Matthew 7:1 “Judge not, that you not be judged…”
Even those most unfamiliar with the Bible, those that may have never even cracked open the book, have heard this verse or a version of it quoted. Unfortunately, although it may be most often quoted, it is also the most misunderstood verse in the entire Bible.
When the rightness or wrongness of a person’s behavior becomes a topic of discussion, this verse is used like a hammer to immediately stop the conversation. Without fail, if a Christian begins to educate others about a certain action or behavior being sinful according to scripture, someone will say, “Jesus said we are not to judge anyone! Judge not lest ye be judged! You can’t judge me!” Often these words are spoken in anger and rage and turns the focus on the perceived wrongness of the Christian’s actions in addressing the sinful behavior of another.
Amazingly, so many people that quote this verse and the concept of being nonjudgmental have the real meaning completely wrong. First and foremost, the verse is taken out of context and if one would simply continue to read beyond this verse, the meaning would be much more apparent.
Matthew 7:2 “For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.”
Jesus was not saying that we are never to judge if a behavior is sinful or not. His words in Matthew 7:1-2 were a caution to us. We are to make sure that we are willing to be judged by the same standard of judgment by which we are judging others. This verse is not a warning against judging another’s action, nor is it a blanket statement against all critical thinking. It is a warning against self deception and hypocrisy, a call to be discerning rather than negative. Judge yourself first, examine your own motives and conduct before judging others.
Have you ever noticed that when you do pass judgment on another, your own life immediately becomes subject to scrutiny? If we are representing Christ, our lives must be able to stand up to the scrutiny; otherwise, we appear to be no better than false prophets. This is exactly of what Jesus Christ warns in Matthew 7. We are warned to be prepared to be judged, not given a commandment not to judge.
The more you continue to read the scripture, the clearer the message becomes.
Matthew 7:3-5 “And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye,’ and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
Obviously, Jesus’s instruction is to take a good look at our own actions, behaviors, attitude, and life before we tell someone else about their sinful behavior. In this passage, it is most important to notice Jesus does not say, take the speck out of your own eye and leave the speck in your brother’s eye. If we never judged anyone about anything, that would be the exact result – we would not notice or help remove the speck from their eye as instructed. We must remove our own sinful behavior to see clearly and help others. After we judge ourselves and address our own sins, then we are to go help our brother.
In our society, the word judge has an immediate negative connotation. What others have labeled as judging should really be seen as a matter of helping. Jesus used the example of having something in one’s eye. To get something out of your eye, you often need the help of someone else who is able to see it and remove it. To see something wrong in the life of a friend and point it out while offering to help them deal with it, is to serve them, not condemn them.
Determining if something is right or wrong behavior, sin or not sin, is something Christians should do lovingly, not with a condemning, superior, hypocritical attitude. Isn’t pointing out destructive behavior actually an incredibly brave way to love your neighbor? We understand this when the situation becomes so serious as to require intervention. Isn’t the loss of salvation a serious enough situation?
The reasons that this verse cannot mean that we are not to judge go far beyond Matthew 7 alone. Does Jesus not make it clear that we are to forgive those who sin against us? In the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6, we pray that God would forgive us as we forgive others. In order to forgive, do you not first have to “judge” that they have wronged you? The very act of forgiveness so clearly taught by Jesus requires us to have the ability to identify behavior as wrong. Wouldn’t an inability to judge an action as wrong or sinful make it impossible to forgive?
The Bible is filled with cautions to avoid evil, flee from temptation, and cling to what is good and lovely. How does one determine these things – we must make judgment calls. Whether followers of Jesus or not, we make decisions daily. Decision making requires judgment. Without judgment, civilization would not exist. Our laws are a reflection of what our society has judged as right or wrong. By having laws, do we disobey the word of God? Obviously not! Matthew 7:1 was not intended to stand alone as a commandment, nor should it be used as an argument to silence those attempting to spread the gospel.
We should not allow those bursting forth with the argument “judge not” to intimidate us or discourage us from deciding if something is sinful or not. We should only take pause at the warning from Jesus that we not be hypocrites, unable or unwilling to live according to the same standard by which we hold others.
Often paired with the misuse of “judge not” is also the misquote from John 8:7 “He who is without sin, throw the first stone!”
John 8:7 “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.”
Indeed, this is a significant statement about judging others. Similar to Matthew 7, Jesus is instructing us to look at our own behavior first. Furthermore, a woman was about to be put to death by stoning. To use this quote when someone is simply trying to provide education via scripture for the salvation of another seems a little extreme, does it not? There is a monumental difference in having a discussion about the sinful nature of one’s behavior and ordering their death by stoning.
As we strive to be Christ-like, it is important to continue reading in this passage and note an important lesson offered here.
John 8:11 “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
Jesus did not excuse the woman’s sinful behavior! She was instructed by Him to “sin no more.” Her sin was not ignored, nor condoned. Her sin was acknowledged as sin and she was instructed to repent. Is this not the very thing Christians are trying to do when these verses are used against us? To recognize sin, spread the gospel, and encourage confession and repentance are what we are called to do as Christians. However, God is the final judge and when faced with the angered statement, “throw the first stone,” I quickly point out that I do not intend on stoning anyone.
Would it surprise you to know that there are verses that instruct you to “judge” and that by not pointing out sinful behaviors of others, you are actually sinning? When I speak with Christians that tell me they do not judge, that they let others live however they want, let others believe what they want, what does it matter, etc, the words of Ezekiel ring out in my heart.
Ezekiel 3:18-19 When I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life, that same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. Yet, if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity, but you have delivered your soul.’
As Christians, we are responsible for telling others about God’s judgment and his message of salvation. Although we are not held responsible for how they respond, we still should not sit silently. If we do not tell others, God will judge us for it. This isn’t just about warning nonbelievers, it is for those that also believe they are rightly following Christ. Our fellow Christians should hold us accountable for our actions. If someone more wise sees an err in my ways, I would want them to speak to me about it rather than allow me to do as I please and risk my salvation.
Remember, God is our Father. His love is like that of a parent. As Christians, we are taught to love as God loved us. Therefore, does it not make sense that we should teach and guide those we love for their best interest the same as we would a child?
In closing, if a Christian is taking the time to talk to you about the gospel, consider it an act of love. They are sharing a gift with you and love you enough to care about your salvation. We simply want to be able to celebrate in heaven with you!