Jesus used the metaphor of sheep to describe God’s chosen people who had wandered away from him in their search for pleasure among the pagan nations that surrounded Israel. Jesus sent out his twelve apostles like laborers in a field and instructed them, “Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: but go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6). In depicting God’s people as lost sheep, Jesus portrayed them as vulnerable, fearful creatures that were unable to find their own way back home again. There was no judgment or harsh criticism in Jesus’ viewpoint of the situation, only a concerned attitude toward the people that were voluntarily living their lives separated from the God that wanted to save them. The Greek word translated lost, apollumi means to destroy fully (622) and is therefore, referring to a spiritual condition rather than a physical one. What Jesus was implying was that the Israelites were on their way to hell and needed to be rescued from Satan’s grip on them.
Before he sent them out, Jesus told his twelve apostles, “Behold I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). In comparing the Israelites’ spiritual enemies to wolves, Jesus was suggesting that they would be difficult to detect among God’s children. One of the advantages wolves have over their prey is they can sneak into a flock undetected because they are about the same size and color as sheep. Jesus’ reversal of the roles, sheep in the midst of wolves, meant that he wanted his disciples to infiltrate the enemy’s camp, like a sheep walking into a pack of wolves, and work against them without being detected. Jesus’ instruction to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” meant that he didn’t want any harm to come to the lost sheep of Israel that were being held captive by the false teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees that dominated the religious culture at that time.
Jesus warned his disciples of the danger they would face in taking his gospel into enemy territory, but also encouraged them to act fearlessly, because God would protect them (Matthew 10:31). Focusing particularly on the Pharisees who had accused him of casting out demons by the power of Satan (Matthew 12:24), Jesus said, “Fear them not therefore: for there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid that shall not be known” (Matthew 10:26). In other words, the teaching of the Pharisees would be exposed as false doctrine by the truth of the gospel. All the disciples had to do was tell God’s people the truth and they would realize on their own that the Pharisees had been lying to them. Likening God’s word to a sword, (Matthew 10:34), Jesus explained that telling people the truth would result in spiritual warfare, but conflict was necessary for the kingdom of heaven to be established on earth. He said, “For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household” (Matthew 10:35-36).