For years, John 3:16 was the most popular Bible verse in the world. I’m sure you have part or the entire verse memorized: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” But there is another Bible verse that has surpassed John 3:16 in popularity — especially among unbelievers. Which one?
The answer is Matthew 7:1: “Judge not, that you be not judged.”
Matthew 7:1: The Most Popular Bible Verse Among Unbelievers
Admittedly, I’m getting this from D. A. Carson. In his commentary on John, Carson writes:
“In an age when Matthew 7:1 (‘Do not judge or you too will be judged’) has displaced John 3:16 as the only verse in the Bible the man in the street is likely to know, it is perhaps worth adding that Matthew 7:1 forbids judgementalism, not moral discernment.”
Carson argues that Matthew 7:1 has replaced John 3:16 as the Bible verse any random person may know. The thing that’s striking is that Carson’s commentary was published in 1991, back when I was less than two years old. So it’s not like Carson thought this, say, ten years ago when he really started to notice the rise of secularization in the West. No, this was almost three decades ago.
Interestingly, Jesus talks about judging others in at least two places. “Do not judge by appearances,” Jesus says, “but judge with right judgment.” This is John 7:24. But in Matthew 7:1 it seems as if Jesus is universally forbidding all kinds of judgment; in John 7:24, Jesus tells us to make right judgments. Contradiction? No.
What does Jesus mean when he says, “Judge not, that you be not judged”?
Unpacking Matthew 7:1
Let’s look at the text in its context. The context is the Sermon on the Mount. The reason why it’s called the Sermon on the Mount is because Jesus is preaching on a mountain. His primary focus is his disciples, although eaves-droppers are welcomed too. The gist of the sermon on the mount is ethical living. Once we get to Matthew 7:1, the sermon is about done. Jesus already talked about anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation, prayer, and other topics that reveal how to live if you want to follow the Messiah.
Then we get to Matthew 7:1. He says, again, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” But as they almost always do, exegetical errors will abound if you isolate this text and try to give meaning to it; you have to read the text in its context and understand the verses before and after the text you are studying in order to come to a proper conclusion. You also have to take into account other texts that talk about judgment.
Here’s what comes after Matthew 7:1:
“For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:2-5).
Is All Judgment Bad?
Now that we’ve looked at what comes after Matthew 7:1, we get a better idea of what Jesus is talking about. The general context is hypocritically and prematurely making judgments about people — especially about their sins — without first considering the ways in which you are sinning, perhaps even in the same way. Even more, after you have first evaluated your own life and removed the speck from your eye, you’re not then free to be judgmental. Instead, Jesus says to help people if you see them struggling: “. . . and then you see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Your gift of noticing flaws in others is not so that you can hurt them but help them.
Still, we need to consider whether or not Matthew 7:1 prohibits all kinds of judgments. The ESV Study Bible footnote on Matthew 7:3-5 helps bring us closer to our answer: “Jesus does not forbid all evaluation or even judgment of others, for ultimately the one who feels grieved and humbled over his own sin can help remove the ‘speck’ from others.”
That sentence in the footnote helps, but it’s also helpful to specifically figure out how Matthew is using the word “judge” in Matthew 7:1. According to BDAG, the original word for “judge” (Gk. κρίνω) can mean the following:
1. “to make a selection, select, prefer”
2. “to pass judgment upon (and thereby seek to influence) the lives and actions of other people”
3. “to make a judgment based on taking various factors into account, judge, think, consider, look upon”
4. “to come to a conclusion after a cognitive process, reach a decision, decide, propose, intend”
5. “to engage in a judicial process, judge, decide, hale before a court, condemn, also hand over for judicial punishment”
6. “to ensure justice for someone, see to it that justice is done.”
As you can see, the word “judge” has flexibility in meaning. In his commentary on Matthew, R. T. France suggests that the word “condemn” in the fifth definition listed above is the way that Jesus is using the word “judge” in Matthew 7:1. Writes France, “Judge (krinó) often carries the connotation ‘condemn’ and it is in that sense the word is used here.”
He continues: “The use of our critical faculties in making value-judgments is frequently required in the New Testament . . . This passage, however, is concerned with the fault-finding, condemnatory attitude which is too often combined with a blindness to one’s own failings.”
If France is right — and I think he is — then when Jesus says don’t judge in Matthew 7:1, he is not forbidding all moral evaluations of all people in all situations, but rather forbidding a condemning attitude of other people as if to put your place in God’s position, or to focus on the sins of others without first being concerned with your own sanctification.
In the very next verse, Jesus says: “Do not give dogs what is holy and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” (Matthew 7:6). In order to know a dog from a pig, and in this context, whether to continue to preach the gospel to someone who has rejected it or whether to move on, requires discernment. In other words, you need to make a judgment call.
Consider, for example, I Corinthians 5. There is a report of incest that needs church discipline. After making his case of why this is wicked, why the church needs to be different, and what to do about it, Paul writes, “Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges outsiders” (I Corinthians 5:12-13). Paul doesn’t say “thou shall not judge,” but asks a rhetorical question as if the Corinthians know that they are supposed to judge the Christians in their midst.
In this context, this judgment by Christians is not for unbelievers because they are not apart of God’s people, and they don’t have the same moral obligations to God and one another as do Christians. God will take care of them. But for Christians inside the Corinthian church, they are to be held accountable to God’s standards as revealed in his Word. When the elders at Corinth got together to discuss this matter (presuming they had elders operating in a properly functioning manner), they had to make a judgment call about the man who committed sexual immorality. They judged him.
Someone immersed in an unrepentant sexual sinful lifestyle might say, “Hey, the Bible says don’t judge” if you try to call them out on their sin. The same can be said of someone who advocates a view of marriage and sexuality that does not align with Scripture. Darkness is a common biblical metaphor to depict those living in sin. Light exposes the darkness. If you are one of these people that isn’t afraid to turn the light on in a dark room, don’t be surprised if the person living in the room reminds you of the first verse of Matthew chapter seven.
As we have seen, however, using this Bible verse this way is unjustifiable because it misunderstands the way in which Jesus means by saying “judge” in Matthew 7:1. Not all judging is bad. Some judgments are, but other kinds of judging are not just necessary but commanded.
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