Wise as Serpents: Increasing in the Wisdom and Knowledge of the Lord (Part 20 of sermon series)
The early part of Nehemiah 4 has some principles that concern our study of the nature and tactics of evil.
Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews. And he said in the presence of his brothers and of the army of Samaria, “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish up in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?” Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, “Yes, what they are building—if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!”
Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives. Do not cover their guilt, and let not their sin be blotted out from your sight, for they have provoked you to anger in the presence of the builders.
So we built the wall. And all the wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work. But when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem was going forward and that the breaches were beginning to be closed, they were very angry. And they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it. And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night. In Judah it was said, “The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall.” And our enemies said, “They will not know or see till we come among them and kill them and stop the work.”
At that time the Jews who lived near them came from all directions and said to us ten times, “You must return to us.” So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people by their clans, with their swords, their spears, and their bows. And I looked and arose and said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.” (Nehemiah 4:1-14 ESV)
What we see here in Nehemiah is the same spirit that David faced Goliath with.
He who is not angry, whereas he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices, it fosters negligence, and incites not only the wicked but the good to do wrong. (John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, AD 349-407)
You don’t see in Nehemiah unreasonable patience. He calls upon the Lord to strike down the enemy, and he takes action despite the mocking and threats of the enemy.
Our key verse for this series is from Matthew:
Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of me. . . (Matthew 10:16-17a)
Notice that Christ did not say, be afraid of men. He tells us to watch out and be on guard and vigilant because the devil is on the prowl, but He never tells us to be afraid of evil. In fact, Christ’s words to us are “fear not!” Don’t be afraid. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. The Christian need not be motivated by fear. Wisdom, yes, Watchfulness, yes. But not fear.
We remember the ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ in this season of the church calendar. What does this mean? Christ’s ascension bespeaks many of the promises of God for us. Listen to the Heidelberg Catechism:
- Q. How does Christ’s ascension to heaven benefit us?
- A. First, he is our advocate in heaven in the presence of his Father.
- Second, we have our own flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that Christ our head will also take us, his members, up to himself.
- Third, he sends his Spirit to us on earth as a corresponding pledge.
By the Spirit’s power we seek not earthly things but the things above, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand.
- Q. Why the next words: “and is seated at the right hand of God”?
- A. Because Christ ascended to heaven to show there that he is head of his church, the one through whom the Father rules all things.
- Q. How does this glory of Christ our head benefit us?
- A. First, through his Holy Spirit he pours out gifts from heaven upon us his members.
- Second, by his power he defends us and keeps us safe from all enemies.
- Q. How does Christ’s return “to judge the living and the dead” comfort you?
- A. In all distress and persecution, with uplifted head, I confidently await the very judge who has already offered himself to the judgment of God in my place and removed the whole curse from me. Christ will cast all his enemies and mine into everlasting condemnation, but will take me and all his chosen ones to himself into the joy and glory of heaven.
In other words, “No Fear” is a slogan only properly used by the Christian. This is why David could march up to Goliath in complete confidence, you see. He knew the Lord.
Understanding evil, while being innocent of evil, produces significant growth in the wisdom and knowledge of the Lord.
Here is how one of our readers put this, in a comment on an ACFJ Facebook post about prominent evil the church today:
Christ is glorified when evil is exposed. Christ is glorified when we His people use the discernment that He has given us and act upon it with wisdom and sound understanding.
She was correctively pushing back against another commenter, who had said:
This is very sad.. the heart needs to be brought into God’s presence to be cleaned and healed from all this. collateral damage to many hearts in the Christian community. How can we as Christians glorify Christ but by example. Exhorting is important but please lift and focus on Christ.
Have you begun to be suspicious of these vague, “pious platitudes”? It is wisdom to feel that suspicion. Just what in the world does it mean to “bring the heart into God’s presence to be cleaned and healed?” It is meaningless. And it is harmful, because it actually conveys an evil message.
When we expose evil and wickedness, especially in regards to how evil has crept into the Christian church, people who claim to be professing Christians actively oppose us. These so-called Christians are opposed to any speaking about evil, any exposing of evil. (And by the way if you don’t think that this is a common problem, that evil creeps its way into the church, go read 2 Peter and Jude again.)
This lady’s comment on our FB page was an example of that, because when she says “please lift and focus on Christ,” what that really means is: “You’ve gotta keep on the sunny side of life. Don’t talk about this evil in the church because you’re doing collateral damage! Shut up, stop talking about evil and wicked wolves who have crept in among us and instead look at your own heart because, after all, you are just as sinful as the wolf! You need to confess your own sin to God.” Do you see the wickedness and evil in telling the oppressed such things? And how it enables the wicked? We did not immediately ban this platitude-monger from the page. We rebuked her and called her to repentance for harming the innocence; but she showed herself to be unteachable.
These platitudinous people — “Don’t talk about how evil creeps into the church, because we’re supposed to be Christians and you’re gonna give the church a bad name to the world.” You know what? People aren’t believing in Christ because evil ISN’T being exposed in the church. That’s what’s wrong. Christ is glorified when a pedophile is exposed and handed over to the civil authorities. He’s glorified in that. He’s not glorified when it’s covered up and hidden. But this is plague in the churches today: “Don’t talk about those things!”
Did the Lord Jesus tell people who were oppressed, people who were suffering from evil, “You know, you need to quit complaining, you need to look at yourself and realise that you’re a sinner too” ? Think of how the Lord Jesus dealt with the woman who was bleeding and had been a social outcast for years, who had spent all her money trying to get well:
And behold, a woman who had suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, for she said to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I will be made well.” Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. (Matthew 9:20-22)
And He calls her a daughter of Abraham. He didn’t turn to her and say, “Now you need to examine yourself. Yeah, this is an evil thing, and there’s evil people; but we’re all evil, we’re all sinners. And you need to pray for this person over here. And you need to stop complaining. You must look to your own heart and ask My Father to heal the sin and bitterness that is in it. You must thank Him for allowing you to suffer.” No! He set her free. He called her in a parallel account, a daughter of Abraham and He rebuked the self-righteous Jews when they complained about what He had done.
To tell the weak and hurting and oppressed to “look to their own heart and see their own sin and stop complaining” is pure cruelty and not at all of Christ.
As Pastor Sam Powell put it so well:
Evil always perverts Scripture by stripping it of the Spirit and love.
We must, as we grow in the wisdom of the Lord, beware of these phrases and platitudes that are so commonly used and that carry an air of “spiritual saintliness” but in fact are lies. Here is Pastor Sam Powell again:
If you repeat something over and over again, it becomes canon. My dad has a sign on his study wall, ‘If 50 million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing….Keep saying it, and sound authoritative about it, and pretty soon it becomes canon law, inviolable truth.’
As we grow in the wisdom and knowledge of the Lord, we must become wise to these pious platitudes. We must call people on them. We need to pull out the spiritual boxing gloves when this stuff comes our way.
Here is another example of a platitude:
God loves your abuser as much as He loves you. You must repent of your sin of not loving your abuser and recognize that you are just a sinner too.
My, how pious. How saintly. And how wicked! See it? Say something often enough and people will starting accepting it as true. “God loves the wicked as much as He loves the righteous.” Oh, really? —
The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence. Let him rain coals on the wicked; fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup. For the LORD is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face. (Psalms 11:5-7)
See it? In most cases this “God loves your abuser too” means “the wicked man is really a Christian too. There is no difference between him and you.” Complete falsehood and a wicked, evil perversion of the Word of God. And it enables and empowers the wicked.
Consider this today:
If we are not wise about evil, we necessarily will become it’s ally. Do you want to be a friend of the devil? I hope not. But you will be his helper if you refuse to grow in the wisdom and knowledge of the Lord. We can be wise as serpents in regard to evil, yet innocent of it, OR we will be ignorant and naïve about evil and be guilty of it.
Wise as a serpent = innocent as a dove.
Ignorant of evil = guilty of evil.
There is no middle ground.
We must be wise about evil because the world and even the local churches are filled with people who are hurting and suffering from it. Many, many verses in God’s Word tell us that we must help the oppressed and oppose the wicked or the plain fact is, we are not Christians at all.
Let’s talk then a bit about this matter of “increasing in the wisdom and knowledge of the Lord” and how it relates to growing wise in regard to evil.
Notice these prayers of the Apostle Paul. Notice particularly that he consistently prays for believers to grow in the wisdom and knowledge of the Lord, and one of the results of that growth is that we will be blameless on the day we stand before Christ:
For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him [that is the best prayer you can pray for anyone], having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Eph 1:15-23)
How much does God know about evil? He knows everything about evil.
How much guilt does He incur from knowing everything there is to know about evil? None. There is nothing godly about being ignorant of evil.
And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:9-11)
So this knowledge and wisdom that we must grow in, involves the ability to discern. It is necessarily true, then, that if we are ignorant, and we don’t grow in the wisdom and knowledge of the Lord, we won’t have discernment. We won’t approve what is excellent: we will approve what is not excellent, what is unrighteous. And we won’t be pure and blameless; we won’t be innocent as a dove in regard to evil. When you consider how widespread ignorance about evil is in the church today, there is necessarily a vast number of professing Christians who have no discernment and who are approving what is evil rather than what is righteous.
And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,
[why do I need to be filled with all spiritual wisdom and understanding?]
so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. (Col 1:9-10)
See it? To fail to grow in the wisdom and knowledge of the Lord is to fail to grow in the knowledge of righteousness, of His will, and necessarily to fail to grow in respect to evil, to fail to increase in bearing good fruit, to lack the ability to approve what is excellent, what is His will, and therefore to incur impurity and blame.
I suppose this might be called “the other, neglected half of sanctification.” That is, becoming wise in the Lord about evil, about what does not please Him, about what is wicked. [this is related to the neglected mission field of the church, sermon 19 in this series]
Let me give you another real life example. Listen to this lady’s story she is living right now:
I’m currently struggling with my pastors to get them to see that there is no way that my abusive husband is a Christian, since they insist it is possible (and apparently they must take him at his “confession,” although WHY they should do so, I don’t know) and they therefore approach him that way and are shocked at how he slithers around in conversation and slithers out of full responsibility for his actions.
But it’s so clear. In addition to the amazing articles here on that topic, we don’t even need to go further than the plain simple reading of 1 John. No PhDs in Biblical interpretation necessary.
“Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is EVIDENT who are the children of God and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.”
My pastors have also said that whether he is a Christian or not is something we should not focus on, but we take him at his confession on the surface in the dealings with him. But it is clear here and elsewhere that God wants us to be able to tell the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian, and he instructs us in how to do so! If it wasn’t important and useful to know if someone is a true Christian, why would God devote passages to it? With the phrase “little children, let no one deceive you…” beginning it! Clearly the fatherly and protective heart of God is the one who wants to make it known who is a Christian and who is not.
I think that some churches and pastors may have good intentions and really love God, but don’t know anything about abuse [evil]. And they may have the same stumbling blocks for exposing the abuser that victims have. I know I personally stayed three years because of the “path of least resistance” principle… Although my marriage was painful and scary, leaving it was MORE painful and scary. Only when the scales tipped and it was finally more painful and scary to stay than leave was I able to contemplate leaving. And even then it wasn’t enough. I also had to realize that I was telling a lie about God by staying, saying that it is OK in God’s eyes. Only then, after truly seeing God’s heart for justice for the oppressed, was I able to face the embarrassment, shame, difficulty, confusion, fear of the unknown, and fear of leaving, because I was doing it for something bigger than me, for the sake of the Lord. Fear of God made me unable to continue telling that lie about God with my life.
In the same way, I’m sure pastors facing abuse in their midst would struggle with the feeling of it’s just difficult, or it will be embarrassing/complicated, it’s just easier to ignore it and do nothing, and fear of what will happen if you don’t do it right 100% or what it will lead to in the end. Maybe they don’t even understand what the Bible says about this subject, and they know it! It’s easier to do nothing in the face of all that. But the fear of the Lord and zealousness for his glory and for God’s justice to be shown properly can overcome those other hindrances, for victims and for churches who are struggling but truly love God and want to help his hurt sheep.
This is my hope, at least. My pastors don’t in any way blame me and they believe I have the right to divorce him; but it seems that they are struggling with how to handle him. I truly wish for him to be saved, regardless of the fate of the marriage, and so I want them to get a more realistic (and Biblical) view on his heart’s condition and the Bible’s commands for dealing with such a person. But it’s not easy in this day and age to follow the Bible’s tough commands for excommunicating an unrepentant person claiming to be a Christian. Still, we have to strive to let the love of Christ compel us, not fear or embarrassment or the love of people or of money. Pastors are humans too, and I struggled with all of those fears as a victim, and it took time for me to get past that and to get courage to do the right thing.
She is kind to her pastors. But the fact is, as you can see, they have not grown in the wisdom and knowledge of the Lord. They are not wise as serpents when it comes to evil, and as a result, they have become its ally. If you can’t tell what a wolf looks like, you’ve got no business being a shepherd.
You are either wise as serpents, and innocent as doves.
Or you are ignorant and unwise about evil, and guilty of evil.
Wise as serpents = innocent as doves.
Ignorant and unwise about evil = guilty of evil.
[Jeff ends the sermon by quoting from a survivor’s story that she emailed to him. The woman’s husband for the thirty plus years of their marriage had been a sexual predator. And he’d had access to children through Christian ministry throughout that time. Please access the Audio version of this sermon to hear Jeff’s quotes from her story.]
Audio and PDF of this sermon here.
Go to Part 21 of this series
A list of the entire series can be found at our Wise as Serpents tab on the top menu.