Jesus, in the gospel accounts, references land animals such as dogs, horses, oxen, camels, wolves, foxes, sheep and pigs. He mentions reptiles such as serpents and vipers as well as insects such as gnats and scorpions. Jesus' teachings also included birds such as doves, sparrows, and ravens as well as fish.
Jesus' first reference to an animal took place after Passover in 27 A.D. While talking to Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader, he revealed that an unusual event involving Moses and a snake illustrated why he came to earth.
And even as Moses lifted up the (fiery) serpent in the wilderness (Numbers 21:8 - 9), in the same way it is ordained that the Son of man be lifted up (crucified) . . . (John 3:14 - 15, HBFV throughout).
The Kingdom and the Gospel
Animals such as sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31 - 46), as well as fish caught in a net (Matthew 13:47 - 50), were used by Jesus to teach about God's Kingdom. He also spoke about sheep to illustrate God's willingness to do whatever it takes to get people to repent.
Which man of you who has a hundred sheep, and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost, searching until he finds it? And when he finds it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing . . . (Luke 15:4 - 5, HBFV).
In his well-known parable of the sower, Jesus used birds to symbolize the devil's efforts to snatch away quickly any seed of the gospel that may enter a person's heart.
Listen well to this! Behold, the sower went out to sow. And it happened that as he was sowing, one seed fell by the way; and the birds of heaven came and devoured it . . .
Now the ones by the way, where the Word was sown, these are the ones who hear, but Satan comes at once and takes away the Word that was sown in their hearts. (Mark 4:3 - 4, 15, HBFV).
The difficulty of a camel going through a needle was given as an example to illustrate how hard it was for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom (Luke 18:24 - 27).
Warnings Through Animals
Animals were also included in Jesus' warnings to believers about what they should expect in the world and how they should behave.
But beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, for within they are ravening wolves (Matthew 7:15).
Do not give that which is holy to the dogs (those who are self-righteous), nor cast your pearls before the swine (those with unclean hearts), lest they trample them under their feet, and turn around and tear you in pieces (Matthew 7:6).
Behold, I am sending you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore, be wise as serpents and harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16).
The Lord's warning to be "wise as serpents" means being cunning and prudent in one's life, especially when surrounded by those that can harm you!
Matthew 23 is unique in that the entire chapter is one long condemnation of religious leaders. The Lord used a few animals to point out the hypocrisy and evil intents of those who say they serve God.
"Blind guides, who filter out a gnat, but swallow a camel! . . ."
"You serpents, you offspring of vipers, how shall you escape the judgment of Gehenna?" (Matthew 23:24, 33).
A viper is a venomous snake with long hinged fangs that gives it the ability to inject its poison deep into its prey. Being labeled the offspring of vipers, at the time, was a particular harsh condemnation. This is because the offspring of the animal were reputed to eat their way out of their pregnant mother and thus kill her in order to be born (Bible Background Commentary)!
Appeals to Common Sense
Jesus appealed to common sense and familiarity with animals to convey the reality of God's love toward us.
Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat; nor about your body, what you shall put on . . . Consider the ravens; for they do not sow, nor reap . . . but God feeds them. Of how much greater value are you than the birds? (Luke 12:22, 24).
Are not two sparrows sold for a coin? And yet not one of them shall fall to the ground without your Father taking account of it . . . Therefore, do not be afraid; you are better than many sparrows (Matthew 10:29, 31).
But which of you who is a father, if a son shall ask for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he shall ask for a fish, will give him a serpent instead of a fish? Or if he shall ask for an egg, will give him a scorpion? (Luke 11:11 - 12).
One of Jesus' most well-known uses of an animal is a cock (rooster) to teach Peter a lesson about human nature, humility and his need for God.
Then Peter answered and said to Him, "Even if all shall be offended in You, I will never be offended." Jesus said to him, "Truly I say to you, during this very night, before the cock crows, you yourself shall deny Me three times" (Matthew 26:33 - 34).
There are, of course, many other examples of Jesus using animals during his ministry. For further study please see Matthew 7:9 - 10, 10:6, 12:39 - 40, 13:31 - 32, 15:25 - 27, 17:24 - 27, 23:30 - 33, Mark 16:18, Luke 9:57 - 58, 13:14 - 16, 31 - 34, 14:16 - 19 and John 10:1 - 3, 11 - 12.