In this sermon I do not intend to engage so much in a detailed exposition of the text though we shall grapple with it somewhat. What I plan to do is engage in what I call a transposition of the text but we shall begin with the key of the text then in the 1st century context (the passage exposed) and then switch to the key of our 21st century context (the passage transposed).
My main burden then is to isolate two mandates for mission two commands for ministry in the now. Please understand that the mission of the church is to continue the mission of our Lord Jesus Christ and the key verse to be briefly exposed then transposed is Mt. 10.16 which reads thus in the KJV,
“Behold I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”
- THE PASSAGE EXPOSED
This simple short verse built on similes, contains a startling comment and two strange commands. The 12 disciples had been hand-picked by Jesus, tutored by Jesus, invested by Jesus with authority over the forces of darkness or demons and over the ravages of disease and now they were being graduated into mission.
That mission demanded acute awareness of the context within which the missionaries were going to operate. Jesus’s statement was not designed to induce pessimism, blind optimism or fear but rather was designed to foster mature realism.
The disciples should not, and Jesus certainly would not allow the ‘graduation feel’ to blind their eyes to the fact that they were embarking on a mission that would be difficult, demanding and dangerous. But neither should the disciples quake at the thought of graduation because it meant embarking on such a difficult, demanding and dangerous mission.
“Behold I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves”. The picture that that statement prompts is striking. Defenceless sheep among ravenous wolves?
Was our Lord being sensational or was he simply giving them an idea of how the mission would look to onlookers and possibly feel to the missionaries themselves?
“Behold I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves” is a realistic though startling comment. How so you might ask.
Well, Jesus himself had stripped the men of the basic cultural necessities thus leaving them, apparently, at the mercy of their listeners. They were, as it were, about to advance without physical armour and attack without physical arms.
Moreover, these twelve men were being asked to promote a new and arrogantly exclusivist faith in a context where many religions and philosophies flourished (pluralism) and were mixed together (syncretism). This pluralism and syncretism were accepted and defended by the powerful and the ‘plenty’ within the Roman Empire.
Further, this new and exclusivist faith had an obsession with moral absolutes (some things are always wrong) in a context of moral relativism (no such thing as always wrong). This moral relativism was championed by the brightest, the richest and the most powerful and prestigious.
Consider the missionaries – relatively unlearned, i.e not formally university or college trained but not fools, they were insignificant, societally powerless and poor!
“Behold I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves” might have been a startling comment but it was a realistic comment.
But even in that startling comment there is solace because it is Jesus who has all exousia and all dumanis, all legitimate authority and all miraculous power, who is sending forth his disciples on mission for him.
Watch an interesting little thing – there is a streak of delight even in the heart-rending comments of especially v. 16 but later in the text as well. I shouldn’t do this to you because it is clearer in the Greek than in the English but listen to v. 16 again “Behold I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves”. Do you hear any element of delight, anything that scales down the danger, in that statement? Anybody?
The key is the section “I send you forth”. In Greek the personal pronoun is already in the verb so if you want to say ‘I send’ – one word can do it – apostello – (sounds like any English Bible word you know? Anyone? Yes, apostle, a specially sent one). So by itself apostellō means ‘I send’, but Greek has personal pronouns used to intensify, giving a reflexive force, and the word for ‘I’ is egō from which we get the English word ego.
In v. 16 we have both words. Jesus says egō apostellō, I myself send you forth, that’s consoling however dangerous the mission because He accompanies, indeed He goes before you to the mission-field.
The point is profoundly comforting – if Jesus sends you into battle, victory might not be immediate but it is inevitable. No matter how difficult, demanding or dangerous the mission might be the hotter the battle, the sweeter the victory.
But there is something else to be noted as we deal with the passage exposed. If the first part of the verse constitutes a startling comment then the last part constitutes a strange command.
Listen to that strange command again, “Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves”. This strange command is a coping and conquering strategy for the mission in light of the startling comment we were just exposing.
Let us be clear in minds concerning this combination of similes in this strange command. These are not open similes but similes with specific suggestions and limitations. Jesus is highlighting for emulation only the positive characteristics of the animals mentioned in the verse.
The proverbial attribute of serpents being recommended for use in mission is wisdom or mental creativity not the deceit or deviousness of the Afro-Caribbean folk hero Anancy. The assorted lottery scammers in Jamaica who make the Nigerian scammers look like decent Sunday school children would be of this devious stripe but our Lord is not recommending their dirty attributes in mission. With reference to doves (and contrary to the KJV reading) the attribute being highlighted is not harmlessness but blamelessness, not docility and passivity but purity and innocence.
Since the controlling verb in the command is in the present tense, suggesting ongoingness, what we have here is a command for the missionaries to be habitually characterized by shrewdness while being innocent of blame. So owing to the quality of your mind they can’t fool you (whoever they may be or however intellectually sharp they claim or are reputed to be) and because of the quality of your life they can’t fault you (whether they are mere occasional observers of your life or regular observers like family, co-workers class mates or such). “While on mission don’t let them fool you while engaged in mission don’t let them fault you.”
The passage exposed then lays bare before us a startling comment and a strange command. In a word a call to mission that is at once challenging and consoling.
What then is implied for you who are in worship today? What really is involved and implied for all those who would do mission in the now?
We now change key and look at,
- THE PASSAGE TRANSPOSED
As we shift the key a little higher to our time let me assure you brethren that, as it was with the early disciples so it is with you; your call to mission requires realism concerning the context in which you are going to execute that mission.
The Caribbean in general, is now a difficult and demanding mission field. Our mission, people of God, is still to promote an exclusivist faith in a context of rampant pluralism and syncretism.
The religions within the region are many and mixed up but you are still under orders to declare that ‘all religious roads do not lead to the one true God’.
Contrary to scholars like theologian-philosopher John Hick who argue for ‘non-confessional dialogue’ and against the unique claims of Christianity, you and I must, in an atmosphere of friendly dialogue confess or bear testimony to the fact that Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ only is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
We must, in an atmosphere of friendly dialogue, confess or bear testimony to the fact that with respect to Jesus Christ, ‘there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’.
Once you begin to say that seriously you will attract criticism and must be prepared to defend the exclusivist nature of Christianity and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. That will require much work in apologetics (defending the faith against intellectual attacks) and will demand the shrewdness of the serpent.
Our mission people of God is still to present a faith that is preoccupied with moral absolutes in a context of moral relativism championed by the brightest, the richest and the most powerful.
Let no ghost delude you, as you graduate into mission be painfully aware as well of the church climate and context. Within the region members of the clergy are battling for regained respectability because far too many of us have been caught up in carnal power-plays in the Church, caught up in fostering personality cults and in building family empires, caught in dishonesty with Church finances and caught in embarrassing sexual relationships.
With such a context as ours, with such a situation before you as you engage in mission, two mandates, two commands seem necessary and they are married to one another.
They are these,
1) BE INTELLECTUALLY SHARP
2) BE SPIRITUALLY SOUND
In the context of this region and this age the missionary must be intellectually sharp, more so if the missionary is charismatic or Pentecostal. Know this when you rise to speak in mission as a charismatic or Pentecostal the intellectual populace expects to hear nothing more than the unlearned bleating of a sheep, that will readily cower before a wolf.
Listen, if you have God-prompted ambitions of leading God’s people, if you are going to feed and defend the flock of God, you have to be intellectually sharp. Otherwise how will you deal with the anti-Christian thinkers, the anti-conservative scholars and others?
Be spiritually sound is my second mandate and in mandating you to be spiritually sound I am calling for much more than the current charismatic obsession with ‘being slain in the spirit’ and ‘receiving visions and revelations’.
The kind of spirituality commanded is yes deeply characterized by experiences with the Holy Spirit but a spirituality which also evidences itself in character soundness in the totality of one’s life, at home, at work, at school, at play.
So by your concepts, by your conduct and by your character people can pick up that your centre of gravity is Jesus Christ.
My brethren, as a fellow prisoner of the Lord Jesus Christ I mandate you, command you to be intellectually sharp and spiritually sound.
The mission is demanding because your context is difficult even dangerous, nonetheless remember the mission statement from Jesus Christ still declares,
“Behold I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and blameless as doves.”
This is not an optional suggestion from our Lord it is a comment-command from Him and holds sway over every single believer. Mission matters to our Commander-in-Chief, the Lord Jesus Christ and mission should matter to you too if you claim to be a child of God.