agony. Pacify that sinful desire by the divine dove, that is, the Spirit of God. The Spirit of God transcends and transforms the monster. Learn to be meek, not naive, for meekness entails wisdom, strength, purity and innocence. When the world comes against you for living for God, you know precisely what the world is capable of. Glare at it with fierceness and lay down you life for Jesus. Be wise as a serpent, knowing that tragedies of life lie before you. Face them courageously and fiercely. Be as innocent as a dove, loving God and neighbor, reflecting the glory of Christ in everything that you do.