Do not judge, so that you will not be judged,
since you will be judged in the same judgment that you make,
and you will be measured by the same standard you apply.
Matthew 7:1-2 NIV
In Part Two of this series last week, we spoke of spiritual nudges – specifically the ones a Christ-follower can feel in the very core of his or her being but would really, truly rather ignore because of the subject matter involved. We looked at an example given by Pastor Jim Cymbala in the Billy Graham Library Series edition of Breakthrough Prayer (ISBN 1-59328-019-X), and I promised to give you a personal example of my own in Part Three.
I’ve got to confess, though, that when I made that promise to you, I was really hopeful that the Rapture would take place before today and I wouldn’t have to finish this series. Silly me…not only did God give me time to write Part Two of what was supposed to conclude this series; He extended the series into a third post which will be published next week. All humor aside, I’ve got to get down to the matter at hand; first, however, I need you to know that I’m getting down to that matter with Christ-filled love and respect for anyone who comes across these words. That said, here we go.
In some form or other, the idea of Matthew 7:1 shows up on my social media feeds at least three times a day. The person one treadmill away pants it into her headset as she takes a call during her routine workout. As bystanders, we hear it in the check-out line in the grocery store. It’s in the media, on college campuses, maybe even in our homes, often in our churches.
And that’s a good thing – a really good thing – as long as the sowing and reaping of the phrase judge-not-lest-you-be-judged is anchored securely to its scriptural roots.
What isn’t a good thing – really not a good thing – is when a given passage is pulled away from its scriptural roots or context and used as a one-size-fits-all catchphrase. At that point, the passage falls victim to proof texting, the re-interpretation of a portion of Scripture to fit one’s own situation. Think of it this way: a plant successfully produces its intended fruit when the plant draws from the nutrients of the rich soil that surrounds it; the plant simply cannot produce independently of its environment. That same principle applies to every verse of every book of the two testaments – Old and New – that comprise the Word of God. In order to grasp the message of one part, the believer must consider how that one part fits into the whole of the Gospel. To do otherwise is to unwisely form a pretext – otherwise known as a text without a context – that then morphs into a proof text. Sadly, the tendency of well-meaning Christ-followers toward pretexting is a primary exegetical misfortune; it leads to misinterpretation caused by one’s neglecting to read closely the surrounding section of a key verse.
Christ, then, has nudged me to take a long and deliberate look at some popular interpretations of Scripture among today’s American culture. And His nudge for this week’s post came at me straight from the Mount of Olives…well, by the roundabout way of Matthew 7:1.
Judge not, lest you be judged.
A growing amount of research by New Testament scholars suggests that, of every sentence spoken and precept delivered by Jesus Christ in what we call His Sermon on the Mount (recorded in Matthew 5-7), the six-word statement italicized above is the most popularly-used of the sermon today. It is, in fact, one of the most quoted affirmations in the Bible today, even surpassing that of the well-known affirmation of John 3:16.
But when, in our modern culture, does that six-word statement affirmation turn into a hindrance for the Christian life? Or may even into an easy way out of a situation that’s deadly serious? When does the mantra call to judge not become unscriptural for the Christ-follower and unhealthy for society?
The answer generally takes shape in contrived contexts that goes something like this:
OK, so he or she _________ [insert any sin that comes to mind here], but who am I to judge? Come on, man…we’re all sinners, right? And you know, Jesus said, “Judge not, lest you be judged.”
I can’t believe that you – of all people – have the audacity to judge me! I thought you were a Christian, but you’re not. If you were really a Christian you’d know that Jesus said, “judge not.” I’m so disappointed in you. How can you be such a hypocrite?
The point here is that Matthew 7:1 is often hailed as a mantra of defense in the face of any well-intentioned or caring confrontation of sinful or unethical behavior in a person’s life. In other words, Essentially, in two popular contexts described above – and others like them – the verse becomes a way of prohibiting or shaming believers against deeming any specific action to be out of sync with Scripture, since doing so would involve the active judging of someone.
And to be fair, taken in and of itself this first verse appears to state the obvious: don’t judge or you will be judged. But the rendering causes a two-fold problem. First, it leaves one with the false assumption that there is a means of remedying one’s own eternal judgment simply by not judging fellow man. This assumption stands in direct contradiction to the fact that, at the second coming of Christ, every one of us will indeed face a form of judgment: non-believers for their rejection of Christ as Savior; believers for rewards related to their works (see Revelation 20:11-15 and 1 Corinthians 3:10-14 respectively).
Secondly, when we consider Matthew 7:1 as penned in Greek – the original language of the New Testament – its grammar and vocabulary reveal these six words of Christ not to be a standalone command, but rather a precursory phrase to the actual issue of which He speaks. Taken in careful consideration of its context, this passage is not a forbidding of judgment but a strong warning against hypocrisy. Please stay with me here because I so want you to see what’s next.
When we take into account the four verses immediately following the first, we realize that Jesus explains and expounds on His point: we will all be judged, He says, by the same measure that we use. In effect, it boils down not to whether we judge but to how we judge. If we cannot hold to the standard we use, we have no business applying that standard to others. If I’m a practicing gossip, for example, I have no room to judge others for gossiping.
There are two possible responses to this statement: one operates under the assumption that no human is able to achieve a high standard of morality; it holds to the interpretation that no one should ever judge anyone else as we’re all sinners.
But there’s another possibility – supported by the original Greek syntax of the passage – that falls more in line with the Christ’s character and what He desires for His followers: the expectation that we all all evaluate and strive to correct our own behavior and pursue a holy lifestyle before encouraging others to do the same.
The former response affords a popular option, specifically in terms of today’s American culture, because it strongly promotes tolerance as one of the highest social and personal virtues; the latter, however is the response actually prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount. Watch how Jesus pointedly rebukes the hearer in the remaining verses of the passage:
Why do you see the splinter in your brother’s eye but do not notice the log in your own eye? … You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye. (vv. 3, 5)
There are two important points to note from these follow-up verses:
- Jesus makes a common-sense observation about perspective. Consider that he closer the proximity of an object to a person’s eye, the larger the object appears. In other words, a small speck seen from a distance appears much larger when it is in one’s own eye. In the same way, a fault in one’s own life is a far greater problem than the same fault in another’s life. The point of the passage, from this perspective is to keep silent to the other person only until, through true repentance and a turning from that sin, we correct that fault in our own life. Now, here’s where the proverbial rubber meets the road because – in direct opposition to much Christian theological development in centuries since His ascension, this Jesus who is speaking to the multitudes in Matthew actually expectsHis followers to pursue holiness by ultimately living in a righteous manner.
- Jesus also is careful to make the point that a believer will see clearly enough to make sound judgments and help fellow believers correct their own behavior only after correcting one’s own behavior. Many scholars of theology point to this statement as Christ’s recognition that mankind in his frailty tends to judge based upon what lies within his own heart; that is, man has a distinct tendency to see himself in others. The arrogant person, in other words, will have a heightened tendency to see arrogance in other people. The same holds true in any number of immoral areas: cruelty, deceptiveness, unscriptural sexual desires or behaviors, to name a few. When we ourselves are involved in some particular aspect of sin, it’s extremely difficult for us to break out of our own vices to clearly empathize with others in the same situation. Christ, in fact, makes the case that it is more challenging – maybe even impossible – to do so when our hearts are impure in a given area.
In short, Jesus is saying that in order to effectively encourage others to get right with God, we must first evaluate our lives to determine whether we ourselves are right with God. Stay tuned for Part Four of our Committed series next week. We’ll come down from the mountain and consider what it looks like to put the principles we’ve learned from Christ there into action in a sensitive world. I hope you’ll join me!
– Copyright 2020, Carole Anne Hallyburton. All rights reserved.