One of the most often quoted, and frequently abused, passages in scripture is Matthew 7:1. You’ve probably had it declared to you on more than one occasion. It may be you’ve even employed it when you felt attacked by a particularly judgmental individual. In Matthew 7:1 Jesus says this, “Judge not, that you be not judged.”
I’m afraid many folks read that and take solace in the fact that Jesus is apparently saying, despite your actions or their implications, no one has the right to criticize or object to your decisions or lifestyle. You can’t judge me. Jesus said so.
The problem is, that’s not what Jesus meant.
When some people say, “Don’t judge me” often what they really mean is, “Don’t point out, or encourage me to correct, my selfish and reckless behavior.” That is not however, what Jesus was endorsing.
It’s ironic to me that when a person declares, “you can’t judge me” they’re making a judgment call with that statement. They’re judging you as being judgmental.
Often, before trying to discern what a passage is saying it is helpful to determine what it is not saying.
In this passage Jesus is clearly not saying that if we simply remain silent, and never make a judgment call on anyone’s behavior or beliefs, then we can escape final judgment ourselves. John 12:48, 1Corinthians 4:1-21 & Romans 20:12 say that Jesus will judge the life of every man one day at His throne. So clearly He is not saying that we will escape judgment altogether.
Furthermore, if Matthew 7:1 is a total prohibition against making judgment calls then that would include both positive and negative critiques. Judging is not always negative but rather a term we use to describe defining or deciding. It simply means we are assigning meaning and motive to a given action. When we judge something we decide on its merits and benefits. It can be positive or negative.
Judges disqualify contestants from events and they also award trophies. To judge simply means to decide or discern. So if we cannot judge we cannot make negative or positive declarations. This of course cannot be what the text means because we are told in other passages to discern between good and evil, to set a difference between the holy and the profane and to judge with righteous judgment (John 7:24, 1Cor.6:2, Ezek. 22:23-28, Heb. 5:14, James 5:19-20). 2 Timothy 4:2 instructs Elders in the church to reprove, rebuke, and correct sin and error in the interest of provoking repentance and Godliness in the life of fellow believers.
So what did Jesus mean when He said, “Judge not”?
When Matthew 7:1-6 is read in its entirety, the meaning of the passage becomes clear:
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.
Jesus was encouraging us to examine our own motives and to avoid hypocrisy before we attempt to deal with sin and errors in the lives of others. He was telling us to use mercy and to be understanding when faced with sin in someone’s life. What Jesus was condemning here was a self-righteous, hypocritical, judgmental attitude that many people take with others. We’re never holier than when we’re confronted with someone who sins differently than we do. Jesus is rebuking that attitude.
I also find it instructive that in the next few verses Jesus encourages the removal of sin from a friends life only after we have been cleansed ourselves and approach the situation with grace and humility.
He also says not to cast your pearls, or those things you value, before dogs or swine, or people who, with animal brutality, cannot understand the value of anything. How else could we determine who was a dog or a swine if we were not to make a judgment call?
David Smitherman sums up Matthew 7:1-6 well here:
Jesus is condeming the attitude that is manifested in trying to straighten out faults in another’s life without first seeking to remove those in mine; such is hypocrisy, vs. 5. Can we “judge” (make a determination) that someone has a “mote” (fault) and then seek to remove it? Certainly; the latter part of verse 5 says so. But to do so thinking “I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican,” Lk. 18:11; or that I am something when I am nothing, Gal. 6:3; or not “in a spirit of gentleness; looking to thyself, let thou also be tempted,” Gal. 6:1, I am in violation of what Jesus is teaching. Let us not judge by appearance (Joshua 22:9-29) or on the basis of our subjective opinions (Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 8) or inconsistently (Rom. 2:1,21) but let us judge righteous judgement, Jo. 7:24.
In Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus gives instruction on how to deal with sin in the life of a fellow believer. He does not say avoid it or ignore it. He gives us a way to address it without being harsh or judgmental.
In the words of Pastor Dan McKillop, We must be careful not to confuse judging with being judgmental. It is the obligation of the Christian to do one without being the other.
That being said, I am not arguing for folks to become proactive and seek out opportunities to judge others. I am simply offering what I believe to be an accurate exegesis of Matthew 7:1-6.
While I may have the Biblical authority to determine whether something is righteous or unrighteous, and declare it as such, I never have the right or power to pronounce final judgment on anyone’s heart or eternal soul. Jesus will be the final judge of every man and woman that has ever lived. He will judge “the small and the great” (Rev. 20:12) and His judgment will be a just and righteous judgment.
I pray we all step in to the forgiveness and grace that He has made available to us now so that we don’t have to be ashamed on that final judgment day.