As Jesus readied His twelve disciples to go out and minister, first He gave detailed guidelines for their early mission (Matthew 10:5–15), and then He prepared them for opposition and persecution: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16, ESV).
Jesus knew that His messengers would encounter fierce resistance, so He immediately dismissed any idealistic notion of what it meant to be His servant. He told them that persecution and betrayal would come from unexpected places and all kinds of people, even family and friends (Matthew 10:21–22, 34–36). Jesus also knew that many would respond to the disciples’ message, so they had to go. To be as “sheep amidst the wolves” is the Lord’s fitting imagery portraying how we obey His call and take the message of salvation to receptive souls scattered amid a crowd of hostile challengers.
Reflecting the character of meek and gentle sheep, our message is one of love and compassion. Luke 10:3 uses the language of “lambs among wolves,” emphasizing the dedicated vulnerability that ought to exemplify Christ’s servants, messengers, missionaries, and evangelists. We are to go out clothed with grace, mercy, kindness, and humility—“innocent as doves”—but also with wisdom, truth, and integrity—“wise as serpents.” We keep our attitude and actions pure and harmless and our eyes wide open, “alert and of sober mind” because our “enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
The future peaceful reality of sheep and wolves living together in harmony (Isaiah 11:6; 65:25) is not yet our reality. The apostle Paul testified to church leaders, “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock” (Acts 20:29). To His disciple Timothy, Paul wrote, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12).
Jesus desires that we be fully prepared to be hated and treated poorly just as He was (Matthew 10:25). Yet we can find comfort and encouragement in our struggles, knowing such ill-treatment is a sign of our close fellowship with Jesus (Acts 5:41; 2 Corinthians 11:16–33; 12:1–10; Philippians 3:10–11).
Sheep are defenseless animals. Unless they stay near their shepherd, these animals have no hope of surviving against a pack of wolves. Jesus, who is “the great Shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20), assured His disciples repeatedly that He would care for His sheep, leading, guiding, protecting, and laying down His life for them (John 10:1–16, 26–30).
Even though we will face persecution in our mission to follow and obey Christ, He encourages us not to fear: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:28–31).
Matthew 10:16 was not the disciples’ first exhortation to expect persecution as servants of God’s kingdom. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10–12). Honor in God’s kingdom is a blessing reserved for those who actively seek to advance His righteousness and serve the King.
Initially, the “wolves” in Jesus’ analogy included the Pharisees and Jewish religious teachers who violently persecuted the early church. But the caution to be like sheep amidst the wolves is relevant to believers in every age who must live as Christ’s ambassadors in a dark and unreceptive world. Without our Shepherd, we are defenseless and in danger. But with Jesus, we are promised protection and peace (John 14:27; 16:33; Psalm 3:5–6; Matthew 6:25–34; 11:28; Romans 8:28, 35–39).