The Sermon On The Mount–

In former days when polls were taken which asked, “What’s your favorite Bible verse or passage?” the answer would usually be either John 3: 16 or the 23rd Psalm.

For many people today (especially non-Christians), the best ­known and also most popular scripture is “Judge not,” or, to give the complete verse, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”

Why has Matthew 7:1 become so popular and widely quoted now? Because of the common view–almost universally believed by today’s young people–that there are no absolutes. That universal standards just don’t exist! The late Lewis Smedes, professor of ethics at Fuller Seminary, said, “Many modern Americans do not believe there are objective stand­ards by which to judge. And where there are no standards, there is nothing by which to measure behavior. “That is one scary statement.

The prevalent attitude has become, “How dare you condemn abortion, homosexual behavior, pornography, ‘unmarried’ couples living together, gambling casinos, etc.? You Christians surely realize that Jesus said, ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged,’ So why don’t you obey his command? You are experts at judging people you don’t agree with! How come you break Jesus’ own command over and over?”

How Should We Reply?

First, though “Judge not” sounds like an absolute command–a total prohibition of judging of any and every kind–it really isn’t. We will present ample evidence that Jesus did not mean His statement to be taken in an absolute sense. Don’t get me wrong. He certainly did believe that there are absolutes (and so do I). But there is a differ­ence between general statements (which are usually true, but not al­ways) and absolute ones to which there are no exceptions. “Judge not” is def­initely the former. We will consider the many difficulties that arise if anyone says Matt. 7:1 is an absolute prohibition, not just a general one.

Problems and Puzzles with the Belief, “Judging is Always Wrong”

Problem #1: In World magazine, 8/03, Abby Nye wrote, “If ‘judge not’ is a universal ban, positive judgments would be taboo as well as negative judgments. We couldn’t judge that a movie was good, a book excellent, or a lecture challenging.” But every person makes such judgments every day, as we evalu­ate both positively and negatively: “Wendy’s is better than McDon­ald’s.” “I like McCain more than Romney because.. ..” “UK’s coach is better than UofL’s.” “I don’t think ‘Whisper­ing Hope’ is nearly as good as ‘Abide with Me. “. Is such judging wrong? Non­sense.

Problem #2 with believing Jesus meant “Never judge at all, ever!”: Professor Smedes pointed out, “No community can exist for long where nobody is ever held accountable: No teacher would grade a student’s performance [or vice versa]; no citizen would sit on a jury, or judge render a verdict; no citizen would call a failed leader to account” [recall them, or vote them out]. When you come to think of it, nobody would ever forgive anyone for wrongs he had done: we only for­give people for what we blame them, and we blame them only after we have judged them.”

Problem #3 (the most important one): If all judging is banned, then the Bible contradicts itself. For example, in Luke 12:57, Jesus said, “Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?” In Ro­mans 12:3, Paul wrote, “Do not think of your­self more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober [accurate] judg­ment ” Consider also his ad­vice in 1 Corinthians 6: “I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dis­pute between believers? But instead, one brother goes to law against another–and this in front of unbelievers!” The very fact that you have lawsuits among you [i.e., between born ­again Christians who sued each other in public courts] means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?”

Again, in 1 Corinthians 10: “I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say” And in the next chapter, “Judge for yourselves…” ”

Solving Problems, Dissolving Contradictions

Well, then, what did Jesus mean when He said, “Judge not”? More than that, how can we solve problems like this in general­ when Scripture seems to contradict itself?

1st, we should examine and determine Meanings [plural] of the Words used. In this case we discover the following facts. The word “judgment” is used in the NT in an ethical sense, with these meanings: (1) to decide, give a verdict, de­clare an opinion (Greek krino): Acts 15: 19, James said, “It is my judgment that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” (2) to investigate or scrutinize (Greek anakrino); 1 Cor. 4:3, I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court. (3) to discrimi­nate, distinguish (Greek diakrino). 1 Cor. 14:29, Two or three proph­ets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully/ pass judgment / discern — what is said.

So 1st, when facing problems of this kind, we should examine and determine meanings of the words used, by using an English dic­tionary or, better, a Bible dictionary, concordance, commentary or Greek lexicon. But in this case, that doesn’t solve our problem, for according to our research judging seems o-k, yet Jesus says don’t do it. ”

2nd, we should Examine the Immediate Context of the puzzling statement. So we look at Matt. 7: 1 and the verses that follow it. “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

Don’t misinterpret that. One preacher said this refers to God’s judgment of us. He taught that if we treat other people leniently and mildly, God will treat us that way. But that would imply that if we refuse to judge other people at all, God won’t judge us at all! Wait a minute. If someone who cheats on his tax return does not condemn others who do the same, will God refuse to find him guilty for his cheating because he refused to judge others? If that’s true, then the easiest way to escape going to hell is simply for us in this life never to judge anyone at all for any­thing. “You can’t judge me, God, be­cause I never judged anyone during my lifetime!” What is wrong with this picture?

No, when Christ said, “In the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you,” I believe he was referring to the human consequences in this life of being sternly, severely judgmental.

The hypercritical person-­ showing others harshness, not mercy – will find that others treat him that way too. You reap what you sow, even in this life.

Commentators Jamieson, Fausset & Brown agree: “People shrink from contact with those who deal out harsh judg­ment upon others–naturally concluding that they themselves may be the next victims–and [many people] feel impelled in self-defense, when ex­posed to it, to roll back upon the assailant his own censures.”

Now back to the context of Matt. 7:1. Jesus continued in v. 3, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Hey, note that! Jesus says it’s okay to judge another person–i.e., point out our brother’s flaw–IF we have right motives, if we first judge and correct ourselves as far as possible. We should repent of forming a judgment hastily, harshly, and without allowing for every extenuating circumstance that may partially excuse the person of their fault or weakness.”(Maybe that child is terribly hyper-active be­cause he is constantly yelled at and slapped around at home.)

Also, once we form a reasoned, accurate opinion, we should be careful about expressing it. That is, we remove the log from our own eye by seeking never to pass on to other folks who are neither part of the problem or the solution our negat­ive opinion. We avoid criticizing unnecessarily and harshly. (It’s called gossip.)

Jesus says if we thus extract the log from our eye, we are quali­fied to assist a brother by first judging (that is, evaluat­ing) him.

“Oh, you have a speck in your eye”; and then by helping him–“If you want, I’ll try to remove it for you” (adding, if it’s true)–“You know, I myself have struggled with that problem, or a similar one”).

But if we do not judge ourselves first, Jesus calls us “hypo­crites”. We pretend to have 20/20 vision when really we’re nearly blind! We act as if we are an eye doctor while actually we are an eye patient who needs thick lenses or maybe a seeing-eye dog!

Our Lord emphasizes this point in still another way by two words He uses here over and over: “judge” and “broth­er.” When we see a fault or failing in our friend, relative, or fellow-Christian, if we come on to them as though we are wearing a black robe and banging a gavel–as though we think we’re a judge-we will do more harm than good! But if we approach them as a loving, concerned brother or sister, wanting to help them improve and overcome their flaw or defect–but also admitting we are not perfect either, we too need to improve–then they will probably welcome our help and make changes.

We are examining the context, remember? We’re looking at all Jesus said on this occasion regarding this subject–in order to under­stand those often-twisted words of His, “Judge not.”

But Are We Interpreting This Correctly?

Is it correct to say that Jesus did not ban all judging, but only harsh, hypocritical judging? Let’s investigate further, looking now at other statements of His.

Only five verses later he says, “Do not give dogs [that is, curs – stray mongrels–garbage scavengers, for in first-cen­tury Judea that is what dogs were] what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs [that is, “unclean” animals who wallow in the mud: Jews were for­bidden to eat or even own them]. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.”

In other words, He says some people have no proper sense of values or appreciation for God and His nature and truth. They are human, but by nature, choice and conduct they strongly resemble curs and pigs.

Jesus sounds awfully judgmental, right? But it is a needed type of judgment! We need to make distinctions and draw conclusions re­garding the attitudes of people, and what truths -if any–they are ready for at this time. We must not misap­ply this, of course. Jesus was. a “friend of sinners” and preached to outcasts and rejects–and so should we.

Applying this verse, commentator Adam Clarke wrote:

The sacrament of the Lord’s supper, and other holy ordinances which are only instituted for the genuine followers of Christ, are not to be dispensed to those who are continually returning like the snarl­ing ill-natured dog to their easily pre­dominant sins of rash judgment, barking at and tearing the characters of others by evil speaking, back biting and slander­ing; nor to him who, like the swine, is frequently returning to wallow in the mud of sensual gratifications and impuri­ties. Our main conclusion from this verse is, Jesus expects us to judge and make distinctions regarding people and their atti­tudes.

And we find the same thing just nine verses later: 15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but in­wardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recog­nize them…17 Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”

So He urges us to measure and discern true teachers from false ones, and avoid the latter. There He goes contradicting Himself again, if verse 1 meant we should never judge others at all.

Our main point is, after saying “Judge not,” our Lord tells us to make judgments! Obviously He meant, as the context indicates, Don’t judge too soon, nor proudly, harshly, unlovingly. I ought not be “a fault-finder who is negative and de­structive towards other peo­ple and enjoys seeking out their failings, putting the worst possible interpretation on their motives and being ungenerous towards their mistakes” (John Stott).

A True Story that Drives the Point Home

Before he went into a career in TV, the late Fred Rogers, of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, attended seminary. While there he took courses on how to preach. Then he had this experience, which he describes:

On a vacation trip my wife and I visited a little church with friends of ours. During the sermon I kept ticking off every mistake I thought the preacher–he must’ve been 80 years old–was making. When his seemingly endless sermon ended, I turned to one of my friends, intending to say some­thing critical about the sermon. I stopped myself when I saw tears run­ning down her face.

She whispered to me, “He said exactly what I needed to hear.” That was really a lesson for me. I was judging and she was needing, and the Holy Spirit responded to need, not judgment.

The Final Step

To make absolutely sure we are not twisting Jesus’ words, “Judge not” into meaning something different from what He in­tended, a 3rd step may be taken:

3. Study the Wider Context–not just the same chapter or book, but the whole Bible. When we do that, here’s what we find:

a) We Ought to Judge Ourselves: In 1 Cor. 11:28ff. Paul says we ought to examine ourselves before we eat the bread and drink of the cup: “If we [thus] judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment,” God’s disciplinary judgment. “When we are being judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.”

b) Yet, in another sense, we should Not Judge Ourse!ves: 1 Cor. 4:3-5, “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any hu­man court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. 4 My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.” Main point: realize that I don’t see the whole picture, and don’t fully understand the part I do see. “Now we know [only] in part” (1 Cor. 13:9).

c) We ought Not Judge Others: In Rom 14:3 Paul echoes Jesus. “The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand…….”

In other words, that fellow-Christian is not my servant, but Christ’s. Seven verses later, in Rom 14: 10 Paul says: You, then, why do you judge your brother?.. For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat Each of us will give an account of himself to God.

I’m not the one Holding the Trial, but the one Standing On Trial. Paul wants us to remember that.

d) Yet the Church as a body, a group, Should Judge and Dis­cipline Members who Persist in Sin: 1 Cor. 5: 12ff. “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans. [A man was going to bed with his father’s wife, his step-mother.] Shouldn’t you have put out of your fellowship the man who did this?……. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?… God will judge those outside. Are you not to judge those inside? “Expel the wicked man from among you.”

Well, we have quite a jigsaw puzzle on our hands, haven’t we? How do we fit all these pieces together?

How To Summarize All This?

We should not ignore the faults either of ourselves or of others. Rather we definitely need to discern between good and evil, pursuing and promoting right and opposing wrong. Yet we should not harshly judge and condemn the faults of oth­ers, but show mercy as much as possible, treating others as we wish to be treated.

In addition, as Paul said to the church members in Corinth, “Ex­amine yourselves to see if your faith is really genuine. Test your­selves.” We can easily delude ourselves if we are not careful.

John Stott summarizes: “We need to be as critical of ourselves as we often are of others, and as generous to others as we always are to ourselves.”

Which words do others think of when I come to their mind? “Judge, critic, harsh”?

Or “Brother, sister, loving”? Or–perish the thought – “Hypo­crite, pretender, make-believe”? More important, which words does God think of when He thinks of me?

Alex Wilson lives in Louisville, KY. He is the Editor of  “Words and Work,” and  Minister of the Portland Ave  Church of Christ.