Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
By the use of these natural metaphors, Jesus gets the attention of His disciples as they go into the villages and towns of Israel to preach the message of the kingdom. They would be entering dangerous territory. They were sheep going out in the midst of wolves. This meant that they knew the real danger of persecution, rejection, and the difficulties associated with preaching the gospel of the kingdom to the people around them. They were counter-culture. And as they watched the Jewish leadership work against their Master, so would their work be opposed.
The reality was dangerous, but the second metaphor drives home the attitudes and strategies that were to mark the lives of Jesus' men. They were to be wise and cunning in how they proceded. In fact, all of chapter ten provides the framework for how to deal with rejection, what to preach, how to give it up for discipleship, and what would conquer fear. This would require an appropriate amount of discerning wisdom and intellectual prowess, personified by the metaphor of the cunning serpent that knew when to hide and when to strike.
But the moral requirements were high as well. They were to be as innocent as doves. A dove was the simplest animal offering allowed under the law. The dove was gentle, peaceable, a symbol of all that was innocent and non-threatening. And that was also the driving motive behind the work of the kingdom. They had the truth. It was liberating. It was pure and holy and right. And the pure innocence of the message ought to come forth in their lives as well.
The balance of wisdom and the pure ring of innocent truth should still mark the ministry of the gospel today. In many ways it is the challenge of our culture that respects the cunning of the serpent and eschews the innocence of the dove. And the wolves will tear into both! More than ever, Jesus' words have profound impact for the spread of the Christian message.