This passage stands as one section in the midst of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In it, Jesus has laid out what the Christian life looks like, how a citizen of the Kingdom is to be. It began with a laying out of the Beatitudes, a portrait of Christian character. We then move seamlessly into an explanation of what taking the commandments to heart looks like. It isn’t about externals only, but obedience that goes down to the level of one’s thoughts and desires.
In chapter 6, we saw that we are called to be generous to others, laying our treasure in heaven and to be prayerful rather than anxious about our needs. In seven, Jesus closes with a warning to those who don’t put their trust in Christ but instead build their house on the sandy foundation of their own wisdom.
In the middle of all of that, we find this prohibition, so often repeated in our culture: “Don’t judge.”
What does it mean to judge? In a legal sense, it means to compare someone’s behavior against a standard to see how it should be reacted to. If, for example, the standard punishment for theft is prison time, when someone steals, we judge them deserving of jail time.
Saying that there is a standard that we all stand or fall on is becoming increasingly out of favor. It has now gotten to the point that there are hardly any standards at all. In fact, the only thing you can do wrong in our world is to tell someone that they are wrong. The only thing that you can be judged for is judging. When we live with that mindset around us everywhere, we can easily think the same way. We can believe that it is wrong, unloving, to call people to a standard. Besides, who among us has ever really felt comfortable doing that? Doesn’t it feel wrong to tell people they are wrong? After all, is it really our business, and even if it is, we’re not worthy to do it! We’re not without sin, so we can’t throw stones.
When we bring all of these thoughts to this text, we can read this first line as “Don’t be judging, because, if you do, you will be judged for judging!” In fact, there are other places in Scripture that would seem to support this line of thinking! Look at James 4:12, “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” Paul, in 1 Corinthians 4:3-5 says, “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.” It would seem pretty clear from a surface reading of these passages that we are simply told to mind our own beeswax, and let God sort ‘em out in the end.
But is that what Jesus, and by extension the rest of the Bible, has in mind?
Indeed, James says later in chapter 5:19-20 that we are supposed to turn people away from their sin. That sounds like we need to 1) recognize the standard and 2) hold people to it. Sounds like judging! Paul also doesn’t hold back against the Corinthians in their sin in 1 Cor 5 just a few paragraphs away from chapter 4. He tells them to remove someone who was sinning sexually. That sounds rather judgy.
Well, what about Jesus in Matthew 7? Is He condemning judgment? Well, if He is, then there are some other passages that will be hard to square with this line of reasoning. For instance, what would we do with passages about training children? Telling our children what to do and punishing wrongdoing (Ephesians 6:4) sounds like the essence of judging. And it isn’t just children subject to this! In Matthew 18, as we already covered at the beginning of this series, we find the process for church discipline. That whole procedure requires judgment at a lot of levels. In order to confront a believer for their sin, then you need to be able to judge that what they are doing is in fact sinful! Especially at the end of the process for the unrepentant, there is the call to put them out of the church! I don’t know of something that would sound more like judging than that!
Further, back in Matthew 7, in this same chapter, we are told that we will know false teachers by their fruits (requires judging), and in fact, just a few sentences after “judge not” we find in verse 6 that we aren’t supposed to give what is holy to dogs or pigs! How on earth are we to be able to make such determinations without judging?
Obviously, Jesus must not be giving a blanket ban on judging, at least the way we typically define it, but we still have a command not to judge lest we be judged. What are we supposed to do? In our two points today, we are going to see we are called to live a holy life and we are called to lovingly help others live a holy life.
Let’s take a close look at Matthew 7. When we see this command “judge not lest you be judged,” Jesus doesn’t then switch to a new topic as if He has said all He has to say on this topic. The next sentence explains why. Jesus tells us that what we judge others for, we better make sure that it doesn’t come back on us!
We see an illustration of that from King David’s life, don’t we? He was all mad about a story of a rich man with lots of sheep stealing from a man who had only one lamb. He said that that man deserved to die, only to find out that the story was about himself. He judged harshly for stealing, forgetting that he had actually done a worse thing by taking another man’s wife.
So Jesus is being very practical with us. If we are going to say, “This person is in sin!” We best make sure that we aren’t in that same boat. He uses a striking image to illustrate this. He imagines a guy with a bit of dust in his eye that does need to come out. The guy who has taken it upon himself to remove it, has a house beam sitting in his eye! The obvious point we are supposed to draw from this is, goodness! if you have a house beam in your eye, you need to be thinking about getting that out, not worrying about other people! One Scholar put it this way, “Therefore, Jesus does not forbid all moral judgment or accountability. Rather, he forbids harsh, prideful, and hypocritical judgment that condemns others outright without first evaluating one's own spiritual condition and commitment to forsake sin.” (Eric J. Bargerhuff, The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, 30). It turns out the word “judge” has a range of meanings. If we judge based in love from the standard of God’s Word, that is appropriate! If we are just roasting people for the same stuff we do, all of what we have discussed above applies. Don’t do it!
Now, unfortunately, this is where many people stop reading. People will understand that Jesus isn’t telling us that we don’t judge sin, but they don’t want to be the ones to do it. They will say, “Well, I’m no better than that guy, so there is nothing I can do. See this log?” But that isn’t where Jesus finishes. Jesus doesn’t say, “Well, if you got the log in your eye, there’s really nothing that you can do.” No! Jesus says, “You got a log in your eye? Well, then get that thing out of there, SO THAT YOU CAN HELP YOUR BROTHER.” Jesus is not actually against speck removal. In fact, because Jesus wants that speck out of your brother’s eye, He calls you to live a holy life to make that possible. One commentator put it this way, “How can someone whose vision is totally obscured render a just assessment of another person's minor vision problems (7:3), let alone attempt the delicate task of correcting the problem (7:4)?” David Turner, Matthew, 206). Jesus calls you to log-free living. It isn’t just so your eyes are out of pain, but so that you can help others.
That brings an entirely different motivation for holiness, doesn’t it? Have you been motivated to stop a sin so that you can help others stop that sin? You can absolutely help someone out of an addiction without having had that addiction, but boy there can be something helpful about having been there.
This isn’t about not judging, this is about being in a place to help. If you are doing the same thing, there is nothing helpful about pointing out others sin. I’m going to have a hard time quitting cigarettes if my doctor smokes. We need to recognize the position that we have calling ourselves followers of Christ.
We are called to lovingly help others live a holy life.
This position is not used to stand above and condemn, but to come alongside and encourage. As we talked about in Matthew 18, the heart of God is one who pursues after the sinner to cause them to return, and the same is true of our fellow church members. As one writer put it, “Since we have been commissioned to proclaim a message of repentance and faith to those outside the church who need to hear the good news, certainly we need to proclaim the same message of repentance and faith to those inside the church” (Eric J. Bargerhuff, The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, 30).
So how are we to do this? One, we need to have a firm grasp on our own need for the gospel. That’s one of the reasons why we have a confession of sin in our worship service. I need to read that confession just as much as you do. I need that time of personal confession just as much as you do. We all need the gospel, and none of us stand as inherently holier than another. We all need Jesus. Second, we need to have experience with repentance. People who are good at confronting are good at confessing. Good rebukers are good repenters. This is the case because they live what they are telling you to do. A life well-lived has weight. Three, you need to love those you confront. People can tell. Even if you can’t love them for their own sake, love them for Jesus’ sake. They’re in your life, so reach them. Christian criticism is always constructive, not demeaning and condemnatory (David Turner, Matthew, 205).
But what about when people simply won’t receive constructive criticism? What if by correcting someone, you are exposing yourself to violence? Here is where verse 6 comes in. As one commentator put it, “Jesus's disciples must not be censorious (7: 1 – 5), but neither must they be oblivious to genuinely evil people” (David Turner, Matthew, 206). There will be times in which having warned people, there is nothing more you can do with them. I think Titus 3:10-11 is an example of this “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” However, we need remember a critical point that I think Craig Keener, one of my commentators, put best, “[Matthew 7:6] does not allow one to pre-judge who may receive one's message (13:3-23), but does forbid one to try to force it on those who show no inclination to accept it…” (Craig Keener, Matthew, 244). What he’s saying is, we don’t get to look at someone and go, “Nah, I don’t think that guy is going to believe the gospel. Just look at him!” I mean, who would have thought that Paul would become a believer? The guy was basically fresh from killing Stephen, the Church’s first deacon, when he was converted. But if after giving the gospel, the person goes, “No, don’t ever bring this up again” you are free not to force the issue. Tremendous wisdom is always required in these sorts of situations, and the decision to say, “I can’t help this person anymore,” is one that should be very slowly and prayerfully come to. And just because you aren’t able to help that person, doesn’t mean someone else can’t.
In summary, what Jesus is condemning here is harsh, hypocritical condemnation of other people’s sin that you also take part in. The world is often harsh and wrong in its criticism of churches, but more often than we would like to think, we condemn the world for sin while allowing it to exist unchecked in our midst. We rightly criticize the sexual revolution taking place in our country, but we wrongly participate in it through pornography (Eric J. Bargerhuff, The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, 28). A life of holiness will give us a life of freedom, a life that can point people to a better way. We are never going to be perfect; we don’t claim to be! But we do point to a Savior who has not only forgiven our sin, but is making us new. He is not only saving us from the log in our eye, but He is removing it from us that we may see clearly.