Jesus came to the world in the most innocent, dependent and vulnerable form imaginable – a baby. He was God Almighty in disguise. A clever disguise. A shrewd rouse. He was coming as a warrior king to reclaim His people from spiritual bondage, to set them free from their cunning captor. He would be gentle as a dove but as shrewd as the serpent. Jesus’ whole ministry was marked by this bewildering tension. He was accessible and caring. He healed people. He loved people. But He was also clever and cunning. He could be puzzling and illusive. He trapped people who tried to trap Him. He tricked the tricksters. And His ultimate victory over death was played out in a trap set by the devil. Christmas makes us wonder at the innocence. Easter calls us to honor the cleverness.
When Jesus sent out His disciples He instructed them to be as gentle as doves and as shrewd as serpents. Like Him, they were sent to the “lost sheep of Israel.” He was a caring, gentle shepherd who came to seek and to save the lost. But He mixed metaphors: They were also sent like sheep among wolves. That sounds like being victims, but Jesus was a victim in the eyes of his enemies. But He chose His death, moving in and out of Jerusalem until it was “his time.” When Pilate tried to intimidate and threaten the Lamb of God, He silently submitted to a cosmic plan that would undo Satan and his earthly minions.
The book of Revelation describes our ongoing war with the devil in similar ways. We “conquer” through “witnessing” to the truth. The word for “witness” (martureo) can also refer to martyrdom, the ultimate form of identity with Christ. We follow Him to a form of death that looks like humiliation and defeat, but one which ironically signals the defeat of a death which “has lost its sting.”
Bottom line? Christ-like leadership requires gentleness with the lost and the least but cunning with the powers and principalities that rule our world. However, that cleverness is not for the sake of self-protection or self-promotion. Rather it is part of our ongoing “timely” death. Paul said, “We die every day.” Nothing is more clever, more shrewd, more unstoppable than disciples who deliberately put themselves in harm’s way for others. This is how Jesus rescued the world and changed the course of history…forever.