Matthew 7:1-6: "Do Not Judge"
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” These words of our Lord Jesus Christ, recorded in Matthew 7:1, are perhaps some of the most misunderstood and misapplied words in Scripture.
Often Christians say: “Oh, I know I’m not supposed to judge but...” And then comes a criticism about the behaviour of another. Or: “I don’t want to judge you, but you shouldn’t have done that. That was sinful and you should repent and apologise.” These kinds of statements are made almost with an apology as if the speaker thinks that by making a moral criticism or judgement concerning the behaviour of another, he is doing something wrong, but can’t help it.
Did Jesus intend to teach here that it is wrong for us as Christians to express an opinion about right and wrong? If our instincts are making us mentally shake our heads, we are on the right track. In fact our instincts are confirmed by John 7:24. Here Jesus says:
Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a righteous judgment.
Our Lord spoke these words to a crowd of people, who had just accused him of being demon-possessed. Not only does he himself make a judgement about these people (namely: they were judging by mere appearances and they needed to stop doing that), he tells them to judge righteously. Make a righteous judgment. Incidentally, Jesus uses here exactly the same word that appears in Matthew 7. He tells these people not only that they can judge, but that they must. However, their judgements must be righteous. This is an important interpretive clue for understanding what Jesus meant in Matthew 7. We now have a theory: Jesus was not condemning or forbidding all judgement in the Sermon on the Mount. Rather, he was condemning and forbidding judgement that is not righteous. So let’s go back and put our theory to the test.
If we follow the passage as it reads in context, we can see that in the first place, Jesus forbids judgement that is harsh and unmerciful. Verses 1, 2:
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
In other words, when you exercise judgement over the action of someone else, you have to realise that you will be judged by exactly the same standard and if you are harsh, critical and condemning, then you can expect to be treated by others in the same way. In the parallel passage in Luke 6, Jesus says this:
But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
Right here God’s Word is presenting a challenge to all of us. We need to be forgiven by others. Why? Because we sin against others. We don’t want others to treat us harshly and exact every ounce of payment from us when we do wrong. When we say, “sorry, will you forgive me?” we want others to say, “that’s all-right. I do forgive you.” We don’t want people to hold grudges against us and be merciless in their dealings with us. And we can even say that there is a theological reason for this. It is the character of God to be merciful and forgiving. When we sin against him, we go to him in prayer and repent. We say, “Lord, please forgive me for this sin that I have done. Please be patient with me with my shortcomings and failures.” And we know that God hears that prayer. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and he will forgive us our sins. That’s what Scripture says. But if we ourselves are harsh, condemning and unmerciful in our judgements towards others, what makes us think that others will be merciful to us? And what makes us think that God will be merciful towards us?
So then we need to ask ourselves before we speak: Why am I saying this? Why am I criticising? Have I got a carping, critical spirit? Do I need to be this negative? Can I not give someone the benefit of the doubt? If we have a charitable spirit, a merciful spirit, and we do not hold things against people, then Jesus teaches that we are sons of the Most High. To be a son or daughter of God is to be kind and merciful in our dealings with others, especially when we are in the right and the other is very clearly in the wrong.
However, this is not all. Jesus also condemns judgement that is hypocritical. In verses 3-5 Jesus says:
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
The plank is a beam or heavy piece of timber that was used as a rafter or joist of a building. The speck is a small piece of wood, perhaps a tiny chip from the beam. From this we can see the ridiculous spectacle that Jesus is describing. Here is a man with a huge wooden beam in his eye. His sins are far greater, by comparison, than the sins of the other person, but here he is trying to correct the behaviour of someone else and take the speck out of that person’s eye. Jesus implies that the man with the beam will not see things clearly. His vision will be impaired and he may well do damage to the other person in this process. First, says Jesus, take the beam out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Notice, Jesus does not forbid taking the speck from someone else’s eye. But he does condemn the would-be eye doctor whose sin is far greater than that of another, but who does nothing whatsoever about it.
Finally, Jesus also warns against undiscerning judgement. In verse 6 he says:
Do not give dogs what is sacred, do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.
The word for ‘dog’ that Jesus uses here is the word for the dogs that roamed the street – large, savage and unclean because they survived off people’s rubbish. And pigs were unclean animals in the Old Testament. Pearls on the other hand, were very precious and rare. They were obtained from the Indian Ocean or the Persian Gulf and were fabulously priced. In a parable, speaking of the kingdom of God, Jesus tells of a merchant who sells all his possessions in order to obtain a pearl of great price. It would be unthinkable to throw pearls to animals who would not appreciate them and who would just as likely turn round and devour the giver. What Jesus is saying is that the disciples must not endlessly bring the gospel message to those who scorn and reject it. The good news of the gospel presupposes and arises from the bad news of man’s sinful, rebellious condition (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Days 2-4). In gospel proclamation, we first have to speak about a person’s sin and wickedness before God. In other words, we have to make and convey moral judgements about the behaviour of the unbeliever! However, there may well come a time when the appropriate response to a particular person is to remain silent because this person has clearly demonstrated that he or she is not interested in Christ and will most likely mock and scorn if we say anything else.
Here, then, Jesus is calling for wisdom and discernment in dealing with other people. Far from saying we should not judge at all, he is saying that we must assess the character of another and if it has become clear that the person will despise and reject the truth and the one who brings it, then the wise thing is to remain silent.
In conclusion, as Christians, we must exercise judgement. We must know the difference between right and wrong and we must be prepared to express this to others. There are times when we need to criticise the behaviour of another and try to set that person right. But let’s not be harsh and unmerciful in our judgments, and let’s not be hypocritical or undiscerning. Above all, let’s walk in the footsteps of the one who came to pay the price for all our sins so that we could receive mercy and grace from God.