Do not judge, lest you be judged yourselves

 

Whereas it comes as no surprise that most Christians have at least one favourite verse of Scripture, it is somewhat startling to learn that most non-Christians have one as well. Even more fascinating than the fact that non-Christians have favourite passages of Scripture which they have committed to memory is the curious fact that in most cases it is the same verse! Non-Christians may know little of the Bible, but as certainly as night follows day they can quote for you Matthew 7:1 – “Do not judge, lest you be judged yourselves.” And, ironically, this verse which they love most, they understand least. Never has a passage of Scripture been so utterly abused, misunderstood and misapplied as this one. Non-Christians (and not a few misguided believers as well) use this text to denounce any and all who venture to criticize or expose the sins, shortcomings, or doctrinal aberrations of others. One dare not speak ill of homosexuality, adultery, gossip, cheating on your income tax, fornication, abortion, non-Christian religions, humanism, etc. without incurring the wrath of multitudes who are convinced that Jesus, whom they despise and reject(!), said that we shouldn’t judge one another!

This problem is due in large measure to the fact that people hate absolutes, especially moral ones. To suggest that there really is an absolute difference between good and evil, truth and falsity, is to risk being labeled as medieval and close-minded. In his widely praised book, The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom (professor of social thought at the University of Chicago), said this:

“There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students’ reaction: they will be uncomprehending. That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them, as though he were calling into question 2 + 2 = 4. . . . That it is a moral issue for students is revealed by the character of their response when challenged – a combination of disbelief and indignation: ‘Are you an absolutist?,’ the only alternative they know, uttered in the same tone as ‘Are you a monarchist?’ or ‘Do you really believe in witches?’” (25)

Says Bloom,

“The danger they have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance. Relativism is necessary to openness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating. Openness – and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings – is the great insight of our times. The true believer is the real danger. . . . The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all” (25-26).

In brief, for many (if not most) students today, “there is no enemy other than the man who is not open to everything” (27).

Needless to say, we encounter in this a fundamental logical mistake called the fallacy of the faulty dilemma in which the non-Christian believes that there are but two alternatives which are mutually exclusive. Either we never open our mouths to question or comment or express an opinion on the behavior and beliefs of others or we do so and fall under the condemnation of Jesus in Matthew 7:1. To their way of thinking, this verse demands that we never exercise ethical discernment in our evaluation of others, indeed that we never evaluate others at all. We are told we must always manifest complete and uncritical tolerance toward every conceivable lifestyle or belief. What shall we say to this? . . .

The irony, of course, is that in judging us for judging others they are themselves violating the very commandment to which they want to hold us accountable!

First of all, let us note what Jesus is not saying. Stott reminds us that

“our Lord’s injunction to ‘judge not’ cannot be understood as a command to suspend our critical faculties in relation to other people, to turn a blind eye to their faults (pretending not to notice them), to eschew all criticism and to refuse to discern between truth and error, goodness and evil” (175).

Neither does this verse “command the sons of God, the disciples of Jesus, to be amorphous, undiscerning blobs who never under any circumstance whatsoever hold any opinions about right and wrong” (Carson, 98). That Jesus was not forbidding us from expressing our opinion on right and wrong, good and evil, truth and falsity, can be demonstrated by noting two factors: the immediate context and the rest of the NT teaching on judging.

Immediate context – Virtually all of the Sermon on the Mount both preceding and following this text is based on the assumption that we will (and should) use our critical powers in making ethical and logical judgements. Jesus has told us to be different from the world around us, to pursue a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees (because theirs is a “bad” or inadequate righteousness), to do “more” than what unbelievers would do (because what they do isn’t enough, another judgement), to avoid being like the hypocrites (now there’s a word of judgement if ever I saw one!) when we give, pray, and fast, etc. “But how can we possibly obey all this teaching unless we first evaluate the performance of others and then ensure that ours is different from and higher than theirs?” (Stott, 176).

 

Not only this, but immediately following this word of exhortation in 7:1 Jesus issues two more commands: don’t give what is holy to dogs or pearls to pigs (again, powerfully critical words of judgement!), and beware of false prophets (there it is again!). “It would be impossible to obey either of these commands without using our critical judgement. For in order to determine our behavior toward ‘dogs’, ‘pigs’ and ‘false prophets’ we must first be able to recognize them, and in order to do that we must exercise some critical discernment” (Stott, 176). Furthermore, such critical judgements can only be made if there is an absolute standard against which such behavior can be measured.

The rest of the NT – I simply direct your attention to such texts as Matthew 18:15-17; Romans 16:17-18; 1 Corinthians 5:3; Galatians 1:8; Phil. 3:2 (where Paul refers to his enemies as “dogs, evil workers, false circumcision”!); Titus 3:10-11; 1 John 4:1-4; 2 John 9-11; 3 John 9-10; and especially John 7:24 where Jesus himself says, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgement.”

 

What, then, does Jesus mean in Matthew 7:1ff.’

A.             The Prohibition – 7:1a

 

[Having already denied that Jesus is prohibiting all judging and critical discernment, we must still be extremely careful in this arena. The temptation to be sinfully judgemental is very real and powerful. Christ’s call to holiness in Matthew 5-6, the call to be different, can lead to arrogance and a condescending attitude to others if we forget that all that we are is wholly of grace.]

It would appear that Jesus is prohibiting that sort of judgemental criticism which is self-righteous (in that we think we are wholly free of the sin which we so readily see in others), hyper-critical (in that it often is excessive and beyond what is necessary to achieve the end in view), and destructive (in that it does not edify or restore but tears down the person whom we attack). He is prohibiting that sort of judgement which we pass on others not out of concern for their spiritual health and welfare but solely to parade our alleged righteousness before men. Lloyd-Jones comments:

“The fact of the matter is that we are not really concerned about helping this other person; we are interested only in condemning him. We pretend to have this great interest; we pretend that we are very distressed at finding this blemish (in his life). But in reality, as our Lord has already shown us, we are really glad to discover it” (180).

Thus, Jesus is not prohibiting loving rebuke and constructive criticism, but rather self-serving censoriousness. To be censorious

“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” (Stott, 176).

In summary,

“the command to judge not is not a requirement to be blind, but rather a plea to be generous. Jesus does not tell us to cease to be men (by suspending our critical powers which help to distinguish us from animals) but to renounce the presumptuous ambition to be God (by setting ourselves up as judges)” (Stott, 177).

B.             The Justification – 7:1b-2

 

The problem here is determining whether this refers to the judgement we experience at the hands of men or of God. If we are censorious and sinfully critical of others we should not expect to be treated any better by them. But I’m inclined to think this is God’s judgement, which may come in one of two forms: (1) chastisement in this life for persistent sin (1 Corinthians 11:31), or (2) assessment of our lives for the purpose of reward in the age to come (2 Corinthians 5:6-10). In either case, when we set up a standard to which others must conform, we are no less obliged to keep it than they are. That is why humility and love must govern our judgements. All criticism must be preceded by confession. Before we point out a fault in others let us first confess its presence in our own lives. An illustration of this principle is given in vv. 3-5.

C.             The Illustration – 7:3-5

 

See 2 Samuel 12:1-7.

This applies to any number of situations; e.g., denouncing the external, visible sins of the flesh, such as adultery, theft, murder, in order to excuse or minimize the internal, less visible sins of the heart, such as jealousy, bitterness, greed, lust. Related to this is the tendency to point out the faults of others precisely to throw them off the scent of our own sin. This form of judgement is nothing more than self-justification. We think to ourselves that if we can just make known to others the gravity of their sins we will by comparison come out smelling like a rose.

Again, far from forbidding all criticism and rebuke, Jesus actually commands it in v. 5. What he opposes is judgement that precedes rather than follows self-examination:

“Again, it is evident that Jesus is not condemning criticism as such, but rather the criticism of others when we exercise no comparable self-criticism; nor correction as such, but rather the correction of others when we have not first corrected ourselves” (Stott, 179).

See Galatians 6:1; Psalms 51:10-13

The danger in all this is stated in Romans 14:10 Judgement must always be restricted to those areas and issues on which Scripture speaks and gives a definitive yes or no. The problem is that Christians are inclined to treat as matters of law what Scripture leaves to freedom of choice.

D.            Discernment – 7:6

This verse gives us the opposite danger: the danger of being overindulgent and undiscerning. In loving our enemies, going the extra mile, and not judging unjustly, there is the peril of becoming wishy-washy and of failing to make essential distinctions between right and wrong and truth and falsehood. Whereas the saints are not to be judges, neither are they to be simpletons!

The terms “dogs” and “swine” (perhaps a wild boar) in this text are not what we normally think of when we hear the words. The “dogs” to which Jesus refers are not the cuddly household pets of the 20th century, but rather wild and savage street hounds that carried disease and filth. See 2 Pt. 2:22 where Peter refers to false teachers and portrays them as dogs which return to their vomit. He also describes them as sows that are washed only to return to wallowing in the mud. Carson explains:

“Jesus sketches a picture of a man holding a bag of precious pearls, confronting a pack of hulking hounds and some wild pigs. As the animals glare hungrily, he takes out his pearls and sprinkles them on the street. Thinking they are about to gulp some bits of food, the animals pounce on the pearls. Swift disillusionment sets in – the pearls are too hard to chew, quite tasteless, and utterly unappetizing. Enraged, the wild animals spit out the pearls, turn on the man and tear him to pieces” (105).

Jesus is not saying that we should withhold the gospel from certain people we regard as unworthy of it, “but he does recognize that after sustained rejection and reproach, it is appropriate to move on to others” (Blomberg, 129). There are those who are persistently vicious and calloused, who delight not in the truth of Scripture but only in mocking it. Therefore, the “dogs” and “pigs” are not simply unbelievers, but defiant, persistently hateful, and vindictive unbelievers. “It ought to be understood,” wrote Calvin, “that dogs and swine are names given not to every kind of debauched men, or to those who are destitute of the fear of God and of true godliness, but to those who, by clear evidences, have manifested a hardened contempt of God, so that their disease appears to be incurable” (349). We read in Prov. 9:7-8, “He who corrects a scoffer gets dishonour for himself, and he who reproves a wicked man gets insults for himself; do not reprove a scoffer lest he hate you.””

See also Matthew 10:14; 15:14; Luke 23:8-9; Acts 13:44-51; 18:5-6; 28:17-28.

[Dallas Willard insists that the above interpretation is incorrect and, to prove it, appeals to the command that we are to be like the Father in heaven “who is kind to the unthankful and the evil” (Luke 6:35). What do you think? Others have suggested that by “dogs” and “pigs” Jesus was referring to what others, and not necessarily he himself, considered unholy and vile.]

Concluding observations:

  • It is important to note that Jesus speaks of “pearls” and not “gravel”. We must always keep in mind the priceless treasure and incalculable value and glory of the gospel message.
  • There are going to be different sorts of people to whom we witness and we must learn to discriminate among them. See Acts 17:32-34.
  • We need not present the gospel with the same emphasis at all times in an unthinking and mechanical way. Some are already weighed down with sin and guilt and conviction of the Holy Spirit and thus need to hear of God’s love in Christ. Others need to hear of the holiness and wrath of God. Others need to come to grips with the depravity of their hearts, while still others need to be confronted with divine mercy and forgiveness.
  • Remember that this instruction is set in the context of loving our enemies. Thus, whereas we are not to cast our pearls before swine, neither are we to be nasty and vicious and uncaring.
  • This verse (7:6) is one which probably does not need to be taught in certain churches or to certain Christians. Why? Because their problem is not that they are inclined to be undiscerning and often cast their pearls before swine. Their problem is that they aren’t casting their pearls at all! Matthew 7:6 is addressed to those who are so zealous for evangelism that they fail to discern the scoffer from the hungry soul. Most likely, our problem is that we have no such zeal to evangelize in the first place.

Sam Storms
Nov 2, 2006
Series: Sermon on the Mount

 

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