Judge Not: Matthew 7:1-6
On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of our nation ruled that gay marriage is legal in all 50 states. This was not a surprising ruling, given the court’s recent rulings, but it was nonetheless a landmark decision. It highlights the increasing velocity of moral decline in our country. Accompanying this moral decline has been an increasingly loud chorus of voices that denounce any attempt by anybody to say that any kind of sexual deviance is sin. In the present instance, if you were to publish a statement that you believe that homosexual behavior is sinful, you will be roundly condemned on all sides. And you are almost sure to hear – especially if you are a Christian – that Jesus said, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
Which happens to be our text this morning.
This text is probably now the most famous passage in all the New Testament, if not in all the Bible. I am amazed how many clearly irreligious people can quote it. Whereas in past generations, one could make the argument that John 3:16 was the most loved and quoted verse in all the Bible, now I wonder if people in our culture are even aware that John 3:16 exists. People in our culture care little for the cross and the message of the gospel, but they love to get Jesus on the side of moral anarchy by eliciting his comment on judging to condemn certain forms of moral discernment.
But this is just the rub. People who quote Mt. 7:1 as a way to silence those who call out sin for what it is, are themselves guilty of the very thing they are condemning. For when someone tells me that I cannot “judge others” for their sin, they are themselves judging me for my judging others. In other words, even those who put up this passage as a way to stop the judging of others must admit that the call to “judge not that ye be not judged” is not absolute and universal. At the end of the day, no one believes in the abandonment of all moral discernment.
In our culture, it is not that one group of people believes that judging is right and the other group that it is wrong. The problem is that our culture no longer embraces a Judeo-Christian ethic, and it has replaced this ethic with the ethic of individual autonomy and sexual freedom. What is and has always been sin to a Bible-believing Christian is now considered not only good but right to the average person in our culture. Thus, they see those who call homosexual practice sin as practicing a bad kind of judgment, whereas they see themselves as right to denounce those who call the gay lifestyle sinful.
Again, no one in practice believes that the call to judge not is absolute. Everyone practices some form of moral discernment.
What then was Jesus saying?
As we look at the text, it becomes clear that Jesus was not condemning every species of judging. This is clear in the immediate context. In verses 3-5 of our text, we have this illustration of the mote and the beam. We are all familiar with it. And the point is clear: if you are unwilling to deal with the sin in your own life (the beam or plank in your eye), you will neither have the moral clarity or vision or authority to deal with the sin in someone else’s life (the speck in your brother’s eye). But that does not mean that helping others deal with the sin in their life is always wrong. In fact, Jesus goes on to say that if you first deal with the sin in your own life, “then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye” (v. 5). But of course this implies the right to judge (discern) sin in someone else to be sin. You are never going to be able to help someone cast out the mote of sin out of their eye if you are unwilling to see it for what it is: a foreign object that needs to be removed from the eye. In other words, you are never going to be able to help someone repent of their sin if you are unwilling to call sin for what it is. And that requires the ability to judge.
Or consider what our Lord says in the next verse: “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” This is perhaps even clearer. Our Lord says that there are people in this world who can be called dogs and pigs, and you have to avoid them. His point is that you shouldn’t try to force truth on those who are obviously going to reject it. But in order to put this text into practice, you have to be able to judge which people fall under this category. It very well could be that Jesus puts this verse immediately after the previous verses in order to balance his previous statement about not judging.
Later on in this chapter, Jesus will warn his disciples against false prophets (7:15-20). He says that “ye shall know them by their fruits.” Again, God’s people have to be able to judge which prophets are false prophets by their fruits – by the deeds of their lives. If this is not a call to judge others, I don’t know what is!
Elsewhere, Jesus actually calls for people to judge, but according to truth: “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (Jn. 7:24). This is a command, not a suggestion. Our Lord’s words here are very helpful, for they suggest that there is a bad kind of judgment and a good kind of judgment. He condemns the former and commands the latter. What makes a judgment righteous is that it is not based solely on appearance but on truth. This then suggests that what our Lord is doing on the Sermon on the Mount is not condemning all judging, but only that kind of judgment which does not correspond to the truth.
What then was our Lord condemning? It seems to me that he is condemning two things: hypercriticism and hypocrisy. Jesus is condemning a hypercritical attitude in verses 1-2: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” In those words, he is not condemning discernment, he is condemning a judgmental and censorious attitude.
What do we mean by that? You are judgmental if you are harsher on others than you are on yourself, if your standards for others are higher than the ones you set for yourself. You are judgmental if you are unwilling to forgive the faults of others, ready to snatch at the first evidence of wrong in someone as a reason to dislike or even to hate them. A judgmental attitude is the exact opposite of a loving attitude. It is the opposite of the traits ascribed to love in 1 Corinthians 13. Thus, whereas loves suffers long, a judgmental person is quick to call to account. Whereas love is not easily provoked, a person with a censorious heart will be. Whereas love does not keep a record of wrongs, a judgmental person does. Whereas love believes all things, a judgmental person finds anything hard to believe about others. Or, as John Stott put it, “Censoriousness is a compound sin consisting of several unpleasant ingredients. It 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.”
A judgmental person never sees his/her own faults as they see the faults of others. That is why our Lord reminds us that the judgment we render to others will be returned to us. We may not judge ourselves as we judge others, but there is coming a day when we too will be judged, and the standard we applied to others will be turned on ourselves.
Now our Lord is not talking about human judgment here. When he warns us of being judged “that ye be not judged,” he is not referring to the court of human judgment, but rather to the judgment of God, to whom all men will have to give account. He can’t be referring to the judgment of our peers, because Scripture everywhere teaches that the opinions of others are in the ultimate sense of no account. Paul would put it this way to the Corinthians: “But it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self” (1 Cor. 4:3). So clearly Jesus wasn’t warning us against judging others because we will then be subjected to the judgment of other men. No, he is reminding us of the Final Judgment, a time when all we will all give account (see Mt. 7:21-27). It as the apostle James would put it: “So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty. For he [God] shall have judgment without mercy, that hath showed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment” (Jm. 2:12-13). If you show no mercy, you will receive no mercy. The measure that you judge by will be the measure by which you are judged.
What is so wrong with this? One of the problems with a judgmental attitude is that by assuming such an attitude we are taking the place of God. A judgmental person goes beyond merely condemning sin in another person; they go on to condemn the person himself. This really is what is behind so much of the harshness. And this is what Paul condemns in Romans 14, when you had these different groups of people condemning each other and failing to love each other. The apostle puts it to them like this: “Who are thou that judgest another man’s servant? To his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand” (ver. 4). To judge others is to play God. It is to anticipate the future Judgment by pronouncing your decree upon a person’s future. No one has the right to do that.
The cure to such censoriousness is first of all to humble ourselves before God, and to trust him to make all things right. And then it is to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. It is to want the same standards of judgment for others as I want for myself. Are we hypercritical? Then we are disobeying our Lord’s words here and we need to repent of it.
Being hypercritical and judgmental is finally to deny the very gospel we claim to believe. What does the gospel tell us? Why do we need Christ? Is it not because we are so loathsome to God on account of our sins that we are worthy of being everlastingly punished in hell? Is it not that we have then found grace in the eyes of the Lord, not because of what we have done or because of anything good in us but because of what Christ has done? Is not the gospel that we have become right with God simply by trusting in Christ and committing ourselves to him, believing the promise that if we do so we will receive his righteousness? Does not the gospel proclaim that we really deserved the wrath of God but received his love? How then can we turn around and be utterly graceless to others? Judge not, because when God could have judged you, he judged Christ in your stead.
Let’s be clear: this passage does not justify pretending that sin is not sin. It does not okay moral blindness. The follower of Christ is to be a bold speaker of the truth, even when that truth is not believed by the culture. And yet, what our text does tell us is that we are always to speak the truth in love. We are always to show all meekness unto all men. We are not to usurp the role of God in judging others, all the while we courageously proclaim the truth of God to our neighbors.
Secondly, this passage condemns hypocrisy. A warning against hypocrisy is already inherent in the first two verses; a judgmental attitude that holds people to a different standard is inherently hypocritical. But in verses 3-5, with the illustration of the mote and the beam, the warning against hypocrisy becomes even more apparent. In fact, our Lord closes this paragraph with the rebuke: “Thou hypocrite!”
Again, our Lord is not saying that it is wrong ever to point out sin in others. Part of the point of being a church is to be around others who will point out sin in us. The apostle Paul writes: “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:1-2). Part of bearing one another’s burdens involves helping them to see their sin and to repent of it as verse 1 makes clear. Or consider the words of James: “Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins” (Jm. 5:19-20). And then we have this great example of the apostle Paul doing this very thing to none other than the apostle Peter in Galatians 2:11-14. Peter sinned and Paul openly rebuked him for it. And as Paul makes clear, that was something that needed to happen because the gospel was at stake.
On the other hand, you have the very opposite attitude of the Corinthians that Paul addresses in chapter 5 of his letter to them. They had this sinning brother in their church, and they had not dealt with the sin. However, not only had they not dealt with it, they gloried in the fact that they had not dealt with it! He writes in disbelief: “And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from you” (1 Cor. 5:2). In other words, they were so proud of their tolerant attitude – probably believing that it was loving – that they had refused to do anything about the sin. Paul’s words to the church at this point are biting. What he says to them simply underlines the truth that sin needs to be confronted.
As we pointed out earlier, the words of our Lord do not imply that it is ever wrong to try to pluck a mote out of a brother’s eye. It’s just wrong when you’ve got a plank in your own eye. What Jesus condemns here is what Paul condemns in Romans 2:1, “Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.” Probably the clearest illustration of this in the Bible is given in 2 Samuel 12, when the prophet Nathan comes before King David with his story about the poor shepherd whose precious lamb was stolen from him and butchered by his rich neighbor. King David was incensed when he heard this story, not realizing that he was the one the prophet was referring to (ver. 7). We all recognize the incongruity that existed in David’s judgment and his own unrepentant heart. However, the fact of the matter is that we are often all too ready to judge others of sin when there is unrepentant sin in our own lives.
Of course, our Lord is not saying that you can’t hold others accountable for their sin unless you are sinless. What he is saying is that you are not ready to help others with the sins in their lives as long as you are unwilling to deal with the sin in your own life. He is also saying that the priority is our own sin. In other words, what is most pressing is for me to deal with and repent of the sin in my heart before I even begin to consider the sin that I see in someone else. You are simply not going to have the moral clarity to help someone else in sin when you have not dealt deeply with the sin in your life. In fact, you will probably end up hurting them rather than helping them. Can you imagine a person with a plank coming out of their eye bending over to scoop out a piece of sawdust out of another person’s eye? They will knock them over or knock them out with the board coming out of their own eye before they can even get close enough to see the speck in their neighbor’s eye!
Then comes verse 6: “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs,” etc. Here is a clear call for discernment, one which balances the warning against a judgmental spirit in the previous verses. Not judging others does not mean that we do not recognize dogs and pigs for what they are.
Now in the first century, a dog was not a family pet, but a wild, vicious creature. On the other hand, the pig was an unclean animal (actually they both were) and Jews had nothing to do with them. In the parable of the prodigal son, the son’s lowest point came when he was sent out to feed the pigs. That is how they were viewed by Jesus’ audience.
But what was Jesus referring to? What is holy is the gospel, the truth. Jesus is the pearl of great price who is worth the risk of selling all that we might obtain him (cf. Mt. 13:45-46). Though we are to share this truth with others – this is not a rejection of the Great Commission given in Matthew 28 – yet we have to be discerning with whom we share the truth. There are people who are so hardened against the gospel that to share it with them is simply to provide another occasion for the gospel to be blasphemed, and possibly for you to get hurt in the process. King Solomon put it this way: “Reprove not a scorner, lest he hate thee: rebuke a wise man, and he will love thee” (Prov. 9:8).
The connection between verses 1-5 and verse 6 is I think this: you are not to judge others, and that means among other things that you are to be kind and longsuffering and meek to all men. But that does not mean that all men will react the same to your kindness. You need to be discerning. Some are so hardened in their sin that your attempts to share the truth with them will only enrage them, like a pig expecting to find a piece of food in the slop only to find a pearl. So be kind, but also beware. You don’t hate them, but recognize them for who they are. You can as soon reason with such a person as you could reason with a dog or a pig. Or, to use the language of our Lord in Mt. 10:16, you are to be harmless a dove (verses 1-5) and wise as a serpent (verse 6).
Even so, we must be careful not to stretch this truth into an excuse not to share the gospel with anyone we might imagine might not react favorably to it. John Stott, in his commentary on this passage, notes that “to give people up is a very serious step to take. I can think of only one or two occasions in my experience when I have felt it was right. This teaching of Jesus is for exceptional situations only; our normal Christian duty is to be patient and persevere with others, as God has patiently persevered with us.”
When we look at these verses as a whole, what do they tell us? There has been a lot of debate as to the place of Matthew 7 in the Sermon on the Mount. Some have even argued that it has no connection with the preceding material. But I do not think so. Our Lord in the previous verses was dealing with the dangers to righteousness: worldliness and unbelief. In this text, he presents another danger to living a life before God: the misuse of our critical faculties, either in the direction of censoriousness or in the direction of gullibility.
Regardless of how you see the individual pieces fit together (and any scheme is to some extent arbitrary), it is indisputable that the overall theme of this Sermon is what it means to live before God, what it means to be a righteous man or woman. And our text this morning reminds us that a person who lives before God is neither going to want to usurp his throne with a judgmental attitude nor to throw what is holy to the dogs with a naïve zeal. The reality of God’s holiness ought to govern everything that we are and do. It takes harsh people and makes them into humble and longsuffering and kind people. But it also makes them discerning. Life is not to be lived in a glib, nonchalant, Bertie Wooster type of life; it is to be lived in the deeply joyful seriousness of life before God.
Do you know this God? I don’t mean know about him, I mean do you know him? To be without God is to be without hope in the ultimate sense. Our Lord said that this is eternal life, to know him. If you do not know him, I can tell you for certain that he knows all about you: your problems, your secret thoughts and your hidden sins. You might as well ignore God as ignore the sun. You will have to reckon with him some day. All of life is lived before God whether you acknowledge it or not. This Sermon is calling upon you to acknowledge the reality that you are living before a God before whom you will one day give an account. And in that day, what will you say? That you were good enough? Surely, if this Sermon teaches anything it is that no one is perfectly righteous. God’s standard is too high. You will fall short. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Your only hope lies in Jesus Christ, who came not only as the preacher of sermons but as the redeemer of mankind. He takes our sin that we might take his righteousness. And this morning he is calling on you to follow him. What grace! What welcome, that he would call sinners like ourselves! So come today, this morning, bend the knee to Jesus Christ, believe on him, and be saved.