Sermon preached on Matthew 7:1-6 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 9/21/2014 in Novato, CA
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
We come today to what is likely one of the most misunderstood and most misquoted verses in the entire Bible. I’m talking about verse 1, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” From my experience as a Christian, I’ve too often seen this verse abused in many ways. One thing that I find almost laughable is that I’ve had countless people over the years tell me something like, that they don’t mean to judge someone, and then they proceed to give a judgment of someone. It’s like they feel on the one hand constrained not to make judgments by this passage, and on the other hand, they feel like it is appropriate to make some kind of judgments.
Well, I deeply hope and pray that today we can offer some clarity about this often misunderstood passage. Let me begin by saying that the context helps us here greatly to understand what Jesus means and does not mean. And again, the rest of Scripture also helps us to rightly interpret and apply Jesus’ words here, because “Scripture interprets Scripture.”
So here is the basic idea. Verse 1 cannot, must not, be taken in some simplistic absolute way. Verse 1 must not be interpreted to forbid making any kinds of judgments or discernments at all, regardless of the circumstances. How do we know that? Well, we could appeal to the rest of the Scriptures, which we will do today, that talks about various kinds of right judging that we ought to do. But we actually don’t even need to go any further than right here in the context of the Sermon on the Mount to see this. Just look at verse 6 for starters. Jesus in verse 6, practically in the same breath, teaches us that we need to make some kind of judgments or discernments. We have to judge some to be the dogs or hogs mentioned in verse 6, and that needs to affect how we interact with them. Or just a few verses later, in verses 15-16, he tell us to beware the false prophets. He even says that such false prophets will come in sheep’s clothing, and that you will know them by their fruits. In other words, judgment and discernment will be needed about these false prophets, so you can recognize them and beware of them.
In other words, right in this same immediate passage and chapter, Jesus on the one hand forbids judging and on the other hand commends it. How does this work? Well, I’m immediately remembering Proverbs 26:4-5, which first says that we should not answer a fool according to his folly, and then immediately turns around and says we should answer a fool according to his folly. So how do you live out that proverb? Well, wisdom will tell you when you should and should not answer a fool according to his folly. In a somewhat similar way, Jesus talks about wrong and right kinds of judging in today’s passage. There is a way that we could judge that would be wrong and sinful. But there is also a way we could refrain from judging that would also be wrong and sinful. My hope is to help us better understand this idea today, so we can embrace righteous judging and repent of wicked judging.
Let’s begin by affirming that there is righteous judging. I’ve already pointed out two examples of humans having to make righteous judgments right from this chapter. Let me then at this point, supplement this chapter with other examples of righteous judging from elsewhere in Scripture. I’ll give three main categories of righteous judging. This is not meant to exhaustively cover this subject, by the way. But I hope it encourages us that there are many righteous forms of judging outlined in the Bible, and so verse 1 must not be a blanket prohibition against them.
The first category then of righteous judging, is that done by authorized courts. Or to clarify, authorized courts have been authorized by God to judge, in very official capacities. Hopefully the judgments that they come to are also righteous, in the sense that hopefully they are correct and equitable and in keeping with God’s standards, though they are not always, sadly. But the point I’m making here is that the Bible says that God has authorized certain courts to be official judges. These judges are to hear cases, and to make official pronouncements of someone’s guilt or innocence, and they also are to measure out some censure, some punishment or discipline, for the guilty. The two common type of courts we see in the Bible that have been authorized by God are civil and ecclesiastical. The civil courts, those of the civil government, are called God’s servants in Romans 13, for example, and are said to be appointed by God. Romans 13:2 says that if you resist that civil government’s authority, you will bring judgment on yourself. Yes, judgment, same word as in our passage for today. As for the ecclesiastical courts, those of the church, we see throughout the Bible how God has established this. In the Old Testament you had the judges and elders, even seen very early on helping Moses in judging the people. In the New Testament, we continue to see the authority given to the church through its elders to judge in an official capacity within the church. If you are taking notes, these are just a few of the passages that speak of this in the New Testament: Matt. 18, Acts 15, 1 Cor. 5, Heb 13:17, for starters.
So that judging done by civil and ecclesiastical courts is right to be done. We know they don’t do it perfectly, due to man’s fall into sin, though they called to judge righteously. And so these courts are a legitimate institution of God for official judging in their various scopes of influence. The second category of righteous judging is that which can happen between fellow believers, assuming it is done within the guidelines of Scripture. In other words, there will be a time and place when one Christian will have to come to a judgment about the action of another fellow Christian, and act accordingly. I’ll give two examples of this. One comes from Matthew 18 where Jesus talks about what to do if your brother sins against you. Well, how will you know if your brother sins against you, unless you have experienced the brother’s actions against you and judged it to be a sin? Obviously, there is some matter of judging that happens in order for you to make such a determination. That is not forbidden by verse 1 in our passage today. However, if you come to that conclusion, you have to then follow the “due process,” so to speak, that is outlined in that passage of Matthew 18. Furthermore, you need to realize that in such a circumstance you are the accuser of your brother, but that doesn’t make you also the judge of him. Just think in a courtroom, those are going to be two different people. So too with you and your brother. If you can’t work out your issue together, then you will have to follow the process outlined and it will ultimately involve someone else being judge over you two in your conflict. You must then have humility to realize that though you came to some judgment in the matter, you are not the judge, and might be the one actually in the wrong.
The other example of an acceptable kind of judging between believers comes from Galatians 6:1-5. There it envisions when one brother discovers another brother overtaken by some sin. It would be wrong for that brother to just dismiss that saying, “Well, I guess I’m not supposed to judge.” Rather, Galatians 6 says that you must look to help restore that sinning brother, to help that brother see how he’s living inconsistent to his faith, and help him to repent of it. Now, to clarify, Galatians 6 spells out the need for great humility if you are going to lovingly confront this brother. You have to make sure you don’t fall into the same sin. That fits well with our passage for today, as we’ll see in a moment regarding the speck and the log. And again, here with this example in Galatians 6, you have to realize that if you bring your concern to the brother who’ve you judged to be overtaken in some sin, that you are his accuser. That means you are not the final judge of the matter. If the brother disagrees with your concern, and believe you are wrong in your accusation, you can go through that same due process mentioned in Matthew 18 to seek reconciliation with each other. Then again, in humility, you’ll realize that neither of you are in the place to be the official judge over the other.
So these are ways that brothers in Christ might rightfully exercise some judgment concerning each other’s actions. A third category where it is righteous to judge, could be called general discernment of right and wrong; i.e. Hebrews 5:14 and countless other Scriptures. In other words, as you go through life, Scripture tells us that you will constantly have to make judgments of what is right and what is wrong. You’ll have to discern between righteousness and wickedness. You’ll have to make those decisions regarding how you will live, but you will often have to make it about how others are living. Sometimes you’ll have to look at how someone is conducting themselves, and determine that it is wrong and not to be followed or commended. It’s right to look at what Hitler did from a distance and to conclude that is wrong. It’s right to see false prophets teaching heresy and to conclude that is wrong. Now in such and other judgments, you will need humility. To be an accuser, is not to also make you the official judge of others. Again, there are the appropriate courts and channels and due process to follow, biblically speaking. Such things are part of preserving justice. Likewise, the Bible says that we should not be a slanderer, or a gossip, or a busy body. These kinds of right judgments might lend you to be more vulnerable to fall into such sins, and we need to be on guard against them. Much more could be said about this, but that will have to be for another day.
My point then so far, is to establish the fact from Scripture that there are many judgments and discernments that you must make. Not just judgments that you could make, but ones that you must make, lest you commit a sin of omission. There is a category of righteous judging. Don’t miss that today. But let’s now dig into the concern of verse 1. There is also a kind of judging that would not be righteous. There is a wicked judging. We can look at it from a few angles. Three interrelated things particularly stand out from this passage that if we do them, we are sinning in our judging.
First way to sinfully judge here is to presume to be an official judge, when you are not. We’ve said it already. Some people have positions of authority to judge in various courts. Most of us do not. And so if we presume a position of authority as a judge, when we are not such a judge, then we are sinning. This concern comes out in a few ways from this passage. First, it can be noted that the word for judging in verse 1 is a word that often gets used in a forensic, courtroom, type of context. It isn’t always used in that way, but in the Greek language, if you want to talk about the official judging that an actual courtroom judge does, then this is the word you would use. Second, verse 2 makes us think further in terms of courtroom language. Verse 2, “For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” Verse 2 brings out two related ideas in the forbidden kind of judging. The language of “with the judgment you judge” gets you to think about how a judge casts a verdict. They judge and then make a judgment. The ESV interprets this by translating it as “with the judgment you pronounce.” Verse 2 also bring out the idea of issuing a censure or punishment, using this language of measure. In other words, once a judge finds someone guilty, they issue a sentence. It’s the censure or punishment that is being measured out to them. And so verse 2 makes us think further of the judge who officially considers a case, makes a pronouncement of guilt or innocence, and then measures out some censure or punishment upon the guilty. And so the initial point then here is that if you are not that kind of judge over someone, then you shouldn’t be doing that.
So that’s the first thing to forbid as sinful judging here. Don’t presume a position of authority to make yourself a judge when you are not. A second way to sinfully judge is to be hypocritically judging. The context seems to especially present this concern to us. This is the point of verses 3-5. We shouldn’t see these verses as some completely new and different idea being addressed. We should see those verses as descriptive of a way we can sinfully judge. This is describing the person who would find fault with their brother, while having some other worse fault of their own. Notice Jesus’ assessment of this in verse 5. He says that such a person is being a hypocrite. That’s where I got the label of hypocritical judging.
You might recall that earlier in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus had talked about hypocrites. We said then that the most literal definition in the Greek of being a hypocrite is someone who is a “pretender”. And so this aspect of sinful judging is when you judge and condemn someone in such a way that acts like they are the big sinner, while you pretend that you are not. That’s being a hypocrite. Any time we come to someone, particularly a fellow believer in Christ, and act like they are the only one with a struggle with sin, and we pretend that we do not, then we sin. This is why that Galatians 6 passage I referenced fits in so nicely here. It says that if you do go to present a fault to a brother, you need to do it with great gentleness and humility. Why? Because it comes back to what we have here. We humans are all sinners. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. We will be of no help to others to come down hard upon them in their sins, and act like we don’t have our own struggles with sin. That would be sinful judging. It is not loving to our neighbor, nor is it true to reality. Rather, we should start by trying to judge ourselves rightly first. We should remember our need for grace and forgiveness and growth. We should look to first repent of our own sins, especially when they are at all similar to those which we would think we should confront in someone else. This is especially pertinent if you are in conflict with someone, and you haven’t first stopped and considered how your own sin has contributed to the conflict. It’s further presumption then to harshly judge them while acting like you are not at any fault. As Jesus says, that would be hypocritical judging. We ought not to do that.
A third way to sinfully judge is to judge with a double standard. This comes out when you contrast verse 2 with the example of verses 3-5. In other words, when we sinfully judge with a double standard, it means we judge someone else differently than how we judge ourselves. Think about verse 2 in light of the speck/plank idea. Do we pronounce a judgment on our neighbor with a very harsh standard, while excusing our own similar or worse behavior? Do we find others guilty of breaking the law while at the same time ignoring what the law says to our sin, and instead declaring ourselves innocent? If so, we’ve had a double standard in our judging. Or similarly, when we make such judgments, if we even do find both the other person and ourselves guilty, do we measure out a strict punishment of justice on them, but measure out grace and forgiveness to ourselves? In other words, we can try to measure out judgment and wrath to others, but grace and pardon for ourselves. So, do you see how we could have a double standard in our judging? We can judge others harshly, and ourselves leniently. We can be quick to forgive and expect grace for ourselves, while holding others to do some strict penance in order for them to be restored to our good graces.
So we’ve talked about right judging and wrong judging here today. And there is a warning attached to the wrong judging. In verse 1, the warning is that if you pronounce such judgment upon others, it will come back to you. In verse 2, the warning is that how you condemn others, and the way you try to punish them, will come back upon you. We can appreciate this warning. In some ways, we can immediately relate, because we can see this happen in our everyday lives. If you are a hypocrite and tell someone off for some fault of theirs, but you have the same fault, how will they respond? They’ll probably turn it right back on you. You condemn them and censure them, and they will just look at you and say “practice what you preach!” They’ll call you out as a hypocrite. If you had treated them gently, they probably would have treated your same faults gently. But now that you have treated them harshly, they’ll like give you the same treatment in return. If we are talking of justice, then that’s justice. You get what you deserve based on what you gave out. That’s strict justice.
Apply this idea to God, then, who is the real, ultimate, and fair, judge over all. We see in the Scriptures that God will judge the world through Christ. We would not want him to give us the strict justice we too often try to condemn others with. And so this is again a teaching that calls us to treat one another with mercy and grace, looking to forgive others the way God in Christ has forgiven you. It makes us reflect back on last chapter when in the Lord’s Prayer he made a connection between how we forgive others with God’s forgiveness of us. We pointed out how it would be perfectly just for God to do that, to only forgive us to the degree that we forgive others. And we pointed out how it’s so gracious of God that he forgives us even beyond the imperfect way we forgive others.
And so today, as we are faced with a similar warning in this passage, may we confess our sins afresh to God in this matter. May we acknowledge how we have sinfully judged others. May we also acknowledge the ways that we have not rightly exercised judgments at times that we should have. May we then look again afresh to the grace of God held out in Jesus Christ. Yes, we are told in the Scriptures that God will judge the world righteously through Jesus Christ. But we are also told that we can know his grace and mercy in Christ, that we would not be condemned and punished along with the rest of the world on that Final Day of Judgment. Rather, we can be openly acknowledged and acquitted on that great and terrible day. Not because of our own works. Not because we have found a way to so wonderfully keep commands like what we have in today’s passage. But in spite of our failings. In spite of our works. Because we have found a righteousness which is through faith.
So then, having known a righteousness that is by grace through faith, may that indeed inform how we make our judgments in life. May indeed approach the sins of others with great humility. May we approach them with great grace and mercy, holding out the means of forgiveness that we have come to know in Jesus. So, instead of coming off hypocritically to them as harsh judges, may we instead come to them as ambassadors of God’s mercy. Come to them genuinely, as a fellow sinner, and point to the mercy and grace of God in Christ.
Brothers and sisters, I leave you with one more word of exhortation today. Should one of your Christian brothers approach you with some spiritual concern about your
life, I urge you to resist the common Christian tendency to grab verse 1 here and use it as a shield. Isn’t that a common way people misuse this verse? They get someone coming to them confronting them on some matter. And so they go to Matthew 7:1, and harshly say, “Who are you? Don’t judge me you Pharisee.” Well, that seems to be the exact opposite way to use this verse. At most, you are but doing the exact same thing you are accusing them of doing. Jesus didn’t give us verse 1 as a shield to defend ourselves with.
If ever you feel the need of a shield to defend yourself with, instead I would point you to the shield of faith that Paul talks about in Ephesians 6. For that faith will tell you that God is your judge before whom you ultimately stand or fall. And you will only stand if by faith you acknowledge how much of a sinner you truly are, and have sought refuge in the cross of Christ. So, even if your brother comes to you with what you think is too much harshness and condemnation, don’t return it back to him with more harshness and condemnation. Rather, be reminded how you are not getting the judgment of God that you actually do deserve. Humble yourselves then to truly give due consideration to whatever concern your brother is bringing to you, even if they brought it in a harsh way. Show them grace and at the same time really consider the concern they brought to you. It may be something that you really do need to consider, so as to further grow in your relationship with Christ. Maybe after analysis you’ll find that it is not, but then graciously discuss the matter and your convictions with your brother. Let iron sharpen iron. Help to cultivate an environment where brothers and sisters in Christ can sharpen each other. And so may the grace you’ve known from the judge of heaven and earth fuel you on toward showing greater grace toward others in all circumstances. Amen.
Copyright © 2014 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.