The Lord Jesus told us something very intriguing about missions:

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16).

The broader context of this saying concerns Jesus’ commission of the twelve disciples, his future apostolic leaders (9:35–11:1). In 10:17–25, he explained in detail the kinds of obstacles and persecutions that they would likely encounter. In verses 34–39, Jesus declared openly what he intended, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

This saying utilizes an indicative–imperative rationale, which helps us understand its logic:

Indicative Fact
“I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves”

Logical/Moral Inference

Imperative Obligation
“be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Due to their mission context (“wolves”), they must “become” (imperative) both “wise” and “innocent.” Their mission required both intellectual and character development. To survive and prosper in their hostile mission setting, both purity and discernment, as well as situational awareness, were required competencies.

A preliminary reading reveals, therefore, that Jesus sent his emissaries on a suicide mission. “Sheep” and “doves” were very vulnerable in a “wolfish” context. Interestingly, he did not instruct the disciples to assume an even more “wolfish” mentality to survive or succeed. He did not urge them to go with wisdom only but not innocence or with innocence only but not wisdom.

The twin commands (mental and character) and often-hostile contexts are generally true for all missionaries. They are particularly relevant for Christian intellectuals laboring in the university setting.

Think about Jesus’ commission, “I am sending you.” Academic missionaries are just as “sent” as any other kind of minister. Missional Christian intellectuals are just as called as other missionaries. Dedication to the life of the mind and teaching is a holy and critical vocation.

“Sheep” are named many times in the Bible and the term “flock” is often applied to God’s people. Sheep were deemed clueless and helpless. They were especially vulnerable to predators. They depended entirely upon their shepherds for protection and provision. This vivid image reminds us that even thinkers are hapless and weak in their mission environment―the often-intimidating university setting. We depend totally upon our Shepherd too.

The word “wolves” dramatically depicts the mission context. Wolves were deeply feared and despised, for they were cunning and aggressive. They operated in well-coordinated groups. They threatened the livelihood of farmyard animals, as well as the lives of shepherds. Metaphorically, idea factories, like universities, often foster wolf-like behavior. Academic missionaries must take care and prepare.

“So,” Jesus tells us, we need wisdom. To be “wise” (phronimos) is discernment that evaluates a situation and determines how best to respond. For instance, the “wise” person built his house on the rock (Matt 7:24), the “wise” virgin kept her lamp ready (25:2), and the “shrewd” servant knew how to secure his economic well-being (Luke 16:8). An Old Testament analogy is the Sons of Issachar, “men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chron 12:32). Snakes, by the way, were often admired for being wily and avoiding trouble. But they did attack, when necessary.

Professors also need holiness―in thought and behavior. The dove was associated with harmlessness and purity. They manifested traits diametrically opposite of wolves. In an analogous manner, Christian professors should develop mental piety and Christ-like demeanor within settings often fraught with opposition, obfuscation, and temptation.

Again, Jesus expressed four essential truths for academic missionaries: it is a holy calling, it serves in a dangerous context, it requires developed character and sharpened perception.







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