Matthew 7:1 in Its Context
A friend of mine told me that the best-known Bible verse very well may have shifted from John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” ESV) to Matthew 7:1. While that reference does not jump out (I have never seen a sign with Matthew 7:1 at a football game!), the verse itself is quoted often: “Judge not, that you be not judged” (ESV). People will reference this verse to tell Christians that they should not judge others, and Christians will even us this verse to avoid making any sort of statement about the behavior of others: “We are all sinners, so who am I to make any sort of judgment or claim that someone else is wrong?” Non-Christians use this verse against Christians, saying that Jesus told us not to judge others, so when Christians make claims of right and wrong, they are being disobedient to their Savior’s words. When we look more closely at the verse in its immediate and overall context, we see that Jesus does not say that we can never make statements about what is right or wrong, but rather that we need to be very careful when we do so.
The issue that Jesus is addressing here is not the idea of judgment, but rather the idea of hypocrisy, that is, judging others while doing the same thing you are accusing them of. That is made clear as the passage goes on, as Jesus talks about seeing a speck in another’s eye while having a plank in your own. In addition, Matthew 18:15-20 tells us that if someone sins against us, we should confront that person in hopes of helping them turn from their sin. This implies that we can and should call out sin; other writings of the New Testament see leaders confronting and challenging sin among their brothers and sisters in the faith and calls for us to try to pull others out of their sin (James 5:19-20; Galatians 6:1). Matthew 7 reminds us of the manner in which we are to do so; we need to reflect on ourselves and our own behavior (looking at whether we have a plank in our eye when others only have a speck). Only after we have done self-reflection should we ever bring an issue to someone else. We need to recognize that the manner in which we judge others will come back to us; if we do so as self-righteous people who seek to make people feel guilty, the same guilt and shame will come upon us. However, if we do so with love and compassion, we can expect to have love and compassion when others confront us on our own sin.
In addition, when Jesus says “judge not, lest you be judged,” he is telling us that the standard we use for judgment will be applied to us. That should make us be very careful about making judgments, to make sure that these things are clearly commanded or forbidden in Scripture. That is something the Pharisees were doing (remember that this passage is in the Sermon on Mount, where Jesus is comparing the righteousness of his followers with those of the Pharisees); they had their own rules and if someone did not follow them, they were labeled as sinners. Before we confront someone about something, we need to consider if it is something that is just against our preferences or thoughts or something that the Bible speaks about and makes a claim on. I want to be held up to the standard of Scripture, as that is being held up to the standard that is best for my existence.
Unfortunately, Christians have not always followed Jesus’s words well. For example, you will hear of leaders who confront people for their failure to keep their marriage vows, only to hear about their own marital problems and unfaithfulness. We see Christians (and I know I have done this) criticize people because they are doing something that doesn’t match our preferences rather than biblical truth. And Christians often stand condemning the world while ignoring the same behavior in the church. Paul reminds the Corinthians that we are called to confront these behaviors in the church, but not to do so everywhere we go (see 1 Corinthians 5:9-12). We bring the message of forgiveness that is possible (which implies that we have done something wrong) to the world in hopes of them hearing this message and believing, leaving the judgment to God. Whenever we see the sin of others, may we be reminded of our own sin and the forgiveness that we find in Christ.
Therefore, “Judge not lest you be judged” is not forbidding judging but rather forbidding a certain attitude. It reminds us of the need to be careful when we are dealing with the sins of others without paying attention to our own sins, attitudes, and tendency to make our own rules.
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