It may sound like the beginning of a trip to the zoo, but it is,of course, the heart of the content of Matthew 10' particularly around v16......
'I am sending you out as sheep amongst wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves'
I have heard (Christian) people take the latter half of that verse 'wise as serpents and innocent as doves' then cut it in half, leaving only the 'wise as serpents' and go on to apply it to a situation in their own lives that invariably justifies an action that serves their own agenda,often at the cost of somebody else.
For instance they may owe some income tax but there is an unintended loophole in current legislation which can legally be used (until it is closed down) but which nonetheless was never intended to be used. Out comes the half phrase, misquoted and ripped out of context - 'ahh, but the bible says we are to be wise (or cunning in some translations) as serpents'.... Or, perhaps, if they are of a more spiritual (albeit mildly cowardly disposition) they may use it to justify why they should NOT engage in any risky mission activities.
This is certainly neither the intention behind,nor the context of, Jesus teaching.
The context is that the twelve have already been commissioned and sent 'on mission' as it were. Instructions and guidance had been issued and they were in no doubt that general danger and unpleasantness lay ahead, so this was not really up for debate. So, the context to which this,full, saying is spoken by Jesus is that of believers who have already been commissioned for a potentially dangerous and difficult mission. Any use of it by Christians outside of this context is therefor a no no - especially if it is designed to be purely self serving in its application and outcome.
After v16 the text goes on to say that the “wolves” will deliver the “sheep” to courts, and flog them, and drag them before governors, friends and family will hate them, they will be persecuted, maligned and killed! (Matthew 10:17-31). So it is pretty clear that when Jesus says he is sending them (or us?) as sheep among wolves, he means that we will be treated the way wolves treat sheep!
Although sheep are proverbially stupid—which, on the face of it, is what it looks like when they walk into a pack wolves and not away from them—Jesus counters that notion by saying “be wise as serpents.” This means that vulnerability, not stupidity, is the point of calling us sheep. Be like snakes, not sheep, when it comes to being smart.
So, yes, we are called to 'go among wolves' and be vulnerable as we preach the gospel, but when they lunge at you (as they will), step aside. When they open their mouths, don’t jump in. Take all measures to avoid persecution or harm when doing so will not dilute or compromise the integrity of the gospel. Don't be a total prat and pick the wrong battles or in what we say and how we say it so that we unnecessarily inflame and invite persecution (then wrongly revel in the fact that we are suffering for the gospel, blind to the fact that we are suffering for being stupid not vulnerable!
Jesus adds, 'be as innocent as doves'. That is, don’t give people any legitimate reason to accuse you of injustice or immorality. Keep your reputation as clean as you can. On a more personal level, whatever your presuppositions or prejudice (about the wolves), be prepared to take them at their word until such time as you have reason not to do so (always being ready to step aside in an instant....) Act towards them with a presumption of grace....
So the snake-intelligence and the dove-innocence are both designed to keep the sheep out of unnecessary trouble. Jesus does not mean for us to get ourselves into as much difficulty as possible. He means: Risk your lives as vulnerable, non-combative, sheep-like, courageous witnesses, but try to find ways to give your witness in a way that does not bring down unnecessary persecution.
That is the context and out working of what started out as a trip to the zoo!
(With thanks to John Piper)