“Judge not, that you be not judged.” - Matthew 7:1
This phrase, drawn from Matthew 7:1, is often used in connection with, “Who are you to judge me?” or “Jesus told us never to judge people, only to love them.” This perspective frequently flows from an individualistic mindset in which the basis of morality and justice should be independently determined, shortening the intention of Jesus’ statement to practically mean, “Do not judge.” This line of thought establishes the standard that there is no objective truth or morality and that we don’t want to be held responsible for our behavior. This desire for moral independence fits well within our individualistic society but comes up short within the context of the following verses when Jesus describes stringent standards for the behavior of His followers, noting how the path to life is narrow (v. 14) and that we can recognize and discern false prophets by their fruit (vv. 16, 20). How can Jesus be opening Matthew 7 by telling us not to judge and then provide specific measures and categories by which we can determine the narrow gate from the wide gate of destruction, false prophets from good prophets by their fruit, and foolish men from wise men by their behavior?
What Is the Meaning and Context of "Judge not, that you be not judged"?
The first rule of understanding the meaning of a passage is to explore the context. Matthew 7 is the final chapter of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, beginning in chapter 5 with the Beatitudes. The purpose of the Sermon on the Mount is not to explain the way of salvation because it is directed to his “disciples” (5:1) who have already repented and were seeking further instruction on living in right relationship with God. Jesus contrasts the behavior and expectations of the Pharisees in this sermon with the standards of righteousness expected for those who come to God through faith. Jesus’ standards do not extinguish the expectations of the Law and Prophets but demonstrated that external righteousness, like that of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, was insufficient (Matt. 6:1). The righteousness that Jesus requires is internal and comes from faith in God’s Word (Rom. 3:21-22), permeating all of the person and transforming them so that the symptoms of this change and not the substance are demonstrated through the fruit that comes in pursuit of “his kingdom and righteousness” (Matt. 6:33).
In Matthew 6 and 7, Jesus describes what Kingdom Life should look like as a contrast to the perspective and behavior of the Pharisees with specific comparisons to money, prayer, fasting, provision, and judging. The foundational undercurrent of this contrast rests with what we love because what we love or desire directs our spending, focus, behavior, concern, and comparisons for identity. The intent of the Pharisees and Scribes was to look holy and righteous, to be perceived on the outside as clean, while their heart, the foundation of their will and desire remained unchanged by the spirit of God’s Law (Ps. 51:10). Jesus illustrated this motive by calling the Pharisees and Scribes hypocrites and blind guides, “You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23:27-28).
What Did Jesus Really Mean by 'Judge Not'?
Jesus contrasts the hypocritical deeds of the Pharisees to the expectation of behaviors for the righteous in relationship with God, suggesting that we should give in secret to avoid the praise of others (Matt. 6:2-3); pray in secret with a right acknowledgment of your forgiven state and necessity of forgiving others with a focus on aligning with God’s purpose for you (Matt. 6:7-15); fast so that it is between you and God and not in an attempt to be seen by others (Matt. 6:16); love God and depend on His provision and care instead of attempting to control your own life and fate, which just leads to worry (Matt. 6:25-34); and finally, don’t have an attitude of hypocritical judgment, but acknowledge our mutuality under God’s judgment (Matt. 7:12). Paul explains this standard in Romans 2, reiterating Jesus’ point here in Matthew that we all sin and struggle in the same ways and so stand under the same judgment. As in each of the previous comparisons, the issue is not with the rule or standard, but with an inaccurate or hypocritical self-assessment of my standing with the rule. As Jesus regularly said to the Pharisees, don’t be a hypocrite. Don’t stand in judgment of another person as if you were the perfect and righteous judge because in proclaiming the standard, you acknowledge your awareness of it and are thus held to it as well.
Paul says, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man – you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself – that you will escape the judgment of God?... He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury” (Rom. 2:1-3, 6-8).
Should We Not Judge Others and Let Them Stand Alone before God’s Judgment?
No. Jesus explained that the fruit of a relationship with God is demonstrated by the overflow of His love in our love to others (John 15:12). Jesus summarized the Law and the Prophets by saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-39). The contrast between the Pharisees and followers of Jesus resides in the heart through an accurate recognition of our standing before God. We are not righteous through our behavior in following the Law because the Law is designed to highlight our sin (Rom. 3:20). It is not that there is no objective standard of morality or that we shouldn’t judge others because what is right individually determined. The truth is that there is an objective standard and we all fall woefully short of it (Rom. 3:23). We are not the judge, but there is a Judge by whose measure we are all judged and found guilty.
Everyone is held to the same standard and has failed to meet it, requiring God’s judgment (Matt. 7:2; Rom. 2:11-12). This judgment is bad news, but there is good news. As Paul explains in Romans 3, although the Law brings knowledge and sin and in this knowledge judgment as we cannot meet the standards of righteousness required in the Law, “the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law… the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith… For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Rom. 3:21-25, 28). We cannot boast in our accomplishments or position like the Pharisees and Scribes were doing, because our redemption comes as a gift by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. We didn’t achieve our own righteousness and so have nothing to boast about or to assume a position of superiority or criticism towards others (Eph. 2:8-9).
Judgment as Love
Christians should be the last people to have an attitude of judgment or superiority toward others because we rightly recognize that our salvation is a gracious gift (Eph. 2:8). However, there is a difference between being judgmental as a character of superiority or criticism and judging as a means for analysis or evaluation. Jesus summarizes our relationship to others through the Golden Rule, explaining how “whatever you wish that others would do for you, do also for them” (Matt. 7:12). As Jesus explained in the previous verses, when someone has a speech of sawdust in their eye, we shouldn’t just leave it there. That isn’t showing love to them by leaving them in their pain and struggle. However, we must first view ourselves correctly, acknowledging that we are held to the same standards of judgment, recognizing our position as fellow sinners in gracious receipt of the gift of salvation. As D. T. Niles famously said, “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.” We should not hypocritically judge one another as if we are somehow superior to them or the objective standard for righteousness.
We are not the judge. But God is the Judge and we are all accountable to the Law and we have all sinned and fallen short of His standard, deserving death and judgment (Rom. 3:23; 6:23). As followers of Christ in receipt of His undeserved gift of salvation, we must demonstrate His love to the world by sharing His standard and the hope that comes through faith in Jesus Christ. We are not the judge, but we know Him and want others to know Him as well. As Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another” (John 15:16-17).
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Seth L. Scott, PhD, NCC, LPC-S is an associate professor of clinical mental health counseling at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina and provides clinical counseling and supervision in the community through his counseling practice, Sunrise Counseling. Seth, his wife, Jen, and their two middle school children enjoy outdoor activities, reading together as a family, board games, and meeting people through Jen’s pottery business at galleries and festivals.