Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 7:1a “Judge not,. . .”
“Judge not”–simple words, complex meaning. “Judge not”–easy to say, hard to interpret. “Judge not”–one of the Bible’s most used and abused phrases.
Not taking time to analyze Jesus’ intent, we quote Him carelessly. We take “Judge not” out of its original setting, forgetting a text out of context is a pretext.
Since “Judge not” is one of our Master’s most often twisted and misapplied quotes, let’s try to reclaim its original and true intent by placing it squarely in its setting. Three truths from its context will help us understand our Savior aright.
First, note Matthew 7:15a, “Beware of false prophets.” Jesus clearly stated we have to judge people’s words. We have a duty to test and analyze speech, to evaluate and make judgments on whether a person’s words are true or false. Some seem to believe everything they read or hear. John warned against this openness, “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 J 4:1 NAS).
Second, note Matthew 7:16a, “Ye shall know them by their fruits.” Jesus plainly stated we have to judge people’s actions. We have a responsibility to examine people’s behavior, to determine whether their deeds are right or wrong. In fact, if we see people in sin, we are commanded to speak to them about it. “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (EP 5:11). It is wrong for us to remain silent or neutral in the face of flagrant error.
Parents have to judge their children’s behavior, reprimanding wrong and rewarding right. Churches must judge their own members, maintaining oversight, and especially keeping leadership positions from being filled by any in open sin.
Courts have to judge the acts of offenders. Despite mitigating circumstances, murderers, thieves, drug dealers, rapists, child molesters, etc., need to be punished. Each is responsible for their own behavior. If our “defendant as victim” policy continues, we may finally develop a hyper-tolerance which replaces judges with psychologists, juries with support groups, and lawyers with insurance agents.
Christians have an objective standard, the Bible, and are permitted, yea required, to use it to make assessments of people’s speech and behavior. Thus, Jesus’ command to “Judge not” is abused when used as grounds for tolerating error and wrong. Our Master did not mean for us to never express an opinion about the words and deeds of others. Believers have to make verbal and ethical verdicts. To make sure we do not abuse this duty, we hasten to see another truth in our context.
Third, note Matthew 6:34c, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Life at best is hard. Thus, be not harsh when judging others. Verbal and ethical verdicts are permissible; harsh attacks are not. We grievously sin when we leave out love. Our ultimate objective in dealing with the fallen must ever be restoration. “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” (GL 6:1). Be meek, not mean. Our authority is not in our anger or indignation, but in a person’s deviating from our accepted objective standard, the Bible.
We are to judge according to the love, as well as the law, of the Lord. Jesus grieved over recalcitrant Jerusalem (MT 23:37) and loved the unrepentant rich young ruler (MK 10:21). When having to deal with sin in others, do so with a tear in one eye for the dishonor done to God, and a tear in the other eye for the damage done to the sinner. Grieve for God. “Rivers of waters run down mine eyes, because they keep not thy law” (PS 119:136). Pity the sad plight of sinners. “God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap” (GL 6:7 NAS).
Always temper judgment with mercy. Be gracious, for it is essentially impossible to know the full strength and intensity of another person’s temptations. John the Beloved, with his tranquil disposition, would have trouble understanding Peter’s fiery nature. We who grew up in Christian homes can’t grasp the explosive kindling in the hearts of those raised with profanity and pornography all around. We cannot know all that a person was exposed to in their critical, formative years.
It is hard to determine another person’s level of passion for a particular evil. I have never tasted beer, whiskey, or wine. If you were to set a beer before me, it would not tempt me at all, but in my extended family I have a loved one, a recovering alcoholic, who dares not take cough syrup for fear it might contain a dab of alcohol and trigger an uncontrollable avalanche of desire within him. I could hold a glass of beer, set it in my office, put it in my refrigerator, and be unmoved. But others nearby would tremble, sweat, break into tears, and have to run from it with all their might. How can I sit in harsh judgment over them? Are they to be held responsible for what they do? Should they be punished for driving while intoxicated? Yes, their acts have to be judged, but mercy must be mingled with judgment.
Often, instead of loving the faulty, we love to find fault. This vice carries its own strange, twisted enjoyment. We like to pry into people’s faults. I heard a godly lady once confess, “Gossip is a terrible thing, but I love every juicy morsel.”
Why do we have a depraved eagerness to find fault in others? Maybe, since we fail, we take comfort in the failure of others. Or possibly, and we may not acknowledge this even to ourselves, we have a deep-seated desire to do the sin. Maybe we resent the fun sinners seem to enjoy. Because we take seriously the command to be holy, and work hard at denying ourselves, it is easy for us to become judgmental, to envy the self-indulgent. Since reputation rightly matters dearly to us, maybe we are tempted to wrongly exalt ourselves by disparaging others, to take cheap shots to attain behavioral superiority. Jesus does want us to rise morally, but not by stepping on other people’s reputations. We are wrong when we are glad to improve our own reputations by besmirching those of others.
Maybe, heaven forbid, we do not love sinners and actually want revenge to fall on them. This was the flaw of Jonah regarding Ninevah (Jonah 4:1), plus of James and John toward the Samaritan village (LK 9:54-56).
“Judge not.” On the one hand, be not neutral toward moral issues. People who stand for nothing fall for anything. A lack of judging, of discernment, results in our being easily lead astray by others. On the other hand, do not show severity.