Why Did Jesus Say “Judge Not”?
It’s very important when building anything intended to last to have a strong foundation, and the strongest foundation is the Word of God. As we Rebuild The Wall of righteousness around our nation and society, let’s examine a few Scriptures and reasons we’ve heard or maybe offered ourselves about Christians and politics and how they should (or shouldn’t) mingle, and hold them up to scrutiny.
“Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: 25 and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock.”
– Matthew 7:24-25
Let’s dive right in the deep end, and tackle perhaps one of the most commonly misused Scriptures, found in Matthew chapter 7.
“Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. 3 And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?”
– Matthew 7:1-3
Most people who have quoted this to me haven’t read the whole chapter, and can only discuss the first two words. In doing so, they have created a false god in their own image, a projection of their mistaken belief that tolerance is an infinite good and that no one but God is qualified to identify wrong behaviours. That is certainly not what this verse is saying.
It’s important right away to identify the basics in interpreting Scripture. Exegesis is the explanation of what the verse is saying, which literally means to draw out the meaning. Eisegesis on the other hand is reading into a verse one’s own agenda, inserting meanings not there. The first rule of careful Bible interpretation is to read each verse in the context of its chapter, each chapter in the context of its book, and each book in the context of all 66 books of the Bible. We also have to give careful consideration to other important elements such as the style of writing, cultural distinctives and places in time. For example, was it written primarily as historical narrative, or instructional doctrine for the Church age? Whole books are devoted to this topic and I can thoroughly recommend their personal value.
Let’s have a closer look at “Judge not“.
So what does judge mean, and is it always wrong to do? While Jesus said don’t do it, if there’s only one type of judgement He was warning against, then that must mean that juries in legal trials are sinning when offering verdicts of guilty or not guilty. It must mean that parents judging which groceries are healthy and which schools are best are sinning. Clearly this is silly talk, and clearly Jesus was not saying all judging was to be avoided.
So let’s follow the first rule of Bible interpretation and read the whole chapter of Matthew 7. Let me draw your attention especially to verses fifteen to twenty, where Jesus is actively encouraging people to use good judgement!
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? 17 Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Therefore by their fruits you will know them.”
– Matthew 7:15-20
Jesus is exhorting His disciples and the multitudes to judge for themselves if someone’s behaviours and ideas are inconsistent with His Kingdom. He’s not talking about well-meaning believers who may disagree on non-essential doctrines. He’s describing “ravenous wolves, thornbushes and thistles” where we should be expecting “sheep, grapes and figs”. He’s offering the evidence of their lives and ministry as basis for identifying or judging them.
Is He advocating hate? No. How do I know? Because of the balancing context of verse one, “Judge not”. We can plainly see what Jesus was warning against in Matthew 7:1 was the kind of judgement that presumes to know a person’s heart and subsequently condemns that person to hell.
In context then, and in harmony with the rest of the Bible, Jesus is only warning against the vicious self-righteousness which is happy to condemn people to hell while ignoring the fact of everyone’s complete reliance on the grace and mercy of God. He is not suggesting it’s hypocritical to think critically or conclude someone is wrong. This isn’t emotional hate – it’s intelligent disagreement.
Let’s consider the historical impact of this Scripture if it was misused as some suggest they should be, despite the best of their intentions otherwise.
“If to be feelingly alive to the sufferings of my fellow-creatures is to be a fanatic, I am one of the most incurable fanatics ever permitted to be at large.”
William Wilberforce is one of my heroes, and I know I’m not alone. He is credited for leading the movement resulting in the successful abolition of slavery in England. He was an evangelical Christian who was influenced by the former slave trader, John Newton. Newton was himself famous for writing about his radical repentance and salvation in the lyrics of the well known hymn, Amazing Grace.
Wilberforce’s faith prompted him to become interested in social reform, particularly in improving the conditions in British factories at the time. Wilberforce went so far as to become a member of parliament at age 21, and was later persuaded to lobby for the abolition of slavery – the treatment of people as goods to be bought and sold. As a result he campaigned tirelessly for 18 years, regularly introducing anti-slavery motions in parliament.
Yet he couldn’t do this alone. Fellow Christians supported this campaign by raising public awareness with pamphlets, books, rallies and petitions. Imagine what they could’ve done with Facebook and other social media! In 1807 they succeeded in ending the trade of slaves, and finally in 1833 an act was passed giving freedom to slaves right across the British Empire. Wilberforce was promoted to Heaven later that same year.
What if Wilberforce and the 19th century Church believed it was wrong to judge the slave traders? No, it is quite clear from the context of the Matthew chapter 7 and intelligent application that Jesus is not universally forbidding the use of judgement between right and wrong, either on a personal or a national level. Consequently one of the Church’s roles is to provide society with a reference point to what is right and wrong, based solely on the unchanging Word of God. We, all of us, not just pastors or Christian politicians, are the Church.