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Did Jesus Really Mean “Judge Not”?!

“Judge not, lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1; popular paraphrase).

Can we talk about what Jesus is saying here? Or do we have to address the elephant in the room?

Sigh. 

Elephant it is.

Because when church people hear the verse, “Judge not, lest you be judged,” we don’t hear Jesus saying it. We hear it coming from some hypothetical non-believer. We have taken a stand in a pluralistic, permissive culture. We called “sin” “sin,” and now the people who ran afoul of that assessment come back at us with words from our own book.

“How dare you judge us!” they say. Our stand is not simply met with indifference. It sparks a counter-attack.

And we get defensive.

Surely this use of our Scriptures must be off base. After all, we just pointed out that these people are sinners, and their aggressive response just further demonstrates the deep-seated rebelliousness in their hearts.

So the tap dance begins as we look for ways to argue that “judging” does not mean “judging”—that whatever we are doing is not what Jesus is warning against. Instead of trying to explain the text, we simply try to explain away the text.

The best way to do this is to focus on the (quite true) fact that the Greek word for “judge” has just as wide a spectrum of meaning as our English word does.

It can land anywhere from the strongly negative sense of “condemning” to a much more neutral sense of “evaluating.” Condemning someone certainly seems bad, but Jesus is clearly not commanding us against any kind of evaluating, whatsoever. In just a few paragraphs, he is going to warn us against false prophets—people whose true nature can only be discerned by evaluating their fruits (Mt. 7:15-20). Is this person speaking for God or not? We need to form a judgment.

So if condemning is bad, but evaluating is okay, then all we have to do is label whatever we’re doing as “evaluating,” and we’re good. Wipe our hands clean, and we’re done.

The problem is that, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is not concerned to delineate which specific actions are permissible and which are not. You could fill a lot of pages with a discussion like that, but it won’t get you into the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt. 5:20).

Jesus is driving at heart attitudes.

Are we living out the heart of God (Mt. 5:48)? You see, the problem is that a judgmental attitude can easily hide behind any evaluation we might present. In fact, the second we start parsing actions—this one is okay, this one is not okay—we are almost certainly looking to justify the ways in which we are missing the heart of God.

This is exactly the kind of smokescreen Jesus is trying to cut through for the last half of Matthew 5. Everyone from the religious leaders to the average person living in a Jewish culture had centuries to look for loopholes to the Torah.

  • No, I won’t murder. That’s clearly against the Torah. But I’ll harbor a level of disdain for a fellow human being equal to that which is willing to take that person’s life.
  • No I won’t commit adultery, but I’ll objectify someone created in God’s image all the same.
  • Of course I won’t swear falsely on the divine Name, but I’ll gladly prevaricate on something less weighty.
And on it goes. All the creative ways we find to check every box on the “good boy” list while entirely missing the heart of God.

So, in the Sermon on the Mount, we never see Jesus trying to spell out some analytic or legal definition. You can always get around those. Instead he drives at heart attitudes by giving examples. He illustrates. In fact, his regular pattern is to give summary sentences—clear statements expressing the theme, or even the main point, of what he’s about to say (Mt. 6:1), what he just said (Mt. 6:34), or both (Mt. 5:20).

Matthew 7:1 is his introductory summary sentence, “Don’t judge, or you will be judged.” If we want to know what Jesus means by “judge,” there’s no need to open up Vine’s Expository Dictionary. Jesus literally gives us an entire paragraph illustrating what this “judging” looks like:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?”

What does a judgmental attitude look like? It looks like someone who feels the need to go around pointing out what’s wrong with everyone else.

It looks like the guy with the sandwich board sign proclaiming the doom that is at hand. It looks like the group with a bullhorn on a busy street corner making sure the people who are just going about their business know that they stand condemned. It looks like the person with the picket sign declaring, in no uncertain terms, how God feels about the people on the other side of the protest.

In other words, it looks exactly like what we are doing when we always feel the need to “call ‘sin’ ‘sin.’” Jesus is saying, “Cut that out.” Probably because that is not our job!

Jesus is clear. Convicting the world of sin is the work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-11).

Paul agrees: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside” (1 Cor. 5:12-13a). In fact, Paul says to the corporate body exactly what Jesus says to the individual—get the plank out of your own eye first!

The non-believer knows darn well that there is plenty that needs to be cleaned up in the believer’s own house. Non-believers can’t help but notice the massive plank we’re trying to keep to the side as we tell them how to clean up their act. So when unbelievers come back with, “Judge not, lest you be judged,” they are, with laser accuracy, calling out our failure to live out the heart of God.

That stings, doesn’t it?

Of course it does. No one likes being judged.

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