Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged.
Nowadays, few Bible verses are quoted quite so often as this one. Not so surprisingly, few are misquoted quite so often. And yet, I truly believe Jesus’ original intended meaning for these words in his Sermon on the Mount are of crucial importance for many churches in North America today. We would do well to recapture this verse–and the following passage–from its commonly misappropriated use as a prohibition to any form of correction, so that we can live under its condemnation of hypocrisy and submit to its call to lovingly confront one another inside the Christian community.
This is a big issue, so I’m tackling it in a two-article series. This first article addresses the common misuse of Matthew 7:1-5, so that we can rightly hear how Jesus expects his church to act as they relate to one another. The second article picks up the following understanding of the passage and applies it to a specific, critical issue today: Christian conflict on social media.
Let’s take a look at the passage in full.
Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged. For you will be judged by the same standard with which you judge others, and you will be measured by the same measure you use. Why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the beam of wood in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a beam of wood in your own eye? Hypocrite! First take the beam of wood out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-6)
You keep using that word…
I am dating myself here. I was in high school, we were on a field trip, and a buddy of mine had his headphones in listening to music on his discman. Yes, discman. At one point in the song, his enthusiasm gets the best of him and he starts singing aloud. That’s when it happened. In the middle of a crowded van, he starts singing, “I like to mobi chobi. I like to mobi chobi.” Of course, the song he thought he was singing was the great Reel 2 Real hit, “I Like to Move It.” At the time, the song had been out for several years, and this whole time, up until that moment when everyone laughed at him, my buddy thought the lyrics were “I like to mobi chobi.”
We all do that, don’t we? Hear something real popular, hear it over and over in fact, and think we know what it means. Only to find out later that we had it wrong the whole time.
It happens with Scripture as well. Some of the most often quoted verses are, ironically, done so in a way that is in actual opposition to their intended meaning. It’s a human tendency to round off those edges of Scripture that challenge us to live in a manner distinct from the world. The biblical worldview regularly confronts the worldviews of society at large, and when that battle takes place in our own heart, one authority has to win. Often, a subtle thing occurs where we want to force competing claims to agree.
This compulsion is especially true when it comes to passages like this one. For those of us in North America, the current zeitgeist screams against the idea of confronting others when they are in error. There are few cultural sins more heinous than telling someone they are wrong. Instead, we must adhere to the seemingly profound but grossly problem-ridden mantra of “Follow your heart.” To suggest that someone’s heart may not know where it’s going is beyond the pale.
Think about the internal turmoil that comes from the idea of correcting others. Sometimes, it is that pressure not to speak the gospel to others we know do not believe it. Who are we, after all, to suggest someone is wrong about their religious beliefs? Perhaps you have a friend at church you know is involved in something wrong. You know in the long run it will hurt them, and you also know that it damages their witness for Christ’s sake. Nevertheless, you do not feel you have the freedom to mention it. It feels wrong to tell someone they’re wrong.
Then, like a wave of refreshing water, this inner turmoil is met with the soothing relief of this verse: “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged.” What a tempting application for this simple, blunt command from Christ. I know we’ve all heard someone say, “Jesus says it’s wrong to judge people.” That would be great, too, if that is what this passage actually means.
It is not.
So, what does it mean?
In order to rightly capture Matthew’s intent (and that of Jesus, the original deliverer of the sermon), we must drive in three important pillars on which we can hang any application. These guides come from the text itself.
First, Jesus limits this statement to the way we deal with fellow disciples. This statement cannot be used as justification to excuse the many other passages in the Bible that tell us we are supposed to share our faith with people who are not Christians, because Jesus tells us this particular command concerns other disciples. He says so in verse 3: “Why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye…” This use of the word brother is significant, because Jesus uses that term to refer to those who have already crossed the line of faith. In most instances, it can be translated brothers and sisters, because the term is often used generally for all people who are part of the family.
Second, Jesus clearly explains what he means by judge with an example. In the verses that immediately follow this initial command, Jesus clarifies the specific meaning of judge within the context of the passage. We know that words can have different meanings based on the context in which they are used. Take for instance the word hand. What does that word mean? Well, in one sentence, it probably means the part of the body at the end of your arm. But, in another sentence, we can talk about giving someone a hand, and the word actually means to help them. And in yet another sentence, we can say the same phrase, “let’s give them a hand,” and it’s about giving someone a round of applause. The context of a word matters. Jesus explains how he is using the word judge right after he uses it.
In verses 3-4, Jesus uses a rather colorful word picture to describe this kind of judgment.
Why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the beam of wood in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a beam of wood in your own eye?
Jesus then calls the person who engages in this kind of judgment a hypocrite. It’s strong language, but that’s because this is a big problem.
It is a really human thing to be critical of the actions and motives of others and uncritical of our own. We tend to assume the worst of others, and the best of ourselves. I’ve done it. I assume you’ve done it. Jesus is telling his disciples that they cannot look down on fellow disciples, their brothers and sisters, others in their church, with arrogant criticism. We’re not supposed to nitpick other Christian’s problems, all the while overlooking and excusing our own. How arrogant! How hypocritical! There is no place for that kind of judgment in God’s kingdom. But we cannot leave it there, because Jesus doesn’t leave it there. Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook from lovingly confronting our church family and other Christians when they do have issues.
Finally, Jesus explicitly tells us to get involved in the sin issues of our fellow disciples in this passage. In short, the sin you should be most concerned about is your own. The person whose conduct you should evaluate most is your own. However, that is not to say we do not care deeply about the conduct of others. We do. We should. But, we are best equipped to help others in our church family with their issues when we are already in the habit of dealing with our own. Far from telling us not to address a brother or sister, Jesus tells us in this passage that we should get involved. He just tells us we need to do so from a position of integrity.
In verses 5-6, Jesus says this:
First take the beam of wood out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye.
The experience to lovingly help someone else remove sin from their life is often won in your personal fight (aided by the Spirit) with your own sin.
With these contextual parameters in mind, we come much closer to a faithful understanding of the text. Do not, from a position of arrogant ignorance about your own condition, look down on other brothers or sisters in judgment. Instead, maintain a critical eye toward your own heart, so that you can lovingly aid fellow Christians in considering theirs.
If you’re a member of the family of God, the ones sitting around Jesus’ feet as he delivers this sermon, what should you walk away considering? Simply put, work on that beam in your own eye, so that you can help your fellow Christians with their specks.
In this passage, Christ provides an ethic that reaches into a thousand instances of everyday life. I pray you consider how it reaches into yours, but I also want to point us toward one specific application. In the second part of this brief series, I provide an extended application that I feel is especially needed today. I believe Christ’s ethic has much to say concerning our approach to confrontation on social media. That article will be live in a couple of days.