Reflections on “Judge Not”

The consuming vision of our souls is the love of God, the love of our neighbor, and the mission God has given us as the church. We are to proclaim and share the good news of his loving grace and forgiveness through Jesus Christ.

Yet other things can become foremost in the hearts of followers of Christ and in our communities. We can spend our time pointing out everyone's faults and sins in a holier than thou attitude and posture. It is this sort of "judgment" that Jesus addresses in Matthew 7 in what has become, at least in our society, one of the best-known Bible verses today.

If you were to ask someone even a few decades ago perhaps what the most commonly known Bible verse was you may hear something like:

John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life." Or perhaps Genesis 1:1: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Or a favorite of Christians today: "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Phil 4:13).

But you often find people outside of the church quoting a different scripture more often: "Judge not lest ye be judged."

Judge Not

In Matthew 7:1 we read this command from Jesus: "Judge not, that you be not judged.” It is quite popular in our day to be down on any and all “judgment.” We hear questions like, “Who are you to judge?" or its cousin, “Who are we to judge what is right or wrong?” These can be anthems in our culture today.

But to think Jesus is saying we should make no moral or ethical value judgments is to actually miss the importance of his command, "Judge not, that you be not judged."

Jesus taught that he in no way stood against the moral law and moral judgments. Just a glance at the Sermon on the Mount show many examples of Jesus addressing human behavior and teaching a high ethic. In Matthew chapter 5 alone he addresses anger/murder, lust/adultery, honoring our marriage covenants, as well as lying/oath making. Understanding what he means requires us to weigh our actions and make judgments. He calls his people to live lives of non-retaliation, living as servants, loving others, and even loving our enemies.

On a practical level, we also recognize that certain things in life require us to make moral judgments. When we see ISIS put a Jordanian Pilot in a cage and burn him to death on video, should this elicit a silly "Judge not, lest ye be judged" or "Who are we to judge?" Or, as I've read on Facebook recently, should we agree that it is “judgmental” to speak ill of the book and movie Fifty Shades of Gray without having read it or seen it?

It's pretty ridiculous to claim that we cannot judge something as wrong unless we have tried it or experienced it. Our current cultural mood could be parallel to the five year-old caught in a lie, and when corrected and disciplined by his father, responds, "Whoa, dad, what's with the judgment?"

Jesus in no way means we should never make any judgments at all about anything. He himself gives us this command in the Gospel of John:

"Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment." John 7:24

So it seems that Jesus is speaking of a specific genre of judgment, a certain kind of judgment human beings employ. We see this clearly as he describes this reality further in Matthew 7:2: “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.”

What Genre of Judgment?

The way we judge other people is the way we will be judged. "With the measure you use it will be measured to you." What Jesus is describing here is a mere human being acting as if they assume the judgment seat of God over other people. James, the brother of Jesus, describes this same genre of judgement when he writes:

"Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?" (James 4:11-12)

What Jesus is saying is that it is both arrogant and hypocritical to attempt to assume the judgment seat of God. Be warned, there is a certain type of judgment that incurs the wrath of God. As a great teacher taking us to school, Jesus then gives us a specific example to show quite clearly, and I would add comically and ridiculously, what sort of judgment is in view here.

Logface – A Hypocritical Judgment

3 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? 4 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? 5 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. (Matthew 7:3-5)

In verse three you have to understand Jesus’ language to mean the tiniest speck of sawdust. You can pick out this very small thing but all the while you have a tree sticking out of your face. The word translated “log” was used to refer to large cross beams in a door frame. Think the exposed wood beams that hipsters go wild about on HGTV. You are pointing out and judging people for all their speck-like flaws and don't even notice the log in your face.

What a ridiculous picture. He goes on to say you should not be offering to fix every little problem in others when you have a massive one right in your own life. Jesus uses a term for this that we find him use often for this sort of judmentalism: hypocrite. This is a person who is judging others as if he were not a sinner or condemning others for stuff that he himself does. The apostle Paul also reserves harsh words for this sort of hypocrisy:

[1] Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. [2] We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. [3] Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? [4] Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? [5] But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. (Romans 2:1-5 ESV)

Jesus is going after self-righteous, hypocritical, judgmental, religious people. Those who are not living lives of repentance and faith and love for people, but simply discarding sinners and judging them without any compassion at all. The British preacher and founder of Methodism John Wesley said it this way: "the judging that Jesus condemns here is thinking about another person in a way that is contrary to love."

Friend of Sinners?

One final note is worthy of mention. Jesus clearly commands us not to judge in this way, because it is a sinful offense to God. He does not desire his people to live in this way. Yet we must also see that such behavior has a disastrous effect on evangelical mission. Judgmental people, in the way Jesus is describing for us here, are not in any way friends to sinners. In the Gospel of Luke we see Jesus was very much a person who loved and befriended people who were far from God. He did not love them as an endorsement of sin but in order to summon them to repentance, faith, and life in his kingdom. Describing the tension he had with judgmental religious leaders we read:

[34] The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ [35] Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.” (Luke 7:34-35 ESV)

[1] Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him [2] And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2 ESV)

Jesus wants his people to see other human beings as sinners in need of grace just as we are. We need not sit in judgment on our fellow human beings but rather come alongside them with hope of forgiveness of sins, peace with God, and eternal hope through the gospel. Jesus died for sinners as a propitiation for sin. In Christ, sinners are redeemed and rescued from the wrath of God. If in Christ, people are justified, made right with God, and free from condemnation, they don't need some log-faced religious people picking them apart. The need love and good news from a kingdom people, not condemnation of religious fakes.

Considering the speck and log illustration, notice that Jesus does not finish his example by telling us that we are just sinners and to not help one another change. The way forward isn't simply picking each other apart, it's by being a brother, a loving member of the family. The way forward is repentance for our own sin, trusting in Christ to continue his work in and through us so that we all, together, become different. We realize that we are a humbled people, understanding our condition and our desperate need for God and His Grace. We become poor in spirit, thirsty for his righteousness and desirous of his kingdom and his way in our lives.

It's only at this point that we actually become helpful to others. We never arrive but we are called to mature past reactionary and hypocritical religion to the point that we live by the gospel of grace. We must know, believe, and live the truth that Jesus Christ came in the world to forgive sinners of which we are foremost. Then we will help other blind men come to the one who helps them to see. Then we will help the dead come to the one who gives new life. Then we will be helpful to the one who is broken by sin and needs love and forgiveness, not simply judgment and condemnation. When we remove the log from our own face it so that we can see Jesus and point others to him. He is so wonderfully adept at removing both log and speck from our eyes.

A Christian is one who has been humbled by grace, is thankful at the cross, is forgiven to forgive and an object of mercy from the righteous judge.

"For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment" (James 2:13)

Amen. Let us live in ways that reflect this great truth of the gospel.

How does God's Word impact our prayers?

God invites His children to talk with Him, yet our prayers often become repetitive and stale. How do we have a real conversation with God? How do we come to know Him so that we may pray for His will as our own?

In the Bible, God speaks to us as His children and gives us words for prayer—to praise Him, confess our sins, and request His help in our lives.

We’re giving away a free eBook copy of Praying the Bible, where Donald S. Whitney offers practical insight to help Christians talk to God with the words of Scripture.