Editor’s note: The purpose of this series is to walk our readers through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 in order to help them understand what it teaches and how to apply it to our lives. This is our first such series here at Servants of Grace through an extended biblical passage and is part of our larger commitment to help Christians learn to read, interpret, reflect, and apply the Bible to their own lives.

Matthew 7:1-2, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

P J. O’Rourke, a writer who is half analyst and half humorist, toured Kuwait and Iraq before and after the war began in Iraq in 2003. He loved Kuwait, but he judged Iraq to be a nation not worth saving. The Iraqis were so greedy and inept that they could not even line up properly to receive free food. Iraq was ugly, too. It “looked more like the target of a trash collectors’ strike” than the target of a war. “There were burned-out military vehicles here and there, but garbage was everywhere.” Trash and ordinary debris littered every public space. Hundreds of black plastic bags lined the streets. “The people of Iraq may have nothing, but they have the bag it came in.” The air campaign was so precise that most of the damage was invisible. But “damage caused by the armor attack on the city was noticeable because it was newer, crisper, and more clean-edged than the general deterioration of Baghdad.” Then there were Saddam’s palaces. Built at enormous cost and perpetually empty—Saddam never stayed in them because it was too risky—they were, above all, hideous. “If a reason to invade Iraq was wanted, felony interior decorating would have done. Imagine Liberace as an inner-city high school basketball star who’d just signed an NBA contract and converted to Islam.” O’Rourke knew Iraq’s warlike past, but he could hardly imagine this feckless but combative nation ever amounting to much.

This analysis may amuse or it may inform, but people will also object to it for several reasons. First, some will say the article judges wrongly. It is too harsh on the Iraqis, who have many fine people. Second, some will say the article uses the wrong method of judgment, for it makes light of a great issue. But most importantly, some will say that O’Rourke has no right to judge Iraq at all. He may say he dislikes Iraq and that Iraq does not adopt Western attitudes toward lines and trash. But how can he declare another nation greedy and warlike? How can he enter Iraq with his American prejudices, live there for a few months, and pronounce his judgment on it? Even ignoring the fact that he criticizes a nation that his armed forces just invaded, the question is this: how does he dare to judge another culture?

The Problem of Judgment in Context: Who Has the Right to Judge?

According to the prevailing mind-set of our age, no one has the right to judge—or, more specifically, to condemn—anybody else. Sometimes the reasons are personal. Feeling the need to defend themselves, people ask, “Who gave you the right to judge me?” There are also philosophical objections to judgment. If, as certain philosophers say, there is no objective, transcendent truth, then by what standard can one person judge another? Richard Rorty says that “truth” is what our peers let us get away with. If, as some social philosophers say, knowledge is power, then truth claims are actually power claims.

Years ago, the best-known text in Scripture was John 3:16 (KJV): “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” But today, the best-known passage might be Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”

Paradoxically, our airwaves and our personal conversations are laden with criticism and invective, yet we also claim to be opposed to judging others. We declare that no one should tell anyone else how to live, and that no one should impose his or her standards on others. “Judge not” is the sort of statement that our culture would eagerly embrace, without bothering to discover precisely what Jesus meant by it. But was Jesus really opposed to all judging? Would Jesus condemn anyone who condemned others? Would Jesus let each man’s conscience be his guide? The first step in discovering Jesus’ intent is to put his teaching in its biblical context.

The last verse of Matthew 6 and the first verse of Matthew 7 both begin with prohibitions: “Do not worry” (6:34) and “Do not judge” (7:1). When Jesus says, “Do not worry,” He forbids a negative attitude toward our own affairs—worry. When he says, “Do not judge,” He prohibits a negative attitude toward others—a critical spirit. Just before that, Jesus said, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (6:33). Here Jesus reinforces that command, saying in effect, “Do not criticize the unrighteousness of others. Address your own unrighteousness first, then perhaps you can address others.”

Judge Not

Jesus gives several reasons why we should “not judge.” First, God is the judge of mankind. We have no right to usurp His role (Matthew 7:1). Second, when we judge others, we invite judgment in return, both from God and from the people around us (Matthew 7:2–3). Third, since we cannot evaluate ourselves very accurately, why should we try to critique the flaws of others (Matthew 7:4–5)? So then, instead of judging the sins of our neighbors, we should ask God for grace to remove our own sins (Matthew 7:7–11).

When Jesus says, “Do not judge” (KJV: “Judge not”), He does not mean that we must never criticize anything. There is nothing wrong with saying that a certain movie is a waste of time, or that certain apples taste bad. Jesus does not forbid the evaluation of others. He forbids the condemnation of others. The grammatical form of Jesus’ command (a present imperative) implies that disciples should refrain from continual judgment, from a censorious spirit. Occasional outbursts of judgmentalism are of course not acceptable, but it is especially dangerous to fall into the habit of criticizing anything and everything.

Still, people cite the saying “Judge not” as if Jesus never wanted anyone to disapprove of anything. But if we want to understand Jesus, rather than using His words for our purposes, we must remember that Jesus actually endorses judgment at times. He says, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24 ESV).

Let me summarize the biblical teaching this way: Jesus prohibits a critical spirit, but does not forbid all use of critical faculty. To follow Jesus, we must therefore discover why He says, “Judge not,” in Matthew 7, but says, “Judge with right judgment,” in John 7.

Notice first that Jesus tells His disciples to make judgments in the very chapter that says “Judge not.” Later in Matthew 7, Jesus says, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:15–16). That is, disciples must discern—must judge—who is a false prophet and who is a true one.

Later in Matthew, Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over” (Matt. 18:15). To obey this commandment, we need to determine—to judge—that our brother has indeed sinned. If the sin is serious (another judgment!), then we must speak to the problem and ascertain if the sinning party listened and heeded or not.

Second, Jesus Himself made judgments, including negative judgments. He said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.… On the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matt. 23:25, 28). Jesus did more than disapprove or warn. He declared that certain people were bound for eternal judgment unless they repented: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are” (Matthew 23:15).

The apostles also say that judgment is necessary. For example, John says, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). Paul knew that teachers who propound major errors must be confronted (Gal. 2:11). Moses and Paul agreed that leaders must judge if a teacher is so dangerous that he must be removed from the assembly (Deut. 13:1–11; 1 Tim. 1:3–4; 6:3–5). Such judgments are necessary to preserve the church (Acts 20:28–29).

In the Old Testament, God appointed judges over Israel to protect His people. He gave the people judges to settle disputes and enforce the law (Ex. 18:13–26; 1 Sam. 7:16). He also established rules, so that they could judge properly. For example, He says, “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” (Lev. 19:15 ESV). Over and over, the Bible commands fair, impartial judgment. Why? Because the Lord, “the great God, mighty and awesome … shows no partiality and accepts no bribes.” Therefore, “Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe” (Deut. 10:17; 16:19).

God sets standards for judges because He is “the judge of all men” (Heb. 12:23). He knows the secrets of the heart (1 Cor. 14:25). Therefore, sinners should flee the judgment by repenting and believing in the Lord (Luke 3:3–14). Judgment day is coming.

Daily life also forces us to make assessments. There is always an issue in the news that divides the public, so that people ask their pastors and teachers for their judgment: cloning, gay “marriage,” the justice of a certain war, the latest celebrity trial, the latest exposé of a televangelist. Christian leaders must evaluate—pass judgment—on these things. Do we favor or oppose gay marriage? Is the prosperity gospel a minor error or a heresy?

Responsible adults must make judgments or assessments daily. Whenever a father corrects a child, or whenever a teacher grades a test, judging takes place. These forms of assessment, or judgment, are inescapable. Therefore, “Judge not” apparently prohibits certain kinds of judgment, but not all. Sometimes it is legitimate, even mandatory, to exercise moral discernment. Yet there are times to refrain from passing judgment. The context of Jesus’ teaching helps us decide when to refrain. The instruction to “judge not” comes after a long block of moral instruction. This setting suggests that Jesus wants to warn His disciples not to use His teaching to condemn others, although it is tempting to do so.

We are all prone to listen to stirring messages, and then apply them to someone else. Jesus’ instruction certainly invites that abuse. His ethic is so profound and rigorous that it can be painful to apply it to ourselves. And if we do strive to follow His word, we inevitably notice that others fall far short, too. Either way, we are prone to apply the word to others rather than to ourselves. Pastors often see this. After we preach, our beloved people greet us at the door and intone, “Powerful sermon, pastor. I just wish my brother had been present to hear it.”

Gifted but lazy students invite rebukes. Talented but undisciplined athletes invite reproach. But to the judgmental person, everyone is a target for censure. Misdirected zeal for the teaching of Jesus makes everyone look like an underachiever, ripe for correction. Jesus forbids us to use His law to censure others.

To put it differently, consider how dangerous it is to attend a marriage seminar alone. Going without our spouse changes the way we listen. The talks can lead us to rejoice over our blessings in marriage or to godly self-examination. But, sadly, they can also lead us to list all the counsel the speaker had for our spouse, the one who really needed to hear the message. When we report on the conference, we say, “You should have been there, honey. The speaker suggested three ways for me to be a better husband and nineteen ways for you to be a better wife. Let me share the top five with you right away.” But Jesus does more than prohibit judgment. He carefully explains why.

Why Not Judge?

Reason 1: You Will Be Judged

When Jesus says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (NIV), or “Judge not, that you be not judged” (ESV), we must ask, “What is the judgment that we should avoid? Who will judge us, if we judge others?” Jesus means, “You will judged by God.” His contemporaries so wanted to avoid taking God’s name in vain, that they tried not to use it at all. One way to avoid using God’s name is to say that something will be done (using a passive verb) without specifying the agent who will do it. This is called the divine passive. So when Jesus says, “Judge not, or you will be judged,” He means, “Judge not, or else God will judge you.”

Reason 2: The Measure You Use on Others Will Be Used on You

A literal translation of Matthew 7:2 might read: “With the judgment you use to judge, you will be judged.” That is, the standard we use to measure others is the standard that will be used to measure us. Paul says, “In passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things” (Rom. 2:1 ESV). If we know God’s standards well enough to judge others by them, then we know them well enough to be judged by them. When we measure others by a standard, it shows that we accept the standard, so that God can judge us by it. God can ask: If you condemn others for telling half-truths, do you tell half-truths? If you condemn those who break commitments, do you ever break a commitment? If you condemn theft, are you honest financially? If you hate careless remarks that hurt others, do you watch your words?

Since we all violate the standards that we use to measure others, we are all liable to God’s judgment. But if we hope to receive mercy from God, we ought to show mercy.

Friends and family will also apply our standards to us. If a man tells his wife, “You always make me late,” he may hear about it the next time he makes her late. James develops this theme when he says, “Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it” (James 4:11). That is, someone who judges his brother actually judges the law. James reasons that anyone who judges or slanders a brother appoints himself to a superior position. To judge a brother is to deny that he is your peer. The judge drops his neighbor a notch and exalts himself two notches. The judge soon utters a misplaced but stinging criticism. The censure may be half right, but who gave him the right to judge? The judge exalts himself over others, and that violates the law of love.

As a result, the judge thinks that he enforces the law, while he actually violates the primary law, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The critic judges the law because he picks and chooses among its commands. He enforces one, by judging his neighbor, but ignores another, by failing to love his neighbor.

Only God has the right to judge mankind. If we judge others, we usurp God’s role and forget to love. Thus, we invite judgment on ourselves. James specifically warns against judging a brother. He said this because we often level the harshest accusations against those who are nearest to us. Husbands and wives fall into cycles of reciprocal criticism. Siblings slander each other. “He hit me,” says one, conveniently forgetting that he started it. We criticize our partners, whether at work, in church, or in sports, because a partner’s flaws are so visible.

But, as Jesus says, if we judge others, that same standard will be used to judge us. We will have shown that we know right and wrong. Then, if we condemn others and do the same thing, we have no excuse. We are ripe for judgment.

Reason 3: We Should Attend to Ourselves First

Jesus asks, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:4). Let me comment on this in three ways.

First, Jesus is not saying we should never correct a brother who is caught in sin. He means that we can help others with their sins after we deal with our own sins. Jesus says, “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then” you can remove your brother’s speck (Matthew 7:5).

Second, Jesus teaches us to consider our problems to be large and our neighbors’ problems to be small. When Jesus says that we have a plank in our eye, He chooses a term that can refer to the main beam in the floor or roof of a building—a plank as much as forty feet long and five feet around. We tend to trivialize our sins and magnify the sins of others, but Jesus says that our sins should seem painfully large to us, while our neighbors’ should seem small. If we offer help in that spirit, it will carry more weight.

Third, Jesus hints that we can be keen at discerning the flaws of others, but blind to our own sins. Our sin blinds us to our true appearance. We are ignorant of ourselves. We can recognize a friend by his posture or stride at a distance of one hundred paces, but we might not recognize our own posture or stride, if shown it. We do not even know what our voice sounds like. No wonder we can scarcely detect our flaws.

Suppose a weekend athlete loses an important game and starts to tell a friend about it: “We lost today, and it was ugly. The other team was red hot, but I can’t remember when Jack played so poorly.… On second thought, I guess I didn’t play my best either.” Why do we tend to criticize a teammate first, before we move on to ourselves?

Or imagine a domestic scene. We think that someone in our family is a bit grumpy one day. But it is hard to be sure because the whole family got in late the previous night, so everyone is sleep deprived and prone to grouchiness. Even if our spouse is irritable, it is easier to overlook it when we are in a good temper. Since we cannot see ourselves clearly, we should judge ourselves, not others. That should be our daily practice. As Samuel Johnson said, “What we hope ever to do with ease, we must learn first to do with diligence.”

Throw Pearls to Pigs?

Jesus’ next statement—“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces”—is startling. After forbidding judgment in the previous paragraph, Jesus now seems to require that we judge certain people to be “pigs” or “dogs” and not give them our pearls.

In Jesus’ day, pigs were unclean animals and dogs were wild, unclean scavengers, not pets, so the assessment is quite harsh. Indeed, the terms are so cutting that some scholars believe Jesus is using instructive irony, so that His intent is the opposite of His literal words. The sense, to paraphrase, would go this way: “If you view your criticisms as ‘pearls’ of wisdom and toss them at those whom you consider to be ‘swine’ and ‘dogs,’ those ‘swine’ will trample your ‘wisdom’ and those ‘dogs’ will perceive your attitude and turn and attack you.”

In favor of this view, it is true, first, that Jesus does use instructive irony occasionally (see Luke 15:7). Second, it seems odd to ask a disciple, who has just heard that he must not judge, to reverse himself and determine that certain people are pigs and dogs, who do not deserve our wisdom. Third, Jesus never called anyone a pig or a dog, so it seems odd that He would tell us to do so. Fourth, while Jesus did occasionally withhold His teaching from certain hostile people, He often engaged sinful people and social outcasts. Finally, since we do not know the heart, we cannot judge who is truly a pig and who is not. Since the person who seems least likely to listen is often the one who actually does so, we should share our truth with everyone.

This interpretation has much to commend it, but if the concept of instructive irony sounds too artistic, look at it this way. The teaching about pigs and dogs sounds like the overstatement Jesus often used: “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” (Matt. 5:30). If we also have overstatement here, then Jesus does not actually want us to call anyone a pig, but He is teaching us that it may be necessary to assess our audience. There are times when the words of truth—such as the teaching Jesus has just given—will not get a fair hearing. Then we must be silent. Proverbs says, “Do not speak to a fool, for he will scorn the wisdom of your words” (Prov. 23:9). Similarly, Jesus tells His disciples that some towns will neither receive them nor listen to their words (Matt. 10:14).

Perhaps the passage is a paradox: we who must not judge must yet judge who will not hear our judgments. Jesus proposes another reason to shun judgment: it is futile to try to correct people who will not, in any event, receive it. We should not try to force our message “on those who show no inclination to accept it.” Should we offer God’s truth to those who have demonstrated their contempt for God’s truth?7

Ask, Seek, Knock: The Need for Grace

Jesus sets high standards for His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, and true disciples know they fall short of them. Recall Jesus’ standards: “Anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (Matt. 5:22). “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1). The list of our failings is nearly as long as the list of Jesus’ teachings. We lust (contrary to Matthew 5:28), fail to keep our word (Matthew 5:33–37), store up treasures on earth (Matthew 6:19), and worry (Matthew 6:25). We boggle to think that our deeds must shine so brightly before men that they will praise God (Matthew 5:16).

When we compare God’s law to our failings, we should neither imagine that we can reach Jesus’ standards nor deny the problem. Certainly we must not wield the law on others, to judge and condemn them—and perhaps to divert attention from our failings. Instead, we should turn to the Lord; we should, as Jesus says, “Ask and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7).

We should begin by asking God to forgive our sins. Jesus’ standards are beyond us, but there is good news: Jesus did not come simply to deliver laws; He also came to deliver those who cannot keep His laws. He came to bear the punishment of those who fail to keep His law. He came to teach, but He also came to redeem those who cannot follow His teachings. He, on the other hand, perfectly followed His own laws. He offers His obedience and righteousness as an inheritance for all who are united to Him by faith. When we become His children by faith, we inherit His spiritual riches.

We will examine Matthew 7:7–8 more thoroughly in the next article in our series, but we need its essential message now. When Jesus says, “Ask and it will be given to you,” He means the Father will give us aid. When He says, “Seek and you will find,” He implies that we may not know exactly what we are looking for, but that God does and will provide. When Jesus says, “Knock and the door will be opened to you,” He indicates that some door is closed to us. Perhaps we have tried and failed to open it. Perhaps we have concluded that we cannot open it, but God can and will open it for us. All three instructions invite us to plead with God for aid when we face Jesus’ commands. We ask for His saving grace, to forgive our sins. We ask for the Holy Spirit to enable us to obey Jesus’ commands, at least a little more, day by day.

In context, therefore, “Ask and it will be given to you” leads to the gospel. Advocates of prosperity theology think it leads to material blessing. If we ask with enough faith, they say, God will give us whatever we desire. But Jesus teaches us to seek our daily bread, not our daily caviar. Further, Jesus’ topic is discipleship, not wealth. When Jesus instructs His disciples to ask, seek, and knock, He means we should seek grace to cover our sin and strength to grow in holiness. God will grant that prayer. It is said, “One may be a truly industrious man, and yet poor in temporal things; but one cannot be a truly praying man, and yet poor in spiritual things.”

May we therefore be rich in Jesus’ way: hearing His words, striving for holiness, sharing His word with others (to bless them, not judge them). And when we fail to find the riches of Jesus, let us not despair. Instead, let us ask, as Jesus says, for God’s favor. Let us knock at his door, seeking mercy and grace in the hour of need.