When Jesus says in Matthew 10:16, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves”; what is this all about and who are the “wolves”?
Matthew 10:16 is the beginning of a warning that the Lord Jesus Christ gave to His 12 Apostles in His program with Israel. It concerns what they were going to encounter from the people of Israel as they fulfilled their ministry of proclaiming “the gospel of the kingdom” among the cities of Israel. Beginning with John the Baptist’s ministry God’s program with Israel had entered its climactic stage. Just as “the gospel of the kingdom” said, Israel’s long-awaited and long-ago-covenanted kingdom of heaven was “at hand.” John began to proclaim this to Israel, and by means of this gospel, and by his baptism, he began to call out the remnant of Israel that had been prophesied about. And it would indeed be a small remnant in Israel that would respond to “the gospel of the kingdom,” just as the prophets described. The majority of the people would stick with Israel’s vain religious system headed up by their rulers, along with the chief priests, lawyers, scribes, and the like. The preaching of “the gospel of the kingdom,” along with the testimony that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, would not be received by them as good news. Instead, they would oppose it, along with opposing those commissioned by the Lord to proclaim it to them. It is this that the Lord is warning and instructing His 12 Apostles about beginning in Matthew 10:16.
As Matthew 10:1-15 sets forth, the Lord commissioned the 12 to go only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and to “preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In connection with manifesting the signs of the kingdom that the prophets had spoken of, the Lord gave the 12 power to heal the sick, cast out devils, and the like, which confirmed the reality of the kingdom being “at hand.” In addition, He also instructed them on how to conduct themselves as they journeyed among the various cities and towns of Israel and how to respond to the type of reception they received. How they were received and what they did in response to it would be used by the Lord as a criterion for judgment in “the day of judgment.” Just as the prophets set forth, the Lord would purge His land in that day, both wasting and destroying in it all opposition to Him, including even places of opposition. And there would be much opposition and many places of opposition that the apostles would encounter. This, too, is just what the prophets had described.
In connection with this the Lord warned His Apostles about the prevailing negative reception they and their message were going to receive. Hence He said to them, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves.” As “sheep” they were going to be preyed upon and attacked by the “wolves.” In particular, the “wolves” is a reference to Israel’s rulers and judges, just as God had previously described them to be, for example, in Zephaniah 3:3.
3 “Her princes within her are roaring lions; her judges are evening wolves; they gnaw not the bones till the morrow.” (Zephaniah 3:3)
In view of this the Lord went on in Matthew 10:17-18 to describe how that the Apostles would be delivered up to the councils and hauled before the governors, etc. They, therefore, were going to need to be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” The Lord’s doctrine would equip them with the wisdom they needed. They also did not need to be concerned with providing for themselves or avenging themselves. Rather they were to be “as harmless as doves.” As the Lord further said to them in verses 19-20 He would not only miraculously provide for their defense, but He provided for them not to have to fear the opposition in other areas as well.
This is the gist of what the Lord is saying in Matthew 10:16, and how it pertains to what was going on in God’s program with Israel when the Lord was here on the earth and the climactic stage in Israel’s program had arrived. God, of course, has temporarily suspended His program and dealings with Israel, just as the Apostle Paul teaches us about in his epistles to us. From the time when God raised up the Apostle Paul to be the apostle of the Gentiles and revealed to him “the mystery of Christ,” the dispensation of God’s grace for us Gentiles has been in effect, and it is still in effect today. However, God’s program and dealings with Israel have not been canceled. As Paul teaches in Romans 9-11, God will yet resume and fulfill His program with Israel. Their fulness is yet to come. And when God does conclude this present dispensation of Gentile grace and resumes His program with Israel, then Israel’s “gospel of the kingdom” will once again be preached. At that time the doctrine, for example, in Matthew 10 will once again be applicable to, and followed by, the remnant of Israel.
– K.R. Blades