“Judge not.” Few words of Jesus are more familiar, even to non-Christians. And when understood, few are more devastating.
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. (Matthew 7:1–2)
In the face of others’ aggravations and sins — their thoughtless comments and annoying tones, their insensitive laughter and failures to follow through — how natural it feels to convict them in the court of our imagination. How gratifying to hear our inner prosecutor give their words or actions the worst spin, and then to close the case before the defense can even speak.
And how easy to forget that one day, the judgments we laid on others will be laid on us; the measures we used to assess others will be used to assess us. One day, we will enter the court of our imagination — and this time not as judge, but as defendant.
How many emails would be abandoned and text messages unsent, how many thoughts would be discarded and words unsaid, how many conversations would be redirected and posts unread, if only we heard our Savior say, with eternal sobriety in his voice, “Judge not”?
Of course, “judge not” does not mean what some would like it to mean. Matthew 7:1 is the life verse of many who simply would like to live in sin undisturbed. Rarely do they read the rest of the chapter, where Jesus warns against “dogs,” “pigs,” and “false prophets” — and expects us to judge who they are (Matthew 7:6, 15–20). Rarer still do they read Matthew 7 alongside John 7, where Jesus commands, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24).
Critical thinking, discernment, and “right judgment” belong to every mature disciple of Christ. But there is another kind of judgment to which Jesus says, “Judge not” — a kind produced in the factory of our unredeemed flesh, marked by a tendency to (1) indulge hypocrisy and (2) withhold mercy.
“Let me take the speck out of your eye” (Matthew 7:4). Our words of judgment, whether spoken or merely thought, may seem unobjectionable, perhaps even kind. We really do notice a speck in another’s eye — some small pattern of sin or folly that our brother has failed to see. And don’t we all appreciate the friend who points out the spinach in our teeth or the shirt tag climbing our neck?
But wait: “There is the log in your own eye” (Matthew 7:4). The spinach-noticer has ketchup smeared across his cheeks; the tag-discerner forgot to put his pants on; the speck-remover has a birch tree jutting from his left eye. In other words, “You hypocrite” (Matthew 7:5).
The faults and annoyances of others — that is, their specks — have a way of taking our eye from the mirror and putting it over a magnifying glass. In the moment of offense, how easily many of us assume, without prayer and with scarcely three seconds’ worth of thought, that we are only the observers of specks and logs, and not also the bearers of them. We hear her retort without remembering our own exasperating comment; we bristle at his third reminder while forgetting our own failure to communicate well. We quickly play the role of prosecutor, but refuse to cross-examine ourselves.
Those who “judge with right judgment” do not pass by others’ specks without comment, but they spend some time searching their own eyes before poking another’s. “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 7:5).
Hypocrisy, of course, is never the friend of mercy. When we spend more time noticing others’ sins than our own, we struggle to wear the “spirit of gentleness” that Paul speaks of (Galatians 6:1). Numb to our own desperate need for mercy, our judgments burn without soothing, cut without healing.
“We have a way of swelling others’ specks into logs, and of shrinking our own logs into specks.”
“With the measure you use it will be measured to you,” Jesus warns (Matthew 7:2). But in the grip of wrong judgment, we often use one measure for others, and another for ourselves. A spouse’s sharp words are plain cruelty, full stop. But our own sharp words are warranted by the circumstances — or at least excused by tiredness, stress, hunger, or provocation. We have a way of swelling others’ specks into logs, and of shrinking our own logs into specks.
John Stott writes, “The command to judge not is not a requirement to be blind, but rather a plea to be generous” (The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 177) — or as the apostle James puts it, to show mercy (James 2:13). But generous, merciful judgment takes energy and time. It requires an eye for complexity, a willingness to give the benefit of the doubt, a self-distrusting posture and a prayerful heart. Far easier to madly swing the gavel.
Two Great Judgments
How, then, do we shut the mouth of our hypocritical judgments? How do we lay down our merciless measures and “judge not,” especially when faced with real offenses? We begin where Jesus begins in this passage and remember that we are not first the judge, but the judged. And to that end, we live today in light of two great judgment days, one past and one future.
Every Christian knows something of the experience Paul describes in Romans 3:19:
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.
At one point or another, we stood, mouth stopped, before the judgment seat of God. Every excuse was stripped away; every defense failed. We faced the holy, holy, holy God, and could plead only guilty.
“Mercy met us at the judgment seat of God, bidding us to go and speak a better word than judgment.”
Jesus assumes as much earlier in the Sermon on the Mount. How else would we be “poor in spirit” and “meek”? How else would we “mourn” and “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:3–6)? We remember what it feels like to be weighed and found wanting. We can’t help but remember. As Sinclair Ferguson writes, “To be silenced before the throne of God is an unforgettable experience! It shows every time we speak with and to others” (The Christian Life, 41).
But of course, we were not only silenced before the throne of God; we were also forgiven there. God’s burning coal of grace touched our lips, saying, “Your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (Isaiah 6:7). Mercy met us at the judgment seat of God, bidding us to go and speak a better word than judgment.
When we remember judgment past, unrighteous judgments no longer rest upon our lips so easily. The pardoned criminal cannot condemn his fellows as he did before. Mercy has touched him — and mercy cannot help but beget mercy.
Jesus then lifts our gaze to the judgment yet to come:
Judge not, that you be not judged. With the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. (Matthew 7:1–2)
The day is coming soon when “we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Romans 14:10) — great and small, rich and poor, well-known and unknown. And what will happen when we stand there? The rubric we raised against others will be raised against us.
Those who have judged without mercy, consistently and unrepentantly, will face “judgment . . . without mercy” (James 2:13). Their merciless judgments will become evidence that they never received, never treasured, the mercy of God in Christ, and so they will reap the same judgments they sowed.
Yet those who have learned, by grace and through much repentance, to take up a measure of mercy will be, amazingly, “not judged” (Matthew 7:1). Not judged on judgment day! Only the grace of a cross-bearing Christ could craft such a wondrous thought.
Those who revel in that future day now cannot help but think and speak differently now. They do not throw away discernment or critical thinking; they strive, with God’s help, to “judge with right judgment” (John 7:24). But even when they must confront, rebuke, or remove a speck from another’s eye, they do so as those who once were headed toward judgment, but now are wrapped with eternal, unchangeable mercy.