The first Adam was silent when the Serpent spoke to the Bride, and even obeyed the voice of the one assigned to his care, rather than obeying God’s voice (Gen. 3:17a). However, Christ fulfilled his calling. He called out snakes, knowing full well how they think and what they are up to. He crushed their heads (Gen.3:15) and promised his followers that they would do the same (Rom.16:20).
I began this article on the morning of November 4, 2020. It is now a week or so later, and things have not gotten better. The election results are still not completely counted, and many are suggesting there is a great deal of fraud that has gone on.
I am broken-hearted before the Lord. Anxious, very anxious, about what could be around the corner for the Church. But I am also angry. Not because of the election results so much as the state of ignorance and ambivalence Christian leaders have portrayed over the last 5 years, over the last 30 years. If you are reading this article in The Aquila Report, you are likely a leader in your church, so yes, I am talking about you.
Let me explain why:
When Jesus sends the Twelve out to go ahead of him and preach the Gospel, he gives them a command: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Mt.10:16). The Lord must have said this sort of thing more than once, for when he “appointed seventy-two others” and sent them ahead of him, he used similar language, “Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves” (Lk.10:3).
What Jesus was referring to
In light of the whole of Scripture, what Jesus is saying is obvious. The snakes the disciples’ day were those who followed “the Serpent” of Genesis 3. They were the ones who seduced God’s people away from loyalty to God’s Word. They are the Serpent’s children (John 8:44), and when in a group they are regarded as a “brood of vipers” by our Lord (Mt.23:33). The whole of Mt.23 should be seen in light of Christ being the Second Adam. The first Adam was silent when the Serpent spoke to the Bride, and even obeyed the voice of the one assigned to his care, rather than obeying God’s voice (3:17a). However, Christ fulfilled his calling. He called out snakes, knowing full well how they think and what they are up to. He crushed their heads (Gen.3:15) and promised his followers that they would do the same (Rom.16:20).
Clearly, Jesus was telling the Twelve that if they were going to be any good in caring for sheep, as leaders they must not be naïve to the ways of their enemies. One who does not think like a fox, soon has an empty henhouse. Vineyards are soon ruined by such foxes (Song 2:15). They will even try to tell you where and when you can and can’t preach the Gospel (Lk.13.32). Ignorance and passiveness give them free reign, resulting in ruin. Jesus was telling them to think and do as he did, not as Adam did.
We are surprised to hear Jesus tell his disciples to be shrewd. Aren’t we supposed to be trusting?
Here is the meaning of the word shrewd; 1. marked by clever discerning awareness and hard-headed acumen, shrewd common sense. b : given to wily and artful ways or dealing, a shrewd operator. 2a : severe, hard, a shrewd knock. b : sharp, piercing a shrewd wind. 3 archaic : mischievous.
Now ask yourself: Does that describe me? Does that describe my ministry? When other leaders in the church describe you to each other, do they say, “Our pastor is clever, and has a hard-headed acumen marked by common sense. He can be wily, and even mischievous at times. You could even say he is shrewd.”
If that does not describe a side of your leadership, you are not shrewd. And that, is disobeying the Lord. Jesus told us to be like the OT prophets.
A prophet’s eyes opened
God taught Ezekiel to open his eyes, and to think shrewdly like a fox. In chapter 8 God, in a vision, has him dig through walls in the court, the outer wall, and the inner wall of the Temple. There he discovers that deep in the bowels of the nation, hidden from the sight of the general populous and the prophets, was the worst kinds of idolatry. What was visible to Ezekiel before the vision was bad enough as chapter 7 makes clear, but what was going on behind closed doors was the rottenness that produced the stench he already knew about. So extensive was the hidden corruption among the nation’s leaders that in the vision of judgment that comes next in chapter 9, Ezekiel wonders if the “entire remnant of Israel” will be destroyed (v.8).
Ezekiel learned a lesson that day, about how he was too naive in his assessment of the condition of the nation. He knew it was bad, but just how bad the political intrigue and religious corruption was only become clear to him after his ministry had started.
Ezekiel, like the other prophets of this time period, learned that they lived among wolves. And if they were going to be of any use in shepherding the flock, they had better learn to be both godly and shrewd, like doves in their actions and serpents in their awareness of who they were dealing with.
Christian Leaders used to think this way
Recently, I read Theodore Beza’s The Life of Calvin, which has a short biography of the life of Beza in the back, too. One aspect of their lives jumped out at me: both these Christian leaders, as well as Luther, Bucer, Zwingli, Ursinus, and so many more, were keenly aware of the political intrigue going on at the time. And they discussed it when they got together and in their correspondence. I was reminded that this was a key reason the Reformation succeeded. They obeyed the Lord when he said to think like shrewd serpents, because they were dealing with them.
Between then and now there are many, many examples of those who followed in their footsteps.
Let’s be reminded of but one, the famous preacher, Charles Spurgeon. He and his good friend, the MP William Wilberforce, had no qualms about addressing the political leaders of their day about what should be done to move England in a godly direction. Spurgeon openly took on religious compromise, such as in the Downgrade Controversy, and the Pope’s religion (at the end of a service he might pray, “Lord, deliver us from the Pope and the Devil!”). It is hard to deceive a man like Spurgeon, a man who was not afraid of calling a snake a serpent.
A modern example is also available. John MacArthur has been an inspiration to me in many ways throughout my 30 years in ministry. He thinks like Spurgeon. In fact, after hearing him for this long, it seems to me that the content of his ministry has adjusted in this direction. Having preached through the New Testament, MacArthur has increasingly taken on those influences that desire to seduce and deceive the flock the Lord has placed under his care. He has always centered on expounding the Bible, but his sermons have gradually displayed what seems to me a growing awareness of what the Serpent is up to as far as the big picture. MacArthur’s mind has grown in what the Lord calls, “shrewdness” of the Serpents ways, and we should be thankful.
Christians tend to be naïve
Christian leaders are not to believe every conspiracy. They are to be shrewder than that. But they are also not to be so naïve as to think there are no conspiracies, no secret societies, no threats to democracy and capitalism (which arose out of the Reformation) from within or without. To ignore the fact that within America there are powerful forces which constantly seek its overthrow, is a sin. To refuse to be shrewd is a sin.
Christian Leaders who are unaware of the threats to the Church from snakes, foxes and wolves, and afraid to address such corruption and evil, should read the Lord’s description of the difference between a “hired hand” and a “good” shepherd in John 10. Ignorance through neglect, as well as neglect due to cowardice, are equally bad. It leaves sheep without a shepherd.
President Bush was told in the summer of 2001 that there was a serious threat to the Twin Towers, but regarding it as a conspiracy, he did nothing (in fact, the jets which could have intercepted the passenger planes were all too far north on an exercise). After 9/11/01 it was too late.
In the summer of 1572, the French Huguenot leader Coligny (and the other Huguenot leaders) was warned not to accept a wedding invitation to Paris on August 24. But he did not think shrewdly enough; his enemies were shrewder than he estimated, and as a result thousands of Protestants were massacred on that St. Bartholomew’s Day, and in the weeks to follow. The Pope even struck a new coin in celebration and threw a party.
Christian leaders are given the responsibility to think deeply and shrewdly as watchmen over the flock. They are to have eyes wide open when they look at our world; eyes that don’t just believe in the doctrine of Total Depravity as a theory, but as a lens through which they evaluate the world.
Here is the problem: When sinners are saved, when they become aware of their sin and their need of the Savior, and their minds begin to go down the road of teachableness and humility. They become like sheep, and that is good, on one hand.
But in the passage above, Jesus is warning them to remember that the rest of the world has not been endowed with this same mind. The rest of the world is not going to “get it” if you are nice to them. My wife’s grandma was a wonderful Christian woman, and evangelistic for the Lord to the last few weeks of her 99th year, and the nurses where she lived knew it! But Grandma thought this way, and many still do.
Don’t forget, you live as sheep, among wolves: “The righteous detest the dishonest; the wicked detest the upright” (Pr.29:27).
The 2020 US Election
From my perspective, if the recent election has shown anything incontrovertibly, it is that America is not the same country it was in the past. It is more fragile and anxious. It is more vulnerable, and its people in general are less patriotic. My understanding of the books of Kings and Chronicles, and the prophets of the time period from Amos to Jeremiah, convinces me that there are very similar patterns between the two nations.
When Moses prophetically looked ahead to what would happen in Israel’s future, he warns that their prosperity would bring complacency (Deut.32:15-18), and it was this that would cause the Lord to reject them and seek to make them “jealous” by making a people for himself from the Gentiles (v.21; Rom.10:19). The problem was not necessarily wealth, it was spiritual neglect. When a person or a nation is “fat” they are ingenuous, credulous, and vulnerable to chicanery. The very antonym of “shrewd,” according to the dictionary.
What I would like to offer is evidence of the need to shed this “fat” among us and suggest a plan forward.
It is true that the Christian foundations of the five primary Protestant democracies are falling apart. Any Christian in these countries over the age of 50 years old has lived through a dramatic decline of faithfulness, and a dramatic increase in opposition to Christianity. A non-shrewd person merely observes this, shrugs, and assumes that this is a natural thing that happens to societies. His acumen of the world is comfortably lived under an ignorance-blanket.
To be shrewd means to look at life with a clever discerning awareness and hard-headed acumen. To such a man, discernment is paramount. The why and how are what are important; not just the fact. And he does not merely echo the voices that seek to control the narrative. He asks, “Why is it that Protestantism is growing all around the world, but falling apart where is has been strong for so long?” “Who, historically, politically, and religiously, would and has had an interest in achieving this end?” And “Where are the key offices in my nation, and who has been in them during this decline?”
You see, the shrewd man askes questions. He is stubborn and unsatisfied with surface-level explanations from which the nucleus of an issue is absent. He knows that Serpents have a way of concealing facts. Most of us need help in this area. An ex-PGU KGB agent named Yuri Bezmenov, became a Christian in the late 1970s, and began teaching at the University of Toronto. He has a lecture on the Art of Subversion. A shrewd man likes Yuri’s acumen.
By powerful forces
Christian leaders are not allowed to be uninformed about the world they live in and the history that led to where we are today. America is the richest, most powerful nation in the world. To be ignorant of the fact that from the arrival of the first Pilgrims on this soil there were powerful enemies who, if they could, would have put an end to it all, is not wise. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were put in place to keep those faulty influences from achieving their goals.
To think that those forces have subsided or stopped so that we can live in peace, is dangerously naïve. Such a man is not shrewd, for he thinks that he lives in a world unlike the one Jesus told him he lives in: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.”
Those forces are very much alive today; they may have come close to have achieved their ends. Even those who oppose America’s heritage, having come to appreciate the Reformation principles of democracy and capitalism, are now alarmed about the threats to its very existence. He has sent open letters to President Trump that are far more open than one would expect, and more enlightening, especially if one is shrewd-minded.
When Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?” (Mt.5:13). I’m unsure how salt can lose its saltiness, there must be a way. But I know the church can lose its effectiveness in the world as a preserving agent. I have seen it. So have you. I have seen it happen in people, too. As the church loses its effectiveness in a society, the society turns rotten. Then it goes after those who were supposed to be the salt.
This verse has always made me anxious; shrewd, even. I watch myself because of my saltiness level. And I don’t hang around people who compromise or steal my saltiness. Call me a chicken. Call me overly cautious. But Jesus says that when it happens, “It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.”
If we are going to be any good to the situation the Church finds itself in, we need to realize that we are the salt. There is no other salt. If we are not good salt, and involved in the world, the whole thing will go rotten. This means we must….
In 2014 Americans were polled and the vast majority were found to believe in heaven, but 74% defined heaven as “a place where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded.” In all likelihood, those reading this article are theologically in the Reformed camp. The Reformed Confessions and Catechisms teach the opposite of this understanding of heaven; we assume, therefore, that our people know better.
After preaching for almost 35 years now, I tell you most sincerely, too often our people don’t know better. Recently, I was visiting with the chair of council in a conservative Reformed church. He shared with me a story about how one of his in-laws had died, but that he was sure they were in heaven. I asked why he was sure of that, and the answer was very-much like the one above: “they had lived a good life.”
I am not criticizing that elder, rather a shiver went up my back because I know this is far too common. The Lord brought back to my mind what Amos 6:6 says about the complacency (Amos’s word, 6:1) of Israel’s leaders; “You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph.” Jesus said to Nicodemus, “You are Israel’s teacher…and you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10).
A shrewd church leader sees this and does something about it. First, he will have full assurance of his trust in the Jesus of the Gospel. He desires to disciple this lost world with heartfelt love God, as the Lord commanded (Mt.28:19; Eph.4:12-16). He teaches these truths in his own home and in his church. He encourages parents to know the Savior and to raise their children to know him (Deut.6:4-9). With a strong commitment to the Gospel, he engages the culture with the truth of the Gospel, praying and working for hearts to be transformed.
A shrewd church leader knows that the idea of “Separation of Church and State” does not mean that Christians should stay away from politics and culture issues. Christians with their biblical worldview can address issues in the public square from their perspective.
Max Weber addressed the influence of Christianity on culture in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Reading this book helped me see how very deep the darkness was before the Reformation, and how much work the Reformers had done. Such fundamental work resulted in ways of thinking that we now take for granted. It made me realize that Reformed preachers of years ago were very wily. They shrewdly looked at life, people, politics, the professional class, business, education and taught and preached on topics that would not even occur to the modern preacher (“it is a wise thing to inherit money to the next generation”, for example). Their goal was to effect a Christian perspective in the world; they trained their members to get involved in every area of culture, training them to think deeply and act shrewdly.
In the end, we live in a world that does not want to see the impact of Christianity in the world. But Jesus calls his people to be in the world but not of it; to act shrewdly and wisely as children of light in a dark world.
Charles d’Espeville is a Minister in the Reformed Church in America.