In his book The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, Eric Bargerhuff surveys an array of popularly botched verses – misunderstood by believers and unbelievers alike. What tops the whole list? Jesus’s statement in Matthew 7:1: ‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged.’ One could argue, Bargerhuff says, that this is ‘by far the most frequently misapplied verse in the entire Bible’.
What Jesus doesn’t mean
What is Jesus talking about? Well, he certainly doesn’t mean: ‘Don’t think critically’, ‘Don’t make moral evaluations’, or ‘Don’t tell me what to do or how to live’. How do we know these popular uses of ‘Do not judge’ mistake Christ’s intent? In a word: context.
You don’t even have to go outside the Gospel of Matthew or the Sermon on the Mount or even Matthew 7 to see that Jesus doesn’t mean we shouldn’t evaluate things morally. Just five verses later, the same Jesus who says ‘Do not judge’ calls his opponents dogs and pigs – and expects his followers to see them as such (v. 6).
Later in the chapter, Jesus exhorts us to beware of false prophets, of wolves who wear sheep costumes. You will ‘recognise them by their fruits’ (v. 16) – a recognition that requires moral judgment. So, if Jesus isn’t saying what many of our neighbours wish he’d say, then what is he saying?
His basic point is simple: ‘Don’t be judgmental.’ Make theological and ethical judgments – just not from some balcony of superiority. J. C. Ryle explains the point well: ‘What our Lord means to condemn is a … fault-finding spirit. A readiness to blame others for trifling offences, or matters of indifference; a habit of passing rash and hasty judgments; a disposition to magnify the errors and infirmities of our neighbours, and make the worst of them.’
Open your eyes to see and your heart to love, Jesus is saying, long before you open your mouth. Make sure things are in proper focus first, lest you realise on the Last Day that you were looking at image-bearers of God through the wrong end of the telescope.
My temptation when reflecting on this verse, I confess, is to hang the world’s understanding of it like a piñata, and go to town. That would be easy, and probably enjoyable, since I’d feel better about myself. But that would be taking this text – this mirror – and flipping it so that I could confess the sins of others. What, then, does Matthew 7:1 say to those who grasp its meaning? At least three things.
1. Uproot hypocrisy in your own heart.
This is the point of Jesus’s ensuing illustration: ‘Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye’ (Matthew 7:3-5).
Jesus is not saying you can never gently remove a piece of sawdust from a brother’s or sister’s eye; he’s just saying don’t do it when there’s a rafter in your own. The purpose of this passage is to push toward the humility of self-awareness – a humility that banishes the wickedness of hypocrisy. What might such hypocrisy look like?
Correcting someone for cursing or telling an off-colour joke – and then returning to a long text thread that is basically just gossip. Rolling your eyes at someone’s prayer request or correcting someone’s theology of prayer – when your private prayer life is virtually non-existent.
Put simply, self-righteousness is the art of always being most bothered by somebody else’s sin. It’s pursuing a PhD in the faults of others while being content with a GCSE-level grasp of your own.
To the degree you’re aware of and grieved by your own faults, you’ll extend charity toward others. To the degree you’re not, you won’t. And most chillingly, Jesus says that with the measure you extend charity or condemnation to others, the Judge of heaven will dole it out to you.
2. Be quicker to encourage than to criticise.
If you could make a list of each person you criticised last week, and a list of each person you encouraged, which would be longer? What about your closest friends: would they describe you as more fluent in the language of criticism or in the language of encouragement?
The attitude Jesus forbids is a species of pride with countless forms. It could involve passing subtle judgment on someone’s else’s looks, or intelligence, or entertainment preferences, or parenting philosophy, or schooling decisions, or lifestyle and spending choices. It could simply be thinking a little less of someone because they don’t share certain similarities with you – or to put it starkly, because they don’t remind you of yourself.
So what might a spirit of criticism might look like? Well, do you take pride in your strong opinions? Do you always feel the need to share them? Do you generally assume you have all the facts?
And beware reverse judgmentalism. You can be a Pharisee toward Pharisees, saying to yourself, God, I thank you that I am not like other men. I’m not judgy like that person over there. I extend charity twice a day! That’s not the goal, either.
3. Praise Jesus for other Christians and other churches.
How should ‘Do not judge’ challenge not just individuals, but whole congregations? For one thing, we could start to feel that we and we alone have correct theology and that we and we alone know ‘how to do church’.
We should pray, then, against the assumption that we have it all together. Put simply, Christian churches shouldn’t look down on other Christian churches. Maturity, after all, is not solely determined by knowledge. In his article Love the Church More Than Its Health, Jonathan Leeman is worth quoting at length:
We can love our vision of what a church should be more than we love the people who compose it. We can be like the unmarried man who loves the idea of a wife, but who marries a real woman and finds it harder to love her than the idea of her. Or like the mother who loves her dream of the perfect daughter more than the daughter herself… We start loving the idea of a healthy church more than the church God has placed us in.
[But] Christ has put his name on immature Christians… [He] has identified himself with Christians whose theology is underdeveloped and imperfect.
To say we should love the church more than its health means this: we should love people because they belong to Jesus, not because they’ve kept the law of a healthy church, even though that law may be good and biblical… If you love your children, you want them to be healthy. But if you love your children, you love them whether they are healthy or not.
Paul told one local church – despite many flaws – that they were his ‘joy’, his ‘glory’, and his ‘crown’ (1 Thessalonians 2:19). Are your fellow church members your joy, your glory, and your crown?
Scripture rings with the truth that all Christians are fellow travellers, fellow siblings, fellow citizens, fellow soldiers, fellow sufferers, and fellow heirs. Let’s make sure our thoughts and words about them reflect the eternally deep unity we share.
Ultimately, only one thing can uproot hypocrisy, can replace a desire to criticise with an impulse to encourage, can slay a judgmental spirit: humility, which comes from the grace extended to us in Christ.
So when you start to ascend that balcony of superiority, stop on the stairs. Remember who you are: sinning saint, travelling pilgrim, ongoing work. You have not yet arrived. In the meantime, then, devote your energy to approaching your Bible rightly, to pursuing your own growth rather than snooping for evidence of others’, and to building up the persons and reputations you’re most tempted to belittle.
For only when grace rises like the sun in your heart will the darkness of hypocrisy and fault-finding flee.
Matt Smethurst is author, elder, and managing editor of The Gospel Coalition. He is in the process of planting a church in Richmond, Virginia. Reproduced with permission from The Gospel Coalition.