“I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.” Acts 20:29 NIV
Paul’s parting from the Elders of the Ephesian church, whom he summons to himself at Miletus before leaving on the next leg of his journey to Jerusalem, is a tearful one. He is keen to warn them with this prophetic word, even though it means telling them that some of these wolves will rise from among their own number. He is being hounded by the Jewish persecutors (of which he used to be one) who will soon jail and kill him. He knows the end is near, and yet his thoughts and worries are all for this church he has spent three years teaching and loving. And this is not a new fear:
“So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.” Acts 20:31 NIV
Jesus too, talked about wolves that would rise from amongst the flock, wearing sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15). Even in the midst of our Christian communities, we need to keep our eyes peeled for danger, for wrong teaching and for those who would lead us astray or attempt to do the devil’s work for him. I suppose that it is in the fold, in our places of safety where we are most likely to let down our spiritual guard, even at the same time as we worship or receive instruction. Here, right in the centre of communion, we can be at our most vulnerable. And as the Church and her members know to their cost, abuses of power have been all too common.
But we must remain gentle and open at the same time as being wary, for our innocence shines out the beauty of God, and our gentle hearts available to all are a powerful testimony of the Lord’s grace. Jesus told his Disciples, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Matthew 10:16 NIV
Please be shrewd as my readers. I have no training in theology and I write mainly from prayer and my own study. I hope there is wisdom buried in my words. Be wary of those who are vehement in their preaching though, for self-proclaimed mystics like myself will lead you astray, if we ever do so, entirely without intent. The Ephesians, and us through them, are being warned here, not of the ignorant or mistaken, but of the deliberate, subtle turners of hearts, bringers of fear, those who would delude and persuade us to disbelieve the goodness of God, the power of his Grace, the fullness and inclusivity of the Gospel; to doubt the wisdom contained within Holy Scripture.
Shrewdness, awareness means using our brains, our hearts, our instincts, and above all the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It does not mean throwing out hermeneutics, study, self-disciplined prayer, contemplation or thought, for the Lord gave us intelligence for a reason. I think that as well as being wary around our own known weak areas, the main things that should ring alarm bells in us are when people display characteristics that are ungodly: undermining, ridicule, gossip, judgement, division, fear and smugness. When there is a temptation to take sides, to point, to feel superior, to hold a grudge, to fall into self-righteousness instead of God’s grace, those are the hot breaths of the wolf and his or her ways.
And so today I can finish with the advice from one of my favourite verses, let truth and beauty be our guides:
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Philippians 4:8 NIV
Text and artwork ©Keren Dibbens-Wyatt