May25ThuMay 25, 2023 Dr. Brad Bailey
Avoiding Persecution . . . When Possible
. . . be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. (Matthew 10:16b)
It is essential that all pastors realize that much of the potential persecution that threatens the church can be avoided. In the experiences of persecution that I have been exposed to most cases were induced due to unnecessary militance on the part of individuals who do not understand what the Bible teaches about avoiding persecution. Some persecution is unavoidable, but much of it can be avoided.
In the earliest section of Matthew ten, Jesus has called eleven of His twelve Apostles by name (Judas is excluded). Soon following this calling, the Lord informs the Apostles that persecution will be a reality in their lives and ministries. This leads to the extraordinary statement that operating among the wolves demands that we be both wise and harmless.
Jesus gives definitive instruction on how to survive and it simply includes mimicking certain characteristics and qualities of two special species of animals: the serpent and the dove.
OUR DISCERNMENT – wise as serpents
In Egyptian hieroglyphics, as well as in much ancient lore, serpents symbolized wisdom. They were shrewd, smart, cunning and cautious. Albert Barnes clarified:
Probably the thing in which Christ directed His followers here to imitate the serpent was in its caution in avoiding danger. No animal equals them in the rapidity and skill which they evince in escaping danger. So said Christ to His disciples, you need caution and wisdom, in the midst of the world that will seek your lives.”
The ancient rabbis even taught that “The holy blessed God said to the Israelites, ‘Ye shall be towards me as upright as the doves; but, towards the Gentiles, as cunning as serpents.’”
Being raised in the country, I have discovered that serpents are masters at camouflage and covert existence. Their low-profile anatomy makes them hard to detect and hunt. They are a rare treat for birds of prey and other animals that consume their flesh. In relation to humans, serpents always have a greater fear of us than we do of them.
Various species of snakes take advantage of the methods of camouflage, burrowing and fleeing. There is also a rarely known method known as aposematism, or aposematic coloration, which is the opposite of camouflage. Instead of blending in with their surroundings, aposematic animals are bright shades of red, yellow, and orange. These bright colors are a warning. Venomous coral snakes, which are banded with red, black and yellow, are an example of aposematism.
Some non-venomous snakes can even mimic venomous snakes very successfully. This discourages predators from attacking, under the impression that they’re dangerous snakes. I have personally seen rat snakes coil and vibrate their tails against surrounding leaves on the ground to mimic the behavior of a rattle snake.
Of all the methods serpents possess avoid detection, the most effective is simply a quick escape. They will stand their ground if they must, but they prefer to avoid confrontation if possible. I once spotted a snake on the side of the roadway and stopped to see what species it was. It was nearly dark so I could not identify it positively. I foolishly attempted to capture the snake with a stick and was bitten. Even after biting me, the snake slithered away and disappeared in seconds unidentified. That snake would have never bitten me if I were not attempting to capture it.
The simple fact is that much persecution can be avoided by being as wise as a serpent. Serpents are not confrontational or militant. Believers must show wisdom when dealing with matters of persecution.
A local pastor who decided to take a stand after being warned to cease conducting public services in 2020 during the Corona virus outbreak went public with his comments that he would not discontinue services. He then advertised his protests and transmitted his services online, where he was heard telling his congregation to purposefully violate orders of social distancing and shake hands and embrace one another in Jesus’ name. He was subsequently arrested. That is not being as wise as a serpent. That is being publicly defiant and that does not match what Christ is ordering in this portion of Scripture.
Our church maintained and continued services in spite of the warnings by the state of Florida to discontinue congregating, but we did not flaunt our intentions before the law. We did as much as possible to hide our intentions and meet privately and briefly without fanfare. That is what is meant here by wise as serpents.
Why be covert? Because we do not need the bad publicity. Because we do not need to lose valuable pastors due to negligent militance. There is a time that even a snake will take a stand, but he will avoid it until he can no longer manage.
A street preacher was once told that he had to cross the street if he wanted to preach at a gay-pride rally in Atlanta, Georgia. He was asked politely by the local police, but he refused and called the female officer a “lesbian with a gun.” Not wise! He continued to refuse until he and his partners were arrested and carried to the local jail. The fact is that he wanted to be arrested. He could have easily complied in that case, but he was a belligerent antagonist. Serpents are not antagonists. Serpents are not aggressors, agitators, or incendiary.
There are militant Believers who visit abortion clinics to hold up graphic signs and shout at the people entering and leaving the clinics. That is not wise as serpents or harmless as doves. Other Believers go to those same clinics and offer prayer, counsel and a shoulder to cry on for those in need. Again, some are asking for trouble and confrontation, while others are more committed to ministry.
OUR DISPOSITION – harmless as doves
The adjectives that best describe doves are tender, fragile and timid. A dove would never be described as abrasive, coarse, inconsiderate, belligerent, blatant or blunt.
Of all the animal species that could have been chosen to represent the personality of the Son of God and the Holy Spirit, the ones that were chosen by God, Himself were a lamb and a dove. Why? Two milder animals do not exist.
On occasion we find the Lamb of God evading persecution. Jesus escaped temptation’s snare laid for him by the Devil in Matthew 4:1-11. He escaped the Pharisees Sabbath trap in Matthew 12:1-8. He escaped the Pharisee’s tribute to Caesar trap in Matthew 22:15-22. He escaped being thrown from a cliff by an angry crowd in Luke 4:14-30. He escaped another hostile crowd after He declared Himself to be the Son of God in John 10:39.
In each of these cases Jesus would have presumably died a premature death if He had not acted wisely. He was the master of being wise as a serpent, but harmless as a dove. You will note that in each case, His deity was not compromised by His evasion of persecution. He was still the Son of God, and He was still fulfilling the plan that God had for His life.
So how should believers behave in situations of persecution? The following are simple rules that help in our quest to be wise and harmless when the fires of persecution burn hot:
Dr. Brad Bailey (Ph. D.) is a husband, father, grandfather, pastor, professor and author.