Wise as Serpents but Harmless as Doves

19 Mar

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If Jesus told the churches in Asia, especially those in Smyrna, that they were about to undergo a season of persecution (Revelation 2:10), how did he expect them to act? I find it interesting how Paul reacted to the persecution that he endured after he became a believer. He didn’t face it the same way when he found himself experiencing the wrath of the enemy. Not long after Paul became a believer, he found his life in danger, but instead of demanding his rights and going toe to toe with his enemies, he simply escaped their wrath by running away (Acts 9:20). Simply put, it may not be necessary to endure persecution every time it rears its ugly head. Paul fled his persecutors in Damascus, just as Jesus said believers should do (Matthew 10:23), and not only did Paul do so in Damascus, but he also fled his persecutors in Jerusalem (Acts 9:29-30), and again in Thessalonica (Acts 17:2-5), Berea (Acts 17:13-15), Ephesus (Acts 19:26-30; 20:1), Corinth (Acts 20:2-3), and Jerusalem a second time (Acts 23:12-23, 31), and a third time he sought to prevent being forced to go there (Acts 25:7-12).

If all we knew about Paul were these Scriptures, we might believe that fleeing persecution was a command, and this is how we should always react to it, but Paul didn’t always flee. Paul was often under the threat of death, and frequently spent time in prison (2Corinthians 11:23). In fact, it was while he was in prison that the Philippian jailer found Christ (Acts 16:25-34). Not only so, but when those rulers who imprisoned him tried to release him secretly, he demanded they come in person and apologize for the injustice they did to him (Acts 16:35-40).

Therefore, there are times when one should demand that his rights be respected, because infringing upon those rights, especially by the rulers of the people, breaks the law of the land. Rulers need to be called into account for their actions, when they break the law in their service to the public (cf. Acts 25:9-10; 24-27). Paul even mentioned his right as a Roman citizen in order to prevent his being beaten (Acts 22:24-29). So, believers are not called to endure persecution simply for the sake of suffering for Christ, although, when persecution cannot be avoided, it is for the sake of Jesus’ name that we do endure it. Nevertheless, persecution for Christ’s sake is unjust and the rulers who allow it or administer it need to be confronted, as a witness against their evil behavior.

Moreover, as it pertained to some of the things he suffered, Paul endured the whole matter. The fact is five times he received thirty-nine lashes from the Jews (2Corinthians 11:24). According to the Law a wicked person could receive up to forty lashes with a leather whip (Deuteronomy 25:2-3). The number of lashes was determined by the judge who was to consider the gravity of the crime. By New Testament times the number of lashes was reduced to thirty-nine,[1] because it was interpreted the number was “up to” forty, not forty complete. In any event, Paul endured the maximum punishment his countrymen could inflict upon him, and this was done five times.

A point to be considered here is, that Paul had a right to refuse the punishment and be banished instead. In such a case, he would no longer be considered a Jew. He would be unable to go into a synagogue or be in “good standing” with other Jews. So, rather than seeking to escape his persecution, which the beatings were, Paul accepted and endured them willingly, so that he could remain a Jew in “good standing” with other Jews. Paul endured this persecution without demanding his rights for the sake of the Gospel, so that he could continue to preach to Jews, as well as gentiles. Moreover, during his final journey to Jerusalem it had been prophesied several times that trouble awaited him there, yet Paul embraced the trouble rather than flee, because he believed he was bound in his spirit to face whatever awaited him there (cf. Acts 20:22-24)

Moreover, Jesus cautioned us to be as wise as serpents (cunning) but in a manner that is harmless as a dove. Our craftiness should never hurt others. For example, when Paul was being judged by one of the Jewish courts, he realized the court was divided into Pharisees and Sadducees. That is, the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the righteous, but the Sadducees did not (Acts 23:6-8). With this in mind, Paul immediately announced to all that he was a believer in the resurrection, and it was because of this that he was arrested (Acts 23:1-2, 6-8). In doing so Paul caused such dissension among the group that he had to be rescued by the Roman centurion (Acts 23:9-10). In other words, if one is able to divide one’s enemies against themselves, do it. Otherwise, if they are united against us, they will carry out their will against us without compunction.

All things considered, therefore, there is no single modus operandi for facing persecution. There is a time to flee our enemies, and there’s also a time to confront one’s accusers. There is a time to endure injustice without complaint, as well as a time to divide the power of our enemies in hope that we will escape their wrath. Through it all we need to remember Jesus’ words to be as wise as serpents, but as harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16).


[1] See Babylonians Talmud: Makkoth, Mishna 22a.

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Posted by on March 19, 2019 in Apocalypse, Book of Revelation


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