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What did Jesus mean when he said, ‘Judge not’?
From his new book, Tough Topics, Sam Storms tackles the non-Christian’s favorite verse.
Whereas it comes as no surprise that most Christians have at least one favorite verse of Scripture, it is somewhat startling to learn that most non-Christians have one as well. Non-Christians may know little of the Bible, but as certainly as night follows day, they can quote for you Matthew 7:1: “Judge not, that you be not judged.” And, ironically, this verse—which they love most—they understand least.
A text abused
Never has a passage of Scripture been so utterly abused, misunderstood, and misapplied as this one. Non-Christians (and not a few misguided believers as well) use this text to denounce any and all who venture to criticize or expose the sins, shortcomings, or doctrinal aberrations of others. One dare not speak ill of homosexuality, adultery, gossip, cheating on your income tax, fornication, abortion, non-Christian religions, and so on without incurring the wrath of multitudes who are convinced that Jesus, whom they despise and reject, said that we shouldn’t judge one another!
This problem is due in large measure to the fact that people hate absolutes, especially moral ones. To suggest that there really is an absolute difference between good and evil, truth and falsity, is to risk being labeled as medieval and closed-minded. In brief, for many (if not most) students today, “There is no enemy other than the man who is not open to everything.”
The irony, of course, is that in judging us for judging others they are themselves violating the very commandment to which they want to hold us accountable! To insist that it is wrong to pronounce others wrong for embracing a particular belief or moral practice is itself an ethical position, a moral stand. To insist on uncritical tolerance of all views is extremely intolerant of those who embrace a different perspective.
What Jesus does not mean
Jesus is not forbidding us from expressing our opinion on right and wrong, good and evil, truth and falsity, can be demonstrated by noting two factors: the immediate context and the rest of the New Testament teaching on judging.
Virtually all of the Sermon on the Mount, both preceding and following this text, is based on the assumption that we will (and should) use our critical powers in making ethical and logical judgments. Jesus has told Christians to be different from the world around us, to pursue a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees, to do “more” than what unbelievers would do, to avoid being like the hypocrites when we give, pray, fast, and so on.
All criticism must be preceded by confession.
Not only this, but immediately following this word of exhortation in Matthew 7:1 Jesus issues two more commands: don’t give what is holy to dogs or pearls to pigs, and beware of false prophets. “It would be impossible to obey either of these commands without using our critical judgment,” says Stott. “For in order to determine our behavior toward ‘dogs,’ ‘pigs’ and ‘false prophets’ we must first be able to recognize them, and in order to do that we must exercise some critical discernment.”
Direct your attention to such texts as Matthew 18:15–17; Romans 16:17–18; 1 Corinthians 5:3; Galatians 1:8; Philippians 3:2; Titus 3:10–11; 1 John 4:1–4; 2 John 9–11; 3 John 9–10; and especially John 7:24, where Jesus himself says, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment,” (emphasis mine).
What Jesus does mean
What, then, does Jesus mean in Matthew 7:1–6?
It would appear that Jesus is prohibiting the sort of judgmental criticism that is self-righteous, hypercritical, and destructive. He is prohibiting the kind of judgment we pass on others not out of concern for their spiritual health and welfare but solely to parade our alleged righteousness before men.
Jesus is prohibiting not loving rebuke and constructive criticism, but rather self-serving censoriousness. To be censorious, Stott explains,
. . . does not mean to assess people critically, but to judge them harshly. The censorious critic is a fault-finder who is negative and destructive towards other people and enjoys actively seeking out their failings. He puts the worst possible construction on their motives, pours cold water on their schemes and is ungenerous towards their mistakes.
To sum up, “The command to judge not is not a requirement to be blind, but rather a plea to be generous. Jesus does not tell us to cease to be men (by suspending our critical powers which help to distinguish us from animals) but to renounce the presumptuous ambition to be God (by setting ourselves up as judges).”
But wait—there’s more
But we must not stop with verse 7:1, for Jesus has much more to say on this subject in the verses that follow.
The reason he gives for not judging others in a self-righteous and censorious manner is that “with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (v. 2). The problem here is determining whether this refers to the judgment we experience at the hands of men or of God.
When we set up a standard to which others must conform, we are no less obliged to keep it than they are. That is why humility and love must govern our judgments. All criticism must be preceded by confession. Before we point out a fault in others, let us first confess its presence in our own lives.
What’s in your eye?
An illustration of this principle is given in Matthew 7:3–5: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye,” asks Jesus, “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 principle applies to any number of situations, such as denouncing the external, visible sins of the flesh, like adultery, theft, murder, in order to excuse or minimize the internal, less visible sins of the heart, such as jealousy, bitterness, greed, or lust. Related to this is the tendency to point out the faults of others precisely to throw them off the scent of our own sin. This form of judgment is nothing more than self-justification. We think that if we can just make known to others the gravity of their sins, we will by comparison come out smelling like a rose.
Saints are not to be simpletons!
There is also an opposite and equal danger. In Matthew 7:6, Jesus says, “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.” Here Jesus points out the danger of being overindulgent and undiscerning. In loving our enemies, going the extra mile, and not judging unjustly, there is the peril of becoming wishy-washy and of failing to make essential distinctions between right and wrong and truth and falsehood. Whereas the saints are not to be judges, neither are they to be simpletons!
Jesus is not saying that we should withhold the gospel from certain people we regard as unworthy of it, but he is a realist and acknowledges that after multiple rejections and mockery of the gospel, the time may come to move on to others. There are those who are persistently vicious and calloused, who delight not in the truth of Scripture but only in mocking it.
The gospel above all and in context
In conclusion, then, several points should be made.
First, it’s important to note that Jesus speaks of “pearls” and not “gravel.” We must always keep in mind the priceless treasure and incalculable value and glory of the gospel message.
Second, there are going to be different sorts of people to whom we witness, and we must learn to discriminate among them (see Acts 17:32–34).
Third, we need not present the gospel of Jesus with the same emphasis at all times in an unthinking and mechanical way. Some are already weighed down with sin and guilt and conviction of the Holy Spirit and thus need to hear of God’s love in Christ. Others need to hear of the holiness and wrath of God. Others need to come to grips with the depravity of their hearts, while still others need to be confronted with divine mercy and forgiveness. Remember that this instruction is set in the context of loving our enemies. Whereas we are not to cast our pearls before swine, neither are we to be nasty and vicious and uncaring.
This instruction is set in the context of loving our enemies.
Finally, Matthew 7:6 probably does not need to be taught in certain churches or to certain Christians. Their problem is not that they are inclined to be undiscerning and often cast their pearls before swine. Their problem is that they aren’t casting their pearls at all! This verse is addressed to those who are so zealous for evangelism that they fail to discern the scoffer from the hungry soul. Most likely, our problem is that we have no such zeal to evangelize in the first place.
This post is an abridged excerpt from Tough Topics: Biblical Answers to 25 Challenging Questions, by Sam Storms, copyright © Crossway, 2013. In this book, Dr. Storms answers a couple dozen of the trickiest questions Christians are often confused by or maybe even afraid to ask in the first place. For the full answer to this question in this post, along with the answers to the 24 other questions, head to the Resurgence Store to pick up your copy of Tough Topics.