Matthew 7:1 (“Judge Not”) Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

 

What is the most quoted Scripture?

John 3:16?

Romans 8:28?

Nope.

Through a process of entirely unscientific observation, I have concluded that the single most quoted verse is Matthew 7:1.

Or should I say, partially quoted? Maybe misquoted?

Judge not”

You can hear it quoted everywhere, from a hipster coffee shop in Portland to a classroom in Minot to a dive bar in Key West.

It’s the trump card in any moral argument, the nuclear option for any religious conversation.

But when Jesus said it during his Sermon on the Mount, I do not think he meant it to mean what we think it means. His argument is not “Judge not.” It’s more nuanced than that. He continues in Matthew 7:1b-2 –

, 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.

That comma is important. As a general rule, we shouldn’t put a period where Jesus puts a comma.

“Judge Not. Period.” means that you are never to make a value assessment, never to exercise discernment in relating to others, in fact never to think or say or do anything regarding another person ever, positive or negative, destructive or constructive.

But if we read it in context, Jesus means anything but that. He means don’t judge recklessly. Don’t judge unnecessarily. Don’t judge harshly. Don’t judge finally.

Instead, Jesus says, “judge even as you recognize that doing so opens your own life up to judgment and scrutiny.”

If the second reading is the correct one, we need some context. Jesus gives us that in Matthew 7:3-12. Let’s walk through and see what Jesus tells us about judging others:

Be extremely cautious in judgment

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. 

This is something that we as Christians, as the church, fail in so often. We, who are citizens of the Kingdom, should know better than to point fingers and condemn others. Why? Because we know that we have sinned too and often in worse ways. We know, as has been said, that “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

We forget so easily.

We love to condemn those around us. “Those homosexuals, those alcoholics, etc.” I could get more likes and comments on this post than I’ve gotten in twenty others if I would simply rail against societal evils and the downfall of America due to the liberal agenda.

But if I want to cast stones, if I want to condemn those outside the church walls, I’m on shaky ground. Jesus says, “Watch out.” Because when we start judging out of self-focus, we will be judged in return.

I think one of the reasons people have such a hard time accepting Christians in the public square right now is because for years, Christians had a hard time accepting other people there. We threw stones for years. We fought for slavery, defending it with the Bible. We fought for segregation when that failed. We fought women’s right to vote. Now, don’t get me wrong, we fought for a lot of good things too but we were rash in judgment and fought against other good things. We expected perfection from our society and wouldn’t let anyone off the hook if they fell short.

Now it’s us on the hook.

Is it any surprise that an increasingly secular society questions our motives when we try to defend religious liberty? Is it any surprise that many in secular society view a call for traditional marriage as simply one more in the line of harsh and domineering attempts of the Religious Right to legislate morality?

Remember:

“For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.”

We judged quickly, we judged wrongly, we judged harshly, and now we are being judged quickly, we are being judged wrongly, and we will be judged harshly.

Now, before you start judging me, let me clarify: I am for traditional marriage, I am for religious liberty, but I do believe that in large measure the American church is reaping what it has sown.

But frankly, that doesn’t matter now. We can’t change the past.

What matters now is the gospel being spread and disciples being made.

Do you know the number one reason people give for not becoming Christians? I can guess based on conversations I’ve had: “I don’t want to become a Christian because they’re just a bunch of hypocrites.”

In Matthew 6, Jesus says “don’t be like the hypocrites sounding trumpets when you give, praying on street corners, begging to be seen as righteous.” He continues the thought here: don’t judge like hypocrites imagining that you are judging from a position of superiority. Judge solemnly, judge carefully, because how you judge when you judge will be the same way you are judged.

In other words…

Exercise humility in your judgment

Recognize that when you judge, you do so as a fellow sinner. Recognize as well, that your sin is usually worse. Recognize also the humor required in judgment. If we step back a bit, this bit from Jesus is funny stuff. The mental image of a dude with a tree trunk stuck in his eye offering to help remove a dust speck from his brother’s eye is meant to be funny even as it illustrates the absurdity of trying to judge righteously while presupposing superiority.

I used to work in an automotive shop and one day, through sheer stupidity, managed to cut my finger pretty good. I drove to the nearest convenient care, registered, and waited to be seen by the doctor. A nurse came in first. She looked at the cut, decided it probably needed stitches, and went out. She returned with the doctor on duty. This was a man who had clearly given many years to the good work of helping heal people. It was equally clear, however, that he was in the twilight of his career. He walked with a cane, squinted through coke-bottle glasses, and his hands were shaking like leaves in the wind as he unwrapped the dirty shop rag I’d pressed over my finger. The nurse asked him as he peered at the cut, “Are you comfortable trying to stitch this cut?” Everything in me wanted to interject, “I’M not comfortable!” I had this mental image of an improbably large threaded needle moving ominously, though shakily, towards my bleeding skin. Thankfully, the doctor said that he was as uncomfortable as I was at the prospect and he referred me to the nearby hospital ER.

When we judge, we need to understand that we are trembling doctors at best. So exercise humility in judgment. Humility in judgment is three-fold:

First, we recognize that we do not judge others from a position of righteous superiority – we are just sinners like everyone else.

Second, humility means actively pursuing holiness in my life so I am in a position to help others. Not through self-righteousness, but through sympathetic example.

Finally, in our judgment we should always direct others to Christ who can judge rightly. Anyone can judge; only Christ can judge rightly. More than that, only Christ can heal.

We should also recognize that humility in judgment doesn’t mean inaction in judgment. Instead…

Pursue healing through your judgment

Christ-like judgment is never designed to destroy or condemn. It is designed to heal.

This is where we go wrong in judgment when we are too self-focused. When judgment is an opportunity to make ourselves feel better at the expense of others, we are not pursuing healing.

This is the problem the biblical prophet Jonah had. He was sent to deliver the message of God’s judgment but got confused and wanted to sit in judgment himself. He needed those sinners in Nineveh to stay sinners so he could continue to measure his own self-righteousness against them. He needed God to punish them harshly in order to justify his own sense of superiority over them. God didn’t do it. Instead, he gently, lovingly, challenged Jonah’s approach to judgment. And in doing so he confronts ours.

Do we judge in order to condemn or to heal?

When judgment is about me being right, I am wrong. When judgment is about me looking good, I am ugly. But, when judgment is about making someone else right, I am seeking righteousness. When judgment is about helping someone else be good, I am pursuing Christ-likeness.

Jesus coming to earth is God demonstrating this principle. Prior to Christ’s coming people could say when faced with God’s judgment: “you just don’t know what it’s like to be human, God.” “This life makes it too hard for me to keep your commands God.” “If I was God, I’d be perfect too.”

But God’s judgment isn’t God’s attempt to prove himself superior to us: he doesn’t have to prove that. His judgment wasn’t to condemn us: we did that all on our own. God’s judgment is revealed as healing when he becomes a man. When Christ the Son, eternal God of eternal God, becomes a man, he is demonstrating his identification with our circumstances. When this God-man dies on the cross, he is demonstrating the righteous judgment of God. And when the God-man rises from the dead, he is demonstrating the healing that God’s righteous judgment brings to those who submit to him.

But not everyone sees this…

Recognize that healing judgment is wasted on those who will not value it

“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.” 

This is one way we know that Jesus was not telling us not to judge period in verse one: how do you obey verse 6 if verse 1 means to never make any assessment of another person whatsoever?

Note that Jesus is not saying that the people around us are pigs and dogs. The focus is not on the people, but on the hope of healing judgment. On holiness and pearls, not dogs and pigs. Jesus is saying it’s a waste of time and it ends up hurting you later to try to heal someone through holy judgment if they aren’t in a place to want the help.

This is one place where recovery services (AA, Celebrate Recovery, etc.) get it better than the church. A Christian friend of mine makes no secret about his struggles with substance abuse and had told me to call him if I ever needed help in counseling someone with substance abuse issues. Well, I heard about this young man who was in the hospital because of substance abuse. I called my friend and asked if he’d mind going with me. He said sure. We went. The young man wasn’t really happy to see us. We talked for a bit and then my buddy shared his story and they exchanged numbers. And then he said something like this: “Don’t you dare expect me to call you and check on you – if you want help, you call me. I don’t have time to worry about your problems, I’ve got my own.” It was harsh! After we walked out, I asked him what that was all about. I’ll never forget his answer: “Brandon, I can’t want him to get help more than he wants to get help. I can’t be the one working towards recovery for him. Until he decides to acknowledge the problem and wants to work on it more than he wants to get high, it’s a waste of time and a frustration for both of us if I’m working on it for him.”

We Christians have a tendency to spend most of our effort in judgment on those who least want the healing that comes after it! We judge people so we can fix them but they don’t want to be fixed.

That’s not our place. That’s the Holy Spirit’s work.

We have to recognize that valuing healing judgment is a Christian quality and giving healing judgment is a place where we have to exercise wisdom.

Seek God’s wisdom for your judgment

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! 

These verses are ripped from their context nearly as often as verse 1. We read this and say,

“Wow, if I ask God for a new Jeep, he’ll give me a new Jeep!”

“Well, how do you know?”

“Matthew 7:7 said so.”

The Greek word for that is “Baloney!”

What Jesus is talking about us asking for, in context, is the wisdom to know when we are dealing with dogs and pigs and to withhold healing judgment. The wisdom to know whether we are the ones in need of judgment rather than the ones supposed to be giving it. The wisdom to know when to speak and when to shut up! Not human wisdom: God’s wisdom.

When it comes to judgment, we are not sufficient for the task. We need the wisdom of God. And, good news, he offers it to us with the assurance of it being ours for the asking.

Finally,

Judge others the way you want to be judged

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

We misunderstand this verse when we only make it the “Golden Rule”. It is and it relates to all of life but here, in context, we can apply it to our judgment of others.

If we are wrong, we should want others to tell us. If we offend someone, we need to know. We need others to exercise judgment over us because there are so many blind spots in our lives. We need brothers and sisters in Christ to help us change, to grow more Christ-like. That’s a safe place to practice the Golden Rule from: I will judge you in order to help you in order that you might judge me in order to help me.

Or is your desire to look like you have it all together? To pretend that everything is all right and nothing is wrong?

If that’s you, the Golden Rule says don’t judge.

If you’re not willing to endure healing judgment from others, don’t you dare judge others. Because you will do so as a hypocrite, you will do so to condemn rather than to heal. But if you desire Christ-likeness in your life, give healing judgment to those who will receive it. Do not let brothers and sisters drown in sin, give them the hand of salvation, one that judges (“you’re in a mess there”) for the purpose of healing (“let me help you out of it”).

Everyone who is submitted to Christ wants to grow in Christlikeness; that only happens through healing judgment, both given and received.

“Judge Not” doesn’t mean what you think it means: it means what Jesus said it means.