Some phrases from the Bible have become embedded in our culture as common idioms—“fight the good fight” (1 Tim. 6:12),1 “a man after his own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14), “a law to themselves” (Rom. 2:14), “‘an eye for an eye’” (Matt. 5:38), “see eye to eye” (Isa. 52:8, KJV), and many others. One of those phrases is “‘Judge not, that you be not judged’” (Matt. 7:1). Unfortunately, it is one of the most misunderstood things that Jesus ever said.
In our postmodern society, this brief command of our Lord is taken in at least three ways. Someone will say, “Who am I to judge?” This position, at least in some contexts, can be described as moral agnosticism, the idea that I cannot know what is true, what is right and moral. Therefore I cannot judge or evaluate whether or not a plan of action or any behavior is right or wrong.
Someone else may say, “It’s right for me, but I don’t know if it’s right for you.” This view is rooted in postmodernism and could be calledmoral relativism—a position can be right and correct for me, and at the same time be incorrect or inapplicable to you.
Yet another person, being criticized by some other person may retort, “You don’t understand me! You’re not supposed to judge!” Heard perhaps more often in homes where a teenager feels misunderstood by his or her parents, this rather common take on Jesus’ words suggests that my personal perspective and mode of action are not open to critique. It could be described as moral individualism. That is to say, those in a role of leadership over me, or to whom I owe respect, do not have the right to rebuke or criticize me because all such criticism is deemed judging, and I am a law unto myself.
What we want to know is if any or all of these three positions fairly represents what Jesus was trying to say. To investigate this, it’s necessary to look at Jesus’ command in its context in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7). The passage that contains these famous words is Matthew 7:1-5, which is toward the end of the sermon. In its entirety, the sermon is instruction on how disciples should live and act within the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 7:1-5 can be outlined as follows:
A. The command to shun judging (vs. 1)
B. An eschatological doublet of support for verse 1 (vs. 2)
C. A funny illustration from the carpenter’s shop on the absurdity of judging (vss. 3, 4)
D. The final command to set things straight, then help (vs. 5)
The brief passage begins and ends with a command. The first command directs us to eschew judging. The last command guides us to correct the problem and then help the brother in need. These two poles of the passage are often not recognized, and they call for deeper investigation.
It would seem logical that the meaning of the words “judge not” in Matthew 7:1 should be consistent with the teaching of the entire passage, 7:1-5, and with the tenor of Jesus’ teaching throughout Matthew. The challenge in regarding these words of Jesus is twofold. The Greek term for “to judge” means “to separate, distinguish, decide, judge, consider, look upon, condemn, find fault with.”2 Clearly, the semantic domain of the term is quite broad. It could possibly have any of these different definitions in this text. The other challenge is that the phrase “‘judge not that you be not judged’” has been taken over by our culture as an idiom quite apart from the context of the words in Matthew, so that no matter what one says, someone may retort, “Yes, but you are not supposed to judge.”
So to narrow the possibilities for how “to judge” is actually used in Matthew 7:1, it makes sense to look at the ways the term is used throughout the Book of Matthew. Besides Matthew 7:1-5, it is used in only two other places in the first Gospel: Matthew 5:40 and 19:28. In the first text, also in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes someone taken to court (the verb is represented by sue in the ESV and KJV). The Lord tells us not to resist this, but to give more than they ask. It is clear from this that Jesus does not call into question human legal proceedings or the court system. Hence, “judge not” in Matthew 7:1 is not a repudiation of all human legal proceedings.
In Matthew 19:28 Jesus indicates that at His coming, the 12 apostles will be involved in judging the 12 tribes of Israel. From this it is clear that “‘judge not’” does not rule out God’s judicial system that will include human beings. Indeed, Matthew 7:2 states, “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” The passive voice of the verbs here (“‘you will be judged, . . . it will be measured to you’”) point to God’s action. This type of construction is so common in Scripture that it has been given the name divine passive. If you judge others, it is God who will judge you. And the standard of judgment that He will use is the same you used for others. It is the common and practical sense of biblical justice that is involved—eye for eye, tooth for tooth, blow for blow. What you give is what you receive in return.
Other uses of the “judge” word group in Matthew (“judging,” “judgment,” “judge”) support these ideas as well. Matthew 5:25 refers to human court cases and assumes the validity of the system. Matthew 12:18 refers to justice as a virtue of action. And Matthew 12:36 makes reference to the Day of Judgment by God in the future. Thus judgment or decision-making is not likely what is being rejected in Matthew 7:1-5.
It is Matthew 7:2 that helps explain what the passage is all about. As noted above, God holds us accountable when we judge. The type of judging must be something that God rejects, something that goes against His principles of action. James 4:11, 12 is helpful here: “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?”
Notice the emphasis on evil speaking. The parallel to Matthew 7 is striking.3 Thus, the type of judging Jesus rejected in Matthew 7:1 was likely of this sort, a hypercritical approach to another person.
So moral relativism cannot be what Jesus is supporting in Matthew 7, since God is the final Judge. There is a right and wrong, otherwise He could not judge. Nor can moral agnosticism be correct because Jesus and Matthew have a very clear sense of justice and how people should be treated.
But what about moral individualism? Perhaps this is what the text is all about. The illustration in verses 3 and 4 helps resolve this question. Jesus presents a simple example from the carpenter’s shop. Someone has a speck of wood in their eye. We all know how painful and irritating that can be. The cornea of the eye is estimated to be 40 times as sensitive to pain as the inner pulp of a tooth (the part exposed when a filling falls out). That is really sensitive! The problem in Matthew 7:3 and 4 is not the willingness to help someone get something out of their eye. That is helpful since it is so hard to get something out of your eye by yourself, especially if you don’t have a mirror handy. The problem Jesus presents in hyperbolic fashion is that the “helper” has a huge log or beam in his own eye! The term used here refers to a large plank or a joist supporting a roof. Imagine having such a thing in your eye—and worse yet, having that and still being concerned about the little speck in someone else’s eye. It’s ridiculous.
The conclusion of the hyperbolic example in the command of verse 5 addresses the question of moral individualism. Jesus says that if you get the beam out of your own eye, you will be able to see clearly to help the person with the speck in their eye. That is not hypercritical judging; that is helping someone out of his or her painful experience. Moral individualism, the position loved by our postmodern society, crashes to the ground on Matthew 7:5 (seeing clearly to help the brother) and on Matthew 18:15-18 (going to your brother yourself if he sins against you—to seek reconciliation).
Jesus did not say that morality is an individual matter that we each decide for ourselves. He did not say that morality is unknowable or does not exist. He did not say that others should never give a word of counsel or rebuke to someone making a fool of oneself. What Jesus did say is that I am not the final arbiter of others’ lives, that I am not to hold a hypercritical outlook that never sees good in others but always nitpicks their personal faults. Instead, my life is to be focused on blessing and uplifting others on a daily basis. Mostly that means words of appreciation and problem-solving, lots of listening, and much prayer. The occasional counsel when things are going wrong fits with this model of action. We must help each other up. The road is long, the way is straight, and you and I need each other in order to stay on the path.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this article are quoted from the English Standard Version. For a long list of such idioms, see http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/bible-phrases-sayings.html. Accessed November 10, 2013.
2. R. T. France, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2007), vol. 1, p. 274.
3. It is fascinating to compare the teaching of the Book of James with the Sermon on the Mount. Numerous parallels support the idea that James 4:11 and 12 has behind it the same teaching as that of Matthew 7:1-5.