Jesus—His Life and Message: The Sermon on the Mount
September 27, 2016
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: The Sermon on the Mount
As we move on to Matthew chapter 7, the last chapter of the Sermon on the Mount, we read of Jesus telling His disciples not to be judgmental of others. He made this point by saying:
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.1
Jesus touches on a negative trait that is characteristic of so many, including sadly many Christians—being critical and judgmental of others. He is instructing us to distinguish between moral discernment and personal condemnation of others. Knowing the difference between moral good and evil will naturally result in recognizing flaws in ourselves and in others. However, our attitude toward the faults and sins of others is in focus here. The warning is that we are not to harshly judge others for their mistakes and transgressions.
The Greek word krino, translated as judge, has a range of translation possibilities; it can mean to discern, to judge judicially, to be judgmental, or to condemn (judicially or otherwise). The context in which the word is used dictates the meaning. In this case, to judge means to be judgmental, to adopt a condemning attitude.2 We see this same verb meaning in Romans:
You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God's judgment seat. It is written: “As surely as I live,” says the Lord, “every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.” So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another.3
After speaking against condemning others, Jesus states:
For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.4
This verse can be read in two ways: that people with a hypercritical attitude will themselves be criticized by others (which is often the case), or that the measure we use with others will be the measure God himself will use on us.5 It’s more likely that the intended meaning is the second option. The apostle Paul makes the same point:
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?6
Some Bible commentators use the word censorious to express the judgmental attitude that Jesus was speaking about. John Stott wrote:
Censoriousness is a compound sin consisting of several unpleasant ingredients. It does not mean to assess people critically, but to judge them harshly. The censorious critic is a fault-finder who is negative and destructive towards other people and enjoys actively seeking out their failings. He puts the worst possible construction on their motives, pours cold water on their schemes and is ungenerous towards their mistakes. Worse than that, to be censorious is to set oneself up as a censor, and so to claim the competence and authority to sit in judgment upon one’s fellow men … No human being is qualified to be the judge of his fellow humans, for we cannot read each other’s hearts or assess each other’s motives. To be censorious is to presume arrogantly to anticipate the day of judgment, to usurp the prerogative of the divine Judge, in fact to try to play God.7
As Christians, we are called to put an end to our judgmental attitudes, to stop being blind to our own failings, to not hold others to a standard we don’t hold ourselves to.
In telling us “judge not,” Jesus isn’t calling us to be blind to wrongdoing and sin. We are expected to recognize sin, both in ourselves and others. However, Jesus is making a distinction between moral discernment and personal condemnation of others. We are to discern the difference between good and bad, right and wrong, sin and righteousness, but that is very different from condemning and being judgmental of others.
Jesus follows with an illustration to make the point by saying:
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.8
This rather humorous word picture graphically portrays the point being made. We naturally see the faults of others much more clearly than our own. We are quick to judge others when in fact our sins and faults are often much greater than theirs. The illustration of someone trying to take a minute piece of sawdust from someone’s eye while having a huge wooden beam in their own eye shows the absurdity and inappropriateness of drawing attention to someone else’s failings and sins, or considering ourselves as being in a position to point out those faults, when, so often, our own are so much greater.
An example of someone with a log in his eye passing judgment can be found in an incident in the life of King David. Having slept with and impregnated Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, a soldier in his army, David arranged for Uriah to return from the war to Jerusalem—with the idea that he would sleep with his wife and therefore David’s wrongdoing would be covered up. When Uriah nobly refused to sleep with his wife because his fellow soldiers were sleeping in tents or in the open fields and fighting battles, David sent him back to the war and arranged for the commander of the army to put Uriah where the heaviest fighting occurred so that he would be killed. Soon after Uriah’s death, David married Bathsheba. David was guilty of adultery and murder. The prophet Nathan came to David and told him about a rich man with many flocks of sheep and a poor man who had only one sheep—a sheep that he loved so much he would let it eat from his own plate and drink from his cup and which was like a daughter to him. When the rich man had a visitor, he was unwilling to take one of his own sheep to prepare for his guest. Instead, he took the poor man’s sheep, and had it killed and prepared for the meal. Upon hearing this, David became furious and said, “The man who did this deserves to die.” Nathan proclaimed: “You are the man!”9
We can have the same blind spot which David had. We can become condemnatory of the sins of others and be vocal about them, while at the same time being oblivious to the sins which we tend to commit. The attitude which Jesus warns against is when we find ourselves focusing on the speck in the eye of our spiritual brothers and sisters when we have a log of sin protruding from our own. We are not to be fault finders, negative and destructive toward others, having the attitude that we are justified in sitting in judgment of others.
This doesn’t mean that we never pass judgment that something someone does is wrong. Jesus said we are to remove the log from our own eye, and only then will we see clearly enough to take the speck out of the eye of a fellow believer. We who want to help a brother or sister must first deal with any planks of wood in our own life. Only when that is done are we equipped to bring spiritual aid to another. We’re not being told to never correct someone, to never speak with them about some sin in their lives, nor to sometimes judge when someone is off track. Jesus said that when we have taken the log out of our own eye, then we will see clearly enough to take the speck out of [our] brother’s eye.
“Judge not” does not mean that Christians are to abstain from ever making any moral evaluations of others. We’re told that if a fellow believer sins against us, we are to go and speak with him alone; if he doesn’t listen, speak with him again in the presence of others. If he still refuses to listen, then tell the whole church; and if he still refuses to listen, then let him be as an unbeliever.10 Jesus told His disciples to beware of the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees, and also said: Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.11 The apostle Paul told Christians to watch out for people who cause divisions and upset people’s faith by teaching things contrary to what you have been taught. Stay away from them.12 These are all judgments, but they are judgments based on discernment and truth. So when Jesus said “judge not,” He was speaking of censoriousness. While we are told to avoid being hypercritical, Jesus goes on to say something that confirms we should be discerning and sometimes make judgments.
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.13
It’s clear that Jesus made judgments about others, but they were made from a pure heart and right motives. He realized that everyone isn’t the same and that we need to have discernment, to be able to judge between those with right and wrong motives and attitudes. The caution against judging others when we have a huge beam in our eye does not mean that we are never to judge, but that we make right judgment from a humble and clean heart, having “removed the beam from our own eye.” Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.14 Jesus clearly made right judgments about others: He called Herod Antipas that fox,15 and the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees whitewashed tombs16 and a brood of vipers.17 He warned against false prophets: Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.18
In our time it’s inappropriate to compare people with dogs or swine, but in Palestine two thousand years ago this word picture offered a clear understanding of the point being made. A Jewish person would never give food which had been offered as a sacrifice to God, and thus was “holy,” to a dog to eat. Dogs in those days were not domesticated pets as they are today; they were fierce scavengers and were dangerous. Pigs were considered unclean animals according to Jewish Scripture. If one was to throw pearls to pigs, the pigs would most likely try to chew them, but when finding them inedible would spit them out and thus would trample them into the mud. The original text was most likely formed in a poetic manner (known as chiastic) which would tell the original hearers that the pig would trample the pearls, and the dog would attack the one who gave it holy food.
In contrast with not judging others while having a beam in one’s eye, here Jesus makes the point that at times we do need to judge with discernment. We, of course, are not to think of or categorize people as pigs or dogs, as every person is loved and valued by God; but we can apply the point being made here, that we need to use both wisdom and discernment when we share the gospel with others. There may be times and situations when sharing the gospel with someone would be unwise, as the person may be hostile to it. Or perhaps the method you would normally use to share it would not work with a particular person, and they would reject it. In such cases the pearls, that which is holy, God’s words, could be mocked or scorned.
While we shouldn’t be judgmental, we should be discerning. Along those lines, we should be aware that some people are vehemently opposed to the gospel, they want nothing to do with it, and when we realize that someone we are witnessing to has such an attitude, it’s better to back off. Also, there are many different kinds of people, with differing personalities, worldviews, and cultural backgrounds, so we need to be loving, wise, and discerning in how we witness to them. While we are trying to convey the same truth of the gospel to each one, we must recognize the need to tailor the method of sharing it with them, to make it easier for them to receive it.
As we draw close to the end of the Sermon, we see Jesus making it very clear that being judgmental and censorious of others is wrong. He clearly stated that we are to “judge not.” We are all prone to do so, but He calls us to strive to put an end to it in our lives. C. S. Lewis wisely wrote:
Abstain from all thinking about other people’s faults, unless your duties as a teacher or parent make it necessary to think about them. Whenever the thoughts come unnecessarily into one’s mind, why not simply shove them away? And think of one’s own faults instead? For there, with God’s help, one can do something.19
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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1 Matthew 7:1–2.
2 Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World, 106.
3 Romans 14:10–13 NIV.
4 Matthew 7:2.
5 Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World, 107.
6 Romans 2:1–3.
7 Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 176–77.
8 Matthew 7:3–5.
9 2 Samuel 11–12.
10 Matthew 18:15–17.
11 John 7:24.
12 Romans 16:17 NLT.
13 Matthew 7:6.
14 John 7:24.
15 Luke 13:31–32.
16 Matthew 23:27.
17 Matthew 23:33.
18 Matthew 7:15.
19 C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock, chapter 18: “The Trouble with ‘X’” (San Francisco: Harper One Publishers, 2014).